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The Vicissitudes of Supply Chain Translation: The Chinese Version of Kumāralāta’s Garland of Examples Attributed to Kumārajīva

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Part of the New Frontiers in Translation Studies book series (NFTS)


The narrative collection Garland of Examples Adorned by Poetic Fancy (Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā Dṛṣṭāntapaṅkti), written in Sanskrit by the third-century Taxilan Buddhist monk Kumāralāta, is a major but often overlooked source for the study of ancient India and Buddhism. The only complete version of the work is an early fifth-century Chinese translation (Dà Zhuāngyán lùn《大莊嚴論》, T201). This article proposes an analysis of the translational technique of this work to highlight how, whereas the ornate literary idiom of the original was lost in translation, the translational simplifications can act as explanatory glosses of sorts to support the interpretation of the fragmentary Sanskrit text. Moreover, the article considers the problem of the translator of the work, suggesting a new attribution and providing an insight into the difficulties inherent in assessing Chinese Buddhist translations.


  • Team translation
  • Paraphrase
  • Kumārajīva
  • Kumāralāta
  • Zhū fóniàn
  • Translator attributions

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  1. 1.

    See Loukota Sanclemente (2019, 9) for bibliographic references. The one major exception to the pattern outlined here is the work of Michael Hahn on the Tibetan translation of the Garland (Hahn 1982).

  2. 2.

    See Loukota Sanclemente (2019) for a survey of the Sanskrit manuscripts and quotations (pp. 65–89) and for a preliminary edition of newly identified fragments from Bāmiyān currently in the Schøyen collection in Norway (pp. 341–373).

  3. 3.

    This Chinese version is available in printed and unedited manuscript fragments. On the manuscripts, see Loukota Sanclemente (2019, The extant ancient printed editions in which this version is extant are the following, grouped according to Zacchetti’s division in “lineages” (2005, 92–117): “Kaibao lineage:” Zhaocheng Jin canon (Zhaocheng Jinzang 趙城金藏) n. 588, Second Korean canon (Gaoli/Goryeo 高麗) n. 587; “Fuzhou-Sixi Lineage:” Pilu 毘盧 n. 588, Qisha 磧砂 n. 606, Puning 普寧 n. 599. Regarding modern editions, the text is number 201 in the Taishō canon 大正一切經 (= T) and 637 in the Zhonghua canon 中華.

  4. 4.

    As van Gulik notices (1956, 26), the obvious exceptions are easily identifiable: either Chinese scholars who studied Sanskrit in India like Xuánzàng 玄奘 (602–664) and Yìjìng 義淨 (635–713) or Sanskrit scholars who, like Kumārajīva, may have acquired familiarity with literary Chinese.

  5. 5.

    Van Gulik translates a passage of the “Record of the Buddhist Patriarchs” (Fózǔ tǒngjì 佛祖統記, T 2035) which describes the activities of the “bureau for the translation of scriptures” (yìjīngyuàn 譯經院) established by emperor Tàizōng 太宗 (976-997) of the Táng 唐 dynasty. This account, written two centuries after the facts it purports to narrate, describes the complex protocol that the translation teams ideally followed. The team described includes nine members: one “translation master” (yìzhǔ 譯主) who technically reads aloud the original Indic text in its original language, two “witnesses [of the fidelity of] the text” (zhèngwén 證文), one “scribe” (shūzì 書字) who writes the Sanskrit text phonetically rendered into Chinese script, a “recorder” (bǐshòu 筆受) that adds Chinese glosses to the phonetically rendered Indic words, a “syntactician” (zhuìwén 綴文) who strings individual words into sentences, an “assistant translator” (cānyì 參譯) who compares the original text with the translation, an “editor” (dìngkàn 定刊) that eliminates superfluous material, and a “style polisher” (rùnwén 潤文) in charge of the definitive literary shape of the text. This word-by-word method is evidently idealized and would be highly impractical if enacted, but it at least makes clear that for the Chinese historiographical tradition translation was conceived as a team effort, and one that involved a significant number of people.

  6. 6.

    Van Gulik, subtitled who titled his 1956 monograph An Essay on the History of Sanskrit Studies in China and Japan (van Gulik, 1956), admits throughout, but most forcefully in pp. 9–12, that the study of the Sanskrit language never flourished in China, and that the “Chinese Buddhists in general showed but scant interest in India and the sacred language of its scriptures” (p. 11).

  7. 7.

    The Sanskrit text of the Garland does not mark explicitly the verse passages, relying instead on the customary verse numbering to mark them. Direct speech is introduced by the declarative verbs √āh ‘say’ and [pra]-√vac ‘idem’: monologues in verse are introduced by either verb but so too is prose dialogue, which accounts for all other occurrences of these verbs. The Chinese text, on the other hand, invariably introduces the verse passages with a phrase containing the word *gat 偈 ‘[Buddhist] verse’ (> Sk. gāthā ‘verse’ or a cognate form like Gāndhārī < gasa >=*/ga:zə/); the closure of the verse portion is also marked by phrases either containing a verb that denotes perception (typically wén 聞 ‘hear’) marked with the perfective adverb 已 or, in faster exchanges, a clause marked with a declarative verb preceded by 復 “then, once again,” which precedes the verb that denotes the reply.

  8. 8.

    The “four young that should not be despised” were a well-established doctrinal category, widespread in Indic Buddhist texts. Tomomatsu found several places in which it occurs (1931, 296–308). None of the evidence Tomomatsu collected suggests, though, that this category may have circulated as an independent sūtra devoted to this topic, and this must be an inference of the Chinese translator.

  9. 9.

    Regarding the simile, we are obviously lacking two permutations: ripe outside and inside; raw inside and outside. The simile of the mango is well attested in Buddhist literature, on which see Lüders (1926, 62).

  10. 10.

    “Giving, moral training, concentration” are a well-attested scholastic triad, whereas, to my best knowledge, “calm, generosity, and restraint” are not.

  11. 11.

    Lüders reads here -āvaga +, but in my opinion the -u diacritic is clearly visible on the foot of the akṣara ga. I would suggest here avagu(ṇṭhit-) “veiled.” This word occurs in the passage quoted in the next excerpt.

  12. 12.

    Please see the previous note regarding avaguṇṭhita.

  13. 13.

    For a much more detailed presentation of this story see Tomomatsu (1931, 253 ff).

  14. 14.

    Generally identified with Vitex Negundo, the five-leaved chaste tree endemic to most of South, Southeast and East Asia, whose pale purple blossoms grow in visually striking clusters.

  15. 15.

    On this partial Tibetan translation please see Hahn 1982.

  16. 16.

    On Sengyou’s work, as well as on why we tend to lend credit to his assertions, see Nattier (2008, 3–13). For a much more detailed examination of the ancient bibliographic information see Tomomatsu (1931, 140 ff).

  17. 17.

    Generally identified with Vitex Negundo, the five-leaved chaste tree endemic to most of South, Southeast and East Asia.

  18. 18.

    Nowadays Wuwei 武威, but known in antiquity mostly as Guzang (Middle Chinese *Kodzaŋ) 姑藏, the < Kc’n >(= */Kəǰān/) of the “Ancient Sogdian Letters”.

  19. 19.

    For Kumārajīva the roster of safely attributed corpus texts is T 223, T 227, T 235, T 262, T 475, T 1435, T 1509, T 1521, T 1564, T 1568, T 1569, and T 1646; for Zhū Fóniàn T 1(30), T 125(50.4), T 194, T 212, T 309, T 384, T 385, T 656, T 1428, T 1464, T 1505, T 1543, T 1549, T 2045. I thank Michael Radich for these rosters.


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Loukota Sanclemente, D. (2021). The Vicissitudes of Supply Chain Translation: The Chinese Version of Kumāralāta’s Garland of Examples Attributed to Kumārajīva. In: Moratto, R., Woesler, M. (eds) Diverse Voices in Chinese Translation and Interpreting. New Frontiers in Translation Studies. Springer, Singapore.

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