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Buddhist Translations Problems and Perspectives

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Item Code: NAW730
Publisher: Manohar Publishers And Distributors
Author: Lama Doboom Tulka
Language: English
Edition: 2020
ISBN: 978938854040902
Pages: 249
Other Details 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 380 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

The last few decades indicate a growing interest world over to know more about Buddhism in the way it developed and is practiced in the Tibetan tradition. The availability of a large number of translations of Tibetan Buddhist literature can be attributed to this growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

The task of transmitting truth embedded in an old language like Tibetan to a Modern one like English present enormous problems.

The history of translation of Buddhist text from Sanskrit and Tibetan in various phases had been marked by the imposition of Western conceptual scheme upon Buddhist material. The result has been distortion to a greater or lesser extent of the original genuine Buddhist message. Other factors too have been res-possible for inaccurate translations. The goal should however be to ensure translations which will speak with genuine Buddhist voice in a language and style comprehensible to the average educated reader. Contribution to the volume by scholars both from India and abroad working on translation of Buddhist texts look at the various facets of the problems as experienced by them.

The contribution in the volume focus on constraints that translators face and steps and inputs required to facilitate achievement of the desired goal.

About the Author

Doboom Tulku was born in Tibet where he received education in Buddhist scriptures and philosophy. In 1959 he had to flee to India. He pursued his higher education at the Sanskrit University, Varanasi, which awarded him the Acharya Degree in 1972.

Ven. Tulku is at present Director of Tibet House, Cultural Centre of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, New Delhi. He regularly organises diverse programmes there to promote Tibetan cultural heritage.


In the course of the last few decades, there has been a considerable increase in the quantity of translation of Tibetan Buddhist literature. This indicates a growing desire in many parts of the world to know more about Buddhism, in the way it developed and is practised in the Tibetan tradition. The task of transmitting any religious or philosophical knowledge and truths embedded in an old language like Tibetan, to a modem one like English, is enormously difficult. This is so because from whatever angle one looks at these two languages-their grammar, syntactical arrangement of words, the social and geographical backgrounds in which they developed--they are totally different. So much so indeed that perhaps all that a devoted translator can hope to achieve in his or her translation is to convey the contents of a Tibetan text without much distortion or confusion. Even that is often too much to hope. A very conscientious translator may have to be satisfied with conveying, in the target language, no more than some particular aspect or aspects of the original whole-such as he or she thinks is the most important.

Translators of course come from diverse backgrounds and they approach their difficult tasks with different aims in mind. This is no doubt as it should be. But those who hope to learn, through reading translations, something about Tibetan Buddhism are often con- fused by the varied styles and nature of translation of many Tibetan texts. Some of these classical texts are abstruse even to a Tibetan scholar and they become more so in translation if the translate of understanding of them is insufficient, surmounted by the problem that there is no standardisation of translated Tibetan terminology. Situations such as this prompted Tibet House to organize a seminar, to which scholars working on the translations of Buddhist texts from both India and abroad were invited to attend and speak about their work and experiences. The seminar received monetary and organizational support from the Ford Foundation, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and India International Centre. The seminar, called "An International Seminar on Buddhist Translations: Problems and Perspectives/’ was held in Delhi in February 1990. All the twenty-two papers included in this volume were read at the seminar in which about fifty scholar-translators participated. Later, the authors were requested to revise their papers if necessary for publication. Some took the opportunity to do so and sent revised versions. Keeping the entire collection in mind, it was thought necessary to edit a number of papers. However, care has of course been taken to avoid any distortion of meaning.

Before the papers are briefly introduced, I would like to say a few words about the history of the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and Tibetan. This can be divided into three phases. A fourth phase can probably be projected for the immediate future. The first phase covers the early years of the colonial period on the Indian subcontinent, when Christianity and Christian values were an integral part of the colonial mentality. During this time the translations of Buddhist texts into English from Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan were often done by missionaries, or, if not by missionaries, by persons who were deeply committed to and influenced by Christianity. These translations, therefore, contain a very high degree of Christian colouring in the language of the translations and in the interpretation of the original material. Kern’s early ` translation of the Lotus Sutra, Saddharmapundarika, is one of the best or worst examples of this period. In it the phrase "the flesh pots of Egypt," which is taken straight from the Bible, is used to indicate, presumably, the idea of sensual corruption. What is even more damning to the translation is Kern’s insistence on using "death" for Nirvana. This is not only an incorrect translation; it also betrays an unconscious evaluation, or devaluation, of the highest goal in Buddhism.

Another example of the overwhelming influence of biblical values upon an early translator of Buddhist texts are Rhys David’s translations taken from Pali sources. She found, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, an affirmation of the existence of the Soul in the teaching of the Buddha!

Waddell can also be classified in this group although, to my knowledge, he did not produce much in the way of actual translations. His term Lamaism is full of Christian prejudice against Buddhism. While he was in Tibet, Waddell is believed to have been quite favourable towards Buddhism; but at the time of writing his book in England, the prevailing Christian attitude towards non- Christian, especially non-biblical religions, changed his views and he produced a book that conformed to the then prevailing attitude. In the second phase of translation of Buddhist texts, which may be taken to cover roughly the first half of this century, the Christian influence is not as dominant. During this period, although the colonial, political and economic domination of many Buddhist lands in Asia continued, the influence of Christianity and Christian values on western translators faded into the background. Perhaps this development can be partly explained by the decline in the credibility of Christianity among western intellectuals which ac- companied the advances of science and the rise of Marxism. In this phase the categories and concepts of traditional western philosophy became dominant and most translators were powerfully influenced by Kant. However, the introduction of Kantian categories and concepts into the translation and interpretation of Buddhist texts did not help to reveal the real object and purpose of these texts.

An example of a translator who worked extensively on Buddhist materials during this period and whose translations are deeply influenced by Kantian ideas is Stcherbatsky. His repeated use of the phrase "the thing in itself" comes directly from Kantian metaphysics. He uses it to refer to, as it does in Kantian metaphysics, the absolute or ultimate reality. However, whether it is a helpful phrase for understanding the Buddhist conceptions of paramartha or tathata is very doubtful. It may be mentioned that Kant was also influenced in his translations of Yogacara texts like the Madhyantavibhanga by another western philosopher, Berkeley, who was the first among western philosophers to propose the existence of only mind. This association was not helpful, for Berkeley was a bishop who wanted to prove that nothing could exist except in the mind of God, and therefore God had to be accepted as the supreme architect of the world. Most contemporary scholars now recognize that Buddhist mentalist philosophers, particularly Asanga and Vasubandhu, have a very different outlook from that of the traditional western idealism.

Another example of a western translator who, despite producing a great deal of very useful work, allowed Kantian ideas to creep into his translation and interpretations of Buddhist texts is Conze.

His insistence upon the use of the term "the absolute" to translate paramartha is again a direct imposition of Kantian terms and concepts upon Buddhist thought. In line with the point made earlier about the decline in the influence of Christianity during this phase of English translations of Buddhist texts, it may be pointed out that Stcherbatsky, although a Russian, was educated in Germany and it could be surmised that he was conditioned to abandon Christian values and replace them with those of Kant and Marx. Conze too belonged to that period.

The third phase of translation of Buddhist texts into English from Sanskrit and Tibetan sources is marked by the introduction of still more models and conceptual schemes taken from the western intellectual and philosophical tradition. This phase can be said to run roughly from the middle of the twentieth century to the present, as is evident from the translations of some western scholars. In these Kant and Marx, as well as Berkeley, are largely abandoned. The new fashion has been to look to western psychology, as taught primarily by Freud and Jung, for conceptual schemes to be used in the translation and interpretation of Buddhist materials. There has also been a new tendency to adopt the concepts of linguistic relativism, particularly as propounded by Wittgenstein, for help in the work of translating Buddhist texts into English. There are many modern translators who, in their translations of Buddhist texts, have made large-scale use of concepts and terms taken from modem Western psychology and linguistic relativism. The most obvious example of these new influences in the translation of Buddhist texts into English are the works of Guenther; but there are many others who also fall into this category.

What these three phases have in common is the imposition of the Western conceptual scheme upon Buddhist material. In other words, whether it was Christian values or those of traditional Western philosophy or those of modern movements in Western intellectual circles, all of them were marked by the prevalent use of a particularly western scheme of thought in the translation of Buddhist texts. It would not be wrong to say that all the translators working in these three periods have looked at the Buddhist texts through some Western spectacles of one colour or another. The result has inevitably caused some distortion, to a greater or lesser extent of the original genuine Buddhist message.

The problem is not only a Western one. A similar problem arose when Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese from Sanskrit. There Taoist, and to a lesser extent Confucian concepts influenced the translation and interpretation of Buddhist materials, and in some cases seriously distorted the meaning. Perhaps the problem of reading and translating Buddhist texts through 0ne’s own particular culture or intellectual spectacles is bound to occur when Buddhist texts and techniques are introduced into a civilization which already has quite a well developed and well-defined intellectual, religious or philosophical culture of its own. Perhaps the remark- able accuracy of the Tibetan translations of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit is due in part to the fact that in the eighth or ninth centuries C.E. Tibet hardly had any well-developed or well-defined intellectual tradition of its own. That is to say, the Buddhist concepts and values embodied in the Buddhist texts were introduced into what was virtually an intellectual vacuum. To put it more positively, the Tibetan translators were able to read, translate and interpret Buddhist texts through spectacles which were not already coloured by their own intellectual preconceptions.

There is now an emerging tendency among a new breed of Western translators to work in close collaboration with authoritative Tibetan scholars belonging to the indigenous tradition and to allow Buddhist texts to speak in English but with an authentic Buddhist voice. Sometimes such attempts lead to overtly literal English translations which become difficult, if not impossible, for the average English reader not familiar with the original language to understand. Still this is a positive development, for such relative difficulty in comprehension is preferable to wrong comprehension. Certainly the confusion which arises in attempting to understand translations of Buddhist texts loaded with Christian or Kantian or even Freudian, Iungian or Wittgensteinian concepts and terms is lessened by this new approach. The goal for which we should all strive is of course translation which will speak with a genuine Buddhist voice, presented in a language and style comprehensible to the average educated reader. Perhaps this is a goal which may be achieved in the newest and latest phase of translation of Buddhist texts into English; this is what I have called the fourth phase, and the beginnings of it are already evident in some of the latest translations done in a new spirit of objectivity and respect for the indigenous Tibetan Buddhist tradition, both literary and oral, and its legitimate representatives. Let me now turn to the papers included in this volume, drawing attention to the salient points made in them.

Lama Chimpa thinks that the most important requirement for achieving satisfactory translation of a Tibetan text into any modern language, such as English, should be team work, for it is difficult to find an authoritative Tibetan scholar who can also write English well, and it is no less difficult to find someone who is a master of English, as well as a qualified scholar of classical Tibetan. Other pre- requisites for satisfactory translation, according to Lama Chimpa, are the standardization of Tibetan terminology in the target language, standardization of the scheme of transliteration of Tibetan alphabets, and a reliable dictionary.

Rev. Shree N. Singh discusses the factors, a combination of which makes for good translation-language, culture, scholastics, meditative realization on the part of the translator, his personality, grace, and methodology. He also discusses the importance of transliteration and phonetics, and a number of points concerning the relation of Sanskrit and Tibetan that are important for translation.

Elizabeth Napper, unlike Paul Griffiths (one of whose articles is the starting point of her paper), sees no conflict between being a Buddhologist and a Buddhist. She thinks that "the criterion of what gets translated should not be elegance of style, but rather appropriateness as a vehicle to allow full understanding of the Buddhist tradition," and "the most useful translation," she believes, "is one that is quite literal (although not mindless) and that renders technical terms with a precision that allows the complex philosophical discussions that occur in Tibetan to be mirrored in the English translation. We need not be overtly concerned with elegance of expression and adapting the translation to take into account nuances of contemporary English usage and style." She does not see any particular necessity to shift Tibetan terminology into contemporary idiom. For her the most useful translation is one that is quite literal and clear, in which technical terms are rendered with a precision that allows complete philosophical discussion.

S.K. Pathak touches on a number of problems experienced by modern translators-such as free translation versus verbatim, traditional adherence to the concerned text, appropriate equivalence of Buddhist terms in Tibetan with English, maintenance of the flavour of the original-and suggests some formulae to tackle these problems. These are: innovations of systematic methods or guide- lines of translation of Buddhist texts from Tibetan into English; methodical exercise in the course of translation; application of mechanical apparatus wherever necessary; organisation of translator-personnel’s; and publications of the texts translated after codification. He also suggests a scheme necessary for implementing these formulae, comprising compilation of bibliography of all texts translated and reconstructed, preparation of a Tibetan-English concordance, and associating a traditionally trained Tibetan scholar with all undertakings of translation. He suggests some ways of organizing the scheme.

Jose Ignacio Cabezon first develops an outline of a theory of comparison as a form of knowledge. Comparison becomes both the means and the end of analysis - "means" in so far as it shall be the subject of inquiry. Then he applies the nature and workings of comparison as a form of knowledge to the realm of translation theory, particularly to the translation of Buddhist texts from the Tibetan. Comparison, he argues, is a source of knowledge and translation a form of comparison. Hence translation also is a source of knowledge and "insight"’ is possible when concepts are stretched beyond their limits, when the semantic implications of a term in one language suggests new ways of perceiving a term in another.

D. Seyfort Ruegg considers some fundamental issues concerning translating Tibetan philosophical texts: the inevitable loss of many connotations and meanings of the original and the inadvertent introduction of some new and undesired connotations in translation, however carefully done. This is due, he thinks, not only to linguistic differences of Tibetan and English but primarily to conceptual and cultural relativism, to the thorny problem of intercultural transmission and reception, of hermeneutics. He also discusses the question of the usefulness of commentaries and of the oral tradition, and states that in many branches of Tibetan studies real progress can be made only in close collaboration with Tibetan scholars. He thinks that "more sustained attempts at analysis and synthesis, and better synchronic and diacronic studies of doctrines and terms with a view to penetrating and interpreting theory and developing an adequate language of theory" are necessary to overcome the difficulties. He maintains that, although it is neither possible nor desirable today to regulate translators and their work by decree, it would be desirable to bring about some uniformity through standardized glossaries and lexicons.

Dr Akira Saito speaks of one interesting aspect of the experience of translating the Tibetan texts of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyama- kakarika as cited in its commentaries such as Akutobhaya, Buddha- palita’s commentary, and the Prasannapada. Sometimes the con- tents of the translation of a quoted 1<5rik5 and the c0mmentator’s explanation of it, it was noticed, did not agree. This paper aims at clarifying, through the analysis of a number of such instances, how, and in what order, Kluhi rgyal mtshan and Nyi ma grags translated the commentaries on the Mulamadhyamakakarika, including the Prajna-nama-mulamadhyamakakarika, the Prajnapradipa, and the above three commentaries.

Peter Della Santina explains that, although within the Buddhist tradition language itself has no direct relation to the real, we use it indirectly in order to eventually induce a direct experience of reality whose consequence is liberation. Since terms acquire their fields of meaning only from a linguistic and conceptual context, that is to say, within a cultural milieu, it is imperative, that an appropriate cultural milieu be created even if the best possible translation of key Buddhist terms are to perform their intended function within the Buddhist project of liberation. The creation of an appropriate cultural milieu, within which selected terms used in the translation of Buddhist texts can acquire proper fields of meaning, is possible only through comprehensive Buddhist education. So, he argues, even the most meticulous selection of terms in translation can have little hope of successfully conveying the in- tended meanings without the support of an appropriate cultural milieu. It follows from this that translation essentially and generally is reinterpretation of terms and concepts within a new cultural milieu. This is inevitable in case of translation into a foreign cultural milieu because the terminology adopted will of necessity have a prehistory antecedent to its adoption for the purpose of translation.

Dr M.R. Chinchore discusses the rationale of reconstructing in Sanskrit those philosophical and other Buddhist texts which are now available only in Tibetan translations, though written originally in Sanskrit. In the first section of the paper, she gives an outline of the contours of the diversified culture within the framework of the broadly monolithic civilization that flourished in the sub- continent of India. In the second section she discusses the significance of adopting Sanskrit as the common medium of intelligent exchange of ideas and thoughts between different schools of religious and philosophical strands. In the third section she looks into the necessity of reconstructing lost texts in Sanskrit.

Tsepak Rigzin urges the need for compiling a practical Tibetan- English dictionary of Buddhist terminology in order to avoid the confusing variety of renderings currently employed in translation. He discusses the nature, scope, limitations, and the methodology of research necessary for such an undertaking; he also gives many valuable suggestions for organizing a project such as this.

Joe Bransford Wilson considers how Tibetan Buddhist texts should be approached for translation. His response is occasioned by some comments on Buddhology and translation made by a number of scholars. Among the points he discusses are the task of the translator and four schemes of translation methods. He also discusses the assumption that Buddhist texts in Tibetan or in Sanskrit are translatable, that whatever is expressed in the source language can be re-expressed in the target language, which for him is the twentieth century English.

Georges Dreyfus speaks of his experience of translating, into English, Buddhist concepts rather than the whole of any text. Through the analysis of the problem of translating two terms from the logico-epistemological tradition of Dharmakirti-don gcig and spyi bye brag-he concludes that no definite rules can be formed for tackling such problems; only some guidelines may emerge for translating.

Professor Shins Onoda deals with the usage of the pronoun "khyod" which originally and normally means "you" as the second person pronoun in the daily use of ordinary Tibetan. In the monastic debate terminology, however, it has a special usage as a variable logical operator. Further, he tries to distinguish between the homological (self-description) and heterological (non self-description) conceptual phenomena which was also one of the early philosophical distinctions made in Tibet.

Chogkhang Thubten Tandhar points to the different interpretations put on the key term pra tityasamutpéda by different Buddhist schools and that it is also differently translated by different translators leading to considerable confusion. If, he thinks, a standard Tibetan-English dictionary could be developed by a group of distinguished scholars, and if the English equivalents of such important terms could be standardized and used in translation, that would go a long way towards solving the confusion often created by using, in translation, a variety of expressions for a single term in the original, with precise meaning. That would also help, he thinks, in presenting the Dharma and Buddhist studies in a better focus.

Karma Monlam discusses three factors that are behind all problems of translation -linguistic, cultural, and geographical. Keeping this in mind, he enumerates the necessary qualifications and requirements of a competent translator. Although he is not in favour of imposing any impractical system of standardization in matters of translation, he feels that there is perhaps an excess of freedom and utter lack of coordination among translators with their totally different cultural and philosophical backgrounds, and that there should be some kind of central body to coordinate the flood of ever-increasing translations of Buddhist texts.

Professor C. Linctner’s paper focuses on editors and readers of translation rather than on the task of the translator. Before a Buddhist text is translated it is essential that an authentic and critical edition of it is prepared. The editor ensures this. As an editor, his highest goal is to present before the public any given text in the form in which he believes it has left either the original author or the previous editors or translator. As far as possible, questions and problems relating to authenticity, authorship, chronology, etc. should be settled. The translator should go about his task with the potential readers in mind, of which there are roughly three groups- the scholarly, the no t-so-scholarly, and the general, educated reader. Ven. M. Tsering maintains that Tibetan translations of the Tripitaka, tantra and the works of Indian Buddhist masters would not have been so accurate had it no t been the products of joint efforts by the utterly dedicated Tibetan lotsa was and Indian panditas. Ac- cording to him, the outcome of the exertion of several minds can be expected to be superior to that of a single mind.

Sharpa Tulku thinks that the faithful rendering and excellent quality of translations from Sanskrit texts to Tibetan were possible owing partly to the cooperative method of work by Indian panditas and Tibetan lotsa was, and partly to the standardization of terminology. Now that so many translations are being produced, more attention should be given to the advantages of cooperative efforts and the importance of standardization of terminology in translation.

Glenn H. Mullin speaks of what he thinks to be a neglected aspect of translation from Tibetan. He takes the focus from the usual textual content to the context of the author's presence in his writings. He talks of his experiment with translating some Tibetan material as good literature (albeit somewhat spiritual and exotic), such as the writings of the early Dalai Lamas. He explains how a translator should prepare himself to be able to capture in the translation the subtle and elusive character of the original writing- a particularly difficult task in view of "the distance between Tibetan and English literary sensitivity, and the different ways in which the two languages work."

Ven. Tenzin Dorjee confines his discussion to three styles of translation- what he calls conceptual, thematic, and literary -and he thinks that the best result can be achieved by adopting a judicious mixture of all three; which is what he himself does. To him accuracy of rendering is more important than elegance, although a translation should be readable and intelligible, and it must convey the original sense as in the source language. The syntax and semantic difference between Tibetan and English languages are a major problem area. He thinks that textual ambiguity is a common characteristic of Tibetan writing and that this aspect should not be totally eliminated in translation. Lack of standardized equivalents in English of Tibetan technical terms may be overcome by defining and explaining them in footnotes where necessary.

Bhiksu Jampa Tenzin gives an account of the development and aims of the Dharma Centre in Hamburg in the field of translation of texts relating to Tibetan Buddhism. He speaks mainly about their seven year study programme for lay students and also about a dictionary project for Tibetan religious terms. He explains the difference in the approach to translation of practicing Buddhists and that of an academic scholar; and how each can be, and is, valuable to the other, particularly the possibility of mutual exchange and support in the dictionary project.

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