Friday, May 27, 2016

What difference does translation make?

As most of you who read this newsletter know, one of my pet bugaboos is translation. Much of the translation that has been done from Tibetan into English has been by academics, and if not by actual academics, by people who have been heavily influenced by philosophical and academic perspectives. I count myself among those who used to take this approach.

Unfortunately, an academic translation is useful primarily to academics, whose interests and concerns (publish or perish) are different from the interests and concerns of practitioners. The same is true of philosophically oriented translators (e.g., Herbert Guenther, a wonderful, kind and brilliant person whom I had the good fortune to meet. He was deeply concerned that Buddhist philosophy should be presented and understood to be on par with anything that Western philosophy had produced).

For the practitioner, academic translation, with its emphasis on textual authenticity, is a blind alley. Philosophical translation is another blind alley, as it focuses on conceptual understanding, even conceptual understanding of the non-conceptual. (Granted, this has been a problem in all forms of Buddhism: the philosophers take over and reify what the mystics experience directly.)

Another blind alley is lexical translation, translating the words and trusting (believing?) that the meaning will come through. In practice, this approach generates wooden English in which the meanings of ordinary English words necessarily change in strange ways. Yet another blind alley is literal translation, an approach to translation that, as Julius Borges points out in the lectures he gave on poetry at Harvard in the mid '60s, is a relatively recent development. It came into being in approximately the 18th century, about the same time as religious fundamentalism developed, and largely for the same reason: a desperate but misguided attempt to stop time and hold onto a world that has passed (if it ever existed at all).

In addition, all these approaches often have a definite Victorian flavor, a residue of the early use of Victorian English to translate texts from Tibetan.

Here I offer two translations of the same prayer, to illustrate the difference translation can make. The first uses words and phrases that have become more or less standard in Tibetan Buddhist circles. The vocabulary and grammar are strongly influenced by literal, academic and philosophical considerations.

Why? Because this prayer has special meaning for me. I've repeated it literally hundreds of thousands of times (in Tibetan), and I've always wanted to put it into English in a way that conveys something of what it has come to mean to me.

I supplicate you, precious guru.
Bestow the blessing of dismissing clinging to self.
Bestow the blessing of pointlessness being born in my stream of experience.
Bestow the blessing of stopping non-spiritual thoughts.
Bestow the blessing of realizing that my own mind is unborn.
Bestow the blessing of bewilderment subsiding on its own ground.
Bestow the blessing of realizing that all that appears and exists is being-as-such (or body of truth, founding stratum of being, etc.).

A bit of commentary is needed, of course, but then, it is needed for the Tibetan, too.
The 3rd line (about pointlessness) refers to renunciation, the determination to bring an end to suffering.
The last line is also difficult, as the word dharmakaya (Tib. chos.sku) is very difficult to translate. It has no counterpart in English academic or philosophical thought and the only mystical terms are so heavily freighted with Christian overtones that they are unusable, too.
The whole notion of blessing is problematic. Blessing is an Old English word that referred to the consecration of shrines and religious artifacts in pre-Christian England. When the Bible was translated the word blessing was used to translate benediction. Neither of these meanings reflects what is actually being asked for in this prayer.

By contrast, here is a translation that I did the other day. I've struggled with this prayer for decades, and this is my latest effort.

Treasured teacher, I pray to you.
Give me energy to let go of fixation on self.
Give me energy to see through life's illusions.
Give me energy to end reactive thinking.
Give me energy to know mind has no beginning.
Give me energy to let confusion resolve itself.
Give me energy to know whatever arises is beyond words.

Again, a few notes:

  • I chose the alliteration in line 1 because it has more heart than the more literal rendering of the Tibetan.
  • I've not made any attempt to render line 3 literally, as the construction even in Tibetan is clumsy. Instead, I've gone straight for the meaning.
  • I experimented with the word secular in line 4, but it didn't work.
  • In the last line, too, I've not made any attempt to translate dharmakaya. Instead, I've gone for the experience of the conceptual framework dropping away completely.
  • I've replaced the use of the word blessing with energy, which is much closer to the meaning of Tibetan than blessing and brings out the theme of transmission, which is what this prayer is all about.

Some will say this is more of a gloss than a translation, but, I beg to differ. The purpose of this second translation is to communicate or elicit experience (rather than conceptual meaning). How do either of these approaches work for you?

1 comment:

Sheri Mahoney said...

Both translations elicit an experience for me that feels very beneficial, but I really like the second one. It's the immediacy of the second translation that really speaks to me. At this stage of my practice, the second translation reminds me of a title of a book on walking meditation by Thich Nhat Hahn, "The Long Road Turns to Joy". Lately I am undergoing an exploration of what it means to grow my relationship with my teacher. As I reflect my energy towards him, what he reflects back is Dharma, which sometimes has the appearance of coming from inside me. It's been a long row to hoe for me, and the significance of finding a teacher accessible (I almost want to say "amenable") to my mindstream is slowing dawning on me. This discussion of points of translation ends up being a gift and a joy, as something about the nature of wordlessness gains clarity for me, with respect to blessings, benedictions, and energy, and the distinctions to be made between them.