TAGS Keynote Speaker: Trent Walker

Trent Walker

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206 Ingraham Hall
@ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Bitexts in Glocal Perspective:
Towards an Intellectual History of Buddhist Translation in Early Modern Southeast Asia

Trent Walker
Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and Thai Professor of Theravada Buddhism
Department of Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Michigan

The translation of South Asian Buddhist texts into Chinese and Tibetan must count among the largest, longest-lasting, and most influential translation projects in the premodern world. Not only did they establish translator teams as key intermediaries in the pan-Asian exchange of ideas, these projects offered an enduring model in East and Central Asia for thinking through issues of linguistic difference, textual authority, and cross-continental connection. When the field of translation studies gropes for premodern sources beyond the West, such examples from China and Tibet loom large. But what about mainland Southeast Asia, where South Asian Buddhist canons were equally influential? Where does the region fit in the global history of translation?

Taking a cue from the 2024 TAGS conference theme, this talk engages the dynamic interplay of global and local forces witnessed in the dominant technology for translation in early modern mainland Southeast Asia, the Indic-vernacular bitext. Unlike in China or Tibet, in Southeast Asia the vast body of Buddhist scriptures were not translated wholesale into local languages until the twentieth century. For most of the second millennium, especially between the late fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Southeast Asian intellectuals instead produced an enormous quantity of bilingual compositions, or bitexts, that combine passages in Sanskrit or Pali with glosses into a local vernacular, be it Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Thai, or a host of lesser-known languages.

Drawing on examples from throughout the region, this talk shows how the influence of these bitexts extended well beyond the Buddhist sphere, shaping the study of grammar, literature, and the sciences across early modern Southeast Asia. Bitexts not only facilitated the study of South Asian thought, but built a platform for Southeast Asians to compose in a fresh, cosmopolitan idiom that afforded the circulation of ideas across a diverse set of vernacular tongues. Taking a glocal perspective on these modes of reading, writing, and performance allows us to appreciate how Southeast Asian intellectuals made a distinct and enduring contribution to the history of translation.

Trent Walker works on Buddhism, literature, and music in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. His research spans the medieval period to the present, focusing on handwritten materials—bark-paper documents, palm-leaf manuscripts, and stone inscriptions—and their performative realization in speech, chant, and song. He has long worked with Thai, Khmer, Lanna, Lao, Pali, and Sanskrit sources, and more recently with those in Tai Khün, Tai Lue, Shan, and Vietnamese. In the field of Khmer literature, he authored Until Nirvana’s Time: Buddhist Songs from Cambodia (Shambhala Publications, 2022) and co-edited a major anthology, Out of the Shadows of Angkor: Cambodian Poetry, Prose, and Performance through the Ages (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2022). Recent publications include articles on Thai literary history, Lao and Shan exegesis, Theravada nuns, Pali-vernacular homiletics, Khmer epigraphy, and Vietnamese Buddhist translation.

A recording will be available on the CSEAS YouTube channel following the event.