Translation is a Cultural Conversation

བུ་མོ་ཆུང་འདྲིས་བྱམས་པ། །
bu mo chung ‘dris byams pa
སྤྱང་ཀིའི་རིགས་རྒྱུད་མིན་ནམ། །
spyang ki’i rigs rgyud min nam
ཤ་འདྲེས་པགས་འདྲེས་བྱུང་ཡང༌། །
sha ‘dres lpags ‘dres byung yang
རི་ལ་ཤོར་གྲབས་མཛད་གིས། །
ri la shor grabs mdzad gis

A short while ago, I traveled from Queens, the great hub of immigrants, taking the ancient, smelly, and artistic subway to Union Square and then walked through the bustling streets squeezed between those sky-touching buildings to Latse library, calmly located near the Hudson River, to see my friend Pema Bhum. While waiting for him to finish his work, I asked Kristina to retrieve for me some translation books of the 6th Dalai Lama’s “Love Songs”. Within an hour and a half, I had scanned through them and noticed quite a few translation errors in all the books. This spurred my desire to write a blog post about Tibetan translation. This post is neither to publicize their mistakes nor to embarrass the translators, but more about creating a conversational awareness amongst intellectuals and scholars who are drawn into doing translations from Tibetan into English or the other way around.

For across centuries, Tibetans have composed a great number of lexicographical works ranging from bilingual glossaries to rich encyclopedic dictionaries, such as the Grand Dungkhar Dictionary (dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo). These lexicons have a long and rich history dating back to the late eighth and early ninth centuries according to existing textual sources.

In particular, the imperial court and translators first began to compile multilingual glossaries to facilitate the process of translating Buddhist scriptures into the Tibetan language. Amongst them, sgra sbyor bam po gnyis pa (སྒྲ་སྦྱོར་བམ་པོ་གཉིས་པ།) is the first bilingual lexicon that is concerned with translating Sanskrit into Tibetan. In this particular text, there is a primary translation guideline saying that “When translating Buddhist text, the translator shouldn’t mistranslate the meaning of the original doctrine and should also make it accessible in Tibetan.” In other words, the translator must understand the original language and make the translation intelligible in the translated language. I would say this theory has been the beacon of translation culture of Tibet for thousands of years, still sustaining its relevance when translating something from a foreign language into Tibetan.

Maybe, not every translator follows this guiding wisdom nor is able to put it into practice. Thus, there’re a myriad of translation misunderstanding in many books in English translated from Tibetan language sources that we have access to these days. As touched upon earlier about the translation books of the 6th Dalai Lama’s “Love Songs”, I would reveal one of them entitled “The Turquoise Bee: The Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama”. In here, one love song is translated below:

Girl, lover for a short while,
Isn’t she kin to the wolf?
Even given heaps of meat and skin
She bolts and runs for the mountains

There are two noticeable translation errors in this work. It is not the girl, “lover for a short while”, for in Tibetan it says specifically chung ‘dris byams pa, the sweetheart since one’s childhood or childhood sweetheart, not a fling, lover for a short while. chung ‘dris byams pa is a Tibetan expression that we often see in Tibetan love songs referring to someone you have had a long relationship since your childhood. The translator seemed not to understand the expression.

In addition to this “accident”, one more serious “translation mishap” is the third-line saying, “even given heaps of meat and skin”. This is a total error and misunderstanding. The translator again didn’t understand the context and also misunderstood the figurative meaning of the phrase. In Tibetan, it says sha ‘dres lpags ‘dres meaning even love merged like one’s skin with flesh, not given heaps of meat and skin. The immersion of skin with flesh signifies the strong and deep intimacy of the love, not heaps of meat and skin for the wolf to devour! Here, the wolf is a kind of personification and the immersion of one’s skin with flesh is a metaphor of love.

I further would say this: when it comes to translation, understanding the original language and its complex expressions is the priority, rather than the styles, methods, linguistic hospitality, dynamics of devotion and other factors. Without a strong understanding of the language and its usage, we wouldn’t be able to do a serious rendering. If we have the foundation, then using assorted styles and methods could be the icing on the cake.

Here, I would like to do a simple translation of this song of love:

The girl, childhood sweetheart
Isn’t she kin to the wolf?
Even love merged like one’s skin with flesh
Still, she tries to run to the mountains

I hope intellectuals and scholars who are doing translations are serious about both the original language and doing the translation itself. Translation is a cultural conversation where we not just understand the language alone, but also should have a taste of the expressions embedded in that particular culture. However, even this one revealed today is simply not worse than the scholar who translated Tibetan phrase gdon mi za (གདོན་མི་ཟ།), meaning surely or certainly, as “don’t eat ghost or ghost doesn’t eat” and the Chinese scholar who translated sha stag (ཤ་སྟག), meaning only or merely, as “meat tiger”!

I’m grateful to my friend Pema Bhum and Kristina for giving me access to these materials.


4 thoughts on “Translation is a Cultural Conversation

  1. Haha, this is such a pleasurable read, abundant with delightful humor and insight. Thank you bro, I love this post for its erudition as well as informal and engaging voice. Looking forward to more of these.

    Liked by 1 person

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