Charting the Future of Buddhist Translation

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The idea of working on a project of such massive importance for Buddhism in the West created a buzz among those attending, and an unprecedented enthusiasm for collaboration.

Most of the brainstorming happened outside the main conference hall. Excited to meet like-minded translation enthusiasts, the men and women exchanged ideas and email addresses over apple strudel and Indian chai.

And then there were the translation jokes. After Catherine Dalton of the Rangjung Yeshe Institute introduced herself to me, a man sitting across the table added, “And I’m Christian Wedemeyer of rangjung namshe.”

I stared blankly.

Rangjung yeshe means ‘spontaneously arisen wisdom,’ ” explained a smiling Wedemeyer, who was actually from the University of Chicago Divinity School. “Rangjung namshe means ‘spontaneously arisen ordinary awareness.’ ”

Right. Well … If only I could speak Tibetan, I’m sure I would have laughed. Clearly I was out of my element.

“Once you start making jokes in Tibetan, you know you’ve really gone over to the dark side,” Dalton teased. The atmosphere at the conference was quite collegial, even chummy. The translators’ work environment hasn’t always been so social, though. Theirs has historically been a solitary, isolated pursuit.

2 Rinpoches and Venerable Matthieu
From left: Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and Ven. Matthieu Ricard (Click to zoom)

Jeffrey Hopkins, unable to attend because of health problems, sent a video letter. “I’m tremendously enthused by the very fact of the week-long seminar of translators,” he said in the message. “It’s a great move forward, as so many of us have worked individually. Such seminars and conferences are ways for us to get together and learn, exchange terms, methods, and find out what other people are doing.”

There’s a general perception that translators don’t like to work with each other. How do I know this? Because translators at the conference told me so again and again. One thing that may have contributed to some mutual ill will is not giving credit to those who had created earlier versions of translations. The group acknowledged the problem, and had decided before playing Hopkins’ video that credit should be given to everyone who’d worked on a text, as Tibetans do. Hopkins underscored the point in his message, saying, “I’m asking the younger people gathered there in Bir not to do this to me. Don’t view your work as replacing what I have done, but adding onto it.” And the kicker got a laugh out of the crowd: “In other words, treat me the way I have not treated others.”

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