Lost in Translation


“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories [aggregates] of clinging objects.”

This is the 1st noble truth (1NT) as translated from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta {Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth} as you often see it. Now, maybe I’m overstepping my bounds in calling this into question. I am but a novice when it comes to Buddhism. I don’t know Pali or Sanskrit, can’t read anything in any Asian character. As far as my foreign language goes, I know about 14 sentences in Spanish (thanks public schools!). But to me there is something that is being fundamentally left out of a translation like this, in so much that “suffering” is left to stand all alone. If you read other translations, you will find suffering substitued for “pain” or “stress”. Kind of all pointing at the same thing. But even these still seem to miss the mark.

The word dukkha is what we see being translated into suffering/stress/pain here. Dukkha is much more than the common translation suffering would imply though. Dukkha is the description for the fundamental delusion and off-centerdness of our experience of life. It has its root in its antonym sukha, which has as its root a word meaning a wheel that is in kilter, or an axle that is precise which would allow a wheel to spin flawlessly. This fits in well with other circular imagery found in Buddhism, like the wheel of Samsara.

So why do we translate dukkha? Why not leave it as it stands like we do with karma, satori, or any of the other terms commonly used in Buddhism? It almost seems more appropriate to do so. Often times I’ll see the word suffering used as a way to express physical pain or frustration or anger or any of the other types of “conventional” suffering. These are all things that fall within the wheelhouse of dukkha, but so is a birthday celebration, an unexpected kiss from a loved one, or the joy you receive watching your child play with her toys. These too, are dukkha. They are dukkha because they are phenomenal expereinces. “Birth is suffering” – and not just from the perspective of the mother! Birth is suffering because it brings us into the world of samsara, one filled with clinging to that which is temporary. It is not death in and of itself that is dukkha, but the fact that our existence here is marked by death, and can only ever be temporary, fleeting as fast as the Mayfly blinks in and out of existence. It is all dukkha because it is part of the up and down bumpiness that life as a human generally entails. A wheel out of kilter.

Buddha’s prescription is simply to put the wheel back on its axle, to be able to experience a joy that isn’t fleeting or temporary or bound up by any of the sensory experiences we so desperately cling to. His medicine for our illness is something beyond the aggregates. This is liberation.

So I’m keeping dukkha, dukkha. Suffering seems to imply something is wrong physically, when it should imply that physically is wrong.



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12 responses to “Lost in Translation

  1. Excellent presentation here, Adam. I agree with you and I think it is very helpful to use the Sanskrit/Pali/Chinese/Japanese words for certain terms, because in doing so, we are taken out of our normal associations for these terms, which at times can be a obstacle to grasping their multi-faceted meanings.

    • I’ve noticed that when I do that though sometimes, I also start to assign my own meaning to the word, which also makes me wonder how useful that is. It is a fine line to walk when trying to use the best language to convey ideas that exist outside of language.

  2. So I’m keeping dukkha, dukkha.


    But there is a “magical language” temptation I see in many religions: Christians want to keep “agape”[love], Jews want to keep “ha-shem“[the name], Hindus want to keep “guru”[teacher] and Muslims want to keep “Jihad”[struggle] and even Karate folks want to keep “Mawashi-geri” [spin-kick] because it sounds so much cooler and signals you are in-house! By keeping the original language, you can pretend it means more than it does.

    Though I like your points, I think it also pays to remember this aspect of mind.

    • “because it sounds so much cooler and signals you are in-house!” – yes, I agree with that. When it comes to Buddhism, I most often see this with the term “metta”, or less often “gassho”. It seems like uneccessary cultural appropriation, maybe as a way for someone to feel like they are in the “in” crowd when really they still feel like they are on the outside.

      When the word is easily translated, and can be very closely literally translated, I think we should make every attempt to do so. This is readily seen when talking about the 10 perfections (paramitas). Most of them are usually found translated (with the exceptions of metta, dana, and upaya- though this last one seems to be fading out in favor of “skillful means”, as it probably should).

      I’m just not convinced that “suffering” is the most useful way of communicating what dukkha really means, and as it is part of the foundation for the Four Noble Truths, I think we should let it stand on its own.

  3. @ Adam
    Two things:
    (1) I have heard “dukkha” translated unsatisfactoriness.
    (2) I wonder how Buddhish I really am when I think about this. The Theravada tradition is very much into the life of renunciation since life is “dukkha”. No matter how you translate it, it is undesirable so it life is undesirable, well life as we know it. We need to escape. And I don’t believe that. I don’t have an ounce of renunciation in me. I see meditation as a way to enjoy life more richly. So the whole “dukkha” thing is a turn off to me I guess — no matter how they try to spin it.
    Hmmm, there, I said it. :-)

    • This is exactly why the usual translations utterly fail in my opinion!

      There are 3 types of suffering –
      Dukkha-dukkha – this is the one that could literally translate as suffering. It’s all the bad shit. Death, old age, sickness, herpes and Glenn Beck.

      Then there is Viparinama-dukkha – dukkha of change. Because of dependant arising and such, things change, and this is why dukkha can refer to those experiences that are pleasurable as well. This is prob where Therevadans decide it’s a good idea to just skip out on life, to avoid those situations altogether. I don’t agree with that at all, but oh well.

      The third (and in my opinion the most important and fundamental) is Sankhara-dukkha – dukkha that arises as a result of clinging to and identifying with the skhandas. This isn’t particularly suffering-inducing, as much as it is samsara-enabling.

      Maybe the compilers of the Pali Cannon could have helped by differentiating these 3 apart from each other, but they probably never envisioned coming across a language so confusing and nonsensical as English!

  4. Do you think many traditional (non-Western) Buddhists look at dukkha as “suffering” — old age, sickness and death — yuck! ?

    • My impression is that many non-Western, non-monastic Buddhists view dukkha/suffering simply as a natural consequence to being born in this world, and that once one attains Buddha-hood (or whatever their particular sect may refer to it as) suffering goes away. My impression is that it is a commonly held belief that being born into this world is suffering/dukkha, but it is probably more emphasized that the bad things in life are dukkha, and a consequence of bad past karma.

  5. Exactly, I think that for most of the world and those who speak Pali, “dukkha” means suffering.
    We have to change translations if we want a different Buddhism — sort of odd, eh?

    • Maybe rather than talk about suffering or dukkha, we could make it a point to address the three different types of dukkha and differentiate them when we talk. Here, literal translations tend to make more sense, as they are more specific.

  6. @ Adam
    Yes, that is a very useful approach. In fact, in the section called “Suggestions” at the bottom of this post (“The Myth of Definitions“), I suggest adding adjectives to clarify disagreements.

    But more than that, I have a thought-experiment that may be fun and instructive:

    Imagine that the four noble truths were not said by the Buddha. Let’s just say that some Buddhists took on an ascetic, renunciative side track –> “Life is bad, we must forsake the body, mind is everything, sex/food/property are distracting. We must forsake these all to escape suffering”.

    Let’s say those guys made up the Pali scriptures and made Buddha say that stuff. What if the actual Buddha just discussed ways to more fully enjoy life and to embrace even pleasures and indulgences but he found methods to sparkle the mind — he didn’t see life as suffering at all but as ripe opportunity for pleasure. But that Pali group became orthodox and bang! that becomes standard Buddhism with the 4 spiritual laws (ooops, I mean 4 noble truths).

    OK, so that is the thought experiment’s presupposition. So, if you discovered that was true, would your meditation practice change, would your view of why you do meditation change?

    Bottom line — do those 4 nobel truths really matter?

    Arghhhhh, heresy. Forgive me, I did not think that. Sorry! :-)
    You seem like just the kind of guy who loves experimenting with thought experiments. Curious to hear your response. Or perhaps you could do a post on it called, “What if it were all a lie?”

  7. @ Adam:
    Actually, that is probably off-thread so I put up a post that says the same thing if you’d like to discuss it there.