Monday, July 25, 2011

The Perils of Translation: Part 1

Translation and Tibetan language study seem to go hand in hand. In fact, I cannot seem to think of any other modern spoken language that if one chooses to study it, one will automatically be asked "Oh! So you are [or are planning to become] a translator!" In fact, the association between Tibetan language study and translation (of Buddhist texts in particular) is so strong that those of us who choose to pursue modern Tibetan are frequently hit with outright antagonism for our choice!

Us non-Dharma Tibetan students are frequently encouraged to do translation, which as Pongu noted in a previous post, seems to only mean Dharma translation. Strangely enough, work on translating modern texts, or using one's studies to write in Tibetan are considered worthless, but we'll talk about that another time (hence the "part 1.")

I have a problem with this. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate a good translation and the hard work that went into it, but I really don't like the ideas surrounding it. Why should anyone studying Tibetan automatically be assumed to be a translator? Well, statistically, there's a pretty good chance that they are. To me, that brings up a big issue. Tibetan is a living, modern language with more than eight millions speakers world wide, if one includes related dialects such as Balti and Ladakhi. Yet the modern spoken aspect of Tibetan is systematically ignored by many, if not most, people interested in learning Tibetan. Only the Dharma language is seen as worthwhile. It completely disregards modern Tibetan language, and with it, much of modern Tibetan culture.

What of modern Tibetan literature? Songs? Blogs? Autobiographies? When I mention translation of any of these, the idea is generally tossed aside as worthless.

I seriously ask the commenters here. Can you think of another language with millions of speakers and a vivid modern culture and literature scene where the modern language is outright ignored? Where only the classical language is considered worthwhile? I am really trying to think of one and I can't.

The second issue was pointed out be a commenter as well as several Tibetans I've spoken to. That's qualification for translation.

Virtually all of the primary texts in Buddhism have been translated already. That means the texts yet to be translated are either very new or very rare or very advanced. In short, if you've reached the level where you should be studying these texts (which, from a traditional study standpoint would probably include a minimum of 10 years in a shedra) then I certainly hope you would have picked up some Tibetan along the way.

This isn't to say all Tibetan Buddhists should learn Tibetan. By no means! But it means that if you are going to be studying these extremely advanced esoteric texts, you should have taken the many years necessary to study all of the primary texts, primary practices and so forth. Don't start decorating a house before you've built the foundation, as a friend of mine likes to say. If you are studying these texts, you should be under the guidance of a teacher, and if you are doing the years upon years of intensive study, then you are probably in a monastic environment, in which case, yes. You should learn Tibetan.

But it's more than just the linguistic knowledge of Tibetan. These texts are advanced. Throughout Tibetan history they would have been translated by khenpos, geshes, lamas who had studied Buddhism for most likely a bare minimum of 20 years of intensive study inside of a monastery or shedra. They would have learned all the primary texts and practices and likely studied and practiced this text before translating it.

Linguistic knowledge is not enough! In order to express the actual meaning of a complex Buddhist text, one needs to have a deep understanding of the Buddhist context. To paraphrase one person: "How do these kids who've studied for five years think that they can accurately translate the texts we take a lifetime to master?"

As another Tibetan friend expressed, it is cheapening the profound teachings and culture of Tibet.

And that's not helping anybody.


  1. An anonymous commenter posted this, by accident, on the commenting guidelines instead of here. So I am reposting it here for clarity's sake. (And thanks for reading the guidelines!)

    "Author of the text above, you surely have a good point. I'd like to think that learning and translating both classical (Dharma related)and modern Tibetan language could go hand in hand. Some do one thing, some do the other, and some do both which is what I'd like to do! Sadly, I don't know Tibetan language. English not being my first language, I hope I've expressed this view without offending anyone, Tibetans or Westerners. (My name is Armanda but I'll post as anonymous)"

  2. Armanda, one of my friends (a fellow foreign Tibetan speaker) once said that Dharma translators should "pay their dues" to Tibetan society by translating one modern document per Dharma document they translate, thereby providing the benefit of both. Translating not only what Westerners want to hear but what Tibetans want us to hear.

  3. Let me start by saying that generally I agree with the point you're making, which is why I decided to take a colloquial Tibetan intensive before starting work on literary Tibetan. However, I would like to offer a different view in regards to two of the things that you've written.

    First, you say that since nearly all of the primary texts have been translated all things yet to be translated from classical/literary Tibetan are either very rare or very advanced. This over looks the fact that many commentaries, which are not necessarily rare or esoteric, have not yet been translated. Also, many important historical, secular documents have not been translated. There is still, as I understand it, quite a lot of work to be done in these areas.

    I agree that Western students of Tibetan language should also study spoken Tibetan, which most programs do include. However, I also think that if it weren't for the desire to read Dharma texts (for translation studies or personal study) there would most likely not be enough interest in Tibetan language studies to have created as many MA and PhD programs in it as there are, or maybe any at all.

    Even if you include all of the related dialects, which are not mutually intelligible, 8 million speakers is quite small. I'm not trying to nitpick, or explain away a deficit in contemporary scholarship. As you say, it is definitely inappropriate for people who have only been studying for a few years to try to translate very advanced Dharma topics, but it is also the aspiration to one day be able to do that that drives most of the interest in Tibetan language among young academics.

    I think that if academics take a balanced approach and study both literary and spoken Tibetan, as almost all programs require to some extent, this is of course best. And it is reductionist to focus only on the religious content of a culture, but I think it's pretty hard to overstate how much of a "draw" Tibetan Buddhism is where Western interest in Tibetan culture is concerned and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing if it promotes more general interest in contemporary Tibetan experience as well.

    P.S. I think Modern Greek is as infrequently studied as Ancient Greek, and it has 13 millions speakers.

  4. Interesting points. One of my main points of contention, however, will be that the majority of programs, in my experience trying to find Tibetan language programs at Universities across America, do not, in fact, provide any spoken Tibetan. There are a few exceptions such as Cornell, University of Virginia, University of Michigan, Harvard, and Columbia University, however by and large, far more university offer simply "classical Tibetan" with no reference to spoken Tibetan. In addition, if a student takes a course on classical Tibetan, in the vast majority of courses they will receive absolutely no colloquial education. However, if a student chooses to take a course in colloquial, they will inevitably study at least a little bit of classical language. While I have encountered many Tibetan courses that offer colloquial with a side of classical (usually at a ration of about 75/25), I have yet to find a single extensive classical course which offers instruction on even the most basic structure and vocabulary of colloquial language. This is, in fact, part of the reason I gave up on higher Tibetan studies in University.

  5. The Naropa course structure is about 75/25 classical/spoken, though it isn't mentioned in the course descriptions, and that still isn't really enough because they're so different. In the University of Virginia summer program I just completed it was about 98/2 colloquial/lit. I feel like most Tib. Studies programs expect that students will find tutors on their own/ arrange for independent study of the colloquial, and, again, this is quite lopsided.

    But I maintain that there being even the five programs you listed that teach both is still, relatively, a lot considering how specialized the program is. There certainly aren't that many programs that would offer spoken Greek alongside the classical, or that teach more obscure modern languages like Uighur or Azeri.

    I guess my point is that while I agree there is a deficit here, which I myself have been trying to avoid contributing to, I think that from the perspective of a person who very interested in Tibet and Tibetan Studies it is easy to look at the course offerings and see a lack. But from a broader perspective of academia in general it's somewhat surprising that there are as many programs as there are, considering how many languages and cultures are all together ignored. That doesn't fix the problem, it's just another way of looking at it.


If you are new to Overlooking Tibet, please read the commenting guidelines before posting.