The Four Vows of the Mahayana or Bodhisattva Buddhist tradition are not only important but extremely difficult to translate into English. Considering them helps us grasp an important point.
There can be no definitive English translation.
It’s not just that translating from Chinese (or Korean or Japanese) into English is difficult. It’s not just that understanding, much less translating, Zen documents is difficult. It’s that Ancient Chinese is a conceptual language whereas English, like other western languages, is a perceptual language.
(Since the word ‘zen’ is so familiar, I usually use it to refer to the Chinese Chan and Korean Son traditions as well as to the Japanese Zen tradition.)
The best brief description I’ve found about this major obstacle is by Jonathan Star in his translation and commentary on the Tao Te Ching:
“Western languages are rooted in grammar that frames events in real time, identifies subject and object, clarifies relationships, and establishes temporal sequences.”
If English, for example, is your native language, this seems perfectly natural.
By way of contrast, Ancient Chinese has no grammar but consists of pictorial representations. “Characters symbolize concepts that can be interpreted as singular or plural; as a noun, a verb, or an adjective; as happening in the past, present, or future. Therefore, when translating from Chinese to English, the Chinese characters must be framed within a perceptual context to be understood.”
Since there are many ways to jump from pictorial representations to this kind of perceptual context, there can be no definitive translation of the Four Vows or of any other text that comes down to us from ancient China.
So how are we to understand the Four Vows?
As always with respect to translation, it’s a good initial step to compare multiple translations. Since they have been translated many times, this is easy to do with respect to the Four Vows.
It’s important not to attach yourself to any one of them. Each translation of the Four Vows is only a single possibility.
Especially if you memorize one version of the Four Vows in English in order to chant it, it’s important to keep in mind that that version is not definitive.
Perhaps the most useful way to get at the meaning of the Four Vows without learning Chinese is to consider a verbatim translation in order to provide a whole range of possible translations. You could then translate the Four Vows for yourself based on your own relevant direct experience or interest (such as ease of chanting in English).
For example, as a member of the Rochester Zen Center, I use their translation daily:
 All beings, without number,
I vow to liberate.
 Endless blind passions
I vow to uproot.
 Dharma gates, beyond measure,
I vow to penetrate.
 The Great Way of Buddha
I vow to attain.
In Zen Sourcebook, Paula Arai breaks down the Chinese characters that make up the Four Vows literally as follows:
 sentient beings, beings / countless, innumerable / vow / cross over [to the other shore, which is a standard Buddhist metaphor for awakening]
 defilements, worldly passions / inexhaustible, endless / vow / extinguish, uproot
 dharma, law, truth / gate / immeasurable, nonquantifiable / vow / study, master
 Buddhist Path / unsurpassable, supreme / vow / attain, actualize, become
This not only provides a better sense of the meaning of the text, but it also enables someone limited to English to do a personal translation. I find this a valuable contribution.
Let me draw your attention to one interesting feature of the Four Vows by asking: who is doing the vowing?
Well, presumably, I am, in other words, whoever is reciting the Four Vows.
Where, though, in the literal meanings of the Chinese characters is any personal pronoun?
Most English translations, like the one used at the Rochester Zen Center, introduce the “I” as in ‘I vow . . .’ The practice is common, but, from the Zen perspective, it is peculiar.
It’s peculiar because of the Buddha’s doctrine of no-self (nonself, anatman), which is one of the three dharma seals. According to the Buddha, there is no separate self. He “reduces” the self to five aggregates.
If so, there is no “I” to do any vowing!
So it’s clearly misleading to state that I vow to do something if there is really is no separate ego/I to do any vowing.
The best that can be done in English is to throw out the grammatical structure of an “I” doing something and replace it with a list of gerunds [verbal nouns].
This is what Paula Arai does:
 “Vowing to liberate all beings,
 Vowing to extinguish inexhaustible defilements,
 Vowing to master immeasurable dharma gates,
 Vowing to actualize the supreme way of the Buddhist Path (of wisdom and compassion).”
Although grammatically incomplete in English, this translation has the virtue that it shifts the emphasis from a self doing something to committing to certain activities and consequences.
There’s really no perfect solution. The Chinese text cannot be directly rendered into English.
In fact, please let go of the idea that there is a perfect English translation for any Zen text originally written in Chinese.
Even if you are not particularly interested in English translations of Zen documents, please notice the larger theme concerning how languages lend themselves to different ways of understanding reality. (In this sense, this is a good companion to the post “Reificationsim.”)
It’s obvious that we humans from different linguistic traditions face important problems merely understanding each other. Doing that requires more empathy and good will than we are normally willing to bring to the task.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please forward it.
Recommended post: Reificationism
Recommended resources: Paula Arai’s “Introduction”in Stephen Addiss, ed., Zen Sourcebook and Jonathan Star’s translation and commentary of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.