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He would like to see English equivalents for all Tibetan and Sanskrit words used, such as samsara, bodhichitta, and perhaps even Buddha and Dharma. Wulstan Fletcher of the Padmakara Translation Group, which is supervised by Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, countered, “I think the genius of the English language is its ability to absorb new words,” including ones with foreign roots, like microphone and video. And does it really take any less time, he wondered, to explain the meaning of “cyclic existence” than it does to explain samsara? Plus the Oxford English Dictionary already has entries for “samsara” and several other Buddhist words of Sanskrit origin.

Deer Park Institute's temple

Main temple at Deer Park Institute (Click to zoom)

Thurman pleaded for names, at least, to be left in Sanskrit. He said he feared that the translation for some names could sound a bit too cutesy in English, such as “Bodhisattva Little-Flower-in-the-Field.”

How about adopting Tibetan terms, rather than Sanskrit? Is the Sanskrit vajra any better than its Tibetan equivalent, dorje? Some said it might be, because English and Sanskrit have a common ancestry (English is an Indo-European language). That’s why it’s fairly easy for English-speakers to pronounce karma, for instance. But Tibetan requires different skills that involve lots of training of the ear and mouth.

Another sticky point: since most of the sutras were originally translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit, would the group translate from the original Sanskrit or from Tibetan, and end up with a translation of a translation? A complication is that there no longer is a Sanskrit canon as such. Many of the original Sanskrit texts were lost, while others have been edited or changed over the years, and some were even reconstructed based on the Tibetan translations.

There’s a sense of urgency, because those who can understand these texts are disappearing just like Sanskrit.Still, there are some Sanskrit texts available. Will those be translated directly from the original? I put the question to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

“Ideally, we should go from the original texts, in this case either Pali or Sanskrit,” he said. “But how many Sanskrit-speaking Buddhists are there who are really wellversed not only in the Sanskrit or Pali languages, but also in practicing?” He added, “There’s a sense of urgency, because the infrastructure is waning—the lamas, geshes, and khenpos who can understand some of these texts are disappearing just like Sanskrit. So practically speaking, it will have to be from Tibetan, I think.”

Do translators need to be Buddhists?

In asking how many Sanskrit translators are practitioners, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche touched on a controversial subject: Do translators of Buddhism really need to be practitioners? Do they even need to be Buddhists? Isn’t it enough to simply know the language? He raised the question in his opening remarks: “Who does the best job, the scholar–translator or the practitioner–translator?”

“There’s been a lot of discussion at this conference about whether a translator needs to be a practitioner,” said Thomas Yarnall from Columbia University, and the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, “and I think that question is not well-founded. We can’t devise a test to know whether someone’s a good Dharma practitioner; there’s no bodhichitta litmus test.” He sees critical-thinking ability and a familiarity with the philosophy, psychology, and culture of India and Tibet as the key criteria.

Most people I spoke with, though, said they felt that, at the very least, the translator’s motivation—in particular, the wish to benefit others—was an essential factor. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s opinion was typical of those I heard: “Whatever they’re doing, whether they’re translating one word, one shloka (verse), one page, every time they hold a pen or are about to press a computer key, it’s important that they start by thinking, ‘May this help all sentient beings.’ I think that will always lead us to something good.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, speaking to the translators a couple of days later, also drove home the point that the translator’s motivation is key.

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