Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Translator Trip-Ups 2 - Spelling

The first blog in the series, about script oddities, is here.

In this blog we’ll look at some odd spellings. For the most part these are not exactly misspellings, more like unexpected spellings that anyway occur with some regularity in a particular time or context. That means someone, at least, thought them acceptable. Thinking about pre- and post- Samuel Johnson English, you may wonder when and how any kind of spelling standards may have taken effect among Tibetan writers. For those concerned, there have been a lot of dag-yig, or correct letters texts meant to help them. 

The truth is Tibetan literary culture was and remained for most of his history a scribal culture, despite the eventually increasing popularity of woodblock printing technology. That means even works written by good spellers might get copied by bad spellers, or even worse, copyists who regarded themselves as good spellers. At some point a body comes to accept things like the absence of the final -s when it ought to be there, and its presence when it shouldn't, and this despite any number of treatises written by Tibetan savants precisely on that subject. It isn't a popular thing to be a good speller, so I hesitate to say just how good I was at it at a very young age, and proud of it, too. Even before I started primary school, I knew how to spell a number of short words thanks to my parents and my older brothers. So I'll dedicate this blog to them.

Our first example is difficult to recognize, indeed quite odd and one that puzzled me in the past:

This 'byal turns out to be an uncommon spelling for one of the most common verbs. I‘ve seen it in quite a range of works, mainly early compositions, mostly pre-Mongol period (roughly pre-mid-13th century).

In this example you see above, taken from the Zhijé History that appears in the Zhijé Collection (more on it in a minute!), Padampa Sangye encounters one of his disciples, a woman, during his travels in Tibet. There are many examples of this 'byal spelling, and despite its oddness there is really no doubt about it. And in the ZC it is the normal spelling (I haven’t noted the normally regarded as ‘normal’ spelling mjal at all). I’ve observed this in other early texts, including manuscripts of Zhang G.yu-brag-pa’s 12th-century works. However, doing the million-page search at TBRC I only come up with 13 “hits,” and only a few of these turn out to be valid examples on closer inspection.* Despite this, we can say that in particular texts this highly unusual spelling is the usual one. 
(*There are reasons for this. After years of efforts OCR can now work, and it has become a great tool for Tibet research, but it only works well with publications produced with 21st-century computer fonts. [What computers produce they can be taught to read?]  That means not only that works existing only in manuscript are entirely excluded, it also means that modern editors, being bound to dictate their own ideas of what right spelling is, have very likely eliminated all the interesting ones.)

Here you may be able to make out that there is or was a title there on the title page of the Zhijé Collection as filmed by the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project. I’ve mentioned this collection a lot in earlier blogs, so I assume you know of it.

The Zhijé Collection, inscribed some time around 1245, is my main source of the unusual spellings that we will look at. Here you can see how the title is given in the published version. I point out parts that require correction:

Assuming my corrections are good, and I think that would be a good assumption, we can translate it as “Among the Zhijé Teachings at the Heart of the Holy Dharma, this is the Later Transmission [Collection Known as] The Exceptionally Profound. This is the copy that belongs to the small residence in Tingri Langkor.” Later Transmission simply means that it belongs to the most recent of Padampa’s three periods of teaching in Tibet, the time he spent in Tingri up until his death. If you think there is something pejorative about labeling it as later, would you prefer to call it the Latest Transmission? I for one won’t mind.

Wolfenden, in his old article “Significance of Early Tibetan Word Forms,” comments how a glossary of Amdo dialects very often replaces various prescript consonants, and most often the ‘g’ and ‘d’ prescripts that are replaced with the superscript ‘r’ are pronounced as such (a commonly encountered example of this is rtsang-po in place of gtsang-po). Knowing that a shift of this kind happens is a very important key to understanding the text. Still, I’m not sure if we ought to conclude that the ‘s’ in the Padampa text was actually pronounced. It seems not, since it isn’t systematically applied, only some of the time. I also doubt it was a deliberate effort to make the text less readable, I’m just not sure enough to go into that.

In general, linguistically speaking, odd spellings sometimes prove interesting for finding out obsolete historical pronunciations, or for identifying dialectical differences. In some 21st-century performances of Shakespeare’s plays actors have favored reconstructions of the “original pronunciation.” Three things that have proven especially useful to them are rhymes, spellings and puns. I really can’t say if our text’s odd spellings may be of interest for reconstructing early pronunciations or not, just saying it’s conceivable.

I’ve given some relatively clear examples, chosen because I believe they look quite convincing in context. Still, I think if you opened the volumes of the Zhije Collection with no clue that this alternative spelling system was in place you would find it quite bewildering and difficult to decipher, just as I did when I first looked at it 35 years ago. Let me tell you: Recognizing this odd spelling tendency of the text is key to beginning to understand it. Knowing it, you can move ahead to deal with its other difficulties, like the odd vocabulary items we’ll go into in an upcoming blog.

PS: I can't resist adding something about a general tendency to switch between the root letter ch- and two root letter clusters, khy-  and  phy-:

ཆ་  = ཁྱ་ =  ཕྱ་*

(*So, if you see a syllables such as  འཆལ་, it could stand in place of  འཁྱལ་, which could stand in place of འཕྱལ་ and so on. This spelling alternation is not something special to the Zhijé Collection, or to the earlier period, but seems to continue even today.)

Regardless of how different they look on the page, all three are pronounced exactly the same, so there is good reason for the spelling confusion. What this means in practical terms is, if you want to find a word in the dictionary that has one of these three in it, and you're not finding it, you may need to try looking under the other spelling.

Let us know about other odd spellings you’ve encountered in the comments section below. Meanwhile, spell well, or at least well enough.


For the next installment of Translator Trip-ups, click here.

  • A note on texts: If you are the type of person to be intrigued by the abuse of the final -s rules, just go to TBRC and search for the term sa-mtha' (ས་མཐའ་). This will result in a list of texts on the subject. You can try doing the same with dag-yig (དག་ཡིག་), but be warned that in modern usage it has come to mean dictionary in the modern sense. Well, dictionaries are, or used to be before spellchecking, the main force for standardizing spellings, not that spellcheckers don’t have problems of their own, or that they are all that great authorities on rightly spelling as we well know. If you haven’t turned off the autocorrect you have only yourself to blame.
  • Stuart Norris Wolfenden, “Significance of Early Tibetan Word Forms,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1928), pp. 896-899.
  • On the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare:  Shakespeare was himself an unusual speller, although I’m not sure we ought to accept that as your excuse. If you want to know more about “original pronunciation” (like mu-si-see-yun for myuzishun) go to the video link just given. Or for more fun try this video.


  1. I am really enjoying these "Translator Trip-Up" posts! Please continue :D

  2. Dear Laura, Glad somebody's reading them. Anyway, there's one more Trip-up blog coming up, the one about word oddities. Then I'm finished with them. Thanks for dropping a note. Yours, D.

  3. Thank you, Dan! I'm looking forward to it. What I also dream of someday coming across or creating myself is a list of the most common bsdus yig....

  4. Dear Unknown,
    A list of common shorthand/abbreviations can be useful to people learning cursive script, so I'm not saying it isn't a good idea. It is. By now there are a lot of resources out there that might more or less fill the bill. I think what's really needed is something in English that would explain the principles of the practice. There is some literature in Tibetan language that does this very nicely, but there is nothing to fit the bill in English medium. A Tibetan scholar I heard in a conference explain that the main trick is to already know which word belongs there, and there is a point to what he said, just that in your own mind you need to justify your contextual reading. I mean, you may dissolve the abbreviations in a semi-intuitive way, but still go on to see if the scribe followed standard procedures or not. Sometimes you just want to say to yourself, 'Hmmm, why would they do it that way?' So anyway, follow your dream and thanks for writing.


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