Workshop for Tibetans Translating Dharma: Report

From March 13 to 22, 1995, a workshop entitled "Training Camp on Buddhist Translation Methodology" was held at the Sri Aurobindu Ashram, New Delhi, for Tibetan translators from Tibetan to English to improve their written translation skills. The workshop was inspired by a recommendation made by Mr. Lhalung Losang Phuntshog and followed the guidelines he set. It was organized by Tibet House, New Delhi, under the leadership of its director, Ven. L. T. Doboom Tulku, and sponsored by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

The workshop camp was attended by seven participants, one each from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the Sakya College, and the Office of Information and International Relations, and two each from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics and Tibet House. Participants from the Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies, Sarnath, had to cancel at the last moment due to unforeseen circumstances. The workshop was led by two resource persons from the Translation Bureau of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Thupten K. Rikey and Dr. Alexander Berzin.

The course focused on issues of Tibetan and English grammar, style and terminology. The participants translated selected passages of verse and prose and received critiques and suggestions for improvement. Selections of verse included both original Tibetan compositions as well as translations from Sanskrit. Prose selections were taken from modern political biographies, classical Buddhist philosophical treatises, materials for meditative practice and prayer, and historical edicts. Through analysis of each word and construction of the sample passages in depth and detail, the participants were able to cover the main problematic areas. They explored techniques for creating good translations that are both faithful and honest to the original Tibetan, as well as which read naturally and pleasurably in English. The participants also evaluated selected passages from the works of well-known translators of Tibetan in order to discover and learn from both their strengths and weaknesses.

Some of the major points taught were:

  • how to avoid the two extremes of translating in either an over-literal or over-liberal manner,
  • when to follow Tibetan word order and structure and when to violate these to follow logical English order,
  • the importance of retaining the emphasis of the original sentence and how the word order of the translation affects the emphasis,
  • how to break long, complex Tibetan sentences into smaller English ones,
  • how to connect clauses and sentences in English so as to retain the flow of thought,
  • translating root texts in such a way as to allow for multiple commentaries,
  • how to retain the multivalent ambiguity of a Tibetan text in English translation without rendering it meaningless,
  • guidelines for when to fill in the meaning of a text with added words in English in order to make it intelligible, and the advantages and disadvantages of including these in parentheses,
  • how to translate particular Sanskrit constructions, such as relative clauses, in works that are Tibetan translations from Sanskrit,
  • the importance of meter in translating poetic verse,
  • basic principles of English meter,
  • considerations of meter when choosing among several synonyms for translating words in verse,
  • considerations of slang meanings of English words that might affect readers' understanding of them,
  • differences in British, American and Indian English vocabulary, style and punctuation,
  • the need to be sensitive to gender issues and to translate the third person singular pronoun as "he or she" rather than just "he" when the pronoun can refer to both,
  • the advantages and disadvantages of rendering all technical Buddhist terms into English, leaving some in Sanskrit, or translating some in a combination of English and Sanskrit, for instance rendering byang-chub-sems as dedicated heart, bodhichitta, or dedicated heart of bodhichitta,
  • the need to consult the definitions of technical terms given by several authors from various Tibetan Buddhist traditions in order to accommodate as many of them as possible in the choice of a translation term,
  • the need for flexibility in the translation of technical terms, such as chos, that have more than one meaning which cannot all be conveyed by any one English term,
  • avoiding translating several Buddhist technical terms, such as shes-rab and ye-shes, with one English word, such as "wisdom," which then loses the distinction among the original terms,
  • the limitations of dictionaries
  • the importance of being sensitive to the differences in the connotations of seemingly equivalent Tibetan and English words, such as sems and "mind," and the need for translating words such as sems as "mind" or "heart" depending upon the context,
  • the need for translating some Tibetan words with English phrases and for having both a full and an abbreviated version of those phrases, for instance for byang-chub-sems, either "heart dedicated to full enlightenment" or "dedicated heart,"
  • adjusting the translation of a Tibetan term so as to fit into the context of either a verse or prose composition, especially when the translation is meant for recitation and practice,
  • the advantages and disadvantages of translating all syllables of Tibetan technical terms, such as bcom-ldan-’das as "the one who overcame and gained all," or translating the connotation of the original Sanskrit term, bhagavan as "the consummate one,"
  • the advantages and disadvantages of translating technical terms such as dgra-bcom-pa with English expressions, such as "liberated being," which convey the sense rather than the etymology,
  • translating geographic names in accordance with the usage during the historical period of the composition of the text in which they appear, for instance retaining Ra-sa instead of Lha-sa in a text from the seventh century,
  • transliteration and phonetic transcription systems for Tibetan proper names,
  • the translation of abbreviated or eulogized names and titles, such as rJe Rin-po-che or bLa-ma rDo-rje-’chang,
  • the translation of poetic metaphors, such as "water-born" for "lotus,"
  • the importance of avoiding awkward, computer-style translations,
  • fine points of English grammar, style and vocabulary.

Several guest lecturers addressed the workshop. Dr. Lokesh Chandra of the International Academy of Indian Culture, New Delhi, delivered two lectures. In his first, Dr. Chandra spoke about the history of translation, in a world perspective as well as particularly within the Tibetan Buddhist context. He discussed some of the traditional techniques used by the ancient Indo-Tibetan translation teams and emphasized the need for creativity and fluency of expression. He pointed out that Tibetan was one of the six great classical languages of the world, in addition to Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Chinese and Arabic, and that after Sanskrit, Tibetan is a more subtle language than the other four for expressing complex philosophical concepts and logic. This point led to later discussion about the ability of modern languages to express the complexity and sophistication of the original Tibetan.

In his second lecture, Dr. Lokesh Chandra elaborated on the impact of translations on the progress of civilization and the responsibility of translators in the transmission of culture. Drawing upon examples of translations from Sanskrit into Chinese, he illustrated some of the techniques with which culturally specific concepts have been creatively translated into the idioms of other societies. He also discussed the reasons why the early Tibetan translators correlated etymology with sense when they coined technical translation terms for the Mahavyutpatti compendium of Sanskrit-Tibetan equivalents. Since the meaning of some terms eluded early Tibetan tribal society, the translators could only turn to the etymology for devising terms. Since this is not the case with modern languages, Dr. Chandra suggested there is no need at present to translate terms etymologically.

Dr. Elliot Sperling, Associate Professor of Tibetan Studies from the Department of Central Asian Studies of Indiana University, U. S. A., and currently a visiting Fulbright Professor of Tibetan Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, lectured about methodological problems involved in translations of Tibetan historical materials, such as the identification of personal and place names. He touched on the topics of translating titles and dates, and emphasized the importance of consulting multiple editions of any text in order to compile a critical edition before attempting a translation. He also spoke of the advantages of representing Tibetan names in scientific transliteration of the spelling, and not with phonetic transcription of their pronunciation. Afterwards, Professor Sperling provided each participant of the workshop with a bibliographical list of selected tools for research and translation in Tibetan Studies that he had prepared. It included major bibliographies, selected dictionaries, chronologies, sources of geographical information and collections of biographies.

Dr. Satya Bhushan Verma, Professor of Japanese at the Center for East Asian Languages of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, also delivered two lectures to the workshop. The first concerned the art of translation. In it, Professor Verma dealt with such topics as customizing the style of a translation according to the nature and style of the original text, the purpose of the translator and the audience for whom it is intended. He addressed the issue of how to deal with honorific language and proverbs, stressing the need to remain natural in the target tongue. He discussed how to treat ambiguities and other stylistic difficulties in the text to be translated. He also emphasized the need to read through an entire text before beginning a translation in order to become acquainted with the style, the flow of the argument of the text and the usage of technical terms. He furthermore stressed that the smallest meaning unit one should work with is a sentence and not a word or phrase.

Professor Verma's second lecture concerned the translation of culturally specific elements. He recommended translating not the word, but the idea behind the word. Words are not merely words to be looked up in a dictionary, he explained. Each word has a history behind it that is shared in the experience of the society in which it has evolved. When the target society for the translation of that word lacks that experience, it is essential that the translator personally knows the two societies and their experiences well, not just the two languages. Only when the translator can experience himself or herself the idea behind the word, can he or she begin to convey the experience of its meaning to readers from another culture.

Mr. Pema Bhum, co-director of the Tibetan Center for Advanced Studies of the Amnye Machen Institute, discussed issues specific to the translation of works of fiction. He recommended visualizing situations and scenes described in novels and stories. If they become vivid in the translator's mind, the translator will be able to render them in a more lively fashion.

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, the academic director of the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, New Delhi, and founder of the Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies, Sarnath, discussed the importance of considerations of both meter and meaning in the translation of both verse and prose. Since a great deal of both Sanskrit and Tibetan literature was intended for memorization and oral recitation, one must try to convey, in translations of these materials into modern languages, at least a taste of the connection between the sound and the meaning. She explained how terms are conceptually complex with a hierarchy of primary and secondary meanings and derivative terms. She raised the question of whether one should or even can retain in translation the connection between such words as Brahma, brahmin and brahmacharya. She also explained the relevance of the Indian philosophical concept of apavada, the acceptance of the principle of exception to the rules. A translator must know what constitutes a regulatory system and what constitutes exceptions, and based on experience, always maintain the power of discretion to make exceptions, for instance in grammar and the use of contractions in a poetic text. A translator must not be rigid like a computer, but remain creative. Dr. Vatsyayan also cautioned against the premature standardization of translation terms and phonetic transcription systems since there are still no satisfactory solutions.

Dr. Geza Bethlenfalvy, the director of the Hungarian Cultural and Information Center in New Delhi and research fellow of the Central Asian Department of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, shared the experience of the translators from Tibetan into Mongolian and from classical Asian languages into Hungarian. He stressed the need for poets to become translators and to try to make poems out of their translations. He also pointed out that unless one is translating for an audience that already knows a great deal about the subject matter, such as was the case with the Mongols towards Buddhism several centuries after its advent to their country, it is essential to translate a text clearly with a minimum of foreign terms so that newcomers can understand its meaning.

The two research persons for the workshop camp also delivered lectures to the participants. Dr. Alexander Berzin spoke about problems in style and vocabulary. He emphasized the need for finding a middle path between being over-literal and taking too much liberty with a text, particularly root texts that must serve as a framework for multiple commentaries. He pointed out the misunderstandings of Buddhism that have arisen among Westerners due to the translators' use of technical terms in English that have either irrelevant Christian connotations, incorrect philosophical meanings, inappropriate emotional implications, or which are either imprecise, awkward or meaningless jargon. He also addressed the issue of how much Sanskrit to use in translations of Buddhist materials and problems in choice of English style.

Thupten K. Rikey lectured on the history of different styles of Tibetan religious and secular literature, and translation problems that arise specific to each. He emphasized the need to translate each style, and indeed each author, with a different style of English. If every text prepared by a translator is in the same style of English, the richness of the scope of the original language will be lost.

A panel discussion seminar was held on the day before the conclusion of the conference. Dr. Alexander Berzin summarized and reported the proceedings of the workshop, and then Thupten Rikey, Dr. Lokesh Chandra, Dr. Satya Bhushan Verma, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr. Geza Bethlenfalvy, offered their comments and advice.

On the last day of the conference, the resource persons and several participants offered suggestions. Almost every speaker had emphasized that it is easier if a translator is translating into his or her own native language. It is almost impossible for a non-native speaker to write as naturally as a native one. Therefore it was recommended that Tibetans knowing English who wish to translate should not put all their effort into attempting to learn how to prepare a finished English translation themselves. Rather, it might be better for them to focus on either (1) preparing a rough translation into English and then helping a native English-speaking fellow translator understand the meaning and structure so that this Western colleague might prepare the polished version, or (2) translate texts from English into Tibetan, working in a team with a native English-speaker who can explain the meaning and structure of the English when there are questions. In either case, it was recommended that translations be made by the team effort of Tibetans and Westerners collaborating together.

It was therefore recommended that in the future a similar workshop be held for Tibetan translators who render texts from English into Tibetan. This workshop might focus on the skills required for translating into colloquial Tibetan (1) Buddhist materials, (2) children's books, (3) news, (4) literature of other religions, philosophy, psychology and science, and (5) technological materials.

If books on Buddhism are not available in colloquial Tibetan, but only in the classical religious language, Tibetan laypersons, both in exile and in Tibet, will remain largely ignorant of their own culture and religion. Then, as is the case with Mongolia, when Tibet gains its independence, there will be much cultural confusion and displacement. This is because it will be impossible to compete with the Christian missionaries who will certainly have literature about their religion and culture in colloquial Tibetan. For this task, then, in addition to rendering Buddhist texts directly from the classical into the colloquial language, it will be very helpful to translate basic introductory Dharma books from English since they are often easier to understand. A great deal of attention must be paid to finding colloquial equivalents for technical terminology in the classical religious language. If classical terms are merely borrowed into the colloquial texts without any attempt to render them into modern terms, many people will not understand them.

Furthermore, if there are no textbooks in colloquial Tibetan beyond the fifth grade, there is the danger that, with independence, when people will naturally want to eliminate all textbooks in Chinese from the school syllabus, the students, not knowing English or any other language, will be left with nothing to study. This will have disastrous effects on the standard of education and the future of Tibet.

It was also recommended that methods be explored for helping the Mongolians establish similar translation programs and workshops to deal with the problems they face that are similar to the ones challenging the Tibetans. The Mongols lack Buddhist materials in colloquial Mongolian to meet the Christian missionaries' challenge, and they wish to reject Russian textbooks in their schools.

Finally, it was recommended that Tibetan-Chinese translators be recruited from the bilingual new arrivals from Tibet, and a similar workshop be held for training them to translate Tibetan Buddhist texts into colloquial Chinese. If there are those who know English as well, introductory books could also be translated from English into Chinese. There is much interest in Tibetan Buddhism among many Chinese since they consider it to be a form of Chinese Buddhism. The more the Chinese can read authentic books on Buddhism, the more their minds will transform, contributing to Sino-Tibetan harmony.

The participants, resource persons and organizers all felt that the workshop camp was a valuable experience for everyone involved. It provided not only an opportunity to sharpen and improve the translators' skills, but also a forum for sharing translation experience and insight. At the conclusion, the resource persons and participants offered to Tibet House the translation of Eight Verses for Mind-Training (Blo-sbyong tshig-brgyad-ma) that they had prepared as a team effort.