Problematic Pali Translations

There are various words in Pali that often get translated in ways that I personally do not find particularly helpful. Sometimes I know of better words to use; other times I can't come up with something better, but the shade of meaning used by the Buddha must be understood. See Access to Insight's Glossary of Pali & Buddhist terms for the usual definitions of the following Pali words.

The following table indicates Pali words, their usual English translations, better translations, and comments on what is actually meant in the suttas:

Usual English
Better Translation
dukkha suffering;
Dukkha is best left untranslated. It does mean both "suffering" and "stress", and it also means "unsatisfactoriness" - basically "getting what you don't want" and "not getting what you do want". It also is a quality of all created things that make each and every one of them "not a reliable source of happiness," "not a source of lasting happiness." It covers all those little niggling feelings that every thing is "not ultimately satisfying" If you really want an English word, you can play with the slang "bummer" - but remember the "flaw" of "not a reliable source of happiness" as part of dukkha's quality, too
vedanā feeling vedanā;
Vedanā does NOT mean emotions - it means simply pleasant, unpleasant, or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant. It is the first impression a sense contact makes: "it is pleasing" or "it is not pleasing" or "it is neither". Emotions are mental formations (sankhāra) not vedanā.
saññā perception conceptualization;
(and sometimes) consciousness
Saññā refers to the ability of the mind to name, identify, conceptualize a sense impression. It's the conceptualizing & labeling of our experiences. We experience a sense contact which generates a vedanā and then we conceptualize the experience and manipulate it with other concepts to "make together" our sankhārā - see MN 18 for more on this process. For a modern scientific description, see Christine Skarda's The Perceptual Form of Life.   Sometimes tho, saññā is used as a synonym for "consciousness," see e.g. DN 9.
sankhāra formations;
compounded things;
mental activity
Sankhāra gets translated in a number of ways depending on the context. But the Buddha used a single word in all those contexts! Better translations would be "concoctions" or "fabrications". Both of these words fit in all those contexts and also have the sense of "not quite true" which I think is an important aspect of sankhāra. It literally means "making together" so it refers to anything that is constructed. In the teaching of the 5 khaṇḍas it refers to thoughts, emotions, memories & intentions - all mental activities other than vedanā, saññā and viññāṇa.
the unborn,
the unbecome,
the unmade,
the unconditioned
without birth,
without beings,
without made things,
without fabrications

(or "free of" instead of "without")

This famous description of nibbana often gets mistranslated. There cannot be any "a", "an" or "the" - Pali doesn't have articles. Furthermore, "unconditioned" for "asaṅkhata" is particularly bad. "Asaṅkhata" is the negative of the past participle of sankhāra (see above), it literally means (a) without (saṅkhata) concocted or fabricated. Nibbana is therefore the opposite of Samsara which has birth, beings, made things and fabricated things. The difference, however, is not ontologically, but percepetive - see verse 874 of Snp 4.11 and the verses at the end of DN 11.
mind (sometimes)
"Consciousness" is a very good translation - in most instances. But viññāṇa literally means "divided knowing" and occasionally this literal meaning is what is meant - e.g. the last line of the verses at the end of DN 11. Viññāṇa is sometimes used to mean "mind" as in "this body (kāya) with its consciousness (viññāṇa)" - e.g. MN 109.13 & DN 2.85 (Insight Knowledge).
"Element" implies an existing thing - a mistake the Abhidhamma makes. See MN 115.4-9 where there are many kinds of elements given, given in terms of aspects or characteristics. See also PTS PED for dhātu, 2.a: "natural condition, property, disposition; factor, item, principle, form."
mettā loving-kindness;
unconditional love;
unconditional kindness
"Loving-kindness" is a good translation, but a bit on the wimpy side. Mettā is the same as the Greek agape which is best translated as "unconditional love" - loving someone just because they are a someone, not because of what they can or might or did do for you.
muditā sympathetic joy;
empathetic joy;
joy at the good fortune of others
appreciative joy The later commentaries indicate that one only feels muditā for others - but the suttas indicate that one does all 4 Brahma Vihara practices for oneself as well as others. Thus "appreciative joy" more closely captures this emotion.
nibbidā disenchantment;
disenchantment "Revulsion" and "disgust" have too strong a negative connotation. "Disenchantment" is much better - one experiencing nibbidā towards X is no longer enchanted by X, the spell (enchantment) has been broken.
uddhacca & kukkuccarestless & worryrestless & remorse Kukkucca is "worry" only in the sense of regretting having done something in the past that was unskillful; better to translate it as "remorse." Worry about the future comes under aversion (the 2nd hindrance).
vitakka &
thinking &
initial attention &
sustained attention
thinking &
In the suttas, these two definitely mean "thinking" and "pondering"/"examining." However according to the commentaries, when they are used in the description of the 1st Jhana, they mean "initial attention to the meditation subject" and "sustained attention on the meditation subject". But there is much evidence in the suttas that the commentaries are wrong - see for example SN 21.1 and SN 40.1.
pīti rapture; euphoria;
ecstasy; interest;
glee Pīti comes in many grades and shades, all the usual translations can possibly apply. But it has an excited quality to it that "glee" captures better than any of the usual translations.
satipaṭṭhānafoundation of mindfulnesslooking after mindfulness

establishment of mindfulness

Altho "foundations" is traditional, but it's not really accurate. Satipaṭṭhana is probably a compound of sati + upaṭṭhāna. According to the PTS PED, upaṭṭhāna means "attendance, waiting on, looking after, service, care, ministering". So the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta would be "The Discourse on Looking After Mindfulness" or "The Discourse on Taking Care of Mindfulness"
bhava existence; being;
becoming "Becoming" captures the broader sense of bhava much better. See Thanissaro Bhikkhu's excellent book on becoming.
It's definitely Not blind faith; it's confidence based on experience.
hirimoral shamepersonal integrity "I wouldn't do that because I have integrity."
ottappamoral dreadethical conscious "I wouldn't do that because the possible consequences."
"I wouldn't do that because others would censure me."
amata deathless without death;
Amata literally means "without death," but in classical Vedic texts this refers to an essential timelessness preceding and underlying the world of human experience. At times, the Buddha perhaps used the word in this way also - experience of and in "the ceasely changing now."
upādāna-kkhandha clinging aggregates bundles of fuel
heaps of fuel
The five aggregates (khandha) of human experience that define the phenomenal person are the fuel (upādāna) for the 3 fires of greed, hatred and delusion.
atammayatā non-identification non-concocting;
Literally: "not made of that", which implies that "non-identification" would be less helpful than "non-concocting"/"non-fashioning". The quality of experience prior to, or without, subject/object duality.
āsava outflow; taint;
effluent; canker;
intoxicant From the PTS Pali-English Dictionary: "technical term for certain specified ideas which intoxicate the mind (bemuddle it, befoozle it, so that it cannot rise to higher things). Freedom from the 'Āsavas' constitutes Arahantship."
tathāgata the Tathāgata a tathāgata


Often said to be how the Buddha refered to himself. However this assumes he was saying "the Tathāgata" - but there aren't any articles ("a", "an" or "the") in Pali. It seems more likely the Buddha was refering to "one who has arrived at Truth" (i.e. an awkaened one) rather than using it specifically to refer to himself. Tathāgata seems to be somewhat the same as arahant - tho perhaps with overtones of "a fully realized one," and/or "a spiritually perfected one."

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