Methodology for Translating Buddhist Texts

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I’ve been asked to speak about some of the problems and methods that are used in translating Buddhist texts, primarily from Tibetan. In my education, I studied various Buddhist languages, first of all Chinese, and then Sanskrit, and Tibetan. Japanese is useful for commentaries, especially by modern scholars, although I must confess I haven’t kept up my Japanese and so I’ve forgotten that to a great extent. When I first went to university and studied these languages, the main emphasis was always on grammar and trying to understand all the intricate aspects of the grammar, particularly Sanskrit. When we studied the process of translation, we looked at how the Sanskrit Buddhist texts were translated into Tibetan, and how they were translated into Chinese, and the differences of the methods – these languages are very, very different from each other, and different from the original Sanskrit.

Sanskrit is an Indo-European language and has much more similarity to Russian than it has to either Chinese or Tibetan. It has many, many different verb tenses. It has singular, dual and plural. It has active and what’s called “middle” and passive. Middle means to do something to yourself. In terms of the nouns, there are many, many cases, as you have in Russian. So it’s a very, very complex language and follows many mathematical-almost like rules, for the grammar.

When we turn to Tibetan, Tibetan didn’t have a very extensive philosophical vocabulary when they encountered Sanskrit, and in fact they didn’t have any very well-developed at all. In translating from Sanskrit, they tried to convey some of the aspects of Sanskrit, but this was very difficult. Sanskrit, as you have in Russian and in English, you have verbs that are made up of a preposition and a main root of a verb. Like in English “under” and “stand.” When you put these two together they don’t have very much of a relationship between “under” and “stand.” Like that, we have many words in Sanskrit. What the Tibetans did was they translated “under” and they translated “stand,” and they made up a new word. If you didn’t learn what it meant, based on the Sanskrit, you had no idea what it actually meant.

Also, the word order in much of Sanskrit literature is based not so much on putting words together that fit together from grammar, but putting things together according to meter so that it sounds very nice when you recite it or chant it. This, of course, made some problems with the Tibetan and sometimes they followed the Sanskrit word order, which then makes quite a different sense or a different meaning from the original. Tibetan has many other peculiarities, but it is at least a language that has some type of developed grammar, but not at all as complex as Sanskrit.

Going into classical Chinese, it has very, very little grammar, and so the Chinese didn’t, in the most part, even attempt to translate things literally, but rather they paraphrased. They put the original text in slightly different words, for many of them, not all of them. So we have quite a different type of translation into Chinese.

When I first went to India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when I met him I asked him what should I emphasize in my studies in terms of language. He said that really the Chinese would not be so useful, that you should emphasize more the Tibetan and Sanskrit. The Chinese has only been useful to me when I’ve done research. For instance, when I want to research the historical development of certain ideas. I did this for the development of sexual ethics in Buddhism, since this is a topic that’s so confusing to so many Westerners. Then so much of the Sanskrit literature of abhidharma was not translated into Tibetan, it was lost in Sanskrit, and is only preserved in Chinese translation. For that type of research, Chinese has been invaluable, but in other aspects I have emphasized always the Tibetan and Sanskrit.

As for how you translate, going into English first of all, I am a firm believer that anything can be translated into any other language. Buddha taught in such a way that everybody could understand in their own language. That means that it is possible to convey the Buddhist teachings in other languages, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy. It is very challenging and requires finding words in the target language that actually mean what the original words mean. As I explained earlier, there are so many definitions to the terms that one needs to be flexible.

As for the style, originally when I was studying at university, we translated into a very artificial type of style. Sometimes we gave it the nickname “Translationese,” because what one tried to do was to convey all the grammatical structures of Sanskrit or Tibetan into English. You produce something that didn’t really read very nicely in English, but you showed clearly that you understood the grammar of the original language. This is very useful for accuracy. It is very useful as a learning method, but it is not very friendly to the reader because sometimes it’s very, very difficult to understand, especially when we get to Tibetan commentaries which have extremely long, complex sentences which do need to be broken up.

When I went to India, and when I first met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, after a few meetings I asked him about translation. He said that you should translate in such a way that your mother can understand what you write. My mother was not very well educated, so this means to write in a simple language as if you were explaining it to your mother, a simple mother, and make it in a way that she can understand. Then he said the footnotes can be for the scholars; you don’t need to make the text so complicated. This has been a very, very helpful guideline.

Another guideline, that my teacher Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey gave, which has been very helpful, is never think that the translation that you make is going to be the final version. If you look at the history of the translation of Buddhist texts into Tibetan, for example, it always says at the end, “This was translated by so-and-so, and then it was revised later by so-and-so, and then it was revised once again by so-and-so.” And so over the course of the centuries the translations were improved and corrected. So never be so arrogant as to think that the translation that you make will be absolutely perfect and will be the final product that will be used for centuries in terms of the Buddhist texts. This is very, very helpful.

I went to then another extreme, in terms of translation, from being overly literal during my university days to being very poetical and trying to explain things in a very simple way and translate in a very simple type of way. One of the things that I tried, also, was in translating very beautiful texts which are written in a poetical manner, to try to make them poetical in English as well.

Now, Sanskrit poetry and Tibetan poetry are very different. So is Chinese poetry. If they were capable of translating things from one language to another in meter and poetical forms, there’s no reason why we can’t do that nowadays. Although the principles of poetry will be very different in each of these languages, nevertheless they manage to put it in a poetical form. In Sanskrit poetry, then, everything is in terms of meter, similar to the type of meters we have in Latin and other Western languages, with long and short syllables alternating in various very complex patterns for Sanskrit, similar to classical Indian music with all its different patterns. In Tibetan what they did was to translate things into lines which have the same number of syllables, and although the accent would go after a certain number of syllables in a very regular manner, it doesn’t have the type of meter that we have in Sanskrit. Chinese becomes completely different, also in terms of keeping to a strict number of syllables in each line; but there you can have certain rhymes which, although you would have rhyme in Sanskrit, the Tibetans never really developed. But in Chinese you can do that, and you can have rhymes, not only in terms of the sound of a character, but also in terms of parts of the Chinese character that repeat, which then of course becomes impossible to translate.

What also is a problem is that the original texts are very terse. They are written as a root text very often, which means that it acts as a root for many different commentaries to explain it differently. In one’s study one would memorize this root text and try to keep in mind all the different levels of meaning that could be associated with the text. This means that many of the texts read with many, many pronouns: “This is like that because of this and that.” For many translators, it’s very uncomfortable to translate like that. They want to know exactly what does it mean, not leave it vague like that.

In the West, from the biblical heritage, we have this belief in “One God, One Truth,” so it is very hard for Westerners to accept that something could have many different meanings and all of them are true and correct. We want to know what does it really mean. The tendency is to fill in the words “this” and “that” with the explanation that we find in only one commentary, the commentary our teacher taught us. Often many of us don’t even know that there are other commentaries and other ways of explaining the text. Sometimes what we fill in is put in brackets or parentheses, and then it goes to a printer and publisher and they leave out the brackets and parentheses. All of a sudden we don’t know what was the original text and what was added by the translator. This becomes a big problem.

I worked with my teacher Serkong Rinpoche very closely on translation; he was very concerned about it, very interested. He took a great deal of time to explain to me the meaning of so many different words. He wanted to know the meaning of the English words that I was using, and he would very often say, "Well, the English word you’re using doesn’t mean really what the Tibetan word is."

Much of the misunderstanding I saw about Buddhism around the world, as I travelled and translated and taught was because of the incorrect or misleading translation terms. These terms were coined usually by the Christian missionaries, often coming from a Victorian background. They censored many things that were uncomfortable to them, particularly having to do with sexual aspects, and they also translated things into words that carry very strong Christian connotations which were totally irrelevant in the Buddhist context. I think the worst example is the word “sin.” Like that, many people had a very incorrect understanding, and it affected very negatively their practice of Buddhism, bringing in things like guilt, and so on, into their practice. So I set about trying to come up with new vocabulary.

This occurred in the Tibetan history: we have the old translation period, we have the new translation period. The Chinese, as well, revised their terminology. One of the patterns of my life has been to be a pioneer and start new things, so I came up with new vocabulary to try to convey what the definitions actually mean. I also followed my teacher’s advice, which was to try to do what the Tibetans did, which was to translate absolutely every single word into English, including Buddha, Dharma, sutra, tantra, etc. I experimented with that and came up with a way of translating it, and used it for some books and for the way that I was translating for him, and teaching. I found that this was an extreme and it was a little bit confusing for people.

I was always interested in Mongolian, but never had a chance to study Mongolian. In the example of the Mongolian translations, we find a much closer analogy to what we in the West are facing translating Tibetan. I always emphasize with other translators that we must learn from the Mongolian example because the Tibetan texts were translated, all into the Kangyur and Tengyur, into classical Mongolian. Zaya Pandita translated, I think, about 175 texts into Oirat, and so we are not the first to deal with the Tibetan texts. As Confucius said, “Learn from history.” In the example of Mongolian, the Mongols became acquainted with Buddhism first from the Uighurs, not from the Tibetans. The Uighurs followed a style of translation of earlier Central Asian languages, which was to use many Sanskrit words: bodhisattva, mandala, etc. and so the Mongols followed that example. They also were acquainted, then, with the Sanskrit words. When we look at the way that the Mongols translated Tibetan, they would take a Tibetan term which was translated from Sanskrit into another Tibetan word, and they would translate it back into Sanskrit, just with Mongolian phonetics.

When we look at the West, we see that we in the West, regardless of which European culture we come from, are already familiar with many words like Buddha, Dharma, sutra, tantra, mandala, bodhisattva, etc. There are many of these terms and it is a bit futile to throw them out of the window. What do you do with words like “karma,” etc.? So I went back to a modified style in which I kept a number of these more popularly known Sanskrit words, but also used a little bit of my terminology for them to explain a little bit what they actually meant. In other cases, one could replace some of these Christian terms with more neutral terms – for instance, “constructive” and “destructive” behavior rather than “virtuous” and “non-virtuous”; and “positive” and “negative” potential, rather than “merit” and “sin.” This I thought could be more helpful, less misleading. I followed that style in my translations more recently and with my website, I am having people translate my terminology and work with these principles into all the other languages of the website.

In terms of translation of Tibetan texts that were translated from Sanskrit, I found in doing very careful comparison between Tibetan and Sanskrit that, although the Tibetans were great pioneers in translating – they did a magnificent job considering they had no dictionaries and no clear ways of learning Sanskrit when they went to India – nevertheless, their translations are not as accurate as the Tibetans would like to think. Here Buddhology comes in. In more recent translations I have done – like of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior) or Manjushri-namasamgiti (A Concert of Names of Manjushri) – I have followed the Tibetan primarily, but from the Sanskrit filled in all the verb tenses and the parts of speech, and which words go together with which words. Because in Tibetan grammar we don’t have all the verb tenses; we often don’t have whether something is singular or plural; we don’t have very clearly is it saying first person, second person, third person? Things like passive, and so on, are lost. We also have very often noun cases confused; dative and ablative get confused very often, so “for the sake of” or “because of” get confused with each other. When we rely on the Sanskrit that way for the grammar, then we find that the text reads so much better.

What I tried to do was to put things into really nice English. The attempts at poetry that I had done earlier in my career read like a child’s poetry, like a nursery rhyme, and this was sort of silly and immature. But more recently I have been able to translate these texts, which are so beautiful in the original, into a type of meter which is not so regular but reads nicely. This is very important. When you read a text, especially if it’s intended for chanting or for personal practice, it’s important that it read nicely and not come out of your mouth with great difficulty. For this we need a type of meter or some sort of rhythm, and this – especially with English where there’s such a large vocabulary – you can accomplish without too much difficulty.

The translation process requires a very good ear in terms of what sounds nice. It requires keeping very accurately to the original text, not filling in so much that sometimes it gets lost, but still making it intelligible. If we’re going from Tibetan translations from Sanskrit, following the Sanskrit original in terms of the grammar. When we make translations like that, I think that we are much more in tune with the tradition of translating the text from one Buddhist language to another.

Also what I feel is very important is that, at least within my own work, to have consistent terminology. This is the thing that I am so distraught about in terms of the practice of Buddhism nowadays. The greatest difficulty that people face is that the texts that they read in their own language by different translators and different authors use completely different terminology. They can’t put what they read in one book together with what they read in another. We’re never going to get everybody to agree on terminology; we’re too individualistic in terms of the translators, myself included. What we need and what we hope to develop with my website tools is a way of looking up in some type of glossary tool, “This is the term that I read in Jeffrey Hopkins’s book, what is the equivalent way of translating it in Berzin’s work, Padmakara’s work,” and so on. I think this will be invaluable for the future, so I always encourage people when they’re translating to include the original Tibetan for the technical terms, or the Sanskrit. It can either be in the text or it can be in a note, so that people know what you are translating, and it can be put together with what people read in other materials.

This is, in general, what I’d like to share with you in terms of the process of translation. It requires a great deal of, if we’re doing textual translation, a great deal of knowledge of both languages. Originally I worked as part of a team following the traditional model. We had a teacher who explained, a Tibetan teacher. I had both languages but I had another Western person who didn’t know Tibetan, but was excellent with English. He tried to make sure that what I translated read intelligibly in English, because if you’ve made the translation yourself you know what it’s supposed to mean, so this was a very good check. And then working with two Tibetans, as part of the team, who knew the Tibetan far better than I did and also could keep a check on each other. After getting a great deal of experience over many years, now I translate by myself. But whenever there are questions, I always ask my teacher about, or various teachers, to explain what the text could mean. And it’s only on the basis of many, many, many years of experience that one can start to understand a little bit better what is intended by various passages, by various references, in texts that you are trying to translate. Because all of the texts assume a great deal of cultural knowledge and a great deal of knowledge of other materials, and other texts, so the only way to be able to really do that is with a great deal of experience. This is why, in the beginning, working with a team of someone who is very well educated in the Tibetan side would be the most recommended manner.

Original Audio from the Seminar