The first of a series of interviews with translators who have received translation grants from 84000, this interview introduces us to Ina Bieler of Garchen Buddhist Institute, who has been working on a Kangyur text known as <The Sūtra on Purifying Karmic Obscurations>.
In Part 1 of the interview, Ina offers us a rare glimpse into the translation process and her journey as a translator.
In Part 2 of the interview, we learn about how she supports herself as a translator, and how the 84000 grants have helped her.
I’m Ina Bieler, and I’m originally in Austria, Europe, Graz. And I currently live in Arizona, Garchen Institute, working as Garchen Rinpoche’s personal translator and also the Lamas that visit the Garchen Institute in Arizona. I’ve been translating for seven years now for Garchen Rinpoche.
I was also interested in Tibetan Buddhism for a very long time. I was looking for someone to teach, a teacher, and I met Garchen Rinpoche at the Kalachakra in Graz where I’m from. So he came to visit, to attend that. Then having to meet him because I was his driver at that time, one of the volunteers. And I really made a very good connection with Garchen Rinpoche. I wanted to become a nun and follow him, and his center and his practice. And then Garchen Rinpoche said that, for now, it would be better and more helpful if I were to go learn Tibetan. And so then I go learn Tibetan, and he recommended a school in India. That’s where I applied the LRZTP Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo Translator Program in Dharamsala by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. And few months later I started the school and began to study, really with the intention to be able to follow Rinpoche and become a translator.
So I was translating for a few years actually for Garchen Rinpoche before I heard about the translation project that was about to launch, the 84000, and the Kangyur translation. I felt very interested, because the Kangyur is the words of the Buddha, and that’s really like the foundation, the foundation of Buddhism, the Buddhist teaching, it’s the actual words of the Buddha. And it seems that for anyone to be a Buddhist and to study Buddhism, it’s really important to know your actual…and our teacher Buddha Shakyamuni and his teachings that came from his mouth in this world, that really sets the beginning and the foundation of Buddhism, and I felt that it’s really a very important thing to do. If we were to translate the Kangyur in other languages, then in the future, we would lay another foundation so it also continues to exist in the Western world. And in future generations, even Western students would be able to know what the Buddha Shakayamuni actually said. And I actually think, of all the Buddhist texts that exist, this is the most fundamental and most important text to preserve, to translate.
I have just translated one of the Kangyur texts now, <The Sūtra on Purifying Karmic Obscurations>, which was actually really a very nice text, really a very exciting, a very beautiful story, and also the way the Buddha explained the teachings in this text was really extraordinary. I feel that this text even included, although it’s a Mahayana text, it actually really shows the entire view of Buddhism I feel, there’s nothing that’s missing from all aspects. So I found that a very beautiful story.
When I get the text and I begin to translate first, I try to read the text and get my understanding. I learnt that it’s more helpful to actually see the whole story, even if you don’t understand everything right away, but really to get an understanding of the story. So that’s what I am doing now. I’m reading the whole story, and then I’m going through everything with the Lamas that I’m working with. And I think that’s really important actually, because even if I’m sure, and that’s something I’ve learnt… Even if I’m sure I understand and I don’t have a question about this point, it’s still good to, it’s still very helpful, because you always get different even deeper understandings. So I feel it’s very important if you translate that, even if you’re very confident of your knowledge, that you translate with lamas who have the knowledge and also the realization and who give you even deeper insight into the meaning that goes beyond something that you maybe know. So I always go through the whole thing and clarify things. And if there are some parts that we both aren’t sure, then go to the next Lama, and another Lama, and also ask Rinpoche for the real meaning of that, especially the teaching part of the sutra. Because it’s important to really, to understand as much as you can. Not only the academic, but to really understand. And then to translate, I kind of divide it in chapters, even if there are no chapters. Actually I translate twice, so there are two drafts. After completing the second draft, and with editing, I send it to the editor. And then while the editor edits, I continue the second chapter translating the same way. And she sends it back to me, and I revise, and then clarify questions or make phone calls, and send it to the proofreader, then she sends back to me, then I go through it again. So basically all the points must be clarified, whatever that takes.
Definitely the time calculation, I didn’t expect… it’s very tedious, very tedious. Before that I was more used to translate many sadhanas, which I actually find easier to translate than the sutras. I found that it’s really almost essential that you have some understanding of the culture, not the culture but how it was at that time, the language, the Sanskrit. Even if you don’t see it, even if it doesn’t exist, you can, it’s like you’re putting the Tibetan over it, and you can see it through. It really comes through, it definitely comes through. If you don’t understand Sanskrit, or even at least the grammar, the grammatical structures, it’s very hard to sometimes to understand, because the sentence structure sometimes is not proper Tibetan language sentence structure. For the most part it is, but not always. If you don’t know Sanskrit grammar and then it’s confusing sometimes, and then you don’t know. Because Tibetan is an all particle language, a syllabic language. So depending on where you put the particle, like the la don and so on, it makes a big difference in meaning. It changes the meaning completely. Because Sanskrit doesn’t have that… it’s an inflected language, not a syllabic language, so you don’t have particles. So if you put the words according to the sentence structure of Sanskrit, then the particle ends up anywhere in the sentence. So if you don’t know that, the Tibetan, there could be mistakes, I think. So it inspired me to start studying Sanskrit actually, and I did start, studying Sanskrit now, which I find already very helpful.
In the sutras there are so much speech fillers, like “he said” and “he offered his words” and then “he spoke”, when actually, basically the Buddha spoke. So if you don’t know, you read all these lines, and sometimes you feel like there’s so much there, so much information. Also I find the verses more difficult than prose. Yes, because to put something into English verse is very different style than the Tibetan verse form. The Tibetan poetry is just completely different, and then even more so for the Sanskrit. So to put that in the way that it’s still…it doesn’t sound like something that’s a new creation, it still sounds original, I found that challenging. And also, doing the sutra, its comparison between different editions. I found that sometimes the spelling of various verses is different, which really changes the meaning. Like I had this word “sog”, which could mean “and so on”, or it could mean a person or being, could mean “life force”, and if you add this other word before it, it could even mean “together with that attachment”. So there were so many different ways of putting it. And it could have all made, it could have made the case for each of them. So I asked so many Lamas and I get so many answers. And the thing is probably because it’s a story, it’s a drama, and there’s a teaching in the drama. It’s like a really exciting story, and you’re waiting, what comes next. Stories are always more difficult, I think, as a translator. Because for stories you need to really understand the point, you know. In order to understand the point, you must understand the culture and all that background, the cultural background, the time, place, there are so many things that have to come together to really understand the story.
Well, it’s mainly donations actually. At the Garchen Institute, I get a room I can stay. I have no utilities. I don’t have to pay rent. I have a little stipend, so there, just stipend to buy my food. And then when I travel, it’s just basically donation based.
That has helped. It makes me feel more secure, because especially living in United States, I’ve never had insurance before, and that’s a little bit scary. Because I mean now it’s okay, I never get sick, but there’s really no security to live on donations. So that really gave me some security. I got insurance and so on. And I felt like I can support myself more confidently.
I had more of a challenge during the study of Tibetan in order to become a translator. I was really struggling with perhaps some hardships. At that time I actually thought like I don’t know if I can do this. And doing the translation, yeah, financially it’s very difficult. I would not consider giving it up though. Definitely, it’s definitely a challenge about that. But I wouldn’t think… I mean, during the translation, there have been many challenges. I would never have thought of giving it up.
For one, it’s my teacher Garchen Rinpoche, for sure, especially in the beginning when I was learning Tibetan. He was really the one who kept me going, “You have to continue, you have to do it.” But the more I learn, the more I also understand karma. And I just understand that anyway, I cannot escape. No matter where I go, it’s my karma. If I have to suffer, I have to suffer; and if not then I won’t. Actually, if you suffer for the Dharma, like the Buddha said, one headache takes care of eons of hell realm. So if you suffer while you are practicing or serving the Dharma, it seems to be a beneficial thing to do when you think about karma. It’s probably more and more trusting of karma and my guru’s blessings I guess.
I would like to, I would definitely like to. Until the project is completed.
Because I believe in karma, now I can just say that I think this is just one of the best things you can probably do. Of course I’m not someone who sees that, but I know from what I have learnt that support the Dharma is just like…to do the Dharma is like… If you support the Dharma, you have the same merit as anyone who’s doing the Dharma with that support. So I think there’s no greater benefit one can make than making sure that the Buddha’ teachings do not die out in the degenerate age. But then they remain. And for the Buddha’s teachings to remain in scripture, and the Buddha’s words really are in the Kangyur, they are the Buddha’s words, it’s now up to us to keep it alive, to keep it here. Because it will degenerate, if we don’t, over the course of time. So it serves the Buddha’s teachings to remain. And if it remains for a long time, there’s always something of what you did in there.
And also it serves sentient beings, because in the future, so many people will read. Over many generations will read, will continue to read that. Actually before that, it was quite limited. It was just for the Tibetans; and within the Tibetans, it was mainly the monastics; and even within the monastics, it’s just some of them that who really studied the Kangyur. So mostly it’s on the shrine, but it’s nothing that actually is so widespread that people actually know. And if they would know the Kangyur, they would know what the Buddha had said. They would trust in karma, they would understand the correct view.
Even the stories that are put in are actually so beautiful that, people would actually like that. Any kind of person, even not a Buddhist, will actually like that. So anybody could actually benefit. He could even make soap operas out of it. It’s like there’s something for anyone actually. It’s like a very nice story that could benefit many sentient beings in future. If we make sure that it stays, then we have made meaning out of our life. That we can die thinking that I’ve actually done something useful. I’ve made sure that the Buddha teaching stays, and sentient beings learn karma, and hear the Buddha’s words in many different languages, whatever is available to them in the future. And that seems to be really beneficial, because what other things would be so purposeful to do in life than to make sure that beings have some source of happiness in the future.
I know that the sponsors definitely have a pure intention to support the Dharma and have the Dharma remain. And because they have a good intention, I feel very responsible for how I make use of the money. Because I have more awareness than I think I would maybe have if I had a regular job or an income, because they expect this money to go for the purpose… Of course it is given for this purpose, and the purpose is accomplished, but still…the same continuum of intention. So I feel that I’m also responsible for, or more inspired even to use this money in a meaningful way. Of course I have to make a living, but at least not in a wasteful way, at least not for going to shopping malls something like that. In a meaningful, at least not a non-virtuous way. So I think we all have this intention as translators. Then people who are involved in that… we all make this, we understand that it comes from good intention. Then we hook on to this merit, and we also use it in a meaningful way. Then maybe there may be greater merit or greater virtue to bring all this to completion. Because initially it was given with the intention to complete it. So if we all deal with all the grants in a virtuous way, then maybe it will set the cause, and this intention will be fulfilled.