Every step of great progress in human society is invariably made along with in-depth exchanges among different regional cultures, which inevitably brings along the cross translation of cultural classics. Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, the German writer and thinker, once spoke of the significance of translation. In his opinion, every translator is to be regarded as a middleman in this universal spiritual commerce, and as making it his business to promote this exchange: for say what we may of the insufficiency of translation, yet the work is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest affairs in the general concerns of the world; every translator is thus a prophet in the midst of his own people.”
Reviewing the development process of the Eastern and Western civilizations and examining the connection between the development trend of civilizations and translation activities, we can detect that translation has gone through three stages, i.e. the translation of religious scriptures, the translation of the humanities works and the translation of practical documents.
In the West, the translation of religious scriptures is best represented by that of the Bible. From Septuagint around 250 B.C. to BibliaVulgata translated by St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church in Ancient Rome, to the German version translated by Martin Luther, the reformer of the late medieval period, the circulation of different versions of the Bible laid a solid foundation for Christian thoughts to be widely spread and deeply accepted in the whole of Western societies.
After the Renaissance that revitalized classicism and advocated humanism, the translation of religious scriptures gradually gave way to the translation of the humanities works, which provided ample spiritual nutrition to the national awakening and modernizing transformation in Western societies. After the Second World War, practical documents, particularly those involving commerce, diplomacy, science and technology, have gradually replaced the humanities works as the main content of translation to meet the actual demand of the capitalist development.
In China, religious translation is epitomized in the translation of Buddhist scriptures. The earliest Buddhist scripture translated into Chinese by KasyapaMatanga and Gobharana was The Sutra of Forty-two Chapters in 67 A.D., the tenth year during the reign of Emperor Ming in the Han Dynasty. From then until the late years of the Song Dynasty, Buddhist translation lasted in China for over a thousand years, witnessing the emergence of many great translators including Kumarajiva, Xuanzang, Yijing, Amoghavajra, etc. According to A General Catalogue of Collated Buddhist Classics of the Zhiyuan Period of Yuan Dynasty, the translated scriptures totaled 1,440 series with 5,580 volumes. While enriching the spiritual resource of the Chinese civilization with fresh inspirations, the translated Buddhist classics have virtually remodeled the character of Chinese nation together with Confucianism and Taoism.
At the end of the 19th century, as Western powers opened the gate of China, the humanities works from the West accordingly became the main theme of translation during this period. The profound encounter between Chinese and Western civilizations invigorated the Chinese creativity. Since the founding of the New China, especially since reform and opening-up, the translation of practical documents in science and technology, economy, politics, military affairs, and diplomacy has occupied the dominant position.
While an unprecedentedly rapid progress has been made in science, technology and economy, global challenges in the modern society become increasingly severe. Problems such as environmental pollution, natural disasters, disease and epidemics, wealth gap, ethnic conflicts, social instability and economic crisis have spread beyond national borders, calling for united efforts of the whole humanity. We should not only grope the way forward by practice, but also discover the ancient wisdom in the several-thousand-year long religious traditions. Therefore, worldwide translation and circulation of religious scriptures are likely to reclaim the mainstream of international translation.
As one of the three major religions in the world, Buddhism has rich thinking and distinctive practical approaches to understanding and handling various social and life problems, all included in the vast sea of Buddhist scriptures. After the 12th century, Buddhism disappeared from India with few Sanskrit scriptures remaining there. Fortunately, Buddhism has forked into three main branchesover centuries of development: Pali Buddhism， Han BuddhismandTibetan Buddhism.Therefore, only after a comprehensive study of Buddhist scriptures in the three languages, by translating, comparing, and collating the Pali, Chinese and Tibetan canons, can all Buddhist scriptures be fully presented.
Looking around the world today, we can see that Western understanding on Buddhism is changing. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Buddhism was then dismissed as an idol-worshiping heresy by Westerners. In the first half of the 19th century, as Western scholars represented by E. Burnouf, a French scholar, started to study Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit and Pali languages, the thought of Theravada Buddhism was gradually accepted in the West. In the first half of the 20th century, Western scholars represented by the Belgian Buddhist scholar La ValleePoussin embarked on the research of the Chinese Canon; meanwhile, Asian scholars and religious practitioners represented by D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese Buddhist scholar, were dedicated to promoting Han Buddhism, thus the study of Han Buddhism as an independent discipline began. In the second half of the 20th century, the mystery of Tibetan Buddhism was gradually unveiled. More and more Tibetan Buddhist meditation centers started to emerge in Western countries.
Today, the impression of Buddhism in the Western eyes has been significantly changed. Buddhism now is reported to be the third biggest religion in the United States, with 9 million followers accounting for nearly 3% of the national population. Even so, it does not match up with the status of Buddhism as a world religion. Many people in the West and other parts of the world have not yet had access to Buddhist scriptures.
Up to now, though the main body of Pali Canon has been translated into English, only a very few part of both Chinese and Tibetan canons are translated. In order to make the universal values of the Chinese culture truly reach out to the world, and to bring peace to the humanity with the Buddhist spirit of benefiting all the people with kindness and compassion, we Chinese Buddhists should take on the translation of the three Buddhist scriptures as our holy responsibility and mission.
Speech of Ven. Xuecheng at the First International Forum on Buddhist Studies and theInauguration of the International Center for Buddhist Studies of RUC on November 14, 2011.