Advice for Training to Be a Translator of Buddhism

Question: What do the theory and practice of translation mean?

Dr. Berzin: The theory of translation has to do with rules of grammar and how you go from one language to another, without adding anything or leaving anything out. One tries to be faithful to the style of the text: if it’s filled with humor, to make it humorous; if it’s very beautiful, to make it beautiful. What is most difficult is if the text itself is unclear, to leave it unclear.

The practice of translation deals with how your style and technique improves with experience. For those to improve, it requires tremendous flexibility and humility. When we receive criticism that is valid criticism, we need to accept it and not be defensive. We need to be willing to accept corrections. We also need to be open to other people’s ways of translating terms, and if their ways are better, to accept that and use them.

Always keep the audience in mind. Who it is you are trying to communicate with? Are you trying to translate in a way that only ten specialists in the entire world can read? Or are you trying to translate it for your mother? Those are some of the differences between theory and practice in terms of translation.

What are the tricks for developing memory and attention?

What is very helpful is what my teacher, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, did with me. At any time I was with him, my teacher would ask me, “What did I just say?” and I would have to repeat it. Or I’d have to repeat what I just said. If I couldn’t do it, he would scold me and call me an idiot. This is what is emphasized so much in the Buddhist practice: the relation with the spiritual teacher. Because I had so much respect, awe and, in a sense, so much fear of my teacher, I always was trying not to be such an idiot with him.

I remember once I asked him what a word meant, and he said, “I explained that word to you seven years ago! I remember explaining it to you, why don’t you remember?” So I think working with somebody that you have such tremendous respect for is a great incentive for being able to improve your memory.

But even if we don’t have someone like that as our teacher, we can practice with each other. There are many recordings of teachings, and we can listen to them and listen to longer and longer portions of them, and try to remember what we heard and translate. This will help us to increase our memory, because often the teachers will speak for five minutes or more, and we need to remember.

Also, what you need to develop if you are doing oral translation is taking good notes. This means to write down just key words, so that they remind you of the topic, the order and the general sense. But you have to be very familiar with the subject matter, so that then you can reconstruct it from the key words.

For most of us translators, myself included, what are the most difficult to remember are names and numbers. Especially if you have never heard the name before, it’s really difficult to remember it. So this you really need to write down. Also, you need to be able to write extremely quickly and in an abbreviated form, so that you can keep up with the speed of the speaker. These are some methods for improving our memory and attention.

I should emphasize that probably the most important factor is motivation. You really have to want to pay attention and remember. If you think in terms of benefitting others, and that everybody in the audience is like your mother, father, brother, sister or best friend, and you’re trying to explain to them, then you really, really want to be able to communicate well to them because you care so much about them. This helps very much to improve your memory.