Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

krodha
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Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by krodha » Wed Jun 15, 2016 3:30 am

The following is a message Dowman wrote to Lama Tony Duff, after Duff challenged the accuracy of Dowman's translations:

  • Dear Tony, me ole fruit, rather than slag you off as they do in the the asuric bar-rooms of the lha ma yin, I would like to bring to your notice the English that most of speak, which is a flexible, fluid, impressionistic language, and the English that most of us try to write, which has at least seven levels of ambiguity, each level of meaning invoked by nuances of word choice and juxtaposition. Dzogchen texts likewise have levels and levels, and individual syllables and words cannot be pinned down fascistically with a single english meaning. To the contrary, context requires that a wide variety of synonyms and close synonyms are at hand to express the subtleties of the mystical verbal expression of Dzogchen.

    So there seem to be at least two quite distinct ways of translation; the mechanistic literal method that provides a mirror image of grammar and syntax and uses the same equivalent word in every context, and the interpretive free method that seeks to invoke a cloudburst of invocative meaning in poetic english prose. The former requires a rationalistic code, similar to the one that you have designed, which the reader needs to become familiar with to gain full benefit; the latter hopes to stir a congruous impression that stimulates equal sentiments. Just look at Cleary’s translations of Chan and Taoist texts from the Chinese – they demonstrates the interpretive method at full throttle.

    There is little point in detraction of one methodology by the other – they are as dissimilar as chalk and cheese – and, ok, sometimes neither of us gets it spot on. But although we may talk to different audiences don’t we both have the same aim?
    You may note that I have left this group – I don’t see much Dzogchen or self-release going on here, more like Trumpish politics…

How does everyone feel about this idea of "two quite distinct ways of translation"? I personally do not see the point of an "interpretive free method", as in the case of Dowman's efforts, this allegedly intentional "loose style" often seems to lose the meaning the original text intends to convey. Curious to hear what others think.

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by tingdzin » Wed Jun 15, 2016 4:42 am

Kennard Lipman, in the preface to a book he wrote with ChNNR (Primordial Experience), has some good things to say on the subject, and H.V. Guenther was always ridiculing calque translators of Dzogchen. IMO, if you don't want to study Tibetan, it is better to read at least two translated versions of any Dzogchen text. If one reads Janet Gyatso's treatment of Jigme Lingpa's dakini poetry, it becomes apparent that there is indeed a lot of nuance in Dzogchen language, not to mention multiple possible interpretations of a phrase.

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by heart » Wed Jun 15, 2016 5:26 am

I really don't like Dowman's translations but on the other hand I love Erik Pema Kunzang's translations. I guess it depends on who does the interpretation and how free it is. Erik explained to me that the way he translates is based on long discussions with TUR and other masters on the meaning of certain words in certain contexts. I guess his long experience in "on the spot" translations of pointing-out instructions for example might also had an impact.

/magnus
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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by Thomas Amundsen » Wed Jun 15, 2016 7:07 am

Well I don't think the two styles are quite as distinct as Dowman is trying to make them. English and Tibetan do not use the same grammar, so the syntax of the English translation cannot be a mirror image of the syntax of the Tibetan original, pretty much by definition. You do still need to do some interpretation when using Tony's precise style. I do think there is some kind of continuum of translation styles ranging from precise to poetic.

Anyway, at this point in my study, I prefer translations by committees where you have native speakers of both languages working together and multiple heads trying to agree on a translation. That is how the Tibetans did it when they imported Buddhism from India. I guess I prefer the Padmakara Translation Group to both Dowman and Duff. Although I do really appreciate the work on the dictionaries and grammar that Lama Tony has done.

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by Johnny Dangerous » Wed Jun 15, 2016 7:56 am

I don't know from quality of Dzogchen translation, but what he is saying is a pretty basic, fundamental issue in translation generally, isn't it?

I have to admit, as a reader I fall more on his side of things, as far as that goes.

On the one hand, dry, overly technical translation attempts (Guenther for example, talk about uninspiring, I have enjoyed some of his work but man, ridiculously jargon-filled and just weird use of the English language) sometimes pull the life entirely out of texts. On the other, some "free' translations get so "free" that they clearly have left the realm of conceptual accuracy.
this allegedly intentional "loose style" often seems to lose the meaning the original text intends to convey.
Some translations also read like the creative writing project of a savant, they might be "accurate" technically to those in the know, but to many others are likely near useless because they are clunky, unreadable, and seem to do little to convey any meaning, original or otherwise. I think a big part of the question is who one is translating for probably.
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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by smcj » Wed Jun 15, 2016 8:59 am

Guenther for example, talk about uninspiring, I have enjoyed some of his work but man, ridiculously jargon-filled and just weird use of the English language
He did not translate into English. That's Guenthereese.
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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by dzoki » Wed Jun 15, 2016 9:07 am

I like some of Duffs ideas and his attempt to stay true to the original text, but I find that he puts too much of his ego into his translations. I had some online experience with him and he came across to me as a very proud person, with whom it is quite difficult to discuss anything and who thinks he is the best in the world (I have the same problem, but hey, I am not posing as a lama).

As for Dowman, I compared his "translation" of Durgpa Kunleg to the original written by 69th Je Khenpo Gendun Rinchen (to whom Dowman surprisingly gives no credit in his translation) and it did not hold up. He made so many things up.

One thing that would really really help would be making of a standard dharma dictionary valid for all Tibetan to English translations, so that we don't have every translator using their own terminology, this only brings confusion. And I agree that there should be some committee not only a small group like Padmakara, but overall committee consisting of both Tibetan lamas and western translators. First thing they should do after establishing proper terminology and dictionary, would be a revision of previous translations and correction of them. Like this we would have much more clarity in Dharma texts.

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by Grigoris » Wed Jun 15, 2016 9:21 am

I believe that if a text is written in a poetic or prose form, relying on metaphor and simile, then the translation needs to be freer and interpretive because a literal translation will make no sense at all.

Of course this means that the translator has to have received explanations of the text in order to be be able to utilise relevant (semiologically) metaphors, or figurative prose, in the translated text.

If it is a technical manual (eg a dictionary), then I believe a direct literal translation is more fitting.

Berzin (for example) has done two translations of the text "Wheel of Sharp Weapons", one literal and one poetic. For me both are equally valuable and relevant. The poetic one (strangely enough) definitely flows more smoothly!
"My religion is not deceiving myself."
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"Butchers, prostitutes, those guilty of the five most heinous crimes, outcasts, the underprivileged: all are utterly the substance of existence and nothing other than total bliss."
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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by ratna » Wed Jun 15, 2016 11:05 am

krodha wrote: How does everyone feel about this idea of "two quite distinct ways of translation"? I personally do not see the point of an "interpretive free method", as in the case of Dowman's efforts, this allegedly intentional "loose style" often seems to lose the meaning the original text intends to convey. Curious to hear what others think.
There's literal translation, there's meaning translation, and then there's translating thig le as "pixel."

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by ratna » Wed Jun 15, 2016 11:21 am

heart wrote:I really don't like Dowman's translations but on the other hand I love Erik Pema Kunzang's translations. I guess it depends on who does the interpretation and how free it is. Erik explained to me that the way he translates is based on long discussions with TUR and other masters on the meaning of certain words in certain contexts. I guess his long experience in "on the spot" translations of pointing-out instructions for example might also had an impact.

/magnus
I found Lotsawa School's interview with Erik interesting:
Lotsawa School: Do you use the dictionary when you are translating?

Erik Pema Kunsang: No, never. I use it when I finely edit. Then I look at the choice of words, but when you are in a flow you can’t keep interrupting that. I think it is better to know well what you are going to say and then say it, so that there is a certain tone of decisiveness.

https://lotsawahouse.wordpress.com/inte ... a-kunsang/
I quite like the "know well what you are going to say and then say it" pith instruction for translators.

R

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by Astus » Wed Jun 15, 2016 12:18 pm

Personally, I find most translations of Duff I have yet encountered not particularly readable, filled with made up terminology. Dowman's works are at least fluent. And in the long run, fluency beats accuracy. But I wouldn't go for either of them as my preferred sources.

As for the idea of a compulsory dictionary, unless you have a dictatorial system to force it, and of course sponsor the translations, it will never happen.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by dzoki » Wed Jun 15, 2016 1:42 pm

Astus wrote: As for the idea of a compulsory dictionary, unless you have a dictatorial system to force it, and of course sponsor the translations, it will never happen.
Well if we keep the process of translation of Dharma a thing of democracy and personal preferences, then we will continue to have shitty translations. Because this means that based on personal preference a bad translation is equally valuable as a good translation, but then a lot of misconceptions will start to creep into Dharma discourse and there will be no-one to correct them. This is already happening to some extent.

For example, Ole Nydahl wrote several books which introduce many misconceptions. Then his students take these up and go ahead and translate Karma Kagyu texts according to Ole's personal preferences. Recently I read their translation (a Czech one) of mandala offering from Kamtsang ngondro, for which, to their credit they included original Tibetan at the back of the booklet and there were several crude mistakes in the translation, let alone somewhat strange and I would say incorrect vocabulary. I read some other translations of theirs and the result was very much the same. For example in Madagma text they translate Tibetan word "yon chab" - a water offering as "offering of the best things" (in Czech translation).

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by Astus » Wed Jun 15, 2016 2:46 pm

dzoki wrote:Well if we keep the process of translation of Dharma a thing of democracy and personal preferences, then we will continue to have shitty translations.
Even now not all translations are crap. And just as now one can tell the better and the worse sources, eventually there will be those that survive and those that will be forgotten.
For example, Ole Nydahl wrote several books which introduce many misconceptions.
That's how freedom of religion works.
Then his students take these up and go ahead and translate Karma Kagyu texts according to Ole's personal preferences.
Same thing happens in other religions.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by krodha » Wed Jun 15, 2016 3:23 pm

My skepticism comes from critiques like this one, posted by Mutsuk on the vc forums. The translation clearly contains errors that compromise the intended meaning of the original exposition, and I don't see how said errors can be explained away with the proposition that an ambitious "freestyle" rendering of the original text was the ultimate goal:
Mutsuk Marro wrote:Dowman really does not understand an inch of correct classical tibetan grammar. Let’s take the first line of the opening quatrain of the Yeshe Lama homage (just after the single-line homage to Kuntuzangpo/Ö Mingyurwa). The Tibetan says :

gang gi rang bzhin nam mkha’i dbyings ltar chos nyid bsam gyi mi khyab pas

No big deal at all in terms of figuring out the grammatical meaning. Literally :

— gang gi = grammatical artifice (see below)
— rang bzhin : nature
— nam mkha’i = sky + genitive case (= of the sky)
— dbyings = space
— ltar = like
— chos nyid = reality (dharmatâ)
— bsam gyis mi khyab pas = inconceivable ; lit. not grasped by thoughts.

Dowman renders that as :

The nature of every experience is like the vault of the sky,

Grammatically, « gang gi+whatever » is a classical construction which refers either to what comes before (in the present case the short homage to Kuntuzangpo/Ö Mingyurwa, that was understood by Sangye Khandro, although her rendering does not follow the structure of the text which is a first initial homage followed by a first quatrain of homage) or to the main object of the homage which is the same Kuntuzangpo appearing as the Primordial Protector in the last line of the quatrain. That is very classical. Dowman thinks that gang gi refers to « every » something and has to add « experience » to make some(?) sense while « experience » is nowhere to be found in this line.

Then the « vault of the sky » : the tibetan says : nam mkha’i dbyings which is literally the space (dbyings) of the sky (nam mkha’) simply or lazily rendered in some dictionaries as « space » when it’s actually a little more than space. In any case there is no trace of a vault in the original.

The worst in all that is that he links « inconceivable reality » (chos nyid bsam gyis mi khyab pas) to the next line, not either understanding the grammar of that next line.

So the line — which could be rendered as « (You) whose nature similar to celestial space is the inconceivable reality » or anything similar provided 3 elements are taken into account : 1. you know that the line (and the whole quatrain) is addressed to someone (in this case Kuntuzangpo, which means you understand the grammatical role of gang-gi), 2. you understand that this someone has a nature which is space-like, and 3. you understand that this someone is (or has a) reality which cannot be grasped by thought — is rendered by Dowman as something which has practically no link to the original.

Indeed, I don’t see any of these 3 sense-bearing or meaningful (in the sense of full of a precise meaning) elements in Dowman translation. And without exaggerating, it is like this throughout the work.

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by Grigoris » Wed Jun 15, 2016 3:36 pm

krodha wrote:My skepticism comes from critiques like this one, posted by Mutsuk on the vc forums. The translation clearly contains errors that compromise the intended meaning of the original exposition, and I don't see how said errors can be explained away with the proposition that an ambitious "freestyle" rendering of the original text was the ultimate goal:...
Nobody is perfect. One could make the case that Dowman is being TOO interpretive. I would say that this could be a source of problems when it comes to translation. Reality is that "vault of the sky" doesn't mean shit in English either, so he has defeated the purpose of his interpretation (clarity) anyway.
"My religion is not deceiving myself."
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE

"Butchers, prostitutes, those guilty of the five most heinous crimes, outcasts, the underprivileged: all are utterly the substance of existence and nothing other than total bliss."
The Supreme Source - The Kunjed Gyalpo
The Fundamental Tantra of Dzogchen Semde

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by dzogchungpa » Wed Jun 15, 2016 4:33 pm

ratna wrote:I found Lotsawa School's interview with Erik interesting:
Lotsawa School: Do you use the dictionary when you are translating?

Erik Pema Kunsang: No, never. I use it when I finely edit. Then I look at the choice of words, but when you are in a flow you can’t keep interrupting that. I think it is better to know well what you are going to say and then say it, so that there is a certain tone of decisiveness.

https://lotsawahouse.wordpress.com/inte ... a-kunsang/
I quite like the "know well what you are going to say and then say it" pith instruction for translators.

R
As somebody, although apparently not Ernest Hemingway, once said:
Write drunk, edit sober.
There is not only nothingness because there is always, and always can manifest. - Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by dzogchungpa » Wed Jun 15, 2016 5:18 pm

Returning to the OP, not being British I don't know if "me ole fruit" is an insulting or perhaps just affectionate term of address. Anyone?
There is not only nothingness because there is always, and always can manifest. - Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by Stewart » Wed Jun 15, 2016 5:20 pm

It's friendly cockney rhyming slag: fruit gum = chum
s.

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by dzogchungpa » Wed Jun 15, 2016 5:25 pm

Stewart wrote:It's friendly cockney rhyming slag: fruit gum = chum
Thanks, me ole fruit!
There is not only nothingness because there is always, and always can manifest. - Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

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Re: Keith Dowman's argument for his "interpretive free" translation style

Post by weenid » Wed Jun 15, 2016 6:18 pm

It's not my intent to belittle the good work of translators, I just wish to offer another angle to this discussion.

"In that dark land (Tibet), many translators, headed by the great Vairotsana, translated countless dharma texts. Contemporary translators are quite inferior. These days translators are only motivated by the deisre for fame or titles. They do not know Tibetan very well, rely on dictionaries, amd jot things down without really knowing anything about practice or context. Vairotsana, on the other hand, never translated anything before he practised many teachings and had practised and realized them. He was also a great inventor of words, unlike contemporary translators who try to invent new words. For example, if tong pa nyi is translated as emptiness, it falls into the extreme of void. But when Vairotsana translated the word shunyata, he considered it from many angles and came up with tong pa-nyi, which expresses a lot of potential, the complete opposite of the word "empty."
- Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, pg xvii, Introduction : The Significance of this Biography.
The Great Image. The Life Story of Vairochana the Translator

"In the past, Tibetan scholars like Vairotsana, Kawa Paltsek, and Chokro Lui Gyaltsen could translate the Sanskrit Buddhist texts with great accuracy because they had fully realized the essence of enlightened mind. But in the present conditions, despite our total absence of inner realizations, we are obliged to translate Tibetan literature for the sake of preserving and propagating it for future generations. "
- Ani Jinba Palmo, pg xxxii

My own take, translations done by realized practitioners are the ideal. However, I think even if there's a native English translator who has inner Dzogchen realizations, the essence of Dzogchen cannot be gleamed from a book. If inner realization can come from reading books, most of us would be enlightened by now.

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