When I was four, my parents acquired a black Royal typewriter with round shiny metal keys edged in chrome. The clicking keys, the flashing fingers, and in those days, the smacking sound of key against paper commanded all my attention. Words created with such potent sound and swift motion, I surmised, must have compelling power. Power for what, I could not yet know.
My parents did not type much, but they spoke exuberantly. German, Slovak, French, and most especially their native Hungarian, along with their more recently acquired and surprisingly adroit English, rolled off their tongues with equal ease. My own words, however, were limited to English, the only language by which they communicated with me. Although I could neither speak nor understand it, Hungarian filled my ears day in and day out, whenever they conversed with each other. Hungarian was the sound of home to me, but not a home I could speak in. To this day it is simultaneously familiar as a mother tongue and altogether foreign.
The challenge of daily, hourly, being exposed to two languages with access only to one and no way of translating between them produced an interesting tension in me, and perhaps for this reason, long before I could read, I was mad to write. Since I could not yet form letters, much less spell words, this was frustrating. Still, I was determined to fashion my one language into as many forms as possible.
Consequently, the gleaming new typewriter pulled me like a magnet. But I was not allowed near it until one winter holiday when I was confined to my room to recover from a fever. How was I to amuse myself? My parents’ solicitous attitude made me bold. “I want the typewriter,” I said.
It was brought in and placed on the desk by my father. My mother pulled out some paper from an old notebook. I left my bed and sat on the chair in my pajamas, with the old-style radiator sending out healing heat under the desk. I began to type. Short words, long words, mere strings of letters really, and thumbing the space bar with assurance whenever the spirit moved me, blissfully free of the need (since so familiar) to constrain myself to the vocabularies of any known tongue.
Was this writing? This happy excitation rushing through my body, pouring out as luscious words? Mere letters and syllables really, expressing only the inchoate exuberance that prompted them. I had the opposite of writer’s block. No need to search for words; a secret Möbius movement brought them to me. They rushed in fast and raucously, jumbling together. I didn’t care, I was writing wholeness. These words weren’t objects to be manipulated, they were friends at my party, the louder, the more sheer drumming exuberance the better. Meaning was in the impulse. Their hum was all.
This hum never faded completely. But once I mastered the alphabet and became literate, I never again composed with the sheer physical aplomb and full-bodied confidence of that initiatory authoring. Now words clogged the Möbius movement, they stopped swirling and humming together. Noticing this, I outgrew my childish sense that they could all join in for an open festival. But my passion to test the power of typing remained, reinvigorated, in fact, as I hobnobbed with Romance and other languages. When I finally burst through the English barrier of my childhood, parlez-vous, parlez-vous, I was thrilled. Finally, I could translate across systems, first systems of language, and then other systems as well. How I wanted to make the most of this!
I came to excel in typing. I loved learning its patterns: the letters of the left hand, abcdefg, and of the right, hijklmnop. Then back to the left hand in the upper row, qrst, and a quick pass to the right for u, flash to the left with vwx, swift pass again to y, and finish at z. The pattern amuses the mind, the speed charges my body. Perhaps it was partly this charge that attracted the first love of my life, someone who on every level spoke my language. His body was my body. Lit with joy, in class I typed my teacher’s words on the desktop to see if my fingers could keep pace with them; after a sentence or two I was always behind. Even so, in ninth grade there was a typing contest, which I proudly won, hands down.
For my “sweet sixteen,” my parents gave me an electric typewriter. In college I earned my pocket money with it, typing other people’s English 101 papers and a dissertation on Wittgenstein. This was definitely work, formed from the finger play I continued to love. A decade later, for typing my own dissertation, I bought the kind of magic electric typewriter that erased letters and lines at the touch of a button. I completed my dissertation, on the relationship of hard intellectual work to mystical experience, in a burst of passion and sweat, composing, polishing, and retyping the final chapter in a single day. The true instrument of my need, however, of my still unquenched thirst to test the power of typing, was yet to come.
But even before computers, graduate school was a time of serious typing for me, and an expansion of my linguistic horizons as well. My long-lost first love phoned to say that Tibetans had the last word on language magic. Partly for this reason I enrolled in Tibetan class and quickly discovered that learning Tibetan was not like learning French—there were no textbooks for it. But the Dalai Lama’s office hand-picked eminent red-robed lamas to help us out. We looked at texts and, above all, we tape-recorded every word they said. “This is form,” a recent arrival from Dharamsala told us, pointing to my tape recorder. “And here is emptiness,” he added, still pointing to the same place. The lamas also discussed other things, like the mysterious relationships between sound and meaning, intention and action. Some of the greatest Tibetan scholars of their generation poured the sound of their words into our ears and onto our tapes. But mere sound is insufficient for graduate students smitten with letters. After hearing the lamas’ lectures, everyone wanted to study them in print. It was thus necessary to turn that sound into writing. That meant serious typing. It meant me.
During those years I transferred their sounds into four books of letters. In doing so, I developed a new art form. I became expert in transforming sound into typing, and especially unedited speech into edited writing, with a seamless flow of flashing finger action. It was my joy to dispel the subtle boundary between sound and letters as quickly as possible, to unite formless sound and letter formation in this very modern manner.
I liked breathing in sound, then physically projecting it onto paper. It created a more interesting interior texture for me than typing printed copy, moving always from form to form. The other graduate students lived constantly with print, reading it, writing it. I lived at least half with sound. Perhaps it is partly to this that I owe certain unusual events.
Westerners understand letters to be form. The shape of an A heralds the printed alphabet, not the alphabet song of childhood. Sight trumps sound; we read, we do not listen. But the lamas felt that letters themselves are sounds, which the inscribed shapes merely represent. Their sounds all emerge from, and dissolve back into, the expansive sound of Ah. Intoning this invites inner spaciousness merely by opening the breath and throat for a long, deep Ah. I typed and breathed. As my facility grew, I became more and more able to produce letters the moment their corresponding sounds, English or Tibetan, came forth on tape. I could type on desktops and keep up with the lecturer. Even better, when it came to transcribing the lama’s speech into letters I no longer paused for tape rewind, and spent less time stamping the foot pedal. The Möbius was moving again.
An even bigger change occurred when I became an oral translator, directly processing spoken Tibetan sounds into spoken English ones. The former issued from the lama’s mouth, moved through my mind and body, and emerged out from my mouth as speech. This speech then entered the ears of other English speakers and from there made its way through their minds, bodies, and beings. As a typist I was a reifier of speech; as an oral translator I moved from one species of sound and life energies to another. The constrictions of form applied less and less.
Translating orally is being in trance. Indeed, as a translator I must be so entranced by Tibetan words that my own words, my own thoughts, are hurriedly suppressed. It is like dreaming someone else’s dreams, and dreaming them intensely. When the flow is even and strong, my mind becomes an empty vessel, a kind of aural page on which the stream of lama words is almost simultaneously received and translated. I translate him in other ways as well. Without noticing, I speak forcefully when he throws his voice loud, become softer and slower when he paces down. I repeat his hand gestures. This is not intentional mimicry, but an unconscious flow of transposition. His mind is my mind. In facilitating this flow I stumble into an ancient female role. I dream of Yeshe Tsogyal, luminous lady of the wisdom lake who received Buddhist piths and preserved them. Like sibyls of old, I’m a scaled-down oracle. It is not the god that descends, but words, though these are closely linked both east and west. The lama’s words descend in Tibetan, their sounds and syntax rearrange themselves, rise up my lungs, are shaped by my tongue into English. And, perhaps because I love this process, which is also the hardest work I know, perhaps because of the profoundly female charge of ancient archetypes, something starts being born that is thoroughly my own, but I do not see this until much later.
In this way, fulfilling amorphous childhood dreams, I breathe in one language and breathe out another. Afterward I remember nothing of either. I have to read someone else’s notes to find out what’s been said. And yet the memory of the sound resides somewhere in my body. Days later, when someone touches an elbow, puts a hand on my back, the phrases that have lodged there swirl out, and I hear them again. So it was. I typed, spoke, listened, and mediated between languages, between lives. I moved more and more fluidly between streams of speech, vividly transposing one into the other. Most often these oral translations had to do with meditation. Meditation is, among other things, a deep interweaving of multiple human dimensions that embrace sound, breath, body, and spirit in one glorious, sonorous, multi-tonal hum. Hûm.
Words aren’t just tools
For getting things straight
pinning them down,
holding them up.
Don’t use them like hammers,
Or even as thumbtacks.
Don’t merely handle them.
Hold them, melt them to your marrow
Nourishing your heart,
Loving your soul,
They rise again, aloft from your lungs
Flowing out graciously
Helping the world exist.
This hummed message, a surprise guest, made me wonder. Could typing shift my surroundings? The answer, it turns out, is all in the translation.
After years, hundreds of hours of listening and translating for lamas who spoke only Tibetan, I met one who spoke also English. He did not need a translator in the usual sense. But his students were readers who wanted to capture the fleeting words of living speech, the better to reflect on them.
A different kind of trance resulted. Once again, I focused only on sound, but instead of bringing it through my chest and voice into other sounds, it sped from my ears directly to my fingers and out the keyboard, onto the screen, into the disk. My keen aural attentiveness to his words, together with my visual focus on the screen, contracts my attention, condensing my thoughts into a state beyond any of the languages of my life. Again and again, the sounds of the lama collapse into my alert open space, and then emerge on the screen in my lap. Light bounces off the screen, instantly connecting sound, screen, outer and inner space. I am typing faster and faster, binding in yet another way the sound and the form, and the two minds that produce them until the two arise simultaneously. They flow into each other, they swirl and change places until the words flowing from my fingers are my own words, describing the space in which all this occurs, and now it is my words that issue and are heard as the voice of the lama.
My simple trance-fixed openness to the words I transmit has revealed something else. What is not said about oracles is this: they do not simply work for others, they become such deep and receptive vessels that they find and give voice to what is profoundly their own. It is an important secret.
After this transformation I am continuously aware of the source within. I return home. I take my own newest instrument, an almost-oval dusky blue computer called an i-book, from my table. I sit on the floor, cushioned by yellow carpeting, my book-tiered wooden desk on my left, colorful shrine on my right. I place the i-book on my lap and begin to write. The words stream through me as a steady coursing from my heart to my hands while the blue writing space softly whirs and stirs, sending the whirs streaming through the open skylight above my head, whir-hri, whir-hri. As I write, I know that a lama is right now speaking these words that I whir down, while someone somewhere types them into her own space, as I once did, letting it become her story until she is so open to inspiration that she recovers and rewrites a new one. We are all revealers of the texts inside us. With this revelation I find new sensuality and power in living, languaging, and the love of both. “The path is blocked by vowels and consonants,” says the wandering muse. But the space bar is a bar no longer. My mouth and ears no longer closed to foreign tones, knowing no longer only outside me, I revel in linking revelatory tongues. Words flow again, they stir and whir freely, harmoniously, unitedly,Hrîh:
Ask the wrong questions
And the road gets longer
Ask none at all
It will disappear
Hang with one answer,
You’re stuck at a stop sign.
BHO* the clear-eyed beacon seer.
*Sanskrit for: Wonderful! Hurrah! Cheers! ▼
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.