Practicing Buddhism in Russian and Kalmyk Translation

“Kalmyk Mandala Magazine” interview with Dr. Alexander Berzin

Kalmyk Mandala Magazine: We know that you have been actively involved in Buddhist translation for a very long time. Your work has even been somewhat revolutionary; you have rendered many traditional terms and expressions in new ways. One of the more obvious examples would perhaps be “to go for refuge,” which you have rendered as “to take safe direction.” Do you think your translations, practically and/or theoretically, differ from traditional Buddhist translations, and if so in what way? Have you encountered any contradictions?

Dr. Berzin: When doing oral translation for my teachers both in India and on world tours, I soon realized that the questions from the audience clearly indicated that the vast majority of confusion and misunderstanding about Buddhism derived from the misleading connotations of the translation terms. Many of the traditional Buddhist technical translation terms were coined by nineteenth century scholars who were strongly influenced by Christian missionary movements and by Victorian ethical values. Because of that, the terms they used have strong Christian moralistic overtones, such as “virtue” and “non-virtue,” or other misleading or inappropriate connotations, such as “merit” and “sin.” “Going for refuge,” for example, connotes a passive act of seeking protection from an omnipotent God. The Buddhist term is more active. It connotes putting a safe direction in our life, as indicated by the Triple Gem. By going in that direction so that eventually we embody the Triple Gem ourselves, we protect ourselves from all suffering.

The translation terms I have coined, such as “positive and negative potentials” rather than “merit and sin,” attempt to convey the actual Buddhist connotations, which are nonjudgmental. The Buddhist tradition provides clear definitions for all its technical terms. I have relied on those definitions and then tried to find terms in English that actually mean what the definitions describe. From my experience in using them, both orally and in written texts, I find that people get a truer understanding of Buddhism from them. Even if people have been familiar with the terminology used by other translators, hearing or reading my terms stimulates them to reconsider their understanding of the key Buddhist concepts involved.

In addition, there are many technical terms that have slightly similar, but nevertheless distinctly different meanings or connotations. Instead of translating them all with the same English term, such as “true existence” and thus losing any distinctions among them that the author is making, I try to find accurate translations for each that accord with their definitions. I then use these terms consistently whenever the technical terms appear, and thus try to draw out the full precise meaning of the texts.

As a comment to the previous question, one could take the Mongol/Kalmyk translation of “going for refuge” – gurban erdeni-dür itegemüi – which uses the verb itegekü commonly translated as “to believe someone; to believe in someone/something; to have faith in someone/something; to hope for something.” That gives quite a different connotation, doesn’t it?

This is a good example of what I was referring to in my response to your previous question. “Having faith in the Precious Gems and hoping for something from them” again gives the Christian flavor of having faith in God or in the Trinity and hope for salvation by the power of one’s faith. This is clearly a totally incorrect meaning and implies a Christian missionary source of the translation term.

What are the basic principles in your work as a translator?

I aim for a combination of both accuracy and readability in my translations. In other words, I try to produce translations that are precise in terms of conveying the thought of the author, while still rendering the translation into flowing good English. This means correctly conveying the logical connections among the many phrases and clauses in complex texts, but still making the material intelligible as an English text to the average reader. When translating poetical and liturgical works meant for recitation out loud, I try in addition to put them into elegant, beautiful English that has meter and rhythm.

The best example of these guidelines in my work is my translation of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, found on my website. In versified texts such as these, which were translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit, I have also consulted the Sanskrit originals to determine and correctly translate the proper verb tenses and other grammatical distinctions that the Tibetan language is incapable of indicating clearly.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior]

Some practitioners are confused about what language they should use in their practice when they have a sadhana or some other text in both Tibetan and their native language. Some teachers say that the Tibetan text brings more “blessing” than does, for example, the Russian; whereas other teachers say that the important thing is to understand what you are reading. I think many people would be grateful if you brought clarity to this question.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has advised that it is best to do one’s individual Dharma practice in one’s own language. The most important point is to understand correctly and easily what we are reading or reciting, so that we can easily keep mindful of the meaning. After all, the Tibetans all recite their sadhanas and other practice material in the Tibetan language and not in the original Sanskrit.

Of course, it is extremely helpful if the translations into our own languages are composed in beautiful, elegant, and rhythmic language, especially if they are to be chanted aloud either by ourselves or in a group. If the text is not rhythmic and thus difficult and unpleasant to recite or chant out loud and is in uninspiring language, this may detract from the benefit that may be gained.

In short, although reciting a text in the same beautifully written language as our teachers recite it may be inspiring – and, by the way, “inspiration” is the way that I render the term that many translators render as “blessing” – I feel it is more inspiring to recite a text that is beautifully written in our own language, which we understand more easily and fully. Everything depends, however, on the accuracy of the translation. As practitioners, if we recite a text in our own languages, even if beautifully written, but incorrectly translated or translated using technical terms having misleading or incorrect connotations, this can be potentially quite damaging to our spiritual progress. In such cases, temporarily using texts in the original language may be more helpful until proper translations into our own languages are available.

There is also a similar problem with the visualization of syllables – is it greater “blessing” to visualize Tibetan letters, or could one use Cyrillic or Latin? Maybe the best thing is to visualize Ranjana, Devanagari or Brahmi letters if one is able to do that?

Again, we must keep in mind that most Tibetans visualize mantras and seed syllables in the Tibetan script, not in any Indian script. This is the case despite the fact that mantras in the Indian Ranjana script often adorn the cornices along the tops of walls and pillars in their temples. Thus, I see no inherent difficulty in visualizing mantras and seed syllables in the script of our own languages.

In order to understand some of the symbolism used in tantra, by which the shape of certain syllables, such as the syllables E and VAM, represent certain features of the practice, it is, of course, necessary to know the shapes of the syllables in the earlier Indian scripts. As another example, the phonemic principals used to structure the Sanskrit alphabet are represented by certain features of the Kalachakra Tantra. Clearly, a basic knowledge of the Sanskrit alphabet, although not necessarily knowledge of any of the scripts in which it is written, is necessary for understanding these aspects of the Kalachakra teachings. Nevertheless, even for tantric practices in which we visualize portions of a seed syllable dissolving into each other, it is possible to be inventive with the script of our own languages in order to depict the same process. My own teacher, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, one of the late teachers of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, has advised in this way.

Of course, there may be certain individuals who have no difficulty visualizing Tibetan and Indian scripts. In such cases, it may be simpler for them to visualize the progressive dissolution of parts of syllables in those scripts, rather than in the scripts of their native languages. But, in general, it is important not to hold superstitious concepts that ascribe “magical” qualities to any language or script. After all, one of the features of Buddha’s teaching was his refutation of the Indian Vedic assertion that the sounds, syllables, and language of the Vedas were sacred and permanent.

You have been giving teachings for a long time and in many different countries, and you have mentioned that Buddhism, when being spread to different areas, does acquire some local touches on the surface. Do you feel that there is a “Russian” Buddhism, and what differences do you encounter when giving teachings to and communicating with audiences from Western Europe and from Russia?

In general, I find that most people in Russian audiences combine intellectual sophistication with a deep sense of devotion and respect. They request explanations of the most complicated advanced topics and listen to them attentively with great interest and respect. Unlike elsewhere, they never complain when the explanations might be beyond their current level of learning. They seem to find such explanations inspiring, in a manner reminiscent to the way in which Tibetan audiences listen to complicated Dharma teachings. Moreover, I find that listeners who already have a certain level of background in their study of Buddhism ask excellent questions that reveal they have given considerable thought to the topics and are not satisfied with merely a superficial understanding. In short, Russians bring a level of seriousness and passion to their study and practice of Buddhism that is rare to find in other cultures.

Of course, as in many other places, some Russian practitioners are overly enamored with the more esoteric aspects of the Buddhist teachings, rather than having their main concern be with its practical implications for daily life. Some turn to Buddhism for miracle cures to their troubles, as if turning to a transcendent power. But, on the whole, I am greatly impressed by the quality of students and practitioners in Russia. This quality was demonstrated by the incredible efforts that some people made during the Soviet period to learn Tibetan and Mongolian and to travel to Buryatia to receive even only the oral transmissions of texts from the elderly lamas living there. Of all the teams translating the works of my website from English into various other languages, the Russian team is the most well-organized and efficient of all. Their commitment to both precision and elegance of style in their translations is extremely admirable. Despite many members of the team having personal financial difficulties, the fact that all are working with enthusiasm and sustained effort as volunteers illustrates clearly what I have been describing.

As you know, the Kalmyk people have suffered great losses during the twentieth century, and unfortunately very few younger people know the Kalmyk language today. Very many young people seek to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg or to go abroad to find jobs, as there are difficulties with that in Kalmykia. What would you wish, and perhaps advise, the younger generation in Kalmykia?

Whether you remain in Kalmykia or move elsewhere in Russia or abroad for work, it is extremely important to retain your cultural heritage and pass it on to your children. Doing so reinforces and strengthens a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence that helps bring success in whatever you do. The Kalmyk people have demonstrated enormous courage, determination, and adaptability in surviving wars, massacres, displacements, and distant migrations over their long history. A good knowledge of Kalmyk history, as well as of the Kalmyk cultural, spiritual, and intellectual traditions, reinforced by a sound knowledge of the Kalmyk language, will instill in you a deeply felt sense of pride and achievement. This will, in turn, give you the courage and strength to face the current challenges of twenty-first century life with an equal amount of determination that has characterized your people over the centuries.