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Charting the Future of Buddhist Translation

In March 2009, more than fifty of the world’s leading Tibetan–English translators, Buddhist scholars, and lamas met in Bir, India, to work out a plan for translating the Tibetan Buddhist canon. In this article originally published in the Fall 2009 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Peter Aronson reports on the conference and how it promises to shape the future of Dharma translation in the West.

I was just about to get up from the breakfast table and introduce myself to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche when Robert Thurman bounded up and intercepted him. Thurman was talking enthusiastically about some project, but I couldn’t catch the details.

Buddhadharma Fall 2009 cover

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We were at Deer Park Institute, a Dharma center belonging to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in the quiet Tibetan settlement of Bir in India’s Himalayan foothills. It was March, and more than fifty prominent translators, scholars, and lamas had gathered for a five-day conference on “Translating the Words of the Buddha.”

Thurman later told me what he’d been saying: Now that he’s semi-retired from his post as chair of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, he plans to devote the coming years to translating into English the 100,000-stanza Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. Most of us have read the Heart Sutra, which is a concise summary, but have never seen the full version.

As anglophone Tibetan Buddhists, we hear so much about what the Buddha taught, but often don’t get to read the teachings themselves. Why? One reason is that Tibetans, unlike those in most other Buddhist nations, tend not to emphasize the sutras. They prefer to rely on summaries, commentaries, and treatises by the great Indian teachers and Tibetan lineage lamas. The more important reason, though, is that the sutras remain largely untranslated into English.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, chair of the conference and founder and director of Nalandabodhi, said that without those sutras, the migration of Buddhism to the West is incomplete.

“We’re trying to establish a Western Buddhism lineage,” he said. “But without the original words of the Buddha, how can we claim to be a Western Buddhist order?” He was referring primarily to the collection of texts known in Tibetan as the Kangyur—more than 500 sutras and (in most editions) 1,100 tantras, most of which were translated from Sanskrit.
“We can have lots of lamas teaching, and Zen roshis and Theravadin monks, but these are all secondary,” he said.

The conference was organized by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and sponsored by his foundation. Dzongsar Khyentse—also known as filmmaker Khyentse Norbu, director of The Cup and Travellers and Magicians—is a lama from Bhutan who was recognized at age seven as the incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangmo, a founder of the Rimé school of Tibetan Buddhism.

‘Without the original words of the Buddha, how can we claim
to be a Western Buddhist order?’
The most ambitious aim of the conference was to lay the groundwork for translating the entire Kangyur. “When I learned that Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche wanted to translate the Kangyur into English, I was very encouraged,” Dzongsar Khyentse said in his opening remarks, adding, “It’s a massive task.” He stressed that although “it’s not the sole purpose of this conference,” it is a critical need that can no longer be ignored.

Translating the Kangyur is a feat that even the most optimistic observers estimate would take a dedicated team twenty-five years, with many saying it would take at least twice that—if not longer. But Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche emphasized the urgency of starting right away. “Those in the Tibetan community who are still able to understand and communicate in classical Tibetan are rare,” he said. “In about a hundred years there will be almost no Tibetans who can read the words of the Kangyur and understand their meaning, and very soon it will be too late to do anything about it.”

So these leaders in the field of Tibetan Buddhist translation met to hash out how to accomplish the task of translating the complete collection. In the end, they would draft ambitious plans for the next five, twenty-five, and one hundred years that go beyond even the translation of the Kangyur.

How much English is too much?

First, though, the group spent a lot of time tackling nitty-gritty questions that translators have been wrestling with for years. One key issue was how much of the Buddhist terminology should be translated into English, and how much can be left in the original language. In one heated discussion, the translators debated whether they’d be short-changing anglophones by leaving in too many foreign words, particularly from Sanskrit.

When the Tibetans imported the sutras, tantras, and philosophical treatises from India, they left hardly any Sanskrit words untranslated. Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, a Nyingma lama who lives in France, said English translators should emulate that example. “We have to really find the right word in our target language,” he said. “We must not keep Sanskrit!”

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