Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Translator Trip-Ups 1 - Script

With a sense of hope to a degree justifiable, we may think that these oddities, the things that can and do trip up even some of our best translators of Tibetan texts, are a disappearing phenomenon. After all, when they make sense they are no longer odd. The stumbling block becomes a stepping stone that helps us rather than hindering as it had been doing. I’ve divided up my examples of oddities into 3 types: [1] oddities of script or letter. [2] oddities of spelling. [3] word oddities. Along the way you may notice some odd examples that remain ambiguous which type they belong to. And beyond these three, there are still more types we will not intentionally address, like oddities of grammar, syntax, ideas... After all, an oddity is an oddity no matter which classification we place it under. Oddity is itself an odd concept. True, our recognition of oddities as such may be subjective, but we definitely know them when we see them. And oddities can be puzzlers, puzzlers that can at times prove to be even more challenging, frustrating and fun than riddles are. I hope you will see what I mean.

And please do remember this is a group-participation blog. I expect input from you if you have an idea how to make any improvements in its content. This is *not* a record of my successes. There are still some hard nuts to crack in case you want to try your hands and heads at them. And my proposed solutions may not prove to be correct, or entirely correct. Esoteric? Sure, but does the word always have to have that negative ring to it? I hope that even non-Tibetologists will keep reading, to get a sense of what translators need to do, how far they have to go. Know that it can be a struggle.  Worthwhile, but also a struggle.

Most of my examples of script oddities come from “book cursive” and may also have to do with the abbreviation practices that are found most often in cursive manuscripts. I know that numerous Tibeto-logicians, specifically the ones who are not native speakers, spend their entire careers without ever even trying to pass “The Cursive Test.”  Thirty-five years ago while I was working with the Laufer Collection of the Chicago Field Museum when it was on loan to I.U., I was in the difficult position of needing to catalog cursive texts, most of them belonging to the Bon school. To begin with I was largely self-taught in this area, and there was a lot of trial and error. I came across some supremely discouraging examples of cursive abbreviations, with four-syllable names collapsed into one syllable for example. I thought of them as fully analogous to train wrecks. or was the train wreck me? Nobody ventured to help me with them. Even traditionally learned geshés were left scratching their heads. It was a truly disheartening situation, with sparks of light here and there but not much hope of any fuller illumination.

The classic work on cursive is one by Bacot published in 1912, and it is still useful. I made use of it myself when I was first trying to learn cursive. If you are interested, I could also recommend some modern Tibetan-language treatments that have all appeared since those bitter-sweet days I spent with the Laufer texts.

Here you see some of the most extreme examples Bacot gave in his article. I only encountered a few somewhat similar ones when I was working with the Bon texts. Quite unusual and odd beyond all doubt, you see there are pile-ups of the same vowel, in almost every case an odd number of seven or nine vowels. This reflects an Indic kāvya idea to use nothing but ‘a’s or ‘i’s or ‘o’s in a verse or line of verse. Such verses are known for example in poetic works of Tsongkhapa, who received some kāvya training as a young man. The vowel pile-ups are mostly encountered in verses for chanting, in the repeated lines or refrains. If you have the prayer memorized it jogs your memory just enough... In their contexts, they are not nearly as impenetrable as they may seem after Bacot extracted them.

Just below the lime-green splotch in the full page above and the detail coming up below, you can see an example of an extreme abbreviation practice in a Bon text from the canon.* I’m still not sure how to correctly read it, although fairly sure about the second syllable, the one that looks like a backward ‘na’ (we’ll see what that is in a moment), not so with the first.
(*This means the 192-volume one kept in Oslo that was catalogued. You can see the volume and folio numbers scrawled in the right-hand margin. I’ve shown the odd script to some of the best people in Bon and Tibetan studies, and they expressed puzzlement and nothing more.)

Here you see a close-up of the bizarre ligatures. We will leave it for now and look at similar examples.

From the same volume of the Bon Kanjur:

Here the arrow points to an example of the use of something that appears as if it were (but actually isn’t) the number 3, a 3 with an extra slash at the bottom. In the context it’s a colophon that ends in a lineage, a lineage that ends in ego.

Above is a close-up of the same, and my own transcription, that should make it clearer. I guess Tibetanists will be able to see from the context, even those who may tend to be skeptical, that the odd character we see here stands for the Tibetan first-person reference, bdag, ‘myself.’ How did this odd thing come into being?

Then after being transmitted from one generation to the next, it now [was transmitted] to me.

The solution revealed: Although Bonpos may not entirely appreciate my saying so, I believe the true origins of this sign are in the Sanskrit avagraha. In Devanagari script the avagraha looks rather like a hook or an ‘s’ with a larger, more opened curve at the bottom - . Tibetanists are most likely to encounter it in sādhana texts where it in fact is used to indicate the elision of the initial ‘a’ in aham, meaning ‘I’ or ‘myself.’

Can you read this? In actual practice, the cursive shorthand version of the avagraha can look like a simple nya as in the word for fish. But what is the backward ‘na’ doing here, any idea?

Well, here you see the answer. It would have been good to give actual manuscript examples of this phrase, but unfortunately I was unable to come up with a clear one at this moment, so this time you will have to take my word for its existence. 

Here is an example from a medical history of the reversed ‘na’. At the same time we also get a chance to see yet another common trip-up, an abbreviation for the word that means palace.

Roughly translated:  [seated] upon a silk cushioned throne made of precious substances inside
the pillarless Pangtang Palace.  (I’m planning a blog on the medical history.)

There is no Tibetan word phrong, although I wonder how many people have stumbled over it thinking it is one, flipping through the pages of their Jaeschke and Das in utter frustration.

And finally here below is an example I simply cannot understand it with any assurance, so the responsibility is all yours. You can spot it in the exact center of the text (I've put a blue box around it in the shadow version), two syllables that make no sense to me.

I do have a guess about what the two syllables stand for, but only because of context, and not because it makes sense of the syllables. I’m tempted to read mtshams med, as in [mtshams med] pa’i las (karma with immediate consequence that comes from performing a particularly heinous crime), is the thing that could be expected here. I don’t see it, though, so unless you have something to add we had better just move on.

Here is yet another excellent oddity. Let me give a rough translation of the passage replacing the oddity with an “X.” ‘When engaged in erecting a scriptural volume, what are the X in inscribing the initial flourish (dang-thog)?’* There is no doubt that a “ya” with its own subscribed ‘ya’ is something that requires some explanation. Not to keep you in suspense:

Now that you think about it, as I hope you have, the ya + ya-btags doesn’t seem so odd after all. It just follows the pattern of the preceding sa + ya-btags and tha + ya-btags for Buddha’s Speech and Mind.** Therefore it stands for yon-tan, and means Qualities or Talents or Virtues (of the Buddha, in this case). Are you still with me? Hope so. We’re not done with oddities yet. Not by a long shot.

Please do join in the discussion by leaving a comment.

Coming up:  Odd spellings.


(*The dang-thog is a kind of punctuation mark, explained in an earlier blog. It looks more-or-less like this: 

(**Generally speaking, when used to make cursive abbreviations, the subscript ya can only take the place of a prescript or postscript ga, and there is no ga in yon-tan.*** But here we have an exception to that rule that works only because of an idea to continue the series. The abbreviation of phrin-las presents a special problem. Theoretically it could reduce to phris, but that would invite confusion with an existing word that means reduced or diminished, which is absolutely not a good way to think about Buddha Activity according to anyone I know.)
(***Although it is true enough that there is currently no ga in yon-tan, the second syllable was probably originally spelled gtan, and yon-gtan meant an abiding or always-present gift, hence a good quality or talent. The late Michael Hahn made this etymological argument. For an analogous word, note also the second syllable of nan-tan, meaning ‘persistence’... I still have a problem with this solution (if that is what it is), and that is that the subscript ya is commandeered to take the place of a ga prescript [primarily] or [secondarily] a postscript ga in the first syllable of the abbreviated form only, and anyway the first consonants of the second syllable are always simply dropped with nothing at all representing them, the only exception being the little flag in the case of tsa, tsha & dza.) 

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A final note:  This and two more blogs that will be posted before too long come from a presentation given at the translators' conference held at the University of Colorado in Boulder earlier this year. The illustrations found here were created on the basis of the slides that were shown there, although I’ve added a few new ones. I've also omitted materials not my own, submitted by the co-presenter or by members of the panel.


  1. I am surprised that any abbreviation at all was permitted in a sacred text. I would think, not only that every word counts but also that the completed spelling-out of words and phrases is necessary.

  2. Thanks, S.P., I hadn't really thought of that, although I understand the point. In general, abbreviations are used together with the 'head-less' cursive script, which was developed by official scribes in late imperial period Tibetan empire. There's a great article about it by Sam van Schaik I could recommend for anyone interested in that. I'm not sure when, exactly, but abbreviations started being used even later. The primary motive, as I see it, is just the high cost of paper. By squeezing more text into a line, less paper was needed. And it's true that it's only horizontal space that was being saved, so the analogy of the 'train wreck' (my analogy only), imagining each syllable as one of the linked parts of the train, works fairly well. Nowadays most people refer to this shorthand as skung-yig, with apparent literal meaning of 'hiding letters.' Do you think there was a mental push-and-pull between the advocates of letter holiness and paper economy? Paper was quite precious, since it took a lot of work-hours by expert crafts-people to produce it. Thanks for writing, meanwhile I'll think some more. Yours as ever, D.

    Sam van Schaik, The Origin of the Headless Script (Dbu-med) in Tibet. IN: Nathan Hill, ed., Tibeto-Burman Languages IV, Brill (Leiden 2012), pp. 411-446.


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