illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
There are times when the ambiguity of Pāḷi is a serious challenge to one's perseverance and patience… let alone to one's understanding!
One might want to believe that the context would help, and that commentaries, sub-commentaries and overall consistency should provide answers (if needed), one way or another, but it seems this is a naïve belief.
Example: Karajakāya Brahmavihāra sutta (AN 10.208).
Let's pass the fact that this is included in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, i.e. the 'numbered' discourses in the section 10 and so it 'should' contain a list of 10 somewhere… except it doesn't!
Maybe the list is implied, e.g. a repeat from a previous discourse, even though the Pāḷi Canon rarely shy away from repetitions (as they help memorisation!).
Let's pass the fact that this discourse starts with a rather deterministic view of karma, in plain contradiction with many other Buddhist discourses, and in fact typical of Jainism rather than of Buddhism.
And let's pass the fact that there's a section apparently missing (where the list of 10 should be?), as the third sentence both addresses a completely different topic from the first two sentences, and starts with a demonstrative pronoun ("this noble disciple") without any previous mention of its object (the said disciple)!
A few sentences down, while presenting lovingkindness as a gate into the state of non-returner (at least), there's a sentence
« Cittantaro ayaṃ, bhikkhave, macco. »
Not found in the dictionary, cittantaro has to be a compound, and citt' antaro (i.e. citta antaro) seems the most plausible: Mind/heart combined with either a spatial-related "inside" (inside, inner) or a temporal "inside" (an interval of time, hence time in general, & also a specified time, i. e. occasion. As interval in Buddhantaraṃ, the time between the death of one Buddha and the appearance of another). Compounds can have many interpretations in Pāḷi, from determination / possession (the inside of the mind) to combination (mind and inside, mind and time) to the special bahubbihi compound ("having"… the inside of the mind?). Here, the interpretation isn't exactly clear at first sight.
Classically, ayaṃ is a demonstrative pronoun: "this, he"…
The vocative plural of 'monk' (bhikkhu) is bhikkhave.
Finally, macca is either an adjective or a noun, meaning 'mortal'. Macco would have to be the nominative (subject —or qualifier of the subject— of the absent-therefore-implied verb, to be).
Since antara as a noun would be neutral and its nominative would then be antaraṃ rather than antaro, we might need to start by assuming that it's an adjective here, and the subject therefore is macco: this mortal, this man. In rare cases, this might be wrong but it's necessary to at least consider this possibility.
So, one gets: « this mortal, monks, [is] a period of mind »? Or « this mortal, monks, [is] a period between minds »? It doesn't make much sense, so one has to look further.
Someone learning Pāḷi should have the humility to consider that there's something to learn from renowned translators, so let's have a look:
Thanissaro gives « Death, monks, is but a gap of a thought away. » While the sentence seems to make sense, a 'mortal being' is hardly 'death' and the 'away' is not seen in the Pāḷi…
Bodhi gives « Mortals have mind as their core. » This is dramatically different from Thanissaro, so at least this may reassure us that the translation wasn't easy, in any way! One of the difficulty though is that antara seems to refer to an 'inside' in spatial or temporal domains according to the Pāḷi Text Society (PTS) Pāḷi-English Dictionary (PED), so it's unclear how this could apply to a mind. The plural for 'mortals' is nowhere to be found either. A bahubbihi compound could justify the "a mortal is having (i.e. has)…" but "mind as its core" is harder to pull.
So looking for a 3rd translation, one finds Piya's: « Bhikshus, this mortal life is but an intermediate state of consciousness. »!?!
Sometimes, there's a hope that reading the Pāḷi Canon directly would make the Buddha's words clear… by freeing them from all the extras that have been added by centuries of analysis, interpretations, commentaries, etc!
Or there's the hope that reading the Pāḷi Canon directly could free one from other translators' preconceptions, would allow one to somehow appropriate the Buddha's words as one's own… without necessarily negating one's own filters, but at least without adding filters from others to one's own!
At times, nothing could be further from the truth! ;-)
image: "Sukothai-style bronze walking Buddha", recently auctioned.