Fascicle or Roll: An Encouraging Note

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. comes on the scene, weighing in at 1265 pages of pure Buddhist lore, and lo and behold, uses ‘roll’ for 卷 juàn, not the anemic ‘fascicle’. To begin an evaluation of this brand new Buddhist reference work (with a copyright of 2014), I immediately looked up Kumārajīva. There, the money quote is: “The sheer number and variety of the translations made by Kumārajīva and his team were virtually unmatched until Xuanzang (600/602–664 CE). Translations of some seventy-four texts, in 384 rolls, are typically attributed to Kumārajīva, including various sutras, such as the Pañcavimṣatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitāsūtra—it is this that I refer to as “Kumārajīva’s Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom”—Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā, Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra (The Lotus Sutra), Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, Sukāvatīvyūha-sūtra, Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (The Diamond Sutra)—and important śāstras such as the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Śata-śastrā, Dvādaśamukha-śāstra, and the Dazhidu Lun.” Maybe, Messrs. Buswell and Lopez just liked ‘roll’ better because it’s short (as well as being accurate), as I do.

I may have something more to say about the dictionary after I try it out for a while. (It was a Christmas gift.) But first impressions are positive regarding coverage, writing, and the legibility of the entries, with one exception.* And it certainly gets five stars for the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Sanskrit and Tibetan index. The physical construction of the book, on the other hand, doesn’t look like it will withstand intensive use. We’ll see.

* The all-caps rendition of some of the book titles within an entry is hard to read.

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卷 Roll or Fascicle

juàn, among academics, is often translated ‘fascicle’. I prefer ‘roll’.

A ‘roll’ means a written document that may be rolled up, a  scroll.  A very early meaning of 卷 juàn, according to Shirakawa*  and others, is a ‘writing on a roll of animal skin’, later, writing on roll of paper.  A ‘fascicle’, on the other hand, means ‘bundle’, and reminds me of the Chinese character 冊 cè—book, booklet, volume—rather than 卷 juàn, since 冊 cè appears to be a pictograph of a bundle of sticks indicative of a book or booklet made from strips of bamboo strung together laterally. Semantically speaking, ‘fascicle’, ‘volume’ and ‘roll’ are all potential English candidates for 卷 juàn.

But when it comes to register (proper relative positioning within the target language), ‘roll’ is better. Like 卷 juàn, ‘roll’ is a common word in common use, whereas ‘fascicle’, not so much. Roll is easy to pronounce. It rolls from the lips with the greatest of ease—unless you’re Japanese and find the phonemic distinction between an ‘R’ and ‘L’ to be rather arbitrary.

Why not ‘chapter’ for 卷 juàn? That might be a good option if it weren’t for 品 pǐn.  A 品 pǐn better resembles  a ‘chapter’.  品 pǐn can be of arbitrary length—normally they have their own theme, sometimes general or imprecise—and they can stand alone as a piece of writing, whereas 卷 juàn function as a way to divide a long book into manageable chunks of approximately equal physical size, and they don’t need their own theme. Indeed, a 卷 juàn sometimes ends in the middle of a 品 pǐn.

The received text of Kumārajīva’s 5th century CE Chinese translation of the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom has been divided into 30 卷 juàn, roughly of 11,000 characters each, excluding all punctuation marks. This comes out to about 10,000 words in concise English translation, twice that (or more) in verbose translation.  [If I didn’t make an error in arithmetic…  Caveat emptor.] We’ll see how I do in terms of “concise English translation” as the work proceeds. Put up or shut up, right?

Let’s get rolling, or, as they say in the movie business, Roll one!

*SHIRAKAWA Shizuka 字通 p188 白川靜 平凡 社 Tokyo, 1996.

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