The Translation

This is the first-ever complete translation of Apadāna into a Western language. It has been a daunting undertaking, traversing the translator’s entire professional career, yet it admittedly remains an imperfect work in progress. Motivated by a sense that scholars, students, Buddhists and even the general public might enjoy and benefit from access to this beautiful collection of ancient poetry, he has pushed ahead, in fits and starts, to produce the present translation, and to offer it for free to the world in this innovative online format.

At times, the problems seemed insurmountable. Because the Pali Text Society edition, produced by an obscure Miss Mary E. Lilley during the 1920s, is notoriously corrupt among the generally-reliable products of that august organization (which probably accounts for the fact that it is the sole narrative text of the Pāli Canon hitherto untranslated), the translator was led to better editions in Sinhala, Burmese, Thai and Devanagari scripts. But these turned out to vary among themselves significantly enough that no single one of them could be relied upon consistently. While the translator has not produced a new, critical edition of his own, he has attempted to redress this problem by using multiple editions, side-by-side. In particular, this is a translation of both the Pali Text Society (PTS) Roman-script edition,1 which is most widely available in the West, and of the Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka Series (BJTS) Sinhala-script edition,2 which is most widely available in Sri Lanka. In practice, the translation follows the PTS edition wherever possible, but does not shy away from translating the BJTS edition instead, in places where it corrects mistakes in the PTS edition, includes material not found in the PTS edition, or offers significantly more plausible readings of obscure passages. The BJTS edition includes an invaluable Sinhala gloss on each verse, which has often been followed in translating such obscure passages. Each of these cases is marked with a sidenote detailing the decision to follow BJTS rather than PTS, which provides the alternate PTS reading for interested readers.

Translating both editions at once thus necessitated extensive sidenotes to mark significant differences between the two editions, as well as the cumbersome inclusion of the poem and verse numbers which correspond to each edition (but not always to each other). Similar scholarly conventions — such as the consistent transliteration of Pāli terms and names with standard diacritical markings, the use of square brackets to indicate interpolations made by the translator, and additional, explanatory sidenotes — will hopefully likewise be of use to scholars, especially those who use the translation (as they should) merely as a “pony” for reading the original Pāli. But this scholarly apparatus nevertheless further encumbers the presentation of the translation to those who, conversely, wish to read it, or (as they should) recite it, for the pleasure of the text itself. With the able assistance of Dana Johnson, the translator has attempted to redress this problem by making these various aspects of the scholarly apparatus toggle-able. Those who want to track individual poems or verses in the original Pāli, or who want to consider variant readings, or who want to distinguish what is original to the text from what has been added by the translator for clarity and meter, or who care to see the original Pāli of technical terms or unusual grammatical formulations, will be able to do so, by toggling on those various dimensions of the scholarly apparatus. But those who want to just read the poems as poems can do so as well, by toggling all that off.

A third problem faced by the translator grew out of his sense that the form as well as the content of the original must needs be communicated in the translation. These legends were composed as poems, meant for recitation, and in numerous cases it is clear that the original authors were willing to sacrifice grammar, or to throw in filler words, metri causa. To translate the content in prose, even if it included the various stylistic ornaments of the original, would fail to convey the fluid, rhythmic beauty which helped make this text so compelling in its day. But the ultimate decision to translate into English verse was a hard one, both because English lacks the flexibility that allowed the Pāli authors to exercise their literary muscles, and because translation (even of poetry) into prose has become something of a convention in Buddhist Studies (which thereby inevitably sacrifices form for content). There are certainly some fine models for translation of Buddhist poetry into verse, such as the early translations of Theragāthā and Therīgāthā into English verse by Mrs. C. A. F. Rhys Davids, and the more recent ones by Prof. Charles Hallisey, but these translators have adopted the poetic conventions of their own day, rather than those of the text itself. For readers of Tennyson or Ginsberg the Lockesley-Hall meter of Mrs. Rhys Davids, or the free verse of Prof. Hallisey, respectively, really “work” as poetry…but those texts, like Apadāna (to which they are in fact closely related), are composed in neither ornate Victorian nor crisp modernist idioms; they are composed in gāthās containing four, eight-syllable lines each. The present translator thus decided neither to translate into prose, nor to translate into a contemporary poetic idiom, but rather to imitate the actual structure of the Pāli; each verse in the following translation is structured by the lines and syllable counts of the original. The result, it is hoped, is a translation which accurately conveys both the meaning and the cadence of the Pāli original. To achieve this in English has required considerable poetic license, to be sure; but as indicated above, every effort has been made to mark diversions from the original through a combination of sidenotes and square brackets.

While the online format was chosen primarily for its ability to provide “scholarly” and “lite” (or “Kindle”) versions simultaneously, in order to meet the needs of the different audiences that might make use of this translation, it proved to be the solution to other, additional problems as well. Thus the problem faced by all authors, that the text is never perfect, is mitigated by the fact that, unlike a traditional printed book, digital publication allows for easy on-going editing. The translation is thus put forward sooner than would have been possible were this to be the once-and-final version, with the proviso that it is, again, a work in progress. The translator will continue to edit the text for years to come, and invites reader criticism to assist in making this a better, if never truly perfect, translation. Additionally, because the collection is so massive, a traditional printed book would be prohibitively expensive, and would require a whole forest worth of paper. The digital format allows the translator to distribute the translation universally, for free, which he hopes, among other things, will encourage colleagues to put it (or selected portions of it) into the hands of their students. Toward this end, users will find links to easily download a PDF of any individual poem, or a PDF or ePub file of the entire text. Likewise, the translator anticipates several additional digital innovations, forthcoming, which will further enhance the intended effect of the translation, including a soundtrack so that the text can be listened to rather than read (as originally was certainly the case), pictures of statues and paintings of the individual monks and nuns such as they can be located, and visual glossary entries that illustrate the many types of trees, uniquely Indian architectural features, and so forth which are referred to throughout the text.

The Website

Technical Notes

This site was designed and built by Dana Johnson.

The type is set in Rosetta Type Foundry’s Skolar, designed by David Březina, and Skolar Sans, designed by David Březina and Sláva Jevčinová.

The poems and other pages on the site are encoded in Markdown, a minimal plain-text syntax that offers durability and flexibility for distribution.3 We use Jekyll to generate the website and Pandoc to convert the text files to HTML, ePub, and PDF. The codebase for the site is available in a public repository on GitHub.4


The text of the translation and the site’s code are made freely available to others to adapt and remix with attribution under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.

Browser Requirements

This site has been designed to work across a range of devices and browsers. The reading interface for the translation relies on Javascript to render many of its features. We also recommend you use one of the following browsers:

  • Chrome 21.0 or higher
  • Safari 6.1 or higher
  • Firefox 18.0 or higher
  • Opera 12.10 or higher
  • Internet Explorer 11 or higher

  • iOS Safari 7 or higher
  • Opera Mini
  • Android browser 2.1 or higher


We welcome your feedback on this translation, as well as on technical and other aspects of the project.

Please use one of the following methods to provide feedback:

Note: a free Github account is required for options #1 & #2.

  1. Open an Issue on Github

    If you detect a bug or would like to provide technical feedback, you can open an issue in our Github repository.

    Check that the issue has not already been opened, then click "New Issue" and provide a detailed description of the problem.

  2. Suggest an Edit on Github

    To suggest a specific change to the translation, navigate to the relevant poem in the Github repository, click “History”, then click on the most recent commit. Find the line you would like to revise, click it, and fill out the comment box that opens below. We will review your feedback and incorporate it into the text if appropriate.

    Those more familiar with Github are also invited to fork the repository and submit a specific change via pull request.

  3. Send an email

    Contact Jonathan S. Walters for translation-related or general queries. For technical questions or comments, contact Dana Johnson.

Project Roadmap

  • v1.1.0 (Spring/Summer 2018)

    • Build visual glossary of monks and nuns, and flora and fauna, that may be unfamiliar to the reader
    • Add additional audio recordings of poem recitations
    • Make available additional scholarly articles and information related to Apadāna

  1. Mary E. Lilley, ed., The Apadāna of the Khuddaka Nikāya (London: Pali Text Society, 1925 [Part One] and 1927 [Part Two]).

  2. Ven. Pandita Talallē Dhammananda Sthavirayan Vahansē, ed., Sūtrāntapiṭakayehi Tisväni Granthaya Apadānapāḷi, Part One (Government of Ceylon Press, 1961); Ven. Pandita Talallē Dhammananda Sthavirayan Vahansē, ed., Sūtrāntapiṭakayehi Ekatisväni Granthaya Apadānapāḷi, Part Two, Volume One (Government of Ceylon Press, 1977); Ven. Pandita Weṇḍaruwē Siri Anomadassi Sthavirayan Vahansē, ed., Sūtrāntapiṭakayehi Ekatisväni Granthaya Apadānapāḷi, Part Two, Volume Two (Democratic Socialist Republican Government of Sri Lanka Press, 1983).

  3. For an excellent technical and philosophical introduction, see Dennis Tenen and Grant Wythoff, “Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown”, The Programming Historian.

  4. A detailed write-up about how this site was conceptualized and developed can be found on the developer’s personal website.