On April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare died at his home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon. While he was a much-admired playwright in his own time, neither he nor his contemporaries could have anticipated the tremendous impact the Bard would have over the following 405 years: his work has now been performed in at least 140 countries and translated into more than 100 languages. Relatively recently, his plays were translated into Tibetan, with Hamlet first published in 2002 and Romeo and Juliet the following year, thanks to the diligent work of Drakdong Tréling Wangdor.
Wangdor’s translations demonstrate a magisterial understanding of the original plays, including an acute sensitivity to the sonic shift between prose and verse, sometimes missed by other translators. Wangdor renders this brilliantly despite the many dissimilarities between English and Tibetan poetics, which differ in meter, rhyme, and line arrangement. His translations are nevertheless sharply attuned to a Tibetan worldview with sensitivity to Tibetan cultural considerations. In diction, phrasing, and imagery, Tibetan readers will hear Buddhist echoes ringing throughout. At times, the register of his language, particularly when translating verse, has a timbre reminiscent of the Kangyur and Tengyur, the Tibetan Buddhist canon.
The Buddhist resonance that pervades his Shakespearean translations likely derives from Wangdor’s overarching translation philosophy. He emphasizes the importance of faithfulness to the source text but argues that the translator must convey the meaning of the original in the context of the translated language, even if this is at odds with a literalistic translation. The translator needs to artistically re-create the work, ensuring both that it honors the original and that it stands on its own right within its new cultural framework.
North American Buddhists often think about the translation of Buddhist texts into English, but far more rarely consider the knowledge flow in the other direction. By looking at the Tibetan reception of one of the most important writers in the Western canon, we can better understand the role of translation in facilitating works written centuries ago, in vastly differing environments, to speak vividly to contemporary audiences. Wangdor’s life and work offers another perspective on the cross-cultural exchange at the heart of translation and can help clarify some of the challenges that arise when rendering Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the West.
Drakdong Tréling Wangdor was born in 1934, during de facto Tibetan independence. As a child, he rose every day before dawn and chanted the mnemonic formulas of Tibetan grammar, which were composed well over a millennium before and would one day become the foundation for his Shakespearean translations. After completing primary school in Tibet in 1946, he was one of ten students sent by the Tibetan government to study at St. Joseph’s, an English Jesuit boys’ boarding school located in Darjeeling, India. It was there that a teenage Wangdor fell in love with Shakespeare.
Founded in 1888 as the educational epitome of the British Raj, the school was the English heart of the Himalayas, with many of the students leaving directly for Cambridge or Oxford upon graduation. India gained independence in 1947, but St. Joseph’s Anglophile educational system continued unchanged; students were prohibited from reading Indian newspapers due to the administration’s assertion that these publications were not written in proper English. The school boasted a vast library of masterworks of Western literature, shipped thousands of miles from Europe to the Himalayan foothills, with the works of William Shakespeare being central to the collection.
Within a few years of arriving in India, Wangdor spoke fluent English with the Queen’s accent. He studied at St. Joseph’s for seven years, and in 1953, two years after Tibet’s “peaceful liberation” by China, 19-year-old Wangdor returned to his home country. He taught mathematics at the newly founded elementary school in Lhasa and simultaneously began his initial study of Chinese, later working as a translator for the Chinese cadres stationed in Tibet. In the prefaces to his Shakespeare translations and in numerous interviews, he credits his skills as an English-to-Tibetan translator to this earlier work translating Chinese.
When the Chinese government allowed foreign travel to Tibet in the 1980s, Wangdor began to work for a travel agency and revived his English language skills that had been dormant for more than thirty years. Upon his retirement seven years later, he finally began the project he first conceived of as a boy in India: translating Shakespeare into Tibetan.
By bringing the Bard to the Tibetan language, Wangdor sought to rectify what he saw as a glaring absence in the literature of his mother tongue. In his translator’s introduction to Romeo and Juliet, he describes a sense of wounded Tibetan pride in his feeling that “it was not appropriate for Shakespeare not to be in our Tibetan language.”
He has publicly commented that the art of translation has been inseparable from the development of Tibetan civilization, even going so far as to say there would be no Tibetan civilization without intense periods of classical translation. He speaks with deep admiration of the early lotsawas (lit. “eyes of the world”) who translated Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan beginning in the seventh and eighth centuries. However, he makes clear that their translations were not mere word-for-word renderings from one language to another. The lotsawas needed to maintain the integrity of the source text while channeling it through the language, and very psyche, of Tibet.
In preparation for translating Shakespeare, Wangdor extensively read the central works of English literature, from Chaucer to Dickens, to better understand how and where Shakespeare fits into the English literary canon. His translation decisions nevertheless foreground readability for a Tibetan audience. This often means a translation of Shakespeare’s sentiment rather than his exact words, with the aim of pulling the Tibetan reader into the emotions at the heart of the plays.
For example, when Romeo first sees Juliet and wonders, “Did my heart love till now?”, Wangdor renders “my heart” as “my body, speech, and mind,” a tripartite division ubiquitous in Tibetan Buddhist literature. In the Tibetan tradition, these “three doors” are the means by which people engage with the world and heartfelt devotion should be demonstrated through all three, physically, verbally, and mentally. Wangdor could have chosen any number of Tibetan words to more literally translate “my heart.” However, in Tibetan, “my body, speech, and mind” much more strongly conveys Romeo’s emotion of utter adoration of Juliet, which he feels with the entirety of his being.
Later, when departing from Juliet on the night of their meeting, Romeo describes the sound of her voice as being “Like softest music to attending ears.” Wangdor translates this as, “Merely hearing the nectar of your melodious voice puts my mind at ease,” using the phrasing prevalent throughout Tibetan biographical literature for the student hearing the guru’s voice. In The Life of Milarepa, arguably the most famous of all Tibetan spiritual biographies, Milarepa describes his guru Marpa’s “melodious voice” as being “like nectar to my ears.” Wangdor’s translation is not verbatim to Shakespeare’s words, but he draws on the beautiful vocabulary of disciple-guru devotion in Tibetan Buddhism to convey a profound feeling of devotion wholly understandable to a Tibetan audience. The translation of Shakespeare’s sentiment, again, takes precedence over his exact words.
The Buddhist worldview embedded in the Tibetan language does not give Romeo and Juliet the words to blame their misfortune on the stars.
hile Wangdor’s translation is masterful, reading Shakespeare in Tibetan also demonstrates certain inherent limitations when translating across vastly different languages. A central theme in Romeo and Juliet is Rota Fortunae (“the Wheel of Fortune”), the widespread Renaissance belief in the capricious nature of Fate, which causes some people to suffer terrible misfortune and others to experience great gains, all at random. Shakespeare gives numerous indications that the lovers were doomed by Fate from the very beginning in the recurrent image of the stars. The opening sonnet of the play famously refers to Romeo and Juliet as “star-crossed lovers” and in the scene immediately before Romeo first sees his beloved, he states, “my mind misgives/ Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,” portending an ominous fate to begin to unfold that night. These images reflect the pervasive understanding in Elizabethan England that human lives are controlled by predetermined fate written into the stars themselves. Such an interpretation leads the audience to see the lovers as victims of a fate wholly beyond their control, and the eventual double suicide as their tragic but unavoidable destiny.
Yet, emblematic of the astounding literary abundance of Shakespeare, the playwright provides equally compelling evidence that a series of deliberate decisions, not blind Fate, led to the couple’s catastrophic ending. Midway through the play, Romeo cries out, “O, I am fortune’s fool!”, but this is immediately after he has purposely killed Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin. Romeo blaming his conscious action on “fortune” is clearly dubious. The tension between these two interpretations—the lovers doomed from the start versus the causalities of tragic but deliberate decisions—serves as the engine for much of the drama of the play.
The nature of Tibetan language undercuts much of this ambiguity concerning Fate at the heart of Romeo and Juliet, necessarily favoring the interpretation that decisions and actions, not random Fortune, led to the tragic ending. When Romeo exclaims, “O, I am fortune’s fool!”, Wangdor translates “fortune” as léwang, a word which carries a connotation akin to fate, but literally means “the power of karma.” He uses the same word to translate “star-crossed” in the prologue, along with an intensifier to render “star-crossed lovers” into “lovers driven to the utmost limits by the power of karma.” When Romeo’s “mind misgives/ Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,” Wangdor has him describe his fear of an unknown “cause,” (shorthand in Tibetan for karma, cause and effect), which will inevitably bear a terrible result. Romeo never even mentions the stars. These translation decisions all reflect how the Buddhist philosophy embedded within Tibetan language is necessarily at odds with the European Renaissance understanding of fate.
As a written language, Tibetan developed alongside the introduction of Buddhism and its foundational belief in karma. The Buddhist view of karma maintains that every present situation is produced by previously accumulated causes and conditions; once a seed is planted and given the necessary conditions for growth, it must bear fruit. In colloquial American parlance, karma is often used as a synonym for luck or fate, describing situations that seem to arise without our control. However, implicit in the Buddhist philosophy of karma is a sense of radical responsibility: at some point in the past, perhaps innumerable lifetimes earlier, we created the causes and conditions for any present circumstance to manifest. This is a fundamentally different perspective from the random, capricious nature of Fate symbolized by Fortune’s Wheel. In short, the Buddhist worldview embedded in the Tibetan language does not give Romeo and Juliet the words to blame their misfortune on the stars.
Hundreds of Buddhist scriptures have now been translated into English from more than a dozen Asian languages, benefiting countless readers throughout the world. Still, the history and culture embedded within, and reflected by, the English language are undeniably distinct from those of the languages that have preserved and perpetuated Buddhism for millennia. Reading Shakespeare in Tibetan highlights how these cultural differences manifest linguistically and the beauty and difficulty in translating across these divides. We can take inspiration from Wangdor’s evocative translations that render Shakespeare’s sentiments into words resonant with the Tibetan heart, while simultaneously learning from what concepts have trouble overcoming the linguistic boundaries.
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.