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.
I can't speak to what other translators do or don't do. And of course more than one scholar has taken issue with Dowman's translations, the same applies to Tony Duff, etc. But that is not very important. Why? We would be very foolish to think that after translating Dharma texts into English for a generation that we are in any position to stake out definite positions about how things could or should be translated into English.
For example, someone brought up the example of "stong pa nyid
" as a translation for śūnyatā
was originally translated into Tibetan as "ye 'byams
." Very few people are aware of this, and so we run into rather strange translations of the term, not realizing it translated śūnyatā
. So what to do? Do we translate it as "having always been without limitations?," "having always overflowed?," two quite literal translations of the term? Or do we use the very loose approximation "timeless infinity," as one translator suggests? Or do we translate it as emptiness, as we generally translate stong pa nyid
Someone else mentioned committee translations. In my opinion, the quality of a translations depends on the committee, who did the original, who edited it, and so on. The failure of translation committees is the desire to create a brand, like different models of cars. Different translations from the same committee exhibit different levels of accuracy and quality depending on the composition of the actual team. Even among Tibetans, those who are educated in Shedras may not actually have the knowledge of Dzogchen for example, to accurately give information when questioned about the usage of term such as la zla ba
The quality of a translation also depends very much on the ability of a person to express themselves well in their native tongue. Poor writers make poor translations. There are other factors: are you a native English speaker? Even the best of the non-native translators, not just Guenther, quite often make choices which are quite frankly nonidiomatic English and are strange in our language. Do you speak British, American, Canadian, Australian or Indian English? One's choice of words, one's compositional style, and so on, will all very much be influenced by the country and education one has.
Than there are other factors: people who have never translated anything other than Dharma texts tend to have a very brittle and dry style, because Dharma texts from the traditions of Madhyamaka and so on are exactly that, dry and brittle taxonomies which give very little indication of or possibility for process.
For myself personally, studying Tibetan Medicine opened up a whole new way of looking at Tibetan to which I previously had been blind. Biographies too demand a somewhat more personable style. In general, one modern fault of we Tibetan translators is a lack of diversity in our reading. I know of professors, much hailed for their translation of philosophical texts, who cannot handle that most simplistic of formats, the sadhana, with any skill at all. I have watched famous translators badly botch explanations given by Lamas because the translator had no knowledge of Tibetan Medicine and was therefore unable to accurately translate some concepts from a Dzogchen text, and amazingly just make up some bullshit on the spot, apparently to cover up their own ignorance. That said, I also have sympathy for oral translators, it is no easy job. Oral translators usually are not such good text translators, and the reverse is also true. There are very few translators who excel at both. As an oral translator, for example, I suck.
Then there is the issue of "helping" the text. It is the habit of some translators to embed their understanding in their translations by fleshing them out, sometimes by as much as 40 percent, with extraneous material either derived from commentaries or from information provided in the course of hearing a text being taught. Other translations are leaner, more austere, tending to stick more closely to the text, depending on the reader's familiarity with the subject. Is this good, bad? How can we say it is either, when Tibetan translators themselves have often embellished?
If anything, translators of texts should find themselves humbled by the process. There is little glory in it. The translation process is driven by a passion for discovering the unknown, the unread. Principally, Dharma translation should be driven by the motivation to deepen one's own practice, and to aid others. It can be especially disheartening in the beginning because you are mostly wrong all the time; but of course in the end, when one can share texts that have never been seen in English, it is deeply rewarding because of the joy it brings to oneself through deeper understanding and the joy it brings to others because it is like giving the blind eyes to see, however imperfect those eyes may be and still in need of correction.
While I certainly admit to having my preferences in both translation terms as well as translators, in general we should try to be supportive of the efforts of translators and not give them too hard a time. This does not mean that people cannot discuss this or that term and its suitability. Most people do not realize that a majority of texts translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan, especially the more important texts, underwent multiple revisions, a process that began in the mid-8th century and ended only in the 14th century. There exist dictionaries of archaic terms and their modern (i.e. post-Ralpacan) equivalents. Translators themselves should do their own research and not depend so heavily on translations made two, three, four, and five decades ago. Translators must question why for example we are translating ye shes
as "primordial wisdom," rig pa
as awareness, etc. We must not fall into formulaic translations, because in the end we will wind up with the very clumsy, basically unreadable translations done by Tibetans after the 14th century.
I would only caution those translators who are much given to criticizing the work of others that such criticism merely opens the door for rebuttal and criticism in turn, and this helps no one in the end. People may wish to ignore this fact, but translation is a crowd-sourced process. The more eyes there are on our translations, the more accurate they can in time become.
I am sharing these thoughts with you because the question arose and because I have spent the last 24 years of my life obeying my guru, Ngakpa Yeshe Dorje's command that I become a translator. In that time I have translated many texts, made even more mistakes, and have had my own pride and arrogance knocked down again and again (as hard as it may seem for some of you to believe) by the process of translation.
I will share with you one of my guiding principles in translating Dzogchen texts into English, since that is really what this thread is about. Rongzom states that while the words of the Great Perfection are simple, their meaning is vast and deep like space. On the other hand, the words of the lower vehicles are are very precise and detailed in their complexity, but their meaning is rough, just like a pile of dust. Therefore, as much as possible, when translating the texts of the Great Perfection, I try to keep my English as simple and plain as I can.
However there are some other principles that I also observe summarized here: http://www3.dbu.edu/mitchell/poundtra.htm
, and based on the work of Ezra Pound.
1) A true translation must reject "Wardour-Street English," the pseudo-archaic language of Victorian translators associated with William Morris and F. W. Newman. Pound was willing to experiment with a variety of poetic style and diction. He made free-verse translations of classical works acceptable.
2) Each translation is a kind of criticism of the original. It stresses the strengths of the original, but it also shows what its limits may have been.
3) No translation has to reproduce all aspects of the original. It can choose to concentrate on only some aspects. It can leave part of the original out. It may even add to it or rearrange it in order to accomplish the translator's purpose.
4) Modern topical allusions may be used to bring across the emotions associated with the original's allusions.
5) Translations should be new poems in their own right. They should be artistically well-done. (while this refers to poems, it applies to everything)
6) History is a product of the present. All knowledge of the past is experienced in our current reception and reading of it. In this sense, all translation is both a continuity and a re-reading of past texts and authors.
One may find much food for thought on this Wiki page too:
Finally, another point that many people don't understand. Poetry and Prosody (Kavya) are distinct from the style of Karika literature of Indo-Tibetan religio-philosophical texts. Texts from the Samcayagathas to the Precious Treasury of the Dharmadhātu
are not poetry, nor are they intended as poetry. The so called "verse" portions of the tantras emulate the gathas of sūtra, and so too are not poetry, but are in metered verses to aid memorization. While such compositions can be "poetic," it must be firmly understood they are not poems in our sense of the word. True poetry in the Indo-Tibetan traditions is a very specific, very highly stylized form which is generally confined to the so called "verses of praise" and the dedications found in the beginning and end of texts, ranging from short texts to multivolume treatises, and whose complexity and depth depends very much on the education of the author. Real poetry in Tibetan can be pretty boring reading, depending on deep familiarity with the synonyms which may be found in the compendium Amarakośa and its commentary. For example, a common synonym for the sun is "The one who is drawn by seven horses."
So, in the end, it is better to be light-handed in our criticisms of translators and their translations unless they are engaged in gross fabrications or outright plagiarism.