Matt at No-sword has a post describing the remarkable process by which Buddhist sutras were translated from Sanskrit into Chinese a bit over a millennium ago. It began with a Lead Translator who read the Sanskrit original aloud, included what Matt translates as a “Meaning Certifier,” a “Text Certifier,” a “Scribe Learned in Sanskrit,” a “Receiver via Brush,” a “Text Composer,” and a “Translation Barger-into,” and was finished off by a “Trimmer/Finalizer” and the following ultimate touch:

潤文官 (“Text-Juicing Official”): Determined whether the translation was appropriate as Chinese text, and added rhetorical flourish as necessary. For example, the “度一切苦厄” (“he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty”) of “照見五蘊皆空 度一切苦厄” (“he illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they were all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty”) was not in the original; it was added at this stage. The previous eight steps were performed by monks, but this step was performed by a lay official.

When that sutra was done, it had been translated to a fare-thee-well, let me tell you. (Of course, then the efficiency experts got involved and now they just shove it into Google Translate and let the chips fall where they may.)


  1. I love this! Particularly the translated names of the participants.
    Interesting to compare to other processes to translate sacred texts. I doubt anyone else had a “text-juicing official.”

  2. What a curious amalgam that “No-sword” passage represents: an explanation in English for the process of translating Sanskrit sutras into Chinese based on a explication of the process in Japanese written by someone with a Korean surname [J. Kin Bunkyō (金文京) –> K. Gim Mungyeong]! WRT the translation 潤文官 –> “Text-Juicing Official” I see it more understandable as “Text-Lubricating Official”. Moreover, I’d assert that the Chinese is ambiguous as to whether the three characters should be interpreted as “lubricate-text-official” or just as “lubricating-official” as the second character can stand alone as text or document or, in combination with the third just mean “civil official”. I like “lubricating” rather than “juicing” for the idea of smoothing toward fluency, whereas “juicing” might connote jazzing up the text–not the interpreter’s/translator’s job in my view.

  3. Yeah, but “Text-Juicing Official” is funnier. There are also the multiple meanings of Sanskrit rasa (juice, flavor, feeling, essence) to consider here.

  4. The question is, of course, whether 潤文官 is actually related to Sanskrit ‘rasa’.
    It was, of course, a Buddhist monks who introduced the current Japanese names of the days of the week into Chinese from India (I think it was), whence they found their way into Japanese.

  5. For rather more prosaic translations of the 佛祖統紀’s description of the team, see Tansen Sen’s “The Revival and Failure of Buddhist Translations during the Song Dynasty” in JSTOR.

    1. 譯主, Chief Translator
    2. 證譯, Philological Assistant
    3. 證文, Text Appraiser
    4. 書字梵學僧, Transcriber-monk-student of Sanskrit
    5. 筆受, Translator-scribe
    6. 綴文, Text Composer
    7. 參譯, Proofreader
    8. 刊定, Editor
    9. 潤文, Stylist

  6. “The Revival and Failure of Buddhist Translations during the Song Dynasty”.
    Anything’s worth a read. After some research, I’ve found that anything with “Victor H. Mair” in the bibliograpy, etc… is no longer credible.

  7. anything with “Victor H. Mair” in the bibliograpy, etc… is no longer credible
    I think that is a little extreme. Mair’s scholarship is fine; it’s his particular slant on things that raises hackles among some. If you want to read a real rant, try Hannas’s Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. He has a point, but it’s buried in amongst a lot of polemic.

  8. Michael Trevor says

    They must have been downsizing. Neil McGregor describes a Han lacquer cup made around 4 AD, with a thin band of 67 Chinese characters round the base like film credits – six craftsmen, seven supervisors:
    “The wooden core by Yi,
    lacquering by Li,
    top-coat lacquering by Dang,
    gilding of the ear-handles by Gu,
    painting by Ding,
    final polishing by Feng,
    product inspection by Ping,
    supervisor-foreman Zong.
    In charge were Government Head Supervisor Zhang,
    Chief Administrator Liang,
    his deputy Feng,
    their subordinate Executive Officer Long,
    and Chief Clerk Bao.”

  9. Jimmy Durante had acute historical insight: “Everybody wants ta get inta the act!”

  10. Doc Rock, I struggled over “lubricating” vs “juicing” myself. That was actually the one that finally broke me of my original intention to keep the literal translations at least moderately serious. (I much prefer the current version of 参訳, so no harm done.)
    MMcM, that’s a great link, thanks! I’ll add it to the post later. Part of the reason I didn’t try to pick normal terms like “proofreader” and so on was because I was sure that someone, somewhere, would already have done it, and based on more knowledge than a half-read work for a popular audience. Glad I went with my instincts there.
    (And thanks for the link, languagehat.)

  11. Correcting the style of something could be called 润色 in Chinese — so, juicing up the colours a little bit?

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