Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Translator Trip-Ups 3 - Words

We’ve covered our choice specimens of script and spelling oddities already, so now it’s time to move on to actual vocabulary items that are somehow odd, inexplicable, hard to define or liable to confuse us poor translators working with Tibetan texts. You know, words that cause us to stumble or get stumped. Have fun with them, and please do write in the comments if anything comes to mind that is somehow related to any of it.

Our first example is the word zho-sha. It was used in the sense of fee or payment in 12th-century works of Zhang Yudrakpa (Zhang G.yu-brag-pa) and Jigten Gönpo (’Jig-rten-mgon-po). In sense of mental or athletic strength, we find it in the Zhijé Collection. In Old Tibetan contexts Hugh Richardson rendered it as sustenance, considering it to be a combination of the words for meat and yoghurt, both believed to be quite strengthening and nutritious foods. It’s been understood to mean revenues from agricultural estates (which after all were paid ‘in kind’). And it is also a word used until now in the names of a class of medicinal plants, apparently used for strengthening various internal organs.  Dorji Wangchuk, like Goldstein’s modern dictionary, agrees it is an obsolete term even if we see it preserved in the plant names. Search of OTDO site yields 14 results, not a lot, but still a respectable number. 

The first example you see above contains one of Padampa’s favorite expressions, “It’s a dog!” which could be translated nicely, in my belief, as “That’s a load of crap!” — “In athletic events, when there is indecision the strength of the athlete amounts to just so much crap!” In the second example, sri means a kind of constriction or diminishment** — “Don’t constrict [the flow of] dynamism in your mental continuum.”
(*The literal translation dog doesn't work for anyone belonging to the dog-loving cultures of our times, where dogs are petted rather than despised and avoided.)(**It can also be the name of a vampire-like spirit mostly studied in Paris these days.) 

Meanings of tha-rams found in dictionaries and glossaries:

[1] bad thing. [2] filling. [3] binding rope. [4] an herb, perhaps a type of “fleaseed husk” or the Sat Isabgol used in India for both diarrhea and constipation (don’t ask me how, but it does work both ways), a sub-type of the herb called ram-pa that grows in fallow soil (tha-ba). [5] the breadth of a plain (but this last meaning is limited to Schmidt’s Tibetan-German dictionary).

The spelling that lacks the final ‘s’ is more likely to refer to the herb (meaning no. 4 above), but one finds so many counter examples, it makes no sense to make a rule. The new Munich Tibetan-German dictionary (Wörterbuch der tibetischen Schriftsprache) does have an interesting meaning of a sealing, or closure.

In Darma language, a language I’m especially interested in because of its demonstrable historical relationship to Zhangzhung, one finds tarum with meaning of ‘key.’ I think this is acting according to what the Tibeto-Burmanists call “genital flop-flop.” Similarly, one may discover that words for bow and arrow often get crossed when you cross from one Tibeto-Burman language to another. Examples of usages of tha-rams in post-Mongol-era Tibetan become extremely few and unexpected and therefore odd, although I have noticed it in a book title from the  sixteenth century where the meaning lock is very clear. What can I say? Deliberate archaisms do happen. Did you get it? Tha-rams had the meaning of lock in early Tibetan.

Quick examples from Zhijé Collection:

1. Stag-zil: probably a type of snail.
2. Ba-ded: several good examples, but no idea about meaning.
3. Be-phum: meaning unknown.

4. Ste[s]-dbang: force or strength?
5. ’Or-che-ba: great kindness (said to be regional dialect, it’s found in both the Zhijé Collection and the works of Jigten Gönpo).
6. Me-mar: = mar-me. The switched order of the syllables is awesomely odd.
7. Sa-rde: one dictionary gives meaning as persistence, but I’m not sure what it means (three good examples of usage).

8. Pad-pa, a leech (srin-bu pad-pa).
9. Pe-ta, woodworm, but also a type of tree (this last probably a mistake for be-ta, coconut palm).
10. Ka-’ji: a kind of touchstone used for testing gold.

This word is interesting because you can trace some of its evolution. The Old Tibetan term stangs-dbyal in particular means a union or balance between the male and female principles, and each syllable is also used individually.  See an odd old blog for more:  Couples Constantly Facing Off.

Where Modern Tibetan has gtan-zhal, Old Tibetan has stangs-dbyal.  How do we get from one to the other? The Old Tibetan word is found in Dunhuang documents (Old Tibetan Annals entry for year 710 CE), in the Samye bell inscription, and in early Bon works. Bon works are the only ones to preserve the archaic form over the centuries until today. The Old Tibetan form is in the Guhyagarbha Tantra, which is interesting in itself, but otherwise nowhere to be found in all of the Kanjur and Tanjur.

Yel-’phyo is an even rarer oddity with a close-to-same meaning, noticed only in Nyingma tantras.

For thig-le nyag-cigI like to use the translation ‘integral drop.’ The sûtra quoted by Phag-mo-gru-pa must be a translation of the Nairātmyapariprcchā Sûtra older than the one found in Derge (Tôh. 173).* 
(*Another place to find it is in Matthew Kapstein’s “The Commentaries of the Four Clever Men,” East and West, vol. 59, nos. 1-4 (2009), pp. 107-130, at pp. 109, 111.)

That the form bhai is simply translated without comment as ‘meditation’ in Liberation through Seeing with Naked Awareness, is a good example of how true oddities are routinely glossed over in our translations. They simply disappear from view. This is unfortunate. I would think somehow the reader ought to be better informed than that.

By the way, the anti-Nyingma polemic writer Drigung Pendzin was not, as commonly presumed, a Drigung Kagyüpa. His known teachers and associates were Sakyapas.

Bon example of bhom: Above is an example ultimately drawn from Bon texts of the Aural Transmission from Zhangzhung, a Dzogchen cycle. Bhom for ‘meditation’ is listed among a number of spelling/word anomalies by the modern editor of the volume. Some of the other examples given there are also interesting.

’Big-toI have no idea what this means. The closest term I could come up with (and it isn't actually close) is sdig-to, a word for evildoer. (??) The English version of Chetsang Rinpoche’s history (Meghan Howard et al. tr.), p. 283, translates ’big-to as commanders of a hundred troops (meaning a centurion?). If this is correct where did it come from? I consulted a number of experts on this, and they all said it made no sense to them. I had the idea, which I offer without conviction, that ’big-to could mean a record or list (to, =tho) that is kept by means of piercings of perforations (’big) in wood or paper. 

Note as of possible relevance that there is a Tibetan word to-dog, a borrowing from Chinese, used for a military commander of one sort or another. This word appears quite a few times in Old Tibetan documents from Dunhuang.

The Thub-bstan-bsam-’grub dictionary, p. 513, gives ’bog-do (also spelled ’bog-to, ’bog-tho, and ’bogs-do) as a synonym of ’bog-chen, a special hat worn by Tibetan officials of the past. ’Bog-do is said to be a borrowing from Mongolian, so it doesn’t seem that it would have been in use before the Mongol advent in the early 13th century. However, there are earlier Khotanese and probably ultimately Turkic usages of this term before that time. On this last point, see F.W. Thomas, “Bogdo,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (April 1937), pp. 309-313. We would have to have a good reason to emend 'big-to to 'bog-to, but hats don’t seem to make sense in the context anyway. If you get the sense we are clutching at straws... Hell, we need to clutch at something.

Here is the present form of my translation of this passage, in order to supply a context for it. Perhaps it will help us guess what it means? We’ll just leave it for now.

The word ya-lad may be described as archaic, or pre-1300 more or less. My vocabulary entry as of now reads as follows. I quote it as is, with the bibliographical abbreviations and all:

[1] equipment, armor, helmet, sword (soldier’s equipment in general). OT = go cha spyi. = [skabs thob kyis] rmog. Bla 285.4, 516.6. go cha. rmog. ral gri. Btsan-lha. go cha. Dbus-pa no. 025. Lcang-skya. Namdak. Skt. kavaca (probably source of borrowing for Tib. go cha). Mvy. 6072 (in Skt. it seems to mean armor or coat of mail, primarily as chest protection). Rolf Stein’s Tibetica Antiqua 154. Two occurrences of this word located on OTDO. [2] sgo’i yar them. Btsan-lha. I only know of one architectural usage of the term, in the Sba-bzhed: pho brang gi ya lad la bod kyi btsan po’i lham btags nas / de’i ’og na phar ’khor dang bcas pa ’dzul nas / nga’i rgyal khams ni btsan po khyod kyi zhabs ’og du ’dzul zhing bcwa (dpya) dang skyes lo thang du ’bul zer te. Here it clearly means the upper part of the door or gateway (lintel or architrave). Btsan-lha gives the same example, but says it is from the Bka’-chems Ka-khol-ma. [3] a high number. Skt. ela. Mvy. 7759. Skt. elu. Mvy. 7888. 
 So which is it, helmet, coat of mail, lintel or a high number? Get confused much?
Note: Btsan-lha makes note of a late usage in the Mi-dbang Rtogs-brjod, although here it is used as a conscious archaism. Since the first syllable is also a part of the alphabet, it makes it useful for alphabetic verse, and this explains why it can show up in later texts even though otherwise obsolete.

Here are some examples of beginnings that look like endings, creating an interesting type of possible confusion due to Tibetan’s syllable-by-syllable writing system (to be sure, the language is not monosyllabic although the writing system is). These are likely to appear quite odd to language learners in their first several years, and very well may cause them to stumble, so I think I can include them in the category of word oddities. 

gyi ling - ge ling & ger ling & kyi ling are possible spellings. It can be found in Dunhuang texts. While it means a superior type of horse, it may derive from Chinese word for the kilin/qi-lin, a kind of supernatural hybrid animal sometimes described as a unicorn or a dragon horse.

gyi na - mean, vulgar, coarse, ordinary (especially odd because it looks like two endings, one after the other).

gyi na ba - the ordinary, the quotidian.

gyi na ya - An odd combination of gyi na and na ya, two words with similar meaning (such a word combination does not seem possible in theory, which is exactly what makes it odd. Don’t you agree?).

gyis - It may look like an instrumental case ending, but actually it can be the imperative of bgyid. It means, “Do!”

na so - meaning age, particularly age in the sense of a stage in the human life rather than a precise year. I failed to find early examples of usage, although it does occur in the Mkhas-pa Lde’u (post-1261), so I conclude that it is a Mongol period borrowing from Mongolian. The modern Mongolian for age, I learned, is nas, and the final ‘o’ may reflect some kind of ending in Mongolian.

na ya - tedium, banality (? with similar meaning to gyi na).

nas - with meaning of barley. Nas-lung, ‘Barley Valley’

It certainly is disconcerting to see the plural marker coming after the genitive ending, but a TBRC search came up with only 142 examples of “kyi rnams,” so it is NOT common, and most examples are from works of Padma-dkar-po or canonical texts such as the Avatamsaka. (I feel sorry for the grad student who will volunteer to do it for the 84000 project, since it has quite a few archaic terms and what I call “Sina-cisms” buried in it, as it was translated from Chinese and never entirely revised to accord with the new standards.) I think, even though the syntax is odd, it can be understood, in the two examples given above, as meaning “those things pertaining to [dharmas or the community].” In effect it doesn’t make a great deal of difference in meaning. The temporary puzzlement we can deal with.

Am I the only one thinking it looks like a comb?
Thinking aloud,  I wonder to myself if it might come from an abbreviated way of writing the first syllable of gzer-mo (or zer-mo), meaning weasel or porcupine or mongoose or the like. But the weasel given that it feeds mainly on small birds and mammals seems the more likely candidate.

But is zre the only example of that impossible “zr” combination? The “zr” doesn’t occur even once in the three-volume dictionary. This alone would indicate its extreme oddness. But we do find it in a particular place name in the Old Tibetan Annals, in about 8 different annual entries ranging from 665 through 696 CE.

Zrid, or Zred, is a place name that occurs in Old Tibetan Annals nos. 665, 666, and 674. Note also Zrid-mda’ in Old Tibetan Annals nos. 681, 696 (mda' means the lower part of the valley; no, it does not mean arrow, not here). It is probably an old way of spelling the place names Sred or Srid. See the comments of Guntram Hazod in Dotson, Old Tibetan Annals, p. 215. I guess we’ve established once and for all that impossible things do happen. Sometimes more than once.

As my final example, I thought I ought to go into the confusions provoked by what would seem to be a simple Tibetan syllable for anyone to interpret. The syllable I refer to is gsang, as for instance in the Tibetan word for tantric teachings, gsang-sngags, which syllable-by-syllable means secret mantra. Let’s say 98 percent of the time gsang actually does mean secret, but that doesn’t mean we can just let the other two percent slide blithely past us. There are two contexts where one ought to be particularly aware it can have quite different meanings. And those dictionaries you’ve been using won’t help you here. Wait just one minute, I’m starting to realize nobody has  ever actually read this far into the blog. In effect I’m just talking to myself, so I’ll say my goodbyes for today with a word of warning, a word of warning to the wise to be wary. And to expect the impossible. To find ways to deal with it. To stay calm in situations of adversity. To persevere against all odds. You get the idea.


  1. On the oddity 'big-to used in the Khepa Deyu history, recently translated as 'centurion,' something weird just popped up. I've often had the idea that imperial Tibetan military administration could have more or less distant connections with the Roman Empire's. A little creative Googling led me to this article by Max Radin: "The Promotion of Centurions in Caesar's Army," at JSTOR. There, on p. 305 “In an army of six legions, three hundred and sixty centurions are competing for the notice of the commander. In each legion there are the claims of sixty men to be considered.” Now go back and compare the passage in the Deyu history. Notice the number of 'big-to. What would explain this? If I still don't fall in with the idea it means centurion, it's because in our passage we're descending progressively down to the lowest ranks. Centurions don't fit there, do they? Sorry, thinking aloud again.

    1. What was Padampa’s language of origin? I propose leaving aside Sanskrit as a possible answer for the moment; I see it as a specialized language learned later and for religious purposes. I am asking what language Padampa, his mother, his father, and his siblings, spoke around the table when Padampa was a child. (Please remind me: Did this family live in the area now called Andhra Pradesh?)

  2. Well, I'm quite sure he was from what Tibetans call "Coconut Country" (Be-ta'i Yul). That means the southern parts of India, where four major Dravidian languages are spoken: Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. My best bet is he was a native of coastal Andhra and a speaker of Telugu. I'm not 100% sure. Sometime I'd like to lay out all my reasons for thinking he was a Telugu speaker. Not now. I'm not quite ready. He does scatter a few Sanskrit words in his Tibetan. I want to write about one of them before too long. But not just now. Hope all is well with you and your house. I've been having some rough but not too serious health issues. Today I'm so much better. Yours, D

  3. Dear Dan,
    Thank you so much for this very informative post. I have some issues with your translation of the title of this Tibetan blog as ‘In Response to Those Who Say the Elder Yutok Never Knew Birth.’ I think the title should be translated something like "In Response to Those Who Say the Elder Yutok Had Never Been Born)", ma myong, means never happened and 'khrungs is, as you know, the honorific for "to be born". I think ma myong is bit tricky mostly because it is a colloquial way of expressing something never happened, nga dge rgan byed ma myong, I have never worked as a teacher, etc. Just a thought I wanted to share while I am reading this.

  4. Thanks for your observation. I certainly could have translated into more ordinary English. Meanwhile, you make me muse about the fuzzy semantic boundaries in contemporary English usage of to know, to experience, to undergo and to suffer. The notion "to know" can include any or all the others depending on context. Keep on the lookout for other mistakes. I've been known to make some serious ones.
    Yours, D


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