The Art of Translating Asian Buddhist Languages

I’ve been asked to speak about the art of translating Eastern languages and cultures into our modern languages. This is of course a very, very broad topic because when we talk about Eastern cultures, of course there are many Eastern cultures, and there are also many, many modern languages, not only Western languages but also modern Asian languages. Each specific task of going from one base language to the target language is going to have different aspects and different problems that need to be addressed, so it’s very important to understand not only the source language and the target language, but also the source culture and the target culture in order to be sensitive to that.


To give you a little bit of my background in terms of language study: At university, besides Latin and German that I studied in high school, I had studied Modern Chinese, Classical Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. And I’ve lived in India for twenty-nine years. I learned a little bit of Hindi, not terribly much but just enough to survive (to buy vegetables in the market and this type of thing). And I lectured all over the world, doing many lecture tours – I think I’ve lectured in about seventy different countries around the world – and became acquainted with the different languages and cultures that I was dealing with.

In working with my website, I felt very strongly, from my experience, that although so many people read English, people really appreciate having material available in their own language, and so I set this policy that we were going to try to translate it into various languages. So now we have twelve languages online. Let’s see if I can remember them. For European languages we have German, French, Spanish, Portuguese. There’s Polish. There’s Russian. We’re doing Islamic languages. We have Arabic, Urdu, Indonesian, and simplified character Chinese and traditional character Chinese. And now we’re actively preparing Italian, Vietnamese, Turkish, and Tibetan. So we have sixteen. And we plan to also do Farsi as part of our Islamic project, and who knows what other languages we’ll eventually do? And so I’ve had to deal with all of these languages. I’ve learned to read the Arabic script. From Hindi you can figure out a little bit of Urdu and so on. I studied a little bit of Hebrew long ago, and that helps with Arabic in terms of the grammar.

The main thing in working with all these languages is first of all, as you know from studying many languages, not to be afraid of a foreign language. People freeze when they see a foreign language or a foreign script. Once you’ve learned Chinese, an alphabet is just: “Okay, an alphabet. So what?” You learn twenty or thirty symbols, and that’s it. Not to freeze and be upset about it. And to be very, very flexible to try to recognize similar roots of things so that you could at least find your place and so on in a text, at least check have they left something out or something like that, so you can work with a language. I don’t have to know all these languages, but I can work with them; I can check them. These type of things.

Now, in terms of translation, I personally primarily translate from Sanskrit and Tibetan. Occasionally I’ll use Chinese sources, but only for research, not actually for translation itself.

Styles of Translation


There are many aspects that are involved here. First of all, in terms of style, we have what we used to call “Translationese.” When I studied Sanskrit, the emphasis was on linguistics and grammar, and we were asked to try to convey as closely and precisely as possible the grammatical structure of the Sanskrit. And so when you put that into English, it is not really English style; it is Translationese. And it serves a purpose, a function – primarily for study, for accuracy of all the grammatical constructions and so on – but it’s not very easy for the reader to understand. So that was the first style that I used.


With the second style, I went to the other extreme, which was to make it almost poetical. And so when you do that, you lose some of the grammatical structure, some of the precision, and you make it really very pleasant and easy for the reader. I followed here one of the guidelines that the Dalai Lama told me early when I first met him, which was that when you translate and write something, write it for your mother so that your mother can read it and can understand it – this is assuming your mother is not highly educated – and then leave all the academic details for the footnotes; you don’t have to throw that into the text and make it too difficult for the average person to read. And this is a very good guideline, very helpful actually.

But in going to this more poetical extreme, particularly when translating poetry… Because especially with Buddhist material, Tibetan material, then it has a rhythm. As you know, the shloka and so on in Sanskrit has beautiful rhythm – extremely elegant poetry – and it’s intended for chanting, for saying out loud. So when you translate it into your language, you want to make it in such a way that it flows easily from people’s lips, that it is not something which is horrible to say and then loses its artistic beauty. So you can go to that extreme.

Combining Literal and Poetic Styles

But then what I went to finally was a middle way, which was to try to make it as accurate as possible but also in good style and good poetry as well. Poetry doesn’t have to be: “Mary had a little lamb, blah blah blah blah blah” – not like a child’s poem, but it should have some very nice meter to it (not necessarily regular, but it should flow nicely). So I’ve tried to do that. I think the most successful thing that I did that with was the translation of the Bodhicharyavatara by Shantideva, this Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.

Now, in working with this type of style – and it requires a lot of experience and so on – with English it’s quite easy because you have so many synonyms. There are so many different words that can be used to continue in a style.

Playing on Words and Rhyming

Sanskrit, as you know, plays on words. I found this in Shantideva, that it’ll take a certain root of a word, and then it will use different words within a verse having the same root. So you try to do that in English as well. Or it will repeat words. It likes to repeat words. Now, from the point of view of most Western styles of poetry or even good writing, it’s not considered good form to repeat the same word. But I think it loses the whole flavor of Sanskrit poetry to choose different words when they’re using the same word, and so I followed the Sanskrit style to try to give a little bit of the flavor of this type of aspect.

If you have rhyme in certain languages, that’s very difficult to convey in other languages, of course. Also what you have, which I found not possible to do, at least not up to my capacity, is that in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese verse each line will have a fixed number of syllables. This is very, very difficult to convey in another language. So there’s certain things that you have to drop, that it’s just not possible. But with other things, I think that you could try to convey some sort of equivalency in your language, because if it’s a very beautiful text in the original, it really should come out as something beautiful in the translation.

So this is one aspect.


The next aspect is the aspect of terminology. This is a very tricky aspect. You can go again to two extremes, and I also did that in the course of my career – one extreme, then the other extreme, and then eventually the middle path.

The first extreme was to – and this was encouraged at Harvard – was to use a great deal of Sanskrit terminology, to leave it in the original. And the argument for that is that if someone from another country comes to your country and is going to study some technical subject like biology or chemistry or physics, they need to learn the terminology. So if you want to study Buddhist philosophy or any of the other non-Buddhist Indian philosophies, there are a lot of terms that you need to learn. Well, when it becomes so filled with these Sanskrit terms, then it becomes unintelligible to anybody outside of the specialists, and so your poor mother is left out; they can’t understand this at all. So that was the way that I was trained.

Then the other extreme that I went to – and this was encouraged by my teacher in India, my Tibetan teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, who was one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama – was to try to do what the Tibetans did. And the Tibetans, not having a fixed philosophical system of terms like the Chinese had when they encountered Buddhism, they translated everything. And they translated even place names and people’s names into Tibetan. The only thing that they didn’t translate was some names of flowers and these sort of things that there was no equivalent for in Tibet.

They followed a very interesting system of translation which you have a precedent for in Khotanese, an Iranian language of Central Asia that the early Tibetans had a great deal of contact with (and actually their alphabet comes from the Khotanese version of, I think, Brahmi or something like that). Now, there’s a lot of disagreement whether Tibeto-Burmese is a subfamily of Sinitic languages or whether it’s a different family. Let’s not go into that issue. But usually you form words with two syllables, and each of the syllables has a meaning (they’re words). So what they did was that they derived their terms for different technical terms by looking at commentarial traditions of what are the connotations of a word, like Buddha, and instead of deriving it from just simply budh, “to awaken,” they translated it as sanggyay (sangs-rgyas). So sang (sangs) has a little bit of the connotation of “awake,” but it’s more “clear,” to clear out not only the fogginess of sleep but to clear out all shortcomings. And gyay (rgyas) is “to expand and get all good qualities.” So they translated it in that way, which gives a little bit more of the connotation of what a Buddha is. So fine.

So the way in which Serkong Rinpoche taught me was that: “With all these Tibetan words, you can milk (like milking a cow) all the meaning out of each syllable. So you should try to do that in English.” And so I went to the other extreme and translated everything, including names, the way that the Tibetans did. And this also became unintelligible to people because they were used to the old terms, at least some of the old terms, like karma and Dharma, Buddha, Sangha, bodhichitta, bodhisattva. These sort of words people knew, but I translated them, so that didn’t actually work, although it was a very good learning experience. And actually when I later used some of that material, I would put in parentheses the more usual term, and many people appreciated that, because it gave them a different understanding, a deeper understanding, of the terminology.

So I went back to the middle way. And the middle way is to use some Sanskrit but don’t overdo it. The precedent for that was Mongolian. For Mongolian, their initial contact with Buddhist material was from Uighur, a Turkic language, and the Uighurs had gotten it from earlier Central Asian languages. Like many of the earlier Central Asian languages, they used many Sanskrit terms. So bodhisattva and these sort of things changed into a Turkic form of pronunciation or representation of it. For the Mongolians, that was their initial contact. So when they came in contact with Tibetan translations and started to translate from Tibetan into Mongolian, they were already familiar with many of these terms in Sanskrit from the Uighur representation of them. And so although they would see a Tibetan version of bodhisattva, let’s say, they would translate it back into a Mongolized form of the Sanskrit word; they wouldn’t translate it the way that the Tibetans did.

So I used this as a precedent, that in the West (at least in English, and I think in most Western languages), people were already familiar with a number of terms – karma and Dharma and Buddha and bodhichitta – and I left those in Sanskrit. So middle path. And I think middle path is always the best way.

Now, when you actually do translate technical terminology into your own language, I’ve seen from my experience traveling around the world and teaching Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy, that when you choose terms that already have meaning, particularly coming from a religious or a philosophical background, people get completely the wrong idea. To introduce strong Christian terms – like sin and these sort of things as a way of translating papa in Sanskrit – this gives completely the wrong idea, and so one has to really try to avoid such terms. Even though some of the earlier missionary-made translations might have used them, don’t perpetuate that. Try to find more neutral terms, particularly when talking about ethical issues. In English, people tend to use virtuous and nonvirtuous, which also is a very moral judgment type of thing, whereas it’s quite neutral. I use constructive and destructive, these type of words that don’t give this judgmental aspect to it.

Then there are some people who have translated Sanskrit technical terms into modern philosophical terms, existentialist type of terms, and that also just confuses people. Now, of course you have a precedent. In the translation from Sanskrit to Chinese, that was done. The earliest style was called geyi, which is to “match meanings.” And so they took Buddhist terms and translated them into basically Daoist terminology, and again of course it gave the incorrect meaning, I think.

But then the later style of Chinese translation dropped a lot of this terminology and found a little bit more neutral terminology. So I follow that precedent as well. This is particularly relevant not only when dealing with Western languages to avoid the Christian and the modern Western philosophical terms, but also in dealing with Islamic languages. This has become a very big issue. You cannot translate words like compassion (karuna) with rahman, as in “Allah the merciful. Allah the compassionate.” You can’t use the terms that are specific to Allah in a Buddhist or a Hindu text, so you have to find a more colloquial term that doesn’t have this type of connotation. So one needs to be sensitive to so many different cultural aspects so as not to either offend or give a completely false meaning.

So these are some of the issue in terms of straight translation: style and terminology.

Cultural Aspects

Now, there’s another aspect to the translation process, and that is translation of cultural aspects. You can translate the words, but how do you translate the concepts when you have no exact equivalent?

I have a little bit of experience with that, going both ways – from Western into Tibetan and from Tibetan or Buddhist into Western. I was involved with initial meetings of psychologists with the Dalai Lama, and they were talking about issues that are completely alien to the Tibetan way of understanding. I remember in this first meeting, when the topic of low self-esteem came up from the psychologists and talking about how often people in the West not only have low self-esteem but self-hatred and all these negative feelings about themselves. And the Dalai Lama had never heard of this. He couldn’t imagine it. And then he asked everybody in the room, “Do you have that feeling?” Everybody in the room admitted it, and he just was absolutely astounded at that.

So you need to explain some of these things and not take for granted that things are universal. They aren’t. It becomes very challenging to try to explain certain Western concepts into a traditional Asian philosophical framework in the area of psychology, in the area of religion. I’ve been involved in meetings of religious leaders with the Dalai Lama, and some of these ideas are just totally alien to the Tibetans (and likewise going the other way around). So you have to explain. It’s not a matter of translating word for word, but you have to explain, you have to fill in the background, and you have to really understand the background and present it in a sympathetic way, not in a critical type of way but in either a sympathetic or totally neutral type of way.

And there are many aspects that people are not even aware of that make a strong distinction between let’s say a Biblical or Abrahamic religion and an Indian religion. There’s a recent book by Rajiv Malhotra called On Being Different. You’re familiar with it? I mean, his ideas are brilliant. For instance, he points out you have a history-centered view in Abrahamic religions – that time is linear and has a beginning and has an end, and there’s a historical figure who had a revelation from God or Allah (whether it’s Moses or Jesus or Muhammad), and this is it: they’re the only one that will get it, they get the final word, and those who follow have to just believe and accept that and cannot become another Jesus or another Muhammad or Moses. Now, this is very, very different from a Buddha or Krishna or whoever, an avatar. Their actual biography is not so important.

In fact the whole concept of a biography is completely different. If you look at the story of Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, or of Krishna, Indians will totally accept this, and they will even fight over where Krishna was born and so on. And Westerners look at this and they say, “Come on, this is a fairy tale; it's mythology”; whereas the history is not important. One close Indian friend of mine said that: “We Indians, we don’t believe in history,” which was a wonderful insight. The stories from the past are to illustrate a lesson, and the actual facts are irrelevant. So the emphasis in what Malhotra calls “Dharma religions” is that each individual can gain the realization themselves; each individual can attain moksha (liberation) or enlightenment, depending on the system.

So you have to be sensitive. Because if you’re not aware of these differences, then a Westerner approaching the life of the Buddha, or approaching Buddha Shakyamuni in general, will look at Buddha as being like a Moses, a Jesus, or Muhammad – that they have the final word, and this is it, and what they spoke is like the Bible, words from God – and then you get the whole cultural baggage together with that. And it is very important to understand that distinction, particularly when you are explaining an Indian religion or philosophical system to Westerners, because you have to be very careful that they don’t project Abrahamic concepts onto the Dharmic traditions. So this requires quite a deep understanding of both audiences, both cultures, and to of course be open to other scholars, other people’s insights into this, because there are a lot of very insightful, sensitive people who can help us to understand these differences more deeply.

So in terms of interreligious harmony (that’s one of the big emphases of the Dalai Lama), usually what one tries to find is common ground. And I’ve been involved with this as well – the common ground between Buddhism and Islam, in terms of helping to include the Muslims in the entire world community and not exclude them, ostracize them, and then demonize them, which is unfortunately the modern-day trend. So this is very important. One tries to find the common ground.

I’ll give you an example. Discussion of God. Go to an Islamic country, as I have done, and lecture at universities, meet with various learned people, not just your common person from the street, and enter into a discussion of God. And if you say, “Well, Buddhism doesn’t believe in God. We have no God,” you’re on the next plane out. There you are. So you can’t do that.

On the other hand, you can’t go to the extreme like they do in Indonesia. I mean, they even use the Sanskrit word panchashila, so the “five precepts.” And one of the things to be accepted as a national religion is that you have to accept God. And so the Buddhists say that: “We have Adibuddha.” This is coming from the Kalachakra system. And when I’ve asked them in Indonesia, “Do you know what Adibuddha is?” They have no idea actually, but they say, “Well, we have Adibuddha. Literally it means ‘first Buddha,’ so this must be the God.” And then you explain to them: “Well, in a sense you can say that. The Adibuddha, according to some commentaries, is referring to the clear-light mind, the subtlest mind, which is the source of all appearances that we experience.” So fine, you can talk about that, but I wouldn’t go to the extreme that they do, which is say that we accept God.

What you do is this (this is the dialogue that I’ve had with these Islamic scholars): Well, let’s look at all the characteristics of God. If we take that apart, then in Buddhism do we believe in the importance of compassion? Yes. Is there a compassionate, more highly developed being than ourselves who is compassionately involved with the world? Yes, we accept that. Do we accept that there is order in the universe? Yes. Buddhism accepts that in terms of law of cause and effect. Is there a creator? Well, you can speak in terms of Buddhism having a slightly different explanation, that it’s from the source within the mind that all appearances are created. Well, some Sufi philosophies will say, “Well, it’s not Allah, but there’s a certain aspect within each being,” and so that’s okay. Then you have all the different names of Allah, but if you speak about Allah being beyond words and beyond concepts, things like that – well, you have that in Buddhism as well in terms of one of the presentations of voidness.

So in the end, what you say is that we have so many different features in both systems that are analogous, but Buddhism doesn’t put it all together into one package and call it God or Allah. Then they’re happy. Then they can understand. So like that. And then the main thing that one emphasizes in the dialogue is the emphasis on love, compassion, forgiveness, cause and effect, ethics, these sort of things. And then you get a discussion, a dialogue. But as Malhotra points out very clearly, it shouldn’t be to just smooth over that it’s exactly the same. It’s not exactly the same. The Dalai Lama says it very nicely: “If you pray to go to Christian heaven, you go to Christian heaven. If you pray to go to Buddhist heaven, you go to a Buddhist heaven. It’s not that you pray to go to a Buddhist heaven and you land in a Christian one.” So it’s similar but not exactly the same. A very nice example.

In going the other way, from a Tibetan or Indian cultural background into a Western one, and how we integrate it, the way that I have approached this is with… The largest work that I did was something called Developing Balanced Sensitivity. It’s a book. It’s on my website so that people can download it as well, and it’s translated into a number of languages, including Russian. Here, what I was looking at was particularly Buddhist practitioners who reach a certain plateau in their practice and they can’t get further than that, and the main problem is that they don’t know how to apply it very well in their own personal lives in dealing with their own personal emotional problems.

And what is the source of this difficulty is that there’s no exact equivalent for so many of these psychological terms that we conceptualize with in the West. Not only low self-esteem but things like insecurity, insensitive, oversensitive, alienation – being alienated from your feelings, alienated from your body – all sorts of terms like this. There’s no Tibetan or Sanskrit word that is equivalent for these things. In fact there’s no word even for emotion; they have separate words for positive ones and another word for negative ones, but they don’t have one that puts it into the same package as we have in our Western conceptualization. There’s no word for guilt either. But that doesn’t mean that Tibetans or Indians don’t experience similar types of things. It’s just a matter of trying to analyze the Western concept of, let’s say, alienation, being alienated from your feelings, to analyze it to see how would you explain that, how would you fit it into the conceptual categories of, let’s say, the Buddhist analysis of klesha, of disturbing emotions – what actually is the problem? And if you can deconstruct, in a sense, and analyze all the different features that are involved from a Buddhist point of view in this emotional syndrome, then it opens up the way to applying Buddhist methods for being able to overcome that.

So this I did with Developing Balanced Sensitivity, dealing with the issues of being insensitive or oversensitive to either the effect of our behavior on others or on ourselves – we think it has no effect, or we exaggerate the effect (“I can overwork, and it won’t have any effect on my health,” this type of thing) – and also being insensitive or oversensitive to other people’s feelings, the reality of somebody else, that either: “They don’t have feelings, so I can say whatever and be late, and it doesn’t matter,” this type of thing, so we don’t really take their reality seriously, or we are overworried about them, the overprotective mother, this type of syndrome. When you start to analyze these issues using the Buddhist conceptual framework, then you find very helpful approaches for dealing with these issues.

So this is a way of translating, and we’re not talking about translating a text, but we’re talking about translating ideas and concepts, and not just translating them but showing how to apply them. I think this is very important, because you can just try to translate it and write an abstract essay, which could be very, very insightful, very good, but still we want to try to make it helpful. How do you actually apply it? Is it just a nice theory, or is it something which is practical? And I think one has to look at these two purposes. What is our aim? And this of course is true in any type of translation. What is your purpose for it?

The Audience and Medium

Who is the audience? What is the audience that you want to reach? What is their level? Are you writing for academics? Are you writing for your mother? Are you writing for the general public, sort of what I call “Feel-Good Buddhism,” something that you read and: “Oh, be nice. Be a nice person,” something that, pardon the expression, you could read on the toilet? That’s one type of translation and literature and explanation. And fine; it has its purpose. Or are you writing something which is for the serious practitioner who really wants to learn about this? So these are two different audiences, and that serious practitioner is not necessarily the same as the academic. An academic could have many other interests – for instance, linguistic interest, historical interest, and so on.

So one writes for a specific audience. The scholarly apparatus for the academic of course is very important. For your mother – your mother couldn’t care less about it and will certainly not even look at it. So who is your audience? And it also is possible to prepare a certain work and prepare different versions of it, one for a more academic audience and one for a more general public audience. And so this is what I have opted for on my website, is not to give all these footnotes and these type of things but to give some information – what sources I am using, let’s say, but not all this scholarly apparatus – mainly I guess I would say out of laziness, because it takes just too much time to prepare.

And then you also have to look at the medium. How are you going to publish your work? I had been working with publishers, one in India, one in the United States, and what I found is that I don’t write popular books, I don’t write “Feel-Good Buddhism” books, and they don’t sell, and it takes two or three years for it to actually go through the editorial and printing process. And at least in the United States, where they have these large bookstore chains, then first of all it’s very difficult to get on the shelf. You’ll have just one shelf for let’s say Indian philosophy or Asian religions or Buddhism, whatever your field might be, and very few books will fit on that shelf compared to the number of books that are written. So:

  1. You have to get on the shelf.
  2. Even if you succeed on getting on the shelf, then if you don’t sell a certain number of books in the first month, or maybe two months if they’re kind to you, then you’re off the shelf, and you won’t be put on the shelf again. The only way that people are going to be able to find your book and get your book is through the internet, through Amazon or one of these book-publishing concerns.

So what is the benefit of writing books? Well, it gives a certain legitimacy, and a lot of people like to have it to hold in their hands, and so on, but you reach a very limited audience. With my publisher in the United States, I’ve published five books. These five books, each of them sell maybe two hundred at the most each year. So that’s a very limited audience that it reaches. Plus it costs money. A lot of people make money in the process of it. So these are the economic considerations that are there.

So I said, “This is not worth it. I will make a website.” I have a huge amount of material. I came back from India after living there twenty-nine years with about I would say easily thirty thousand pages of unpublished manuscripts, because everything that I studied, everything that I read with my teachers or later on my own, I did a rough translation of. So I had all this material, plus transcripts of oral translations that I had done, etc. (Oral translations, that’s another topic that we can mention briefly after this.) So when I went to the West, one of the ideas was to make a website. Publishing books really reaches a much too limited audience. And it would take much too long to get this material available worked into books, because books of course require all the bibliography and footnotes and things like this, so it would take too much time. And I didn’t want all of this material thrown in the garbage when I die, which is what would happen to it. So I said, “I will make a website, and I’ll have everything on it for free.” Last year we had over a million visitors to the website. This year we’ll have between 1.3 and 1.4 million. So look at the big difference in terms of the audience that it reaches.

I sincerely believe that the direction that things are going in the world is the direction of the internet. This is quite clear. There will always be people who are going to prefer a book and who like the feel of a book and so on. And in many ways there’s a great advantage of a book because with the internet the technology changes every few years. And so the system that we use now – I know this from my web developer – is that with every new version of the programs that come out, and they come out once a year, he has to adjust everything so that it’ll show on every browser correctly and it’ll show on your mobile device, and it’s a tremendous amount of work. So it constantly has to be updated. This is a big disadvantage of the internet, digital type of production. Whereas it takes a very long time for a book to decompose even if it’s in a garbage heap, so the book is going to last much, much longer. So there are definite advantages. And our website is constantly changing because more material is being added almost every day. And the beauty of a website is that if somebody finds a typo (a typographical mistake) or some error in it or you change your mind about a term, you can easily change it. You can’t do that with a book. You have to wait for the next edition, which might never happen. So there are advantages and disadvantages. But what I would like at some point is to actually print out a version of the whole website so that then there’s a way for it to be sustained. Anyway, that’s a hope in the future, and it would cost a lot of money, obviously.

So that is the aspect of what audience do you want to reach, how broad an audience do you want to reach, and book versus internet, commercial versus for free. These are different issues. I convinced my American publisher to let me put all of my books that I had published with them online for free so that people could download them for free. And the argument that I used was that anybody who would want to print out a three-hundred-page book is not the type of person who would ever buy the book, and the person who would buy the book would see it online, and they would say, “Oh, this would be nice to have as a book,” and they would buy it, so it would be good advertising for you. And with that argument they gave me permission to put everything online for free. I was very fortunate with that.

Oral Translation


Now, oral translation is another feature of the translation process, and this requires a whole different art of translation. I was trained by my teacher to do oral translation, by Serkong Rinpoche, and the first thing that he emphasized and worked with was my memory. You have to be able to remember what the person says. Sometimes the speaker is going to speak for a very long time, and you have to be able to remember it. So either you take notes that help you to remember just the main points so at least you get the order, but really you have to know the material, especially if it’s dealing with philosophical issues. You have to know the subject matter if you’re going to translate for science, you’re going to translate for medicine, for whatever; you have to know the material.

So the way that he trained me was that I spent a tremendous amount of time with him every day, for nine years actually, like an apprentice, a medieval apprentice, and we had this agreement that any time of day or night when we were talking, he could stop me and say, “What did I just say?” and I would have to repeat for him what he just said. Or he would say, “What did you just say?” Because when you are doing an oral translation, you have someone in the audience say, “Could you please repeat that?” So you have to remember what you just said. So he would train me like that, just at any time in any situation, “What did I just say?” and “What did you just say?” And then he would give a whole lecture, and at the end he would say, “Now it’s your turn. You summarize the lecture.” Because also, in an oral situation, sometimes that will occur.

I remember once I was with the Dalai Lama, and it was some sort of press conference, and someone brought a tape recorder and said, “Could you give a message to the Tibetans in Nepal?” And so the Dalai Lama spoke in Tibetan for that, no translation or anything like that. So then the press conference went on, and at the end the person who asked for the interview asked the Dalai Lama, “What did you say in Tibetan?” The Dalai Lama turned to me and said, “Berzin, you tell them what I said after the press conference.”

So you have to pay attention – not only remember, but you have to pay attention and be alert all the time in order to be able to do that. So this I was trained to do. He wouldn’t let me take notes of lectures or things like that, and he would keep me busy the whole day – because I was also his secretary – and then only at night I would be able to take notes and write things down. And I remember once I asked him, “What does this word mean?” And he looked at me, and he said, “I explained that word to you seven years ago. I remember explaining that word to you. Why don’t you remember?”

So one needs to have a very, very well-trained memory in order to be an interpreter.

Matching the Style and Tone of the Speaker

My teacher was fantastic with this because he trained me basically to be an interpreter for the Dalai Lama, which I occasionally did. He said, “First of all, keep your hands down. You’re not a hula dancer with all your gestures and stuff like that. You don’t want to draw attention to you, right? You keep your hands down.” Then you need to translate the style and tone of the speaker. So if the speaker uses very academic language, you use academic language. If the teacher says (pardon my language) shit, you say shit in your language. You don’t try to smooth it out and put your own version of the tone of the speaker. Now, this is the most difficult: If they tell a joke, you somehow have to take the joke and make it funny as well in your language. And also you have to speak at a proper speed, not too fast, not too slow, and of course proper volume. These are separate trainings that one needs to have. So it’s not just a matter of knowing the language.

And of course there are two different styles of oral interpreting – one is consecutive, one is simultaneous. Simultaneous I always found is much easier because actually you don’t have to understand every word; you just have to convey the general flow of what’s happening. And of course you can’t possibly repeat in your mind what they said and then say it; it just has to flow. Whereas if you’re doing consecutive, then you really are responsible to translate everything. And as my teacher drummed into me over again, you don’t add anything and you don’t leave anything out. There are some speakers who will say, “Well, you can fill in a little bit of background,” but you have to get permission to do that.

It’s not the interpreter’s show. The speaker is the main person. So you don’t bring in your own personality as the interpreter. You are, in a sense, like an interpretation machine that is there. But speak with feeling; don’t speak like a mechanical computer voice. This also is one of the faults that often we find with interpreters, that it’s just so boring and they speak in a monotone, whereas the speaker is very lively. So you have to convey that as well.

So these are some of the issues of the art of translation. It requires a great deal of experience actually. Nobody is going to be able to do it well, whether they’re doing written translation or oral translation, from the very start, but slowly with training, with experience, then one learns and one improves. And not to get discouraged.

Also it depends on the situation and on the speaker whether or not – I’m talking particularly about oral translation – whether or not you can ask questions if you didn’t understand something, or to please repeat it. In an informal situation with certain speakers you can do that. If you’re interpreting for some high government official or the Dalai Lama on television, you don’t say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that” and then ask them, because then it gives a very bad impression of the speaker, that they couldn’t choose a competent interpreter. So this is difficult. You really have to know the speaker. What I really tried to avoid in oral translation was translating for people that I didn’t know, that I didn’t have some experience with their colloquial expressions, with their way of explaining, and so on. I preferred to always translate for just a few people that I actually knew. And then of course there are dialect problems and all of these sort of issues.


Another point that I should mention is teamwork. In the traditional lotsawa tradition – it comes from locchava, the Sanskrit word for eye, the “eye-opening translator” – the tradition was to have someone from the source language and someone from the target language, native speakers from each working together. Because the person from the source language, let’s say Sanskrit, knew Sanskrit far better than any Tibetan would know it, and the Tibetan person would know Tibetan far better than the Indian person would know it. And then they would work together. And this I think, especially in the early stages of one’s training – talking about maybe a few decades of one’s experience – it’s very important to work with somebody from whichever side of the translation issue we are involved with. It doesn’t mean that it has to be 100% collaboration, but have somebody check. And have somebody available that you can ask questions to. This is very important, to be able to ask questions. And then of course you have to have confidence that the person you’re asking the question to is reliable. They’re not always reliable, so if you have some doubts, then you ask somebody else as well. And even relying on traditional commentaries – this is another very, very important point – commentaries are going to differ in their explanation, so you have to say what commentary you are following.

Also what I find very helpful in terms of teamwork is to, in the end, have somebody read your translation, somebody from your own culture who doesn’t know the source language, to just see if it communicates or if you’ve written in too much jargon that actually doesn’t work.

So this type of teamwork is very helpful.


Now, in terms of commentaries, you deal with what is called a “root text” – the mula, the root text. And why is it a root? Why is it called that? Because it is written in such a style with all of the pronouns in it, this and that and so on, that many, many different commentaries would be able to explain it with very different interpretations. And this is intentional.

I remember, again with my teacher, I was complaining about there being so many thises and thats in these verses – let’s say Nagarjuna – and that this is really terrible to deal with. And he said, “Don’t be so arrogant. Do you think that Nagarjuna wasn’t able to write good Sanskrit, that he wasn’t able to write well? He did this on purpose. You’re completely arrogant.” He did it on purpose because, as the Buddhist practitioner studying this, you’re supposed to know all the different commentaries, all the different ways of understanding it, and as you read it, be able to understand all the verses in all these different ways at the same time. Because this is one of the characteristics of Buddha vachana, a Buddha’s speech, that with one word, with one way of explaining, everybody can understand it in a different way according to their own level.

So in translating this becomes a big problem because the tendency is of course to want to fill it in, because to have it vague like that in our languages is uncomfortable. And also to explain to people that there are many different ways of understanding it and they’re all correct – Western people don’t like that. Coming from a Biblical tradition – one God, one truth – they always are asking, or even if they don’t ask, they’re always feeling, “But what does it really mean?” as if there’s only one real understanding or interpretation of that.

So the tendency in translating is to take one commentary – and we might not even be aware of the full extent of the commentarial literature, so we get one – and we interpret it, and we fill in all the thises and thats. Initially what one often does is put it in parentheses. So you put it in parentheses, but again you have limited it. And what often happens, particularly working with an Indian publisher, is that they then leave out the parentheses, and then you have a completely different text, which might read very nicely, but you have lost the original. So this one has to be very, very careful of. And if you’re going to include parentheses to try to make it a little bit more intelligible according to one commentary, say which commentary that you are following. Don’t just give the impression that this is what it really means, because there are other ways of translating it and understanding it.

Now, much, much more difficult is to translate it as a root text so that it could be interpreted with different commentaries and leave it with all the thises and thats and its and so on. This is very difficult. In English you can get away with it to a certain extent. In German and Russian they seem to be allergic to that, and everything has to be absolutely specified. You can’t leave the word just as it, even if it refers to what came immediately in the sentence before, because “this,” “that” and “it” need to have the correct gender ending corresponding to the word to which it is referring; you have to repeat it. So how do you do that? And can you do that? And this becomes very challenging when even the grammar is going to be interpreted differently by different commentaries. The way that the words go together in a shloka – some commentaries will put a certain number of words together, and other commentaries will put other combinations of words together. This becomes really very, very difficult, and I must say that I haven’t really mastered being able to make a root text in a Western language that really will function as a root text that you could actually use in the pedagogical way in which it was intended, like a mnemonic, something that you could memorize and, with your own understanding, fill in all the different meanings. But just because it’s very difficult to do, I don’t think it’s absolutely impossible. I mean, I’ve tried a little bit with some texts, but this also becomes another challenge that we find, particularly working with Indian sources.

So these are some of my experiences that I’ve found.


Another point that you can bring up is transliteration. I always get transcription and transliteration confused, which one it means. I’m talking about how you write names, Chinese and Tibetan and Indian names, in Arabic and Urdu translations. This was the challenge that I had to face. And there was no consistent system. There was no system, and so I had to make up a system and then try to have the translations follow consistency. And what I found, particularly working with Urdu, was that the translators and editors had no concept of consistency. And I asked my Indian friends, Urdu speakers who are westernized, and they said, “We don’t have this concept. It’s unimportant. It doesn’t matter.” Well, it makes the use of a search engine absolutely impossible if you’re going to spell Buddha three different ways within one paragraph. So we need to have some sort of system of consistency. And sometimes working with different Indian languages, particularly in Arabic script languages, you’re going to have to make one up in some cases, but use your philological training to try to make it something which is intelligible, and don’t force it.

In Indian languages, you have the aspirated and the unaspirated consonants, d and dh in roman letters. Well, in Urdu you can do that, that’s not a problem, because they’re dealing with many borrowed words from Sanskrit-based languages. But in Arabic, they don’t. And so if you want to include the h after d in Arabic, that doesn’t work, so you have to be content to leave it without the h afterwards. So fine. You have to be flexible in terms of this and not insist that the target language be able to reconstruct exactly the spelling of the original Indian terms. This is the same case with long vowels and short vowels. There’s always the issue of how do you represent these in other languages. Do you use diacriticals? Not use diacriticals? There are various problems in terms of either publishing (do they have the font or not?) or problems with the internet (will it show up in all browsers and so on if you use the diacritical marks?). So again these are issues that one has to do deal with case by case in terms of what media are we using for publishing our work and who is the audience. Does your mother really care if there’s a dot under the d or not? Your mother doesn’t really care. So these are again some of the problems.

Tamil, if you’re dealing with that, doesn’t have all these aspirated letters. It’s not like the other Dravidian languages that use a lot from Sanskrit. Tamil has its own special features. And again how do you deal with it? And I haven’t started working with Japanese, but Japanese is going to be even more difficult in terms of how do you transliterate Indian names or Tibetan names and things like that. So, fun. One has to enjoy it. One has to enjoy it, not take it as a terrible problem, but take it as a challenge, an adventure, and fun, and then you can work with it without getting upset.

So these are some of my experiences.

Questions and Answers

When did you experience all of this?

Well, I guess it's been 50 years that I’ve been involved with translating, so a long time. I’m now 67. I started when I was 17, starting Asian languages.

When you were talking about creating a root text translation and you said to keep with one commentary, did you mean we shouldn’t use the whole commentary tradition?

If you use the whole commentary tradition, then how do you do that? I think you have to do separate versions.

In order to extrapolate the real meaning of the original.

This is exactly the problem that I was stating. You stated it perfectly: What does it really mean?

And then to create a contemporary commentary of your own.

Okay, so this is very good. This is very good. Again you’re saying, “But what does it really mean?” And there is no what does it really mean? It means this and this and this and this, and they’re all equally valid. Now, of course there could be invalid interpretations of it as well. That’s something else.

But this is the same text and the same tradition. It’s not the Islamic tradition.

Yes, within the same tradition you will have different interpretations. Within Indian siddhanta philosophical systems, within Buddhism, you’ll have different interpretations. Within the Tibetan schools – Gelug, Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma – they will all have different versions of each of the Indian siddhantas, the Indian tenet systems.

But it’s different with Buddhism because you have different geographical and historical cultures. In India if you take only one text, the original source text, then you have the tradition going into the historical dimension. Of course there are different schools, but they are all Indian schools. They’re not Chinese or Tibetan. They’re the same tradition developing within the historical dimension.

Well, within Indian schools, as I said – within Buddhism – you have the different tenet systems: Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra, Madhyamaka. And surely if you take the Upanishads or Bhagavad Gita, the different Vedanta schools or Samkhya schools are going to have slightly different interpretations as well.

But what I found out is that in India, through time, the different schools concerning one tradition or one text synthesized further the knowledge of their age and time and, in this way, they created new schools. They didn’t create new knowledge.

Well, if there’s no conflict in the commentaries, then there’s no problem.

I don’t know. I feel like I can extrapolate the essential meaning. That’s what I do. I read different commentators concerning one shloka, and then I try to understand the whole thing.

And do you fill in the this's and that's? This is what it comes down to. “This is like that because of this.” And you go, “What?”

It’s the same problem with the Mahavakya “tat tvam asi”and the interpretation of Shankara, for example – “You are this, Shvetaketu.” Nowadays, the scholars say this is totally wrong from a linguistic point of view, but for Shankara and for the Advaita Vedanta school, it was very important to interpret it in this way.

Right. So I think that the only thing one can do is to be perfectly straightforward and say, “Shankaracharya interprets it like this, and modern linguistic scholarship would understand it like this.” That’s all that you can do.

But when you talk about the middle way of translating, this kind of translation which is meant for the general public, not for academics, needs this kind of commentary.

Right. It needs one explanation.

And at the same time it needs to be upgraded to contemporary Bulgarian or English language. We have to create something like a contemporary commentary.

Well, as long as you explain that quite clearly in your introduction, there’s no problem. But you have to say what you’re doing.

How do you know what to do?

You say what you’re doing. Let’s say you have a traditional Buddhist text, and there is Indian commentaries, there’s Tibetan commentaries, there are oral commentaries that are given by this teacher or that teacher. And then I’m also a Buddhism teacher, and so there are commentaries that I’ve given to the texts, which will be in more modern type of terms, modern examples (I don’t use yaks and donkeys as my example and so on). So very good. As long as you state what it is, there’s no problem.

You do the same?

Sure. But I say very clearly, “This is mine.” And when I get my own understanding of a certain term or a certain concept, I’m always completely honest with that, and I say, “This is not the traditional way of explaining it. I haven’t found this from any text. But from my own contemplation, this is what I think it’s referring to.”

Because you have 29 years of experience.

Right. So I state it quite straightforwardly, and then I think there’s absolutely no problem. And why not? Over history, commentaries were written by so many people, not only in one culture but other cultures as well. Why can’t we have our commentaries from our modern countries and cultures? Why not?

Every translation is a kind of interpretation. That’s clear.

That’s true. That’s absolutely true.

But I was talking about commentaries.

As I said, it depends on the text. If the text has one straightforward commentarial tradition, wonderful. Wonderful. Then it makes it much easier. The problem is of course that, later on, some scholar working somewhere else finds a manuscript that is completely different. So again one has to be quite straightforward and say, “From the commentaries that I’ve been able to find, this is…” You have to save yourself from later embarrassment. But if you’re completely honest and straightforward, then there’s no problem. Easy.

I have one more question. You said – something which is written in the Gita also – that you become what you are concentrated on. The Dalai Lama said, “If you are Christian, you will go to a Christian heaven. And if you’re Buddhist, you will go to a Buddhist heaven.” But do you find similarities between the different religions, something common? What is the common thing?

What is the common thing of all religions? Let me quote the Dalai Lama. Somebody asked him what is the best religion, and he said, “The best religion is the one that teaches you to be a kinder and more compassionate person.” So this is the common thing, I think, of generally teaching you to be a kinder, better person, more considerate, forgiving, these sort of things. But then each religion will have different methods for developing those.

You could say in Catholicism, let’s say, that if you open up to the loving grace of Jesus or God and let it flow through you, then this is the way that you develop love and compassion. Or in Islam, that Allah created all creation, and so Allah’s the merciful, the compassionate, and therefore we need to have love for all of the creations of Allah. And Buddhism would say that everybody is equal on the basis of everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, everybody likes to be happy, nobody doesn’t like to be happy, the same as us, and on that basis you develop love and compassion. So there are different methods for that, but the aim is the same. Whether you say the love and kindness has a slightly different flavor or not, that is hard to ascertain.

So compassion, goodness, and love.

Goodness, kindness, love, forgiveness.These I think are the most common features. And also that there is order in the universe. I don’t know if you could say all religions, but that there’s some sort of more highly developed beings, not necessarily a creator, that are compassionately concerned about our welfare. I don’t know if you could say that. I’m thinking of Confucianism, that maybe the emperor traditionally is this higher person that is looking out for the welfare of the society, so even there you would find that. So that gives a feeling of not being alone. That’s there. And most of them will also generally accept ethical cause and effect, that there is an effect from your actions if you harm or help others. That’s common. But again the mechanism of why, how it works, and so on, will be different.

You were speaking about having to understand the background in order to translate some concepts already in another culture, language, or whatever. What does a term really mean? There is no answer actually, because we do not understand each other and we cannot transfer concepts, even between representatives of the same culture.

That’s right. Misunderstanding between people and in couples is classic.

I was thinking about metaphorical language as well. So starting from one concept and from metaphors, we develop this concept, and then there are the religious aspects and the various commentators, and the original concept can get lost. So maybe basic concepts which are there in the beginning – the terms guilt, sin, good, bad, these ethical terms – are the basis for communication, because if we don’t have these basic concepts that are understandable intuitively or on a spiritual level, we couldn’t communicate at all.

Well, yes. In Buddhism, as you probably know, you have a very well-defined, extensive explanation of how words and concepts work.

When you talk about conceptual thinking, this is speaking in terms of a category. (Some people translate it as universals or generalizations and so on; I prefer categories.) And a category could be represented by a sound, which then is accepted conventionally as being the sound of a word and referring to this category. The category could be love, it could be loyalty, it could be red or blue, it could be whatever.

Now, of course you have to have a definition of the category – what fits into the category – and that also is agreed upon by convention. For instance, I love the example of loyalty. What a modern person in the West might consider the definition of loyalty, a medieval person would consider something else, and a traditional Japanese person would consider something else. So the definition is going to be different.

And then what do you fit within this category? Like love – “I love you.” Well, everybody is going to have a slightly different experience of that, and even their experience is going to change with different people and different times. So what actually is love? What is love? It’s merely what this category refers to on the basis of all these examples, but it’s not something concrete. This is basic shunyata (voidness) theory in Buddhism. There’s nothing findable that’s actually love. You have this concept, and people have agreed on it, and it does refer to something – people experience it – but everybody’s different, so what actually is it? So if you don’t grasp onto words and concepts as being fixed, then the way to deal with them is to give the definition.

So in Buddhist training you have debate. The Tibetan word for debate is “definitions” (mtshan-nyid). And what you do is: Every term has a very specific definition, and different traditions and different authors will define them differently. But in order to have a debate, you have to agree on the definition. And within that definition, if the two parties agree – it’s part of the theory of debate – then you can have a debate. If the two parties define their terms differently, there’s no way that they’re communicating, and so how can you have a debate? You can discuss what’s the definition, but that’s a different type of debate to how you apply a concept or a term.

So I think that in doing a translation, what you have to state, in a glossary, is the definition of your terms according to whichever author or whatever commentary or whatever that you think it is. And one of the things that I’ve learned is don’t always rely on the dictionary. The dictionary is made up by somebody. Somebody put it together. And maybe it was compiled by a missionary in the nineteenth century who was mostly concerned about how to translate the Bible. So just because it’s in the dictionary doesn’t mean that it’s correct. So you look at different commentaries, different grammars, and so on, in order to try to find the meaning, but then state your source of the definition. “According to this school or this commentarial tradition, this is the definition of Dharma. This is the definition of karma.” These are terms that are understood so differently by different traditions. So you just make it clear. Glossaries are very good for that.

And then we have this wonderful feature on my website – we’ve only implemented it in English – which is that we have a glossary, and when the cursor goes over a word that’s in the glossary in English, then a little pop-up window comes with the definition. Plus I’ve put in Jeffrey Hopkins’s way of translating it because so many books have been printed from him and his students that there’s a very commonly known terminology, and I differ from Jeffrey in many terms. And this I think is the biggest problem with philosophical material, is that every translator has their own terminology, and we don’t have a king who is going to be the sponsor for all translations saying that everybody has to translate with the same terms, standardizing, as they did in Tibet. So the only way around that that I can see is to give in a glossary the original term that you’re translating with your term.

And then what I would like to see… And we’re starting it a little bit with my website, but it’s such a big problem, big issue. And most translators aren’t consistent themselves. This is the problem. Jeffrey Hopkins at least is consistent. And I try to be consistent, so I update my old translations to my current terminology, and that you can do on the internet very easily. So what I would like to see is that you have a grand database searchable in English or Bulgarian or whatever language you want to work with, because now the databases that are available are only organized and searchable according to either Sanskrit or Tibetan, and that helps the translator, but it doesn’t help the reader. For the reader, it has to be organized and searchable according to English or Bulgarian or Russian, or whatever language, so they can type in a term that they find in a text, “deep awareness,” then click “Berzin” – I use “deep awareness” for jnana – and then they have all the different options. So they click “Hopkins” and they find Hopkins’s version, which is… I forget what he uses, “pristine awareness” or something like that, or you press “Alan Wallace” and you get “gnosis,” like that, so that you know the equivalency. Otherwise you can’t put translations by different translators together and see that they’re talking about the same thing. This has to be done. And in order for it to work, the translators have to be consistent within their own terminology. So this I find is very important. And as one goes through a lifetime career in translating, for sure your terminology is going to change. You’re going to find better ways of expressing things. You’ll get a good idea from another translator and say, “Oh, their translation is better. I’ll use it in mine.” And that’s the advantage of the internet. You can update, upgrade, all your old translations and be consistent.

Changkya Rolpe Dorje was a Mongolian lama who supervised the translation of the Kangyur and Tengyur, the words of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries, from Tibetan into Mongolian. He lived in the eighteenth century, and he wrote a short text on translation method (I have it translated on my website). And he says that sometimes you might find that there’s only one Mongolian word for several Tibetan words, or the other way around: there might be one term, like dharma, which has so many different meanings, different contexts, and you have to use different Mongolian words. And so, like this, he gave guidelines, and these I think are very helpful for any translator dealing with such different languages as we deal with, Asian and let’s say modern European languages. Sometimes you’re going to have to choose one word that is used for many different terms, and the other way around: for one term we have to use different words within our own language. And in different contexts, a word will work better than another word, so sometimes we have to be flexible.

But one of the things that one really has to avoid, I believe, is as in the example of the epithets of Buddha. Buddha is called Buddha and Shakyamuni and Tathagata and Sugata – there’s a whole list of so many different names of the Buddha – and sometimes people will just translate them all as “Buddha,” but this loses the richness of the tradition, and it’s very important to be fair to the tradition and deal with these epithets. And then of course it becomes a big problem: How do you translate Bhagavan, and how do you translate Tathagata and so on? Some people prefer to leave it in the original Sanskrit. Some people try to make a translation of them. With this as well one has to decide which ones are you going to translate and which ones are you going to leave in Sanskrit. And how are you going to leave it in, if you’re going to translate it? “Lord Buddha,” using “Lord” for Bhagavan, I really find a bit much. It’s going a bit too far, but so many people have used it.

Yes, they do. Simply say the word.

Right. But how do you translate Bhagavan? These are difficult terms.

Well, thank you very much. This has been an absolute pleasure, to speak with you and share some of my experience.

Original Audio from the Seminar