Terminology. Syntax. Diction. All words likely to send my mind wandering. And yet there I was, at the conference of 84000: Translating the Words of Buddha, in Bodhgaya, India, in a room full of high lamas and scholars who were convening to determine how to transmit Mahayana teachings to the world. It wasn’t just important. It was fascinating.
I had been volunteering for 84000—a nonprofit global initiative to translate the Tibetan Kangyur (the words of the Buddha) and Tengyur (the accompanying commentaries) into modern languages—for several years when I was offered an invitation to their first official seminar, “Advice from the Tradition.” I jumped at the chance to observe the conference—not just because of the impressive invitation list (a who’s who of Tibetan Buddhism), but also because being a fly on the wall at this kind of intimate gathering could deepen my understanding of the more serious issues that underlie such a major translation effort.
By Western standards, the somewhat dark and outdated library of Shechen Monastery seemed an unlikely meeting place for lamas and scholars of this caliber. The tired, yellowing room was preserved, apparently, for use on very rare and special occasions. A small commotion outside one of the windows disrupted my thoughts: the local press was angling for the perfect shot of the unusual sight of four lineage masters (Ven. Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, H.E. Sakya Ratna Vajra Rinpoche, Khenchen Pema Sherab Rinpoche, Prof. Sempa Dorji) sitting elbow to elbow.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche gave the opening address. He spoke enthusiastically of the global swelling of interest in Buddhism, and stressed the need for all those “holding the teachings” of the Buddha to facilitate their spread. Making the words of the dharma understandable, he argued, is probably the best means of doing so.
Editorial committee members John Canti and Tom Tillemans explained that, ideally, translations should be accessible, permanent (as much as possible), uniform in quality and presentation, not identified with any single group or tradition, and worthy of being widely recognized as both authentic and reliable.
This combination of features is not nearly as easy to accomplish as it might sound. For non-scholars like myself, accurate translations can be inaccessible, if not simply unappealing, due to their indecipherable terminology and copious notes. Furthermore, any hyper-scholarly approach places a huge burden on the translator to research even the most remote details and contexts.
The key to making the project feasible, Canti suggested, lies in finding “a common sense middle way between the uncritical acceptance of a single version and the laborious scientific exactitude” expected of some institutions. The original aim in the translation process, as Tillemans put it, was pragmatism. But this goal had proved far more difficult than the translators had originally imagined.
For non-native Buddhists, coming to grips with new terminology is of the utmost importance when it comes to adopting the Buddhist worldview. It is not just a question of adding extra concepts into one’s own cultural vocabulary. Like English, Tibetan has its own ideology and worldview built into it. To make the foreign teachings of the Buddha accessible, questions such as “How does this fit into our schema, our world?” naturally arise for the translator. “How do I make this relevant?” Having different backgrounds, education, and styles of learning, English translators around the world will inevitably answer these questions differently and produce varying interpretations.
For example, the Sanskrit term dharmadhatu is translated in many different ways. That first afternoon, I found myself listening in on a heated debate about how that word alone was making it difficult for the translators to progress in a way that felt uniform. The back-and-forth went something like this:
Senior Scholar: How are the words translated then?
Editor: “Realm of phenomena”; “basic space of phenomena”; “space of phenomena”; “expanse of phenomena.”
Translator: “Sphere of reality.”
Editor: The underlying question is this: Does dharma in this case mean “phenomena” or does it mean “law,” “religion,” “truth,” or “reality?” “Sphere of reality” is the old style of translating dharmadhatu. But I think this definition still fits in some cases.
Senior Scholar: But dhatu refers not to “space” but to “essence,” so that dharmadhatu means “the essence of all phenomena.” It can be different in different contexts, but dharma refers to “phenomena” and dhatu refers to “reality” or “essence”—not “space” or “sphere,” but the “essence” or “nature” of the dharma. . . something like that.
Senior Scholar: They should be understood differently in the Sutrayana and Tantrayana. Generally, in the context of the Tantrayana, it might be understood as “wisdom mind.”
Senior Scholar: The Sanskrit word dhatu is translated in many different ways in the Abhidharma (the section of the canon that schematizes characteristics of mind and reality).
Translator: It’s hard to think of dhatu as a “sphere”; I think this translation is problematic.
Editor: What about the four dharmadhatu of the Chinese Avatamsaka school? Dharmadhatu where the principle and phenomena don’t obstruct each other, and dharmadhatu where the phenomena don’t obstruct phenomena, etc? Here it’s rather difficult to take the dharma in dharmadhatu as itself referring to phenomena. In this case the meaning of dharma is probably closer to “reality” than “phenomena.” It might be better to say “sphere of reality” after all!
Senior Scholar: This is a very big subject. You’d have to be a ninth bhumi bodhisattva to come to a conclusion!
Senior Scholar: Maybe we can simplify dhatu and not have it be so complicated. The original meaning of dhatu is actually “source.” That is the fundamental meaning. So whenever it can be translated as “source,” that is best. Otherwise you’ll need to figure out the right word based on its context.
I was still stuck trying to understand what “phenomena don’t obstruct each other” meant when, thankfully, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche suggested that dharmadhatu might be one of those words that should be left in its original form.
This suggestion brought up the ongoing debate about whether or not it’s important to translate each and every word from the source language to the target language. The beauty of English, it is sometimes argued, is that it easily absorbs popular terms from other languages into its own vernacular. Words such as samsara and nirvana, for example, are already in Webster’s Dictionary. But, as Tillemans pointed out, whether or not terms remain in Sanskrit, the English speaker still needs to know what these words mean.
The second day of the conference began with a conversation on the issue of Sanskrit. The majority of Tibetan sutras do not have Sanskrit versions, which were lost during the political upheaval in India in the 11th to 13th centuries. But because the Sanskrit (and Pali) recordings of the Buddha’s teachings are considered the most reliable and accurate recordings of what the Buddha taught, the translation team is expected to have “an underlying understanding of Sanskrit” in order to fully understand the Tibetan translations and translate them into other languages. Tillemans and Canti likened it to having the writings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant translated into Italian, only to have the German versions subsequently lost or burned. Imagine someone from Japan wanting to translate Kant’s treatises into Japanese, with only the Italian version available. In this case, it would be incumbent upon the translator to have not only knowledge of Italian and Japanese but also a working knowledge of German (and an understanding of Kantian philosophy and writing style). The translator would rely significantly on his or her knowledge of the German Kantian texts to inform the Italian-Japanese translation. In a similar way, although the Sanskrit texts no longer exist, the Tibetan-English translator must think of them as being “virtually somewhere, even if it is only in the imagination of the translator.”
Making matters even more complicated, one of the senior scholars brought up the point that there are also many different kinds of Sanskrit—the dharma council met over a period of 200 years and the language changed over that period, as languages do. So there’s no exact science to the translation of Sanskrit, either. Furthermore, the Buddha taught neither in Sanskrit nor in Pali. The earliest scriptures were recorded in these languages, but the Buddha spoke in a local dialect best described as “the language of Magadha.” Even the Tibetan translations are not necessarily in a unified language; they are subject to dialectal, cultural, and other contextual influences. Scholar-translators need to be aware of all these variations.
“Don’t be too brave,” came a warning from one of the scholars. “Be very careful.”
“It is a risky business, but it’s a risk that Buddhist scholars have to take,” concluded Samdhong Rinpoche.
In an afternoon session without the lamas, questions were raised about how to deal with gender issues, tantric texts, repetitive phrases, and how best to address annotation. Some of these issues were bringing me precipitously close to the edge of my “this is interesting stuff” threshold. But suddenly I noticed some tension arising among the translators, and my curiosity was aroused once again. On the subject of annotation, two of the translators suggested that there didn’t need to be so much emphasis on “light annotation.” Technology today allows readers to choose whether or not they want more information (through the use of hyperlinks, for example), so why not err on the side of more information? Then it was proposed that the translators think of their glossary entries and notes as “an altruistic act.” They should ask, “What’s helpful to the educated reader?” It was clear, however, that what some considered helpful, others considered burdensome. “Less is more” versus “more is more.” It would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
The final day of the seminar concluded with advice from the senior scholars. Vajra Ratna Rinpoche reiterated the need for translators to have a profound contextual understanding of the texts and the importance of relying both on the commentaries (Tengyur) and qualified Buddhist teachers. Stressing the value of motivation, Khenchen Sherab Pema Rinpoche said that despite the inherent risks, “we should still go ahead and translate the words of Lord Buddha with good intention, courage, patience, and determination, keeping in mind that it is for the temporal and ultimate benefit of all beings.” Professor Sempa Dorji requested that each of those present formally “take responsibility” for the translations. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, addressing the traditional lineage representatives, added that, as “dharma-holders,” the responsibility to support this project was in fact already theirs.
Right at the beginning of the conference, a dear friend and longtime disciple of Buddhism had asked me with a tone of playful disdain, “Are you really interested in this stuff?” Tibetan translation may not be World Cup soccer, but as Buddhists or those interested in Buddhism, how can we not be impressed by the meticulous and sometimes mind-numbing effort required to translate the Buddha’s words? How can we not admire, if even in a better-you-than-me sort of way, those who have devoted themselves to making these teachings available? Anyone with an interest in Buddhism is in some way also a “dharma holder.” It behooves us all, then, to have at least an awareness of and an appreciation for the ongoing effort to translate Buddhist scriptures.
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