Translators as the “Eyes of the Universe”
Venerable Tulku Yeshi Gyatso Rinpoche, the Seattle-based Dzogchen master and reincarnation of Dzogchen Gyaltsab Thodo Rinpoche, was the consulting lama on 84000’s translation of The Basket’s Display. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on working with 84000 and the lead translator for the sutra, Peter Alan Roberts.
Throughout the conversation Rinpoche earnestly discusses the importance of assembling a knowledgeable translation team and ensuring that translation is accurate both word for word and in overall meaning. Lastly, he explains why in Tibet translators are referred to as the “Eyes of the Universe,” and makes a personal plea that translations be carried out joyfully and with great care.
What is your background and how did you first start translating?
Rinpoche: I’m a native Tibetan language speaker, with very little Chinese language used while I was in Tibet, Nepal and India. Then, when I came to the United States, during the first two years, I didn’t go to school. I worked at Sakya Monastery, meditated, wrote and recited my mantras. After two years, I enrolled in North Seattle Community College, where I attended for almost two years in order to obtain a formal English language education. After that, I continued studying the English Language on a one-on-one basis with tutors that were Sakya members. They helped me a lot.
During the time that I was at North Seattle Community College, my teachers gave me homework that contained very beautiful stories; stories about famous people around the world. For example, in Native American history, the story of Sapa Incas. This opened my eyes to the amazing history of native North and South American Indians. When I read them with my dictionary, I found the stories so interesting and beautiful. I started translating them into Tibetan because I have enough Tibetan writing skill to do so.
Since becoming a poet and writer in my teenage years, I have written thousands of poems and a couple hundred short stories. I have published 14 books. So, I have the Tibetan writing education and background. Then I translated these short stories from my college class into Tibetan; but not from Tibetan into English. Before I started working with 84000, I did not have any background in translation from Tibetan into English.
Can you share some background on the sutra, The Basket’s Display, which you helped translate with 84000?
I don’t remember the exact year and month when I met Peter Alan. When we met, we discussed this project and we agreed to work together for this 84000 project. Then I told Peter that I didn’t have the education to translate from Tibetan to English, only English to Tibetan. However, I had enough understanding of the sutras in Tibetan to work together with him.
We talked about this and finally we decided on a plan. Peter would translate the sutra first. Then he would send me the copy in Tibetan and English. I would then read the sutra in Tibetan and have an American student read the English; sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Then, I checked to see if any words were missing, if there were any misunderstandings in each sentence. I made sure that every sentence made sense. Luckily, Peter Alan is amazing, so scholarly. A very good translator. That, to me is a great blessing from the Buddha. He understands so much, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and of course English. If this project is a big pile of luggage, Peter Alan has carried the heaviest part, like 75%; and I was able to carry 25%.
Were there any passages that were particularly interesting or challenging to translate?
In the sutra, if someone offers the Buddha and his disciples materials, different things, many of those things could be found at that time in India. As the sutras came to Tibet, the names of these materials were not understood, so the Tibetan translators made new words for these things. I had to ask many people from India and Tibet, especially village people, to find out the names of things such as types of jewelry, for example. This was a part that was challenging because it moved between Indian and Tibetan cultures. If words are not used for hundreds and hundreds of years, this kind of problem happens.
What was your role in translating the sutra?
Already I mentioned how Peter Alan took the most responsibility due to his knowledge and education. When I read the sutra, I checked the translation word by word to see if I agreed. Also, I looked beyond the word-by-word translation to make sure that the overall meaning was intact. In Tibetan, we say tsig(word) gyur (translation), or don (meaning) gyur (translation) So, it depends on the paragraph and needs to be a balance of the two ways of translation.
My rule is that I don’t want any words missing or any meaning missing. The meaning of each sentence must be there. You cannot be missing any sentence. This is very important. We Buddhists believe in karma. So, number one is having the best quality of translation. Number two, you cannot be missing any of the Buddha’s words. If you are missing one sentence or one paragraph, that is very bad karma. It is not like missing a sentence in translating my college homework. This is the great, great Teacher, the Lord Buddha’s Teachings for the benefit of millions and millions of people. That is why we cannot leave out any sentence. If you are not able to translate the sentence perfectly, that is okay. The next scholar that works with that sentence can work further with it over time and it can be improved upon. That is my goal.
Who else was involved in the translation, and how did you work together?
We talked already about how a few of my English Dharma students helped me with this process. As they read the sutra to me in English, we went over it very slowly. Any vocabulary that I didn’t recognize, I asked them to stop and we discussed the meaning of the word. At that point, I put my own vocabulary in between the bracket. I made footnotes for Peter Alan to review and think about what he would do with these parts for the best understanding possible. Each time, we had a new experience, a new blessing. This is not only a translation, this is a huge study. The subject of study and meditation; meditating on Dharma words. These sutras can take you back 2,500 years ago. Not only to India, sometimes to different Pure Lands. Sometimes, I cried and my assistants did as well.
What is your advice for others who would like to get involved in translating the words of the Buddha?
If someone is skilled in both Tibetan and English, that is the best. If you do not have that ability, you must be skilled and educated specifically in writing in one of these languages. You need to understand the meaning of the sutra, sentence by sentence. If you are not sure how to translate the real meaning of something, you need to stop and ask someone else for help until you find the answer.
You can make notes where you don’t understand and then work continually, but you need to fix the problem each time you don’t understand completely as soon as possible. This is very important. Also, you should respect the sutras; remembering the importance of the Buddha and his teachings. When you touch the book, you should clean your fingers. When you turn the pages, you should make sure that you don’t touch your tongue to your fingers and then touch the text. If you need to, you may fill a small cup with water to dip your fingers into for help with turning the pages.
Please take care of where you place the Dharma books as well, taking care to not place them on the floor or walk over them. This is worse than if you jump over Buddha’s head. Buddha’s body is one body, but in his texts lives millions of Buddhas. Buddha says that in the future, he will come in the words. Therefore, you should respect each word as a manifestation of Buddha. So, please respect the Buddha’s holy books.
What is your advice for people who would like to study the sutras?
Number one, I would say, again, respect the sutras. Make a difference between the sutras and regular newspapers and magazines. Number two, think about each sentence of the sutra benefiting millions or billions of people for 24 hours. Even one sentence has not only one meaning, but hundreds of different meanings. If you read something, you will find a different meaning than another person. From the Nagas, Devas and so on; different kinds of beings will have found their own unique benefit.
The quality of the translation is the most important. If the translator is educated and has a lot of experience, this person is able to translate very clearly and the sutra is easy to understand. Sometimes even a good translator can translate a sentence where the words are strong and difficult to understand. Other times the translator’s education is not very high, but the words are very easy to understand. You should be prepared to understand that the quality of translation is not always equal and that you need to read the sutras with your best attention and effort put forth in order to receive the most knowledge from your studies.
The Buddha gave teachings to separate groups based on levels of the mind. There are different disciplines or schools that you cannot mix. You should know which sutra is given to which group or school. So, you should study these sutras with an educated person. Whether the person is an American, European, Tibetan or Chinese, they need to know the real meaning. This is very important. Next, the Buddha’s teachings were given in two ways. Directly, you can receive the meaning or indirectly you can find the real meaning. You cannot mix the two systems.
When you study the sutras, in my experience, you should study from the easiest sutras and then progress with more complicated ones that include more Philosophy. Start with the most simple and beautiful, fascinating stories. That way you do not lose your interest in learning. No matter if the sutra is from Tibet, India, or China, when we put the sutra together, you can find some variety due to having different Translators and changes in culture that happen through the centuries. Of course, when the Masters came with the textbooks, pages could have become lost or damaged by weather. Or, if the translator had to change words to have the meaning make sense in their own language. So, you should have an open mind when you study the sutras. There are so many ways and also so many benefits.
Do you have any additional thoughts about 84000 and its mission?
This project is amazing. I am always thankful to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, his students and the supporters. Also, a most important thing is to please continue to make the translators happy. This is the key. If this project is a body, the translators are the eyes.
Always in Tibet from a thousand years ago, we have called the translators jigten (universe) mik (eyes) in Tibetan, which means “Eyes of the Universe.” So, the translators are the eyes. Also, in Tibetan Buddhist culture, when we talk about taking care of our vows, we say, “Keep your eyes.” So, the translators are the eyes of the project. Take care of the translators and keep them physically and mentally healthy.
I think that most translators are Westerners, Americans or Europeans. No matter if their education is perfect, I think that each translator needs one Tibetan scholar or a Tibetan person who knows the exact meaning of the sutra. They should work together through each sutra. If the Tibetan scholar writes, reads and speaks English; that is the best.
Not only having one person translate. If the individual is very educated, like Peter Alan or like Erik Pema Kunsang, maybe they do not need an assistant. However, many other translators need someone to help who is a native Tibetan with an education of the sutra.
Of course, all the time when people start this kind of project, they want to finish as soon as possible. Yet, with something of this importance, the quality is essential. So, please allow for enough time and be mindful of the quality of the translation. From the translator’s side, if there are challenges or obstacles, please remain strong. This is not only for the benefit of a few thousand people, but for the benefit of countless beings.
At the moment when 84000 started, countless Buddhas already blessed this project and continually bless this amazing work. So, from the organizers, supporters and translators; please be happy. Please remember the Buddha worked so hard, through countless kalpas. He accumulated the two merits. Also, your work is a part of accumulating the three countless kalpas. May Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and the organizers, translators and supporters a live a long life and successfully do this amazing work continually.
Tulku Yeshi Rinpoche is a Dzogchen master and the reincarnation of Dzogchen Gyaltsab Thodo Rinpoche. He was recognized by Kyabje Trulshig Rinpoche. He has received teachings from over forty masters representing all five schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug and Shiji (or Chod). Tulku Yeshi has authored fifteen books on subjects of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. He also writes novels, poetry for mind training and how to enjoy life.
Currently he lives at Sakya Monastery and works on Dharma activities both here in Seattle and across the US. He has dedicated himself in service of H.H. Dagchen Rinpoche, Sakya Monastery and Phuntsok Phodrang.