Translation Problems

In reading spiritual texts, one needs to be remember that what we have available to us in most cases is not the original, but a translation. That being the case, a second fact is that there is no such thing as a “definitive” translation.

For example, the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic and Greek. Every English translation has been filtered and processed by a translator — someone inextricably embedded within his or her culture at a particular moment in time, and whose experience and understanding inevitably color the translation. The famous King James Authorized Version is a 16th century document translated from Greek and using language, including idioms, from that time which sound archaic to our ears. Also certain words have different meanings now than they had then. The Lamsa Bible is translated from Aramaic into English and is more recent. All the other translations into English and other languages have limitations due to the lack of exact parallels between the languages. A hundred years from now, today’s translations will undoubtedly sound equally archaic to the readers of the time.

Translation, like the cartographer’s attempts to project the round Earth onto a flat sheet of paper, is an imperfect art. Therefore, it is probably best not to let yourself get too comfortable with any one particular translation, whether of a word or of an entire chapter or book. Just because one translator equates two words doesn’t mean that you should accept those translations as the absolute truth. Try them on for size, and see how they work for you. Allow plenty of room for your understanding to change and mature, and cultivate a willingness to consider alternate translations. Perhaps, over time, your preferences will change and another translation may speak to you more clearly. Remember that any translation is just a convenient — but provisional — crutch that you must use until you can come to your own first-hand understanding of the ideas it describes.


Ideas adapted from “Befriending the Suttas: Tips on Reading the Pali Discourses”. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,

Photo: Afonso Lima

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