A while back, Ashin Sopaka and I had some discussion about what the best English translation of ariyasavaka should be. We were each influenced by different experts. He preferred the translation “Noble Disciple,” while I preferred the translation “disciple of the Noble Ones.” It’s important to keep in mind that these translations are not mutually exclusive, but they are indeed different. Noble disciples comprise individuals who have achieved Noble attainments, while disciples of the Noble Ones have not necessarily reached that level. The latter translation is much broader than the first. As neither Ashin Sopaka nor I consider ourselves Pali authorities, the question was forwarded to the experts themselves…
My biases are firmly grounded in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s body of work, so my first move was to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. “Why translate as disciples of the Noble Ones instead of Noble disciples?” Thanissaro Bhikkhu frankly told me that when he was younger, he had preferred “Noble Disciples” but that he later switched to “disciples of the Noble Ones” after he noticed instances in the Suttas where he felt ariyasavaka could only be translated with the latter meaning. But I guess that just left me where I’d started.
My next move was to ask the Pali Collective. There are some major Pali brainiacs there (I mean that as a compliment), and I encourage anyone who’s serious about learning Pali to join their newsletter. The following three responses were the most helpful, although to cut to the chase, the general conclusion was that both translations are possible. (Keep in mind that the Pali below is written using the Velthius scheme.) From Ardavarz:
In my opinion both translations are correct. The difference is in interpretation of the compound word (samaasa) as “adjectival compound” (kammadhaaraya) in the first case or as a “case compound” (tappurisa) in the second one (you can see the explanation of the compounds in Lesson XX of Ven. Naarada Thera’s “Elementary Pali Course”). Which would be in a concrete instance should be infered from the context.
And from Dhivan:
The compound ‘ariyasaavaka‘ is genuinely ambiguous – it can be taken to mean ‘noble disciple’, which (as Ardavarz says) is to take it as a karmadhaarya, or as ‘a disciple of the noble ones’ which is to take it as a tatpuru.sa. The compound ‘ariyasacca’ is just the same – it could mean ‘noble truth’ or ‘truth of the noble one’ (i.e. the Buddha) or even ‘truth of the noble ones’ (i.e. enlightened beings). In English we tend to say ‘noble truth’ but the commentator Buddhaghosa actually prefers ‘truth of the noble one’. But all this is just to say that there is this ambiguity with compounds in Pali.
Lastly, Jim’s response to a different question regarding ariya:
I don’t know much about this myself but a few weeks ago I came across the following comment on “ariyasaavako” in the A”nguttaranikaaya-a.t.thakathaa:
“Ariyasaavakoti atthi ariyo na saavako, seyyathaapi buddhaa ceva paccekabuddhaa ca; atthi saavako na ariyo, seyyathaapi gihii anaagataphalo; atthi neva ariyo na saavako seyyathaapi puthutitthiyaa. Atthi ariyo ceva saavako ca, seyyathaapi sama.naa sakyaputtiyaa aagataphalaa vi~n~naatasaasanaa. Idha pana gihii vaa hotu pabbajito vaa, yo koci sutavaati ettha vuttassa atthassa vasena sutasampanno, aya.m ariyasaavakoti veditabbo.” — Mp I 62
It defines who is called an ariyan but not a disciple, a disciple but not an ariyan, neither, both. Only buddhas or paccekabuddhas belong to the first category. One who is both an ariyan and a disciple is one whose fruit has come and does not belong to the first category. Elsewhere, I have seen an ariyasaavaka defined as a disciple of an ariyan which would also include the disciple whose fruit has not come (the 2nd category above). The diffrence depends on how one inteprets the compound (kammadhaaraya or tappurisa) and in the last sentence with “yo koci… sutasampanno” (anyone who is possessed of hearing [the Dhamma]), the ariyasaavaka in the sutta would suggest the inclusion of both categories 2 and 4. However, all this needs further corroboration and further research.
So here’s the take-home mesasge I thought I’d share: be very careful when you work with translations. Sometimes there’s ambiguity in a source text, but this ambiguity cannot be preserved in translation; one of the two meanings must be chosen. This discrepancy is what arose in the case of ariyasavaka, which we were only able to grasp thanks to our beloved Pali scholars. Translations are of course great. They make Lord Buddha’s words more accessible, but they most certainly aren’t the words he spoke. (Of course, that brings up yet another sticky issue…)