Erik Pema Kunsang (Erik Hein Schmidt), a native of Denmark, is the publisher of Rangjung Yeshe Publications, which translates contemporary Tibetan teachings and classical Buddhist texts into English. He studied under Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and many other masters. Currently, he is a student of and interpreter for Tulku Urgyen’s sons, particularly the eldest, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. He lives in Nepal, publishing out of Kathmandu, Denmark, and California, together with his wife, Marcia Binder Schmidt.
Do you consider your translation and interpretation work to be practice? Definitely.
So would a Buddhist practitioner’s translation necessarily be different from a purely academic translation? Yeah. I noticed that the more kindness and the more insight our translators have the better they are at conveying the dharma in an authentic way. It’s not about just “getting the words right.”
There are words like dharma or bodhichitta, which have many meanings, and for which we have no adequate translation. Do you always use these words, or do you translate them according to context?
Dharma is famous for having at least ten different meanings. Bodhichitta, quite a few meanings also, so if I can use an English word that really communicates the original word’s meaning in a specific context, then certainly I’ll do that. But I don’t do it much; I mostly use those words in their Sanskrit version.
Most people have difficulty repeating what they’ve heard just seconds before, and yet you can listen for, say, forty-five minutes and then repeat what you’ve heard. Are you a naturally good listener, or was this a quality you cultivated?
It’s a very interesting point. I don’t think I’m a good example, but let’s try to remember some of the Buddha’s disciples, like Ananda. It is said that he had total recall. Every single word the Buddha ever spoke he remembered. That’s remarkable’ One time I asked Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, “How is that possible?” He said to me, “The secret of perfect recall is to pay attention,” in the sense of being undistracted. A lot of very good translators—even after their teacher has spoken for an hour—can repeat their teacher’s words as if they had been recorded.
We so often add our own spin when we repeat what someone says. How do you avoid this?
I think it comes with a sense of respect, an appreciation for the value of what is being said. And a certain wish that the teaching be heard. So if you keep that attitude, you don’t interpret or interpolate much. I feel that the more transparent translators are, the better. After all, people come to listen to the teacher. But sometimes there’s an urge to interpolate with one’s own smaller understanding. It sneaks in, but you just have to catch it.
Was it a battle in the beginning?
Sure. I was a son of a bitch at first, but not as bad now. [laughs]
Were you called on it?
Sure. But it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Tulku Urgyen Rinpocbe and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, for whom I’ve interpreted most, belonged to the peaceful type of teacher. So they didn’t rap me on the knuckles or the head, but their demeanor changed, a different way of looking, and then I’d think, “Hey, I need to stick to what he said.”
And how did they notice?
I have absolutely no doubt that Tulku Urgyen was aware of the understanding that takes place in people’s minds. Not necessarily the words, but how they’re playing Out, how they are perceived, definitely, he’d know that. I remember he knew only three words in English—”rainbow,” “automatic,” and “space.”
How did you come to this? You didn’t decide to become a translator, did you?
Actually, I did have that aspiration. I don’t know where it came from. I think it has to do with wanting to help make something valuable available. If you take a look at the Tibetan canon and the living tradition of great masters, they are beyond compare.
You head up Rangjung Yeshe Publications, which translates and publishes Buddhist teachings and texts. Aside from contemporary teachings, do you translate traditional texts?
Yes, half and half. The traditional texts, they’re timeless.
How much of the Tibetan canon remains untranslated?
Probably 99 percent. So we’ve scratched the surface, just the very tip of the iceberg.
So all the translated books we see in the bookstores, they are only a very small fraction—
A tiny fraction. They’re among some of the most important, of course, but that doesn’t make everything else unimportant. To any young person with an interest in becoming a sincere Buddhist translator of classical scriptures, I would say please go ahead. Right now circumstances are favorable; there are living masters who really know their traditions. There are institutions where you learn to become a translator both in the East and in the West, so please, go ahead, we need at least one or two hundred competent translators to make a dent, so to speak. ▼
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