August 26, 2014

What's in a Word?

The trials of a major effort to translate Tibetan scripture into English

Sarah K. C. Wilkinson

Terminology. Syntax. Diction. All words likely to send my mind wandering. And yet there I was, at the conference of 84000: Translating the Words of Buddha, in Bodhgaya, India, in a room full of high lamas and scholars who were convening to determine how to transmit Mahayana teachings to the world. It wasn’t just important. It was fascinating.

I had been volunteering for 84000a nonprofit global initiative to translate the Tibetan Kangyur (the words of the Buddha) and Tengyur (the accompanying commentaries) into modern languages—for several years when I was offered an invitation to their first official seminar, “Advice from the Tradition.” I jumped at the chance to observe the conference—not just because of the impressive invitation list (a who’s who of Tibetan Buddhism), but also because being a fly on the wall at this kind of intimate gathering could deepen my understanding of the more serious issues that underlie such a major translation effort.

By Western standards, the somewhat dark and outdated library of Shechen Monastery seemed an unlikely meeting place for lamas and scholars of this caliber. The tired, yellowing room was preserved, apparently, for use on very rare and special occasions. A small commotion outside one of the windows disrupted my thoughts: the local press was angling for the perfect shot of the unusual sight of four lineage masters (Ven. Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, H.E. Sakya Ratna Vajra Rinpoche, Khenchen Pema Sherab Rinpoche, Prof. Sempa Dorji) sitting elbow to elbow.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche gave the opening address. He spoke enthusiastically of the global swelling of interest in Buddhism, and stressed the need for all those “holding the teachings” of the Buddha to facilitate their spread. Making the words of the dharma understandable, he argued, is probably the best means of doing so.

Editorial committee members John Canti and Tom Tillemans explained that, ideally, translations should be accessible, permanent (as much as possible), uniform in quality and presentation, not identified with any single group or tradition, and worthy of being widely recognized as both authentic and reliable.

This combination of features is not nearly as easy to accomplish as it might sound. For non-scholars like myself, accurate translations can be inaccessible, if not simply unappealing, due to their indecipherable terminology and copious notes. Furthermore, any hyper-scholarly approach places a huge burden on the translator to research even the most remote details and contexts.

The key to making the project feasible, Canti suggested, lies in finding “a common sense middle way between the uncritical acceptance of a single version and the laborious scientific exactitude” expected of some institutions. The original aim in the translation process, as Tillemans put it, was pragmatism. But this goal had proved far more difficult than the translators had originally imagined.

For non-native Buddhists, coming to grips with new terminology is of the utmost importance when it comes to adopting the Buddhist worldview. It is not just a question of adding extra concepts into one’s own cultural vocabulary. Like English, Tibetan has its own ideology and worldview built into it. To make the foreign teachings of the Buddha accessible, questions such as “How does this fit into our schema, our world?” naturally arise for the translator. “How do I make this relevant?” Having different backgrounds, education, and styles of learning, English translators around the world will inevitably answer these questions differently and produce varying interpretations.

For example, the Sanskrit term dharmadhatu is translated in many different ways. That first afternoon, I found myself listening in on a heated debate about how that word alone was making it difficult for the translators to progress in a way that felt uniform. The back-and-forth went something like this:

Senior Scholar: How are the words translated then?

Editor: “Realm of phenomena”; “basic space of phenomena”; “space of phenomena”; “expanse of phenomena.”

Translator: “Sphere of reality.”

Editor: The underlying question is this: Does dharma in this case mean “phenomena” or does it mean “law,” “religion,” “truth,” or “reality?” “Sphere of reality” is the old style of translating dharmadhatu. But I think this definition still fits in some cases.

Senior Scholar: But dhatu refers not to “space” but to “essence,” so that dharmadhatu means “the essence of all phenomena.” It can be different in different contexts, but dharma refers to “phenomena” and dhatu refers to “reality” or “essence”—not “space” or “sphere,” but the “essence” or “nature” of the dharma. . . something like that.

Senior Scholar: They should be understood differently in the Sutrayana and Tantrayana. Generally, in the context of the Tantrayana, it might be understood as “wisdom mind.”

Senior Scholar: The Sanskrit word dhatu is translated in many different ways in the Abhidharma (the section of the canon that schematizes characteristics of mind and reality).

Translator: It’s hard to think of dhatu as a “sphere”; I think this translation is problematic.

Editor: What about the four dharmadhatu of the Chinese Avatamsaka school?  Dharmadhatu where the principle and phenomena don't obstruct each other, and dharmadhatu where the phenomena don't obstruct phenomena, etc? Here it's rather difficult to take the dharma in dharmadhatu as itself referring to phenomena. In this case the meaning of dharma is probably closer to “reality” than “phenomena.” It might be better to say “sphere of reality” after all!

Senior Scholar: This is a very big subject. You’d have to be a ninth bhumi bodhisattva to come to a conclusion!

Senior Scholar: Maybe we can simplify dhatu and not have it be so complicated. The original meaning of dhatu is actually “source.” That is the fundamental meaning. So whenever it can be translated as “source,” that is best. Otherwise you’ll need to figure out the right word based on its context.

I was still stuck trying to understand what “phenomena don’t obstruct each other” meant when, thankfully, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche suggested that dharmadhatu might be one of those words that should be left in its original form.

This suggestion brought up the ongoing debate about whether or not it’s important to translate each and every word from the source language to the target language. The beauty of English, it is sometimes argued, is that it easily absorbs popular terms from other languages into its own vernacular. Words such as samsara and nirvana, for example, are already in Webster’s Dictionary. But, as Tillemans pointed out, whether or not terms remain in Sanskrit, the English speaker still needs to know what these words mean.

The second day of the conference began with a conversation on the issue of Sanskrit. The majority of Tibetan sutras do not have Sanskrit versions, which were lost during the political upheaval in India in the 11th to 13th centuries. But because the Sanskrit (and Pali) recordings of the Buddha’s teachings are considered the most reliable and accurate recordings of what the Buddha taught, the translation team is expected to have “an underlying understanding of Sanskrit” in order to fully understand the Tibetan translations and translate them into other languages. Tillemans and Canti likened it to having the writings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant translated into Italian, only to have the German versions subsequently lost or burned. Imagine someone from Japan wanting to translate Kant’s treatises into Japanese, with only the Italian version available. In this case, it would be incumbent upon the translator to have not only knowledge of Italian and Japanese but also a working knowledge of German (and an understanding of Kantian philosophy and writing style). The translator would rely significantly on his or her knowledge of the German Kantian texts to inform the Italian-Japanese translation. In a similar way, although the Sanskrit texts no longer exist, the Tibetan-English translator must think of them as being “virtually somewhere, even if it is only in the imagination of the translator.”

Making matters even more complicated, one of the senior scholars brought up the point that there are also many different kinds of Sanskrit—the dharma council met over a period of 200 years and the language changed over that period, as languages do. So there’s no exact science to the translation of Sanskrit, either. Furthermore, the Buddha taught neither in Sanskrit nor in Pali. The earliest scriptures were recorded in these languages, but the Buddha spoke in a local dialect best described as “the language of Magadha.” Even the Tibetan translations are not necessarily in a unified language; they are subject to dialectal, cultural, and other contextual influences. Scholar-translators need to be aware of all these variations.

“Don’t be too brave,” came a warning from one of the scholars. “Be very careful.”

“It is a risky business, but it’s a risk that Buddhist scholars have to take,” concluded Samdhong Rinpoche.

In an afternoon session without the lamas, questions were raised about how to deal with gender issues, tantric texts, repetitive phrases, and how best to address annotation. Some of these issues were bringing me precipitously close to the edge of my “this is interesting stuff” threshold. But suddenly I noticed some tension arising among the translators, and my curiosity was aroused once again. On the subject of annotation, two of the translators suggested that there didn’t need to be so much emphasis on “light annotation.” Technology today allows readers to choose whether or not they want more information (through the use of hyperlinks, for example), so why not err on the side of more information? Then it was proposed that the translators think of their glossary entries and notes as “an altruistic act.” They should ask, “What’s helpful to the educated reader?” It was clear, however, that what some considered helpful, others considered burdensome. “Less is more” versus “more is more.” It would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

The final day of the seminar concluded with advice from the senior scholars. Vajra Ratna Rinpoche reiterated the need for translators to have a profound contextual understanding of the texts and the importance of relying both on the commentaries (Tengyur) and qualified Buddhist teachers. Stressing the value of motivation, Khenchen Sherab Pema Rinpoche said that despite the inherent risks, “we should still go ahead and translate the words of Lord Buddha with good intention, courage, patience, and determination, keeping in mind that it is for the temporal and ultimate benefit of all beings.” Professor Sempa Dorji requested that each of those present formally “take responsibility” for the translations. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, addressing the traditional lineage representatives, added that, as “dharma-holders,” the responsibility to support this project was in fact already theirs.

Right at the beginning of the conference, a dear friend and longtime disciple of Buddhism had asked me with a tone of playful disdain, “Are you really interested in this stuff?” Tibetan translation may not be World Cup soccer, but as Buddhists or those interested in Buddhism, how can we not be impressed by the meticulous and sometimes mind-numbing effort required to translate the Buddha’s words? How can we not admire, if even in a better-you-than-me sort of way, those who have devoted themselves to making these teachings available? Anyone with an interest in Buddhism is in some way also a “dharma holder.” It behooves us all, then, to have at least an awareness of and an appreciation for the ongoing effort to translate Buddhist scriptures.

Sarah K. C. Wilkinson leads the North America team for 84000 and is a candidate for a Master of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy at University of the West.

Image 1: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche speaks of the importance of collaboration in translation. From left to right: Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Ven. Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, H.E. Sakya Ratna Vajra Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Khenchen Pema Sherab Rinpoche. Photo courtesy of Pawo Choyning Dorji.
Image 2: "Updating Yamantaka" by Tenzing Rigdol, courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
wsking's picture

I am worried about two things:
First, that Tibetan scholarship in translating is not as good or as up-to-date as ours, and that it works with different goals and standards than ours in the west, particularly when it comes to historical data and dates. Therefore, I think it is really important for us to work together in multi-cultural and multi-lingual teams mutually helping and reinforcing each other. Everybody shares, everybody learns, all decisions are group based. Buddhist scholarship and translation is such a broad field, with the necessity of so many different areas of expertise that I don't see how any one person could have them all. So I really think that teams of translators should try to work together and so come up with a richer and more accurate body of translations in the future. Lama Yeshe and Venerable Tsong Rimpoche said it would take about two to three hundred years to get it done.

My main worry is that with the new/old threat of Islamic extremism arising again, I think it behoves us to get the valuable materials out of India and into the west as quickly as possible so that the entire body of work to be done and all the supporting materials and personnel are here safe and sound. I do not think we should be cavalier about the danger of Islamic terror groups arising in India. They surely will, if they have not already. If you think about where the materials are now and how we could get them out safely to the west, you will see that the transportation/escape routes are few and could be easily controlled/blocked by damaging a handful of roads. Therefore, we should start to think about how to do it now, while we have the chance. We should move on this before it becomes necessary to do it. Because India is India, the situation could deteriorate so quickly that even a few days could make a difference in saving the libraries or loosing them forever.

If this happens, the Tibetan and Hindu communities are in danger. That said, extremists seem to target Muslims as well, so the danger is even greater. If these translations are going to be done, they will be within a politically dangerous future. We should think of that and move now to make sure everything we need and everyone we need have a safe and secure environment to come to, if worst comes to worst. Lama Zopa has said that very very soon the whole world will have wars everywhere, so we should move quickly NOW!!! to get ready and preserve what we can and must.

I cannot express my personal sense of danger and urgency strongly enough. We really must take this very seriously now and not put it off. We must start thinking about what we would do and how we would do it now. I am so mad at myself for not having prepared to help with this in my lifetime. What the hey was I thinking?

Dolgyal's picture

India is a country that just sent a probe to Mars, it is not teetering on the brink of extinction. They have extensive defense capability. Although the Muslim population of India is substantial, the Hindu majority numbers about one billion.
The late Gene Smith has already accomplished the transfer you are proposing, there are very few pechas that are not found in America, thanks largely to his and others life's work. I do agree the scholarly standard need to be high. One obstacle is the anti-Tibetan agitation campaign run by misinformed western neophytes, it is not helpful to the project of transmitting the dharma.

wsking's picture

Dear Dolgyal,
Thankyou for your response. I do not know what you mean by an "Anti-Tibetan agitation campaign". I know that many texts are already here, but simply want to speak in a cautionary manner about the very real possibilities taking shape for political problems in the future.

India does have great capabilities. Unfortunately, what they don't have is ironclad organization and proceedures. That will be their undoing in an emergency. Attacked on several fronts at once, and they will be, they will not be able to act quickly enough in a coordinated manner to defend anything. They simply have not put into place the substantial organizational proceedures, transportation and local government power structures and public safety organisations and infrastructures on a national level that they will need, and the Chinese know this!

If you have ever lived in India, you know what I am talking about. Their response to anything serious is usually overwhelmed by emotion, not reason, and quickly and immediately dissolves into a comedy of opinions, not reasoned fact, errors and missed chances. I love them, but I only speak the truth about the weaknesses I see in the people I love. Personally, I have the same weakness, and struggle to overcome it.

Let me gie you an example of what I am talking about: in Dharamsala, the local mayor was incredibly proud that they had bought a modern firetruck. Someone's house caught on fire in town, and they rushed the firetruck over there, only to realise that it had not been filled with water! And how was it to be filled? By hand, with buckets. It was such a big truck that it took hours to do that, many people, the house burned down and then they discovered that the truck was too big to get it down the narrow little lanes anyway! It was stuck and they couldn't back it up and get it out! By then it was very late at night, everybody was tired so they all went home and went to bed and left it there for a few days until someone came who was able to back it up and get it out. Now you can laugh, but that is typical of India and how things are done. That is what I mean by no organization or infrastructure. It has been forty years, there is always improvement, but mostly in the big cities. How about out in the country? Nobody cares!

The Chinese are not going to be so affectionate and will take advantage of internal chaos if Islamic terrorist movements take hold.It is my hope that should these things come to pass, Tibetan teachers and western students are in a solid position to continue translating without much trouble. I would hate to loose the only person who knows the hidden teaching in one pecha because of a sniper's bullet to the "godless infidels".

So that is what is at stake. We must protect lives, art and literature, and we must plan. Please, heed my warning! Remember why Nalanda is in ruins. There must be some karmic connection between Islamic violence and the rise of Buddhism, the two seem to go together.

Dolgyal's picture

I feel there is no outside party who would seriously wish to govern the Indian subcontinent, the British left in a hurry because the the colony was ultimately a financial liability. Although Maoist Nepal has now essentially crumbled to Chinese influence and India's Arunachal Pradesh is still disputed, in the plains the PRC already have what they want: a huge market for their goods. So where would a threat come from? Pakistan and Bangladesh have trouble keeping their heads above water.
What I mean by "Anti-Tibetan agitation campaign" is the massive online propaganda assault that emanates primarily from Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and the white New Kadampa Tradition cultists. I recommend two books 'The Dalai Lama and the King Demon' and also 'Dolgyal Shugden: A History' both available on Amazon.
For more detailed information on this topic, please see:

wsking's picture

Dolgyal, you are uninformed and naïve, more than 45 incidents of aggressive action by the Chinese along the northern border in Ladakh and Assam have already occurred this year. The incidents are increasing in frequency and violence.

Arjun purohit's picture

I will be grateful if anybody knows of any English translation of Sakyamitra's Koshalankara.

Arjun Purohit

wsking's picture

Dear Arjun, Here is your answer:
To the Library of Congress:
Dear Sirs; Is there an English Translation of Sakyamitra's Koshalankara? or perhaps spelled Shakyamitra and Kosha Lankara ?
Amazon doesn't have it, Motilal Benarsidas does not list it in their latest catalogue. I was hoping you might have a copy if it exists?
Thank you. Wendy King 828-778-8001

Librarian 1: Dear Wendy,
I regret to inform you that this book or its translation is not in Library's collection. As a matter of fact it seems no library has this item. I searched WorldCat and HathiTrust Digital Library etc. Do you know the title of the translation and who has translated it
Libraries in India like Jawahar Lal University Library, National Archives etc. might be able to help. The catalogs are available online.With Regrets,Nuzhat

Sorry, Arjun, but maybe you can get started translating it!
Why not!? What else is there to do?

wsking's picture

Arjun, Namaste, why are you upside down? is it because all phenomena do not obstruct each other or because you are standing on the ceiling? If you are upside down, why isn't your hair falling down, up, I mean?

I have checked, they don't have one.
I checked the 2013-2014 catalogue of Motilal Benarsidass in India under the the Buddhism category and they don't have it. So I wrote to the Asian department at the Library of Congress and asked if they knew if it existed and if so did they have it. They should get back to me in a few days and I'll let you know.

Also, the University of Wisconsin has a huge Buddhist collection. Also you might check the Harvard-Yenching library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, if there is no English translation, why don't you translate it? All you need is an original text, some dictionaries, a close relationship with a few professors, and you too could enter the realms of great translators!!
P.S. Are you sure about the spelling? I am asking because with that spelling Google didn't turn up anything either. Strange if the spelling is correct. I also suggested to the Library of Congress Shakyamitra and Kosha Lankara

sanghadass's picture

I think he is upside down coz he did not want to be a square! on realizing his image was trapped in a square he decided to invert himself as the next best thing. Where do squares exist? Were they invented or discovered? I heard they were spanish! Just another half-baked attempt at thinking outside da box!

wsking's picture

The earliest discoveries in geometry were made in ancient civilizations, namely India! so whatever box Arjun is in, it must be hereditary, but that doesn't answer the question: Why is he upside down? Is he upside down in actuality or only in appearance? If so, is this a valid cognition or a merely labled projection on an innocent object? Will he get headaches? Should he be rescued? Where are his feet anyway? I wonder. These things trouble me. I hope he is okay.
LOL! :-D

mattbard's picture

...... having some traditional titles in my home library, I can appreciate the difficulties involved. Most mind numbing , to me, is the cultural gap further obscured by the passing centuries. Contextually, what does a 12 century Lama / author have in common with me? How can we "talk" ? only in distilled rarefied philosophical concepts? that would make us both eye rolling crazy. ....much insight and wisdom to the translators. m

idohair30382's picture

I was thinking the exact same as I read this. Thank u for posting for me!

Dominic Gomez's picture

I hope it'll be clear from the start that the 84000 project is a quite recent effort to translate Tibetan understandings of the sutras into modern languages.

wsking's picture

Dominic, there already are translation groups in each of the major sects that have been working on translating the basic writings of their lineages into several languages for the last forty years. The Kanjur/Tanjur project is a new approach to something that has been going along for quite some time.

There are also international groups of scholars who have been updating and retranslating since the Raj, focusing on seminal sutras, commentaries, and later writings from each of the three vehicles, usually as individuals or as friends working together. All the translation projects need money and support. Its a worthy cause that will certainly benefit many generations after us. The Chinese are currently working on cataloguing, restoring, and listing all the scriptures found in the Dunhuang caves, as well as restoring the magnificent artwork of the caves themselves.
They also intend to translate what they have found as they are able.

I love to think that these meditation techniques will percolate into all the surviving religions and benefit people far into the future. It is one thing to say "Love your enemies and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you." and another to have actual techniques to help turn the mind and strengthen the ability to love, to have ways to finesse the intractable proud and stubborn mind of righteous hatred. How could there be any greater benefit?