Posts Tagged ‘Translation’

The Challenge of translation – Faithful yes, but not a slave


While no one disputes that a translation must be truthful, the definition of truthfulness and the ways in which translators have striven to achieve it have varied over the centuries. Word-for-word translation has given way to translation of meaning with the translated text reading as naturally in the TL as the original did in the SL. Reconciling truthfulness and beauty is one of the most important challenges faced by translators.




Much has been said and written about the notion of faithfulness (or fidelity) in translation, even the sexist comment that a translation is like a woman : if is faithful it is not beautiful and if it is beautiful it is not faithful, as if being both faithful and beautiful were mutually exclusive

Obviously, like everything else, “faithfulness” depends on how you define it – a principle of loyalty or honesty or a matter of exactness and accuracy ; or  both ; or much more that that ) – and also it depends on what you relate it to – word or meaning ; the source language or the target language ; the source text or the target text ; the author or the reader.

Faithfulness will also depend on the different choices you make and the strategies you use in different translating situations (oral or written), with different texts (literary or technical ; philosophy, poetry, logics, etc…). And accordingly, it raises different types of difficulties. Usually technical translators are envious of literary translators because they do not have technical problems to solve, and literary translators are envious of technical translators because they only have technical questions to deal with. We Dharma translators, are not envious of anybody else, because we have both : the technical problems and all the rest…

Without getting into theoretical issues about linguistic theories in translation, I would like to relate this notion of faithfulness to my personal experience as a Dharma translator and  specially to one model of translation strategy developed by Lederer (2001) at the ESIT school of translators in Paris that I find interesting and useful.  So, as this exploration of the extent of faithfulness,  has mainly given me the opportunity to reconsider my ideas about translation and my involvement in translating Dharma I am afraid that apart from being a very self-centered talk, the rest might be very familiar to you and overrun.





In the early eighties, when the director of a FPMT center in France asked me to translate orally, from English to French, the teachings of the resident gueshé on Shiné and Lhaktong, I thought he was pulling my leg. First, I did not know who Shiné and Lhaktong were and did not think that just knowing a foreign language suddenly qualified someone to be a translator or worse an interpreter. On top of that How can you translate something you do not understand ? The reason that apparently made me a translator was that I understood English and had a degree in linguistics from a Canadian university. But speaking a language and translating a Buddhist senior monk talk about meditation and philosophy are for me two different things : in one case, you think you know what you are talking about, while in the other you know you don’t.

But curiosity and temptation were stronger than I thought, so I finally went up to meet Gueshé la in his room and find out more about the subject.

After hearing all my excuses about my incompetence, Gueshé La just smiled at me and said : ” Oh don’t be so shy just say the same thing in your own language ! ”

Saying the same thing in my own language ! That was exactly what I thought I could not do, as my knowledge of the thing itself was rather a non-thing and definitely not functional.


But as you cannot resist a wise and compassionate person, a few days later, after some more encouragement by Gueshé la, convincing me that there was not any body else around who could do it, I was sitting on the hot cushion, scared as a newborn lamb, trying to convey as faithfully as I could, that is almost word by word, whatever Gueshé la was saying. Sorry, whatever the English translator was saying, as I did not know Tibetan then. This was my first experience of translating Dharma : translating a Tibetan translator translating the words of a Tibetan scholar speaking about a subject I knew nothing about. This is how Dharma teachings were introduced in France when at this time when there were no direct Tibetan-French translators available. Taking any one who came close to accomplishing the function of a merely labeled translator. In that case ME.

Everybody knows the famous expression (traduttore, traditore) : that interpreters are traitors.  And in that case we were two traitors. Although some might argue that two traitors are probably better than just one, as betraying the traitor could be one step closer to truth !?! Anyway, we both joined our efforts as best we could, trying to translate every word like a dictionary would. Isn’t a dictionary the best tool for translating ? This is when I proudly started to consider myself as being just a tool at the service of Dharma and others. A Dharma translating machine so to speak.
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See the follow up to this blog post here.

Tengyur Translation Conference Banner


The crowd on the opening day of the conference in Atisha Hall

The “Tengyur Translation Conference: In the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda,” was held at the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS, formerly CIHTS) in Sarnath, India, with the support and attendance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Scholars, teachers, translators and Tibetan Lamas from many traditions attended the four day affair in the unusually cold January weather, which made Atisha Hall a large refrigerator throughout the proceedings. Despite the need to speak at the podium wearing North Face jackets and scarves, participants gave some excellent presentations and many lively discussions marked this important scholarly venture. Jointly held by CUTS and AIBS (American Institute of Buddhist Studies, Columbia, New York), the conference was to be a meeting of some of the best minds in Buddhist studies on the project of translating the entire Tengyur section of the Tibetan Canon. Such a project presents many organizational, theoretical, philological and economic problems, some of which were touched upon by various presenters. In fact, a key purpose for the conference was the assessment and discussion of such issues amongst a learned body of scholars.

Dr. Robert Thurman

The conference came together in large part due to the efforts of Robert Thurman’s “crew” at AIBS and the University of Columbia, Annie Bien and Tom Yarnall, and on the CUTS side, Shrikant Bahulkar and Ven. Ngawang Samten. Hats off to all those seen and unseen who provided for all the participants and laid the ground for the conference.

Dr. Thurman made a point to note that this conference was really the third in a set of conferences he felt built on one another, the first being the translator conference in Boulder and the second the Khyentse Foundation conference in Bir. This and other comments may have led some participants to wonder about the relationship between the organizations involved in each of these conferences, organizations which are in fact quite distinct. Although the stated projects and goals of each conference were somewhat different, probably the most important thing that links each of these conferences is the opportunity they provide for an ongoing dialog among translators and scholars who work with Tibetan texts. This, I think, is the most important outcome of these conferences and I hope it can continue. Regardless of the various organizations, politics and attempts at institution building, the translators, scholars and scholar-practitioners who attend these conferences benefit greatly from the time they share together. Every person I asked about the conference responded as most do at the conferences I have attended over the past few years: The most important aspect of the conference is the time outside of the scheduled events where they meet with colleagues and discuss finer points or are introduced to new people and ideas. However ephemeral and unquantifiable, it appears that the unchaperoned times are the real reason to attend such a conference.

One of the more concrete outcomes of the conference was the reports that were made on the state of translating Buddhist texts into a whole host of languages. Participants arrived from many countries to discuss translations of primarily Tibetan texts into English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Nepali, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, and other European languages. It was an impressive list really and particularly interesting to hear about the efforts of Nepali and Hindi translators. There were a number of calls from the audience to place more focus on the importance of translating Buddhist texts into the modern languages of India, as this was where the Buddha’s teaching originated. Ngawang Samten noted that at the Central University of Tibetan Studies about 60 texts have been translated into Hindi so that key commentaries are available to Indian peoples. Although it was a little difficult to piece together a clear picture of the state of Tengyur text translation around the world, the picture painted seemed to indicate that quite a lot of work is currently underway. While some presenters described the long history of translation efforts into their mother tongues (German, French, English), others decried a sad state of affairs (Spanish, Hindi). Although there appears to be work happening around the world, compared to the mountain of texts that exist as a part of the several known Tengyur catalogs, the world’s Tibetan translators still have a long way to go. One important point that was made by quite a number of delegates at the conference was that the key factor in translating texts into their language was not seen to be money or support, but expertise and training. There simply are not enough well-trained translators capable of working on what are some of the most difficult texts in Buddhist literature. Translating Tengyur texts is not just a matter of gathering together a group of people who are excited about the project and who know a little Tibetan. Time and again scholars at the conference noted the importance of establishing schools or finding other ways to support the development of truly qualified translators. The lack of qualified translators is felt not only in Spanish or Hindi or Russian, but in every language. What to do about it is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed by any organizational body wanting to tackle such an ambitious project.

Betsy Napper, who gave some of the most practical advice, suggested that a training program could be developed in which the younger generation of translators worked on draft translations of texts and then handed off their work to elder translators. Before any actual translation work should be done, however, she suggested the project be taken on in a modular way, first developing online and bibliographic tools, then creating groups to develop critical editions of texts, and so forth.

Alexander Berzin also presented practical advice for tackling the immense project by discussing lessons learned developing his “Berzin Archives” website. Truly an amazing accomplishment, the large network of translators, transcribers, editors, proofreaders, and other specialists that Dr. Berzin has developed provides a constantly evolving archive of translations and teachings on Buddhism in many languages worldwide. Dr. Berzin was therefore able to give specific advice about the development of tools for managing work-flow, tools for managing translation in many disparate languages – such as a wiki that all translators could log into – interlinked glossaries that allow standardization of terminology, separate online glossaries for readers, and so on.

The Dalai Lama himself also offered some interesting advice: Collect all the texts from the Asian canons (Chinese, Korean, Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan) and make sure that the texts missing from one are included in another. Once a “complete” canon is available, then translate that into modern western languages.

It remains to be seen what advice will be taken to heart as various projects to translate the Kangyur and Tengyur develop around the world. Robert Thurman’s American Institute of Buddhist Studies was the driving force behind this conference and they have been working on the project of translating texts from the Tengyur for some time. Their mission statement, as reported by Dr. Thurman at the opening of the conference, is “To create and support the necessary institutional framework within which to produce critical, readable, contemporary translations of the 3,600+ classical source texts of the “liberating arts and sciences” of the Indo-Tibetan civilization.” This is truly a massive undertaking and one that will need the support of many scholars and translators world-wide if it is to even begin to make headway. It will be very interesting to see what comes out of this exciting project in the coming years.

A seat waits for His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Summer Program: Words of Wisdom: Toward a Western Terminology for
Buddhist Texts Berkeley, CA, USA. June 14-July 2, 2010

Presented by the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages,
Berkeley, and co-sponsored by the Center for Buddhist Studies,
University of California at Berkeley and the Ho Center for Buddhist
Studies, Stanford University.

Core Faculty: Luis Gomez, Michael Hahn

Associate Faculty: Alex von Rospatt, Paul Harrison, Carmen Dragonetti,
Fernando Tola

Putting the Dharma into the words of a new culture is a task that has
traditionally unfolded over several generations. In the West, where
the languages of educated discourse are sophisticated and rich with
layers of meaning, the challenges of being able to convey the Buddhist
teachings as faithfully as possible are especially daunting.

This intensive three-week program, intended primarily for graduate
students in Buddhism, Indology, or allied fields, is a small step
toward a clear and consistent terminology or (more modestly)
developing skills and strategies for finding the best translation
equivalents in contemporary English. The text for the program is the
_Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra_. We will read the Sanskrit together with the
Tibetan and Chinese translations. This close reading will address
problems of interpretation, as well as the technical and stylistic
challenges faced by the translator of classical Buddhist
texts. Students should have facility in Sanskrit; knowledge of Tibetan
or Chinese will be helpful.

Format and Facilities

Guided by distinguished faculty, students will meet 5 hours a day, five days
a week to work with the challenges posed by the text. Sessions will be held
9:30 am – 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm – 5:30 pm. Meals are provided, and housing
an easy walk. Students will have access to the libraries of the Mangalam
Research Center and the University of California (a 15-minute walk). Rapid
Transit to San Francisco is half-a-block away.


The focus will be on key terms of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa in the context of
the profound Mahāyāna vision it sets forth. We will examine vocabulary
choices in both source and target languages, sensitive to subtle shifts in
meaning between languages with different philosophical underpinnings. Among
the topics to be explored and skills to be honed:

• Sanskrit roots, etymology, and the relation of Buddhist Sanskrit to other
forms of Sanskrit

• issues of context and intertexuality.

• comparison with the Tibetan and Chinese, with reference to commentaries.

• stylistic choices and terminology in existing translations in both
canonical and modern languages

• general issues in the theory and practice of translation as they arise in
rendering a classic Buddhist text into a modern idiom.


Tuition: $1,200 (includes lunch daily). Food and lodging: $1,350. Total
cost: $2,550.


The program is intended for advanced graduate students, but applications
from all qualified candidates will be considered. Please submit an
application by March 15, 2010 to
Include a short statement of purpose, a description of language skills and
how acquired, and a 1–2 paragraph letter of endorsement from your principal
adviser. Students completing the program will receive a certificate from the
University of California Buddhist Studies program indicating that this
program carries the equivalent of 8 semester units. Maximum number of
participants is 15. Applicants will be notified by April 10, 2010.

There are four interesting videos on translation on the page above: one talk from John Dunne, one from Sara McClintock, one from Tom Tillemans, and another from Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche.


Andreas Doctor and all the staff at Kathmandu University’s Centre for Buddhist Studies have been very busy so if you would like more information you can take a look at:

Or contact me,, if you want more information or if you would like to talk with Andreas, the director of studies at the Center for Buddhist Studies in Kathmandu.