In recent weeks I have been translating the second decade of the Avadānaśataka, a collection of one hundred Buddhist narratives about past and future lives. The second decade consists of jātaka stories, stories about the past lives of the Buddha, yet their structure and aims are somewhat different to the better-known jātakas of the Pāli collection.
One of the hardest aspects of this translation is how to deal with repetition. Not only are single words often followed by a number of synonyms (the Buddha is “honoured, worshipped, venerated and praised” for example, rather than simply “honoured”) but whole passages are repeated verbatim (or nearly verbatim) in several stories. The opening of each story is one such example, relating how the Buddha was honoured (and worshipped, venerated and praised) by a number of influential humans, gods and spirit deities. Sometimes the list of spirit deities includes gandharvas and sometimes it doesn’t, but otherwise the passage is identical in all the stories.
Apart from reaching for the thesaurus when presented with yet another list of (usually 4) synonyms, the main challenge is making the translation sufficiently clear and elegant that it stands up to repetition. A slightly clumsy passage of text is not too problematic if it only appears once and is soon passed by the reader, but if the passage is going to be read four, five or even ten times, the translation is far more exposed. This type of Sanskrit text does not readily lend itself to elegant translation, yet that is what is needed if one is to expect the reader to keep going until the end.
One solution to the vast repetition is to omit the repeated passages altogether. This was the choice made by Leon Feer in his French translation of the Avadānaśataka – he abbreviated the formulae and provided them in full elsewhere for cross-reference. This method certainly saves time, but it also interrupts the flow of the stories, as well as obscuring the original form of the text. The repetition, one assumes, was intentional, perhaps because of the oral production or preservation of the text. (For more on the possible oral aspects of the text see Alice Collett’s paper here.) In any case, I wish to preserve the full text in my own translation, and so I must battle on to find good expressions that bear multiple readings.