Charting the Future of Buddhist Translation

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Don’t confuse the poor readers

Another question that proved contentious was whether they should come up with a standard glossary of English terminology for this project. Most translators develop their own terms over time, and some of those who’ve been around longest have their own unique, extensive vocabulary. Without consensus on word choice, though, confused readers would find a single Tibetan term—yeshe, for example—rendered in different ways in the Kangyur: as “wisdom” in one volume and as “exalted awareness” in the next, depending on who translated that section.

Some felt they should be able to use their own terminology, while others contended that the need for uniformity—out of consideration for the reader—outweighed translators’ individual preferences. The consensus seemed to be that a standard set of terms would apply for the Kangyur project. However, the group acknowledged that it had no control over what happened outside the scope of this project. E. Gene Smith, the scholar who founded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), jokingly lamented that there were no dictator kings to enforce the use of official terminology.

When the Buddhadharma came to Tibet, the Tibetan translators had to walk for months to get a single text. These days, thanks to the efforts of people such as Smith, Ven. Matthieu Ricard, and many others, a vast array of Tibetan language texts collected from libraries and monasteries far and wide are available online. The more computer-savvy among the group overflowed with ideas about how to best collaborate online using databases, and perhaps their own social networking site.

When the Buddhadharma came to Tibet, the Tibetan translators had to walk for months to get a single text.One of the ideas that got people excited was a proposed master list of texts to be translated, and a database for translators to post lists of texts they’re working on or have already translated, in order to prevent the frustrating duplication of work that happens because someone is translating a text without knowing that another translator is working on the same thing.

In isolation, work gets duplicated

“I can think of two examples where that’s happened, involving someone here,” said translator Michelle Martin of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center and Shambhala Publications. She recalled asking a translator what they were working on, then later talking to another translator who had started working on the same text. “I said, Wait a minute! And this was just by bumping into people randomly. It’s years of work that gets duplicated when you could be doing something new and more beneficial.”

Although most of the participants translate into English, they hope to create a framework that will help people translating into any language. If an English-speaking translator contacts a lama to clarify specific points about a volume of the Kangyur, for example, a recording of that conversation would be posted in the database. Then someone translating into Polish, Portuguese, or any other language could listen to it, rather than duplicating the Q&A work.

It would be nothing short of a revolution.

“We translators tend to be kind of hermits, you know?” said Martin. “You have to be, in order to sit alone with a text and figure it out. If we can have this virtual community together where we can interconnect and share what we have, it’ll be really helpful.”

Technology is also making it easier for translators to access texts. “I’ve spent weeks and weeks looking for texts, but these days I can download them in minutes from the TBRC website,” Martin said. A tech enthusiast, she led the discussions about online collaboration.

Elizabeth Napper, co-director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, noted that it’s not just about accessing online tools and texts; it’s also about conversation forums. “You can go back and forth with people about your questions—you don’t actually have to leave America or France and come to India or Nepal to ask your questions.”

Many of the ideas about how to collaborate and support each other had their genesis last September when 130 translators met in Boulder, Colorado, at a conference organized by the Light of Berotsana Translation Group. There, the idea of forming an international translators’ guild arose, with senior translators acting as mentors for apprentices.

Historically, the Tibetan translators who trekked over the mountains to India worked in tandem with a Sanskrit scholar from India. In the same way, the translators in Bir appealed to the lamas present to provide Tibetan experts to help them. Ultimately, they hoped, a Tibetan partner would be available for anyone who signed on to do translation.

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