Issue No 6: May 2003
Research growth continues
Quick reaction to SARS
Translation strategies lead to Chinese version of Buddhism
Database of 35 million characters helps scholars and writers
Confucius’ poetry collection delivers insights into symbolism
3D model smoothes problems in creating ultra-precision surfaces
Nano views of electrolyte behaviour
Sun block ‘skin’ applied to textiles
Greater efficiency for clean building formula
Spin-offs from world’s smallest nanotube
New generation of electrical ceramics

Principles and guidelines that early scribes adopted to translate ideas brought to China by Buddhist monks from around 200AD have been compiled for posterity in a research project at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Translations were made orally and then recorded, or direct from Sanskrit, and written in ancient Chinese script.
“The translation theories are important for translation scholars,” said Principal Investigator Dr Chi-yu Chu. “Our approach is not from the theological, ideological, or philosophical perspectives but merely from how thoughts were translated.”
Dr Chu’s work which covers the selection, compilation, commentary and annotation of translated text is bound in a 150-page book.
Early translated text was succinct, he said, possible because it was recorded on bamboo sticks. It was also literal, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility at first glance.
For example, reference to the Buddha’s 1,250 bhikkhus (disciples) was recorded as “half thirteen bhikkhus hundred.” Said Dr Chu: “This was quite similar to the style of Roman numerals as is iv meaning four.”
Another difficulty was that translation was a collaborative effort with Buddhist monks who came from India and Central Asia.
“The Chinese language of the Western monks was not very good, maybe they could speak a few simple sentences. The Chinese too had little knowledge of Buddhism and mostly did not speak the foreign language,” said Dr Chu.
Later over the 900 year history of Buddhist translation, quality improved and there was an attempt to make the translated text sound more like Chinese.
Because there were no Chinese equivalents for many of the Buddhist ideas, translators began expressing Buddhist beliefs in native Daoist concepts which everyone understood.
“A reason why Chinese Buddhism is different from Indian Buddhism today can be traced back to this root cause in the first translations,” said Dr Chu.
The creation of terms sometimes had interesting results. For example, Parthamasiris from Persia, the earliest recorded translator of Buddhism attempted to render the “sound and the sense” of anapana, a breathing exercise practised to enter a serene contemplative state of the mind.
Said Dr Chu: “He started with the transliteration, anban, but that was not enough because in Chinese it doesn’t mean anything. So he added an explanation shouyi, a Daoist concept.
“Although shouyi too refers to a breathing exercise, it also means ‘guarding the mind’ or purifying the brain.
“But in the Buddhist culture, anapana means guarding the mind against thought. In other words, not thinking anything. “So the basic concepts are totally different,” said Dr Chu. Early translators also had a basic discrepancy in their translation strategy, he added.
“At the word level, they domesticated the translations as in shouyi but at the sentence level they foreignised the Chinese version by attempting to retain the original sentence structure, often against rules of Chinese syntax.
“They did this for fear of destroying the sacredness of the Buddhist ideas.” Buddhist translations were completed by “bureaux” sometimes with thousands of scribes.
In the introductions to Buddhist text, ancient monks often recorded their principles and guidelines for translation from which Dr Chu drew his research.
He said: “One of the fundamental problems faced by early Chinese Buddhist translators was how to express new phenomena in their language. Inevitably, new words and new Chinese characters were created, adding to ancient Chinese text.”

Principal Investigator
Dr Chi-yu Chu :

Dr Chu: produced 150-page book