Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Translator Trip-Ups 2 - Spelling

The first blog in the series, about script oddities, is here.

In this blog we’ll look at some odd spellings. For the most part these are not exactly misspellings, more like unexpected spellings that anyway occur with some regularity in a particular time or context. That means someone, at least, thought them acceptable. Thinking about pre- and post- Samuel Johnson English, you may wonder when and how any kind of spelling standards may have taken effect among Tibetan writers. For those concerned, there have been a lot of dag-yig, or correct letters texts meant to help them. 

The truth is Tibetan literary culture was and remained for most of his history a scribal culture, despite the eventually increasing popularity of woodblock printing technology. That means even works written by good spellers might get copied by bad spellers, or even worse, copyists who regarded themselves as good spellers. At some point a body comes to accept things like the absence of the final -s when it ought to be there, and its presence when it shouldn't, and this despite any number of treatises written by Tibetan savants precisely on that subject. It isn't a popular thing to be a good speller, so I hesitate to say just how good I was at it at a very young age, and proud of it, too. Even before I started primary school, I knew how to spell a number of short words thanks to my parents and my older brothers. So I'll dedicate this blog to them.

Our first example is difficult to recognize, indeed quite odd and one that puzzled me in the past:

This 'byal turns out to be an uncommon spelling for one of the most common verbs. I‘ve seen it in quite a range of works, mainly early compositions, mostly pre-Mongol period (roughly pre-mid-13th century).

In this example you see above, taken from the Zhijé History that appears in the Zhijé Collection (more on it in a minute!), Padampa Sangye encounters one of his disciples, a woman, during his travels in Tibet. There are many examples of this 'byal spelling, and despite its oddness there is really no doubt about it. And in the ZC it is the normal spelling (I haven’t noted the normally regarded as ‘normal’ spelling mjal at all). I’ve observed this in other early texts, including manuscripts of Zhang G.yu-brag-pa’s 12th-century works. However, doing the million-page search at TBRC I only come up with 13 “hits,” and only a few of these turn out to be valid examples on closer inspection.* Despite this, we can say that in particular texts this highly unusual spelling is the usual one. 
(*There are reasons for this. After years of efforts OCR can now work, and it has become a great tool for Tibet research, but it only works well with publications produced with 21st-century computer fonts. [What computers produce they can be taught to read?]  That means not only that works existing only in manuscript are entirely excluded, it also means that modern editors, being bound to dictate their own ideas of what right spelling is, have very likely eliminated all the interesting ones.)

Here you may be able to make out that there is or was a title there on the title page of the Zhijé Collection as filmed by the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project. I’ve mentioned this collection a lot in earlier blogs, so I assume you know of it.

The Zhijé Collection, inscribed some time around 1245, is my main source of the unusual spellings that we will look at. Here you can see how the title is given in the published version. I point out parts that require correction:

Assuming my corrections are good, and I think that would be a good assumption, we can translate it as “Among the Zhijé Teachings at the Heart of the Holy Dharma, this is the Later Transmission [Collection Known as] The Exceptionally Profound. This is the copy that belongs to the small residence in Tingri Langkor.” Later Transmission simply means that it belongs to the most recent of Padampa’s three periods of teaching in Tibet, the time he spent in Tingri up until his death. If you think there is something pejorative about labeling it as later, would you prefer to call it the Latest Transmission? I for one won’t mind.

Wolfenden, in his old article “Significance of Early Tibetan Word Forms,” comments how a glossary of Amdo dialects very often replaces various prescript consonants, and most often the ‘g’ and ‘d’ prescripts that are replaced with the superscript ‘r’ are pronounced as such (a commonly encountered example of this is rtsang-po in place of gtsang-po. Knowing that a shift of this kind happens is a very important key to understanding the text. Still, I’m not sure if we ought to conclude that the ‘s’ in the Padampa text was actually pronounced. It seems not, since it isn’t systematically applied, only some of the time. I also doubt it was a deliberate effort to make the text less readable, I’m just not sure enough to remark on it.

In general, linguistically speaking, odd spellings sometimes prove interesting for finding out obsolete historical pronunciations, or for identifying dialectical differences. In some 21st-century performances of Shakespeare’s plays actors have favored reconstructions of the “original pronunciation.” Three things that have proven especially useful are rhymes, spellings and puns. I really can’t say if our text’s odd spellings may of interest for reconstructing early pronunciations or not, just saying it’s conceivable.

I’ve given some relatively clear examples, chosen because I believe they look quite convincing in context. Still, I think if you opened the volumes of the Zhije Collection with no clue that this alternative spelling system was in place you would find it quite bewildering and difficult to decipher. Just as I did when I first looked at it 35 years ago. Let me tell you: Recognizing this odd spelling tendency of the text is key to beginning to understand it. Knowing it, you can move ahead to deal with its other difficulties, like the odd vocabulary items we’ll go into in an upcoming blog.

PS: I can't resist adding something about a general tendency to switch between the root letter ch- and two root letter clusters, khy-  and  phy-:

ཆ་  = ཁྱ་ =  ཕྱ་*

(*So, if you see a syllables such as  འཆལ་, it could stand in place of  འཁྱལ་, which could stand in place of འཕྱལ་ and so on. This spelling alternation is not something special to the Zhijé Collection, or to the earlier period, but seems to continue even today.)

Regardless of how different they look on the page, all three are pronounced exactly the same, so there is good reason for the spelling confusion. What this means in practical terms is, if you want to find a word in the dictionary that has one of these three in it, and you're not finding it, you may need to try looking under the other spelling.

Let us know about other odd spellings you’ve encountered in the comments section below. Meanwhile, spell well, or at least well enough.


  • A note on texts: If you are the type of person to be intrigued by the abuse of the final -s rules, just go to TBRC and search for the term sa-mtha' (ས་མཐའ་). This will result in a list of texts on the subject. You can try doing the same with dag-yig (དག་ཡིག་), but be warned that in modern usage it has come to mean dictionary in the modern sense (well, dictionaries are, or used to be before spellchecking, the main force for standardizing spellings).

  • On the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare:  Shakespeare was himself an unusual speller, although I'm not sure we ought to accept that as your excuse. If you want to know more about “original pronunciation” (like mu-si-see-yun for myuzishun) go to the video link just given. Or for more fun try this video.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tibetan Bell in Armenia - Concluding

We continue where this blog left off.
This hand bell or drilbu, taken from an online auction site, has the mantra oṃ aḥ hūṃ in vertically stacked (not horizontal like ours), raised letters on the interior of the bell.  Click on the photo and perhaps you will see it better. This bell is rather unusual in its appearance, and although there are textual recommendations to place the mantra inside the slope of the bell, this seems to have presented some technical difficulties since it is rarely done. I assume our triply-repeated mantra was written in the form of a band encircling the outside of the slope of the bell, although I admit this is an assumption that could be proved untrue.

In general, what we can say about this three-syllable mantra — more ubiquitous in Secret Mantra Buddhism than the world-famous Mani Mantra — is that it is for blessing offerings.  The three syllables are for the Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. The mantra brings the blessings of all three to the offerings being made, whatever they may be. In practically every ritual you can see how the name of the offering is placed immediately after the first two syllables and before the third. In the case of our bell, my intuition is that it isn’t exactly or exclusively intended for offering purposes. For one thing, it is repeated three times, and this kind of repetition seems to be found mostly in food blessings and the like. I think our bell inscription has a consecratory significance, primarily, but I’m open to better suggestions.

So while we are drawing to a close, with a fervently whispered hope for an actual photograph of the inscription, since having one would further our investigation like nothing else could, I’d like to draw attention a few of its interesting features. As we mentioned, it is usual to write oṃ without the length-mark. That the bell inscription surely has this length-mark appears to mark it as archaic or at least archaizing. The visarga here seen as two small circles one on top of the other is missing in the Alishan eye-copy, although it would be strange if it were just overlooked. Schmidt’s metal-type does have it (his own correction based on Csoma de Körös? How can we be sure?). And finally, it violates more recent writing standards to put a tsek-mark, the syllable-dividing mark, in this case, immediately before the shad sentence-ending mark (the vertical stroke). In truth, in writing Indic mantras such as this, it ought to be the rule, a rule not always followed, that no tseks should be used at all. After all, it is Sanskrit language, where nothing like the tsek is needed to begin with. 

Just one more example of the lengthmark, perhaps the earliest one known to me right now, comes from the Tibetan imperial (or early post-imperial) period. It is a “pen-testing” or doodling paper found in Dunhuang.* Here you can see twice the o with the lengthmark beneath. The scribe amused himself, and us, by making the two wings of the vowel ‘o’ look, well, like wings ready to lift off and flutter about the room. This only helps with the point that the lengthmark is indeed found in early times.

(*I seem to remember Sam van Schaik was the first to draw attention to this, although at the moment I can't find the exact blog in Early Tibet. On the pen-testing papers, see Takeuchi.)

Now we should make some brief comments on modern ideas about the bell and the reasons for its unavailability. In 2014, I asked world-renowned Armenian Studies savant Prof. Emeritus Michael Stone some questions via email, and he is the one who suggested to me to have them circulated to an Armenian Studies discussion list. There were a number of responses, but since I haven't asked for let alone received permissions from them to repeat their words, I will just state my own generalizations, additionally based on modern literary sources both on and off-line, such as those you see just below:

Some interesting ideas on how the bell got there, found in recent literary sources.

To judge from the responses received back in 2014, we may say: There seem to be two opinions among the experts about why the bell itself is currently unavailable for inspection. One that it is still at Etchmiadzin Cathedral, but placed in storage somewhere. The other that a public address system was installed and the bells (the Tibetan bell presumably among them) subsequently distributed to churches in other parts of Armenia. My general impression is that for Armenians today, the existence of the Tibetan bell is a matter for pride, and one more indication among many of the wide-ranging activities of their ancestors.

A conclusion for the time being

If we were to draw analogies between philology and archaeology — and I think doing so could make very good sense — I would say that paleography is the pottery analysis of the text philologist. Together with the paper-and-ink analyses now gaining in popularity, paleography can prove a powerful tool for dating physical manuscripts and inscriptions, similar to the dating of archaeological strata through pottery. No serious paleography can be done on Armenia’s Tibetan bell inscription without first having an accurate record of the letters and their very shapes. This is the primary motive for our bell quest. Similar to paper-and-ink analyses, we might add, a 21st-century metallurgical analysis of the Armenian bell could allow certain conclusions about the places where the metal was mined. How unfortunate it is for us that the possibility of paleographical and metallurgical findings seems to have receded out of our reach.

Holy objects present us with the ever-mysterious numen normally out of our grasp in our everyday lives, but they may be the very things that make us hold on to religions as tightly as we do. As objects, they persistently present themselves to us, as if they possessed the formed solidity of text-book materiality, Aristotle’s forma et materia forever superglued together. Some objects are hard to ignore and demand our attention. Out-of-place objects particularly so.

Armenia’s Tibetan Bell bears on its surface an inscription identifying it as a consecrated Buddhist object, made holy through a consecration ritual. And what is consecration but a ritual agreement that with all the odds against it happening the holy can indeed be localized within the most material of things.* And there are reasons this unholy and theologically improbable union should be regarded as helpful.

(*See King Solomon's speech at the consecration of the Jerusalem temple in II Chronicles 6:18 where he brings up exactly this kind of objection.)

Out-of-place artifacts — and I think our Tibet Bell in an Armenian church must surely be seen as an example — threaten our normative academic discourses of difference and belonging. They are matter out of place, so to speak. They violate the normative philological principle of ‘fit’ (the demand that a new bit of evidence can only be accepted in evidence if it fits within a range of earlier well-established evidence). They seem to say, No more business as usual, it’s time for a change of view.

And in the case of our bell, despite all the objective materiality it ought to have, it remains elusive and untouchable, perhaps even hidden from our eyes, our touch, and most significant of all, our hearing. We can only hope that this out-of-place artifact turned mis-placed artifact will turn up soon to help us answer the remaining questions burning in our minds. Until then, I guess we can give the quest a short rest.

Some literature:

The blog called “The Last Yak,” entry dated November 3, 2010: How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?

Yael Bentor, Consecration of Images and Stûpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Brill (Leiden 1996).

Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Glegs tshas: Writing Boards of Chinese Scribes in Tibetan-Ruled Dunhuang, contained in: Brandon Dotson, Kazushi Iwao and Tsuguhito Takeuchi, eds., Scribes, Texts, and Rituals in Early Tibet and Dunhuang, Reichert Verlag (Wiesbaden 2012), pp. 101-109, 150-153. 

A hare on a bell?  A highly curious modern sculpture to be seen in Yerevan, at the cascades.
Could this be a clue in favor of Hulegu?

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