From Reading the Torah to Translating the Sūtras

In a world of increasing interconnectedness, translating takes on ever more significance in promoting cross-cultural understanding. So how does one become a translator? Like all great stories, often the most unexpected ones are the most intriguing. Watch our interview with self-described “east coast Jew,” Larry Mermelstein, the Executive Director of the Nalanda Translation Committee, based in Nova Scotia (Canada), who through a series of causes, conditions, and circumstances went from reading the Torah to translating the sūtras.


84000: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

LM: I’m an East Coast Jew, born in Pennsylvania, raised in Rochester, New York, and high school in northern New Jersey. Thank you, Jon Stewart, for making it OK to be from New Jersey. My grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi, but he did not live in a Hasidic community. So I had some exposure to a sort of religious fanaticism, from the Jewish viewpoint—very interesting in retrospect. But I was raised as a conservative Jew—so not particularly religious—but I went to Hebrew school and hated most of it, like all my friends. I was bar mitzvah’d,during which I chanted both the Torah [passage and the Haftorah] because I was into chanting. I was definitely umdze-oriented, I don’t know, some pre-umdze training in the Jewish thing.

I think I was also somewhat inoculated against practicing in a foreign language that I didn’t understand well, because I did not understand Hebrew, hardly at all, much as they tried to teach us. As I became more curious in reading the opposite page where the English was, I became a little less interested in the whole thing. So I am a very firm believer in practicing in your native language whenever possible. No more mumbo jumbo.

Larry Mermelstein

84000: How did you then become interested in Tibetan Buddhism?

LM: I was a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, of the Woodstock generation and I did go there [to Woodstock]. Many of us were interested in Eastern things. In high school I read D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, which were very helpful and interesting; we debated all sorts of things among my friends. And in college I was a student of Swami Satchidananda, a fairly well-known Hindu yoga teacher. I was not a close student of his like some of my friends I met later, but he was a very wonderful, good influence both in terms of the physical, haṭha-yoga, but also more meditation. And that inspired me to study Sanskrit. Somewhat because I was bored in college—and unlike some of my friends, I was not really wanting to dropout. I wasn’t quite that radical, adventurous. And so I wanted to find something that would occupy me; and Sanskrit—I had heard—was a very difficult language. Although I had studied a few different languages, I had not done very well with any of them. So I was intimidated. I went to see the teacher who would be teaching Sanskrit, and it was obviously an auspicious coincidence of finding him in his office. I later learned that it might have been the only time that he was in his office over the four years I was in college.

I said to him, “I heard Sanskrit is a very difficult language.”

And he said, “Well, how did you pass your language requirement here?”

“Well, I took Russian.”

“Oh, it’s much easier than Russian, no big deal.”

And I said, “Why is it that people say Sanskrit is so difficult?”

He said, “This is a myth promoted by Sanskritists, for their own ego.”

That got me! That was the hook that [inspired me to go ahead with this.]

As it turned out, he was lying through his teeth. Sanskrit is considerably more difficult than Russian, I think. But, he got me. And he was a very good teacher, even though quite eccentric. I enjoyed Sanskrit. It was fun. And it really has served me well to some degree. I never got particularly proficient. I did about two-and-a-half years of Sanskrit, a little Pali, even a bit of Vedic Sanskrit. Trying to translate Buddhist texts with some knowledge of Sanskrit, especially for those focused on Tibetan, is hugely helpful. So I really recommend that all Tibetan translators—people translating Tibetan Buddhist texts—they really should have at least a year of Sanskrit.

So all that happened in college. I became a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, the Vidyādhara Chögyam Trungpa, in the middle of my college years. That of course inspired me to want to learn Tibetan. But Tibetan was not offered at the University of Michigan; nor is it at hardly any universities in North America, very rare. So I couldn’t really pursue that until later. But it was definitely the Hindu yoga thing that began . . . And I took a couple courses in Buddhism. After becoming a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, I was much more focused on Buddhism and, fortunately, a professor from the University of California, Lewis Lancaster from Berkeley, came as a visiting scholar. He offered a graduate seminar mostly in Chinese. I didn’t know Chinese, but he allowed me to come to the seminar and read the same texts in Sanskrit, along with about five or six people reading Chinese. Each one had a different translation of the Diamond Cutter Sūtra, Vajracchedikā. We would go around the room and each person would offer their translation of what their text said. I supposedly had the original, and each of them had a different Chinese translation. This was fabulous. I learnt a lot; it was a lot of fun, and Professor Lancaster was a really supportive, very good teacher. I had to produce a critical edition of I think six or seven Sanskrit manuscripts. Little old me, you know, some little Sanskrit student, had to decide which the best reading was from among all these variant readings. Very difficult, presumptuous, but you learn a lot in trying to see what would be grammatically more correct. It was in the days of typewriters. So you would kind of have to roll the carriage back and type a hyphen for all the macrons and roll the other way to type a period under all the retroflex. It was enough to drive you mad. I had thirty pages of Sanskrit to type. Anyway I learned a lot; it was really good.

84000: Were your translation studies concurrent with your study of Tibetan Buddhism?

LM: Yes, I was a beginning student of Tibetan Buddhism, meaning I was beginning to learn how to meditate in the Tibetan style, and I was studying—not Tibetan yet—but Sanskrit Buddhist texts, and it was terrific; it was really a very good experience. Tibetan came later. That didn’t really happen until I moved to Boulder, Colorado, which is where the Vidyādhara wanted me to go after college. That was in, let’s see—I finished college in the early part of ’73. Trungpa Rinpoche himself actually taught two classes in Tibetan, to five or six of us who were interested. He was not really a language teacher, but it was fun. We read the “Kagyu Lineage Supplication”—dorjé chang tönma, as it’s known. We already knew it very well in English. Reading it in the original was exciting and fun. How could you not want to do this? You learn Dharma! So I would say most of us were aspiring to learn Tibetan because it was a wonderful way to study and learn more Dharma. We were not particularly wanting to become translators, most of us that were in that [class]. It really was just those of us who were interested in such things.

84000: What are the greatest challenges faced in the translating of Tibetan Buddhist texts?

LM: I am not sure how to answer this question because it depends a lot on what you’re really wanting to accomplish. If you’re a scholar the challenges are huge, because most of the Tibetan literature that was translated—the Kangyur, the Tengyur(gyurmeans “translated”)—these are all the words of the Buddha and the commentaries of his many Indian disciples. So translating texts that are from either of those canonical collections, I think, requires the knowledge of Sanskrit at least, maybe other Prakrits, like Apabhraṃśha and other related Indian languages, and that’s very challenging.

I think the greatest challenge for translators is really learning the languages well enough to be inside them enough to then be able to express them in another language. And, I don’t think I have really accomplished that much. So there is a lot you can do without being that inside of the other culture, because I think that’s what we’ve done. But the more you can get inside it, I think the better you can be as a translator. I’m still in the realm of what a lot of people call “translatorese”—that is, a bridge between the original and the vernacular target language. Because we are translating Buddhist texts and because the texts are many times very technical with a lot of vocabulary that ordinary Tibetans would not know, you could say there is an excuse for why the target language also has a technical vocabulary that is not totally vernacular. We are doing this because we are the bridge from one culture to another, from one understanding to another. And even though it may not be as beautiful as it could be, we hope it’s very accurate. We strive for accuracy. So, it’s a challenge—there are so many things you have to compromise on or make a choice. But learning the languages is certainly the biggest challenge. And trying to think about who the audience is, who are you actually speaking to or writing for? Is it primarily Buddhists who are practitioners? Is it primarily academics, scholars?

The Nalanda Translation Committee—of which I am the director—we try to do things primarily for the practitioner, but in a way that would be acceptable to a scholar, without all the scholarly apparatus that they would normally expect. That’s our decision, which we came to very much in concert with Trungpa Rinpoche, and we try to continue that.

84000: What are the most important reasons for translating Buddhist texts?

LM: I think the reason to translate Buddhist texts is to make the teachings available to another culture for those people who want access to the actual guts of the tradition. It is a tradition that has a huge literature in many different languages, and Tibetan is a very large literature, even though a lot of it is repetitive. It’s still very vast. So if a practitioner wants the wealth of knowledge and methodology of practice, there’s a lot to translate.

I think the main purpose is to awaken people. Just like the Buddha—“buddha” means the “awakened one,” somebody who woke up. That’s what we are all after; we are trying to wake up and be more aware. The Buddhist tradition has developed a lot of amazing methodologies towards that. Many of those do not require texts, but there’s a lot of information and facts that are very helpful. Not just sort of arcane historical references, but actually very useful, practical wisdom. So, if somebody wants actually to embody that and understand it, they need the resources of the literature. That is what really contains the lineage of transmission and tradition that has gone on now for 2,500, 2,600 years.

84000: What impact do you think 84000 can have in preserving this literary heritage?

LM: The 84000 project is a very ambitious project, and this is not something that someone can easily imagine accomplishing without the kind of resources that prevailed in ancient cultures. When the king of Tibet gathered a group of translators at Samye to translate the Indian teachings into Tibetan, you had royal patronage—you had the whole wealth of the culture brought there to help to sustain that endeavour, which took a long time. We don’t have that kind of patronage. So being able to accomplish this is in many ways more challenging.

One of the big questions is: How picky do we want to be about translating these texts? These are texts that are very old, and unfortunately, the living transmission—the living tradition of knowledge of the overwhelming majority of these texts—has disappeared many hundreds of years ago, maybe almost a thousand years ago, but for sure many hundreds of years ago. For the most important of these texts, I believe, the transmission is very intact by way of commentary, and many of those texts have already been translated. Maybe some of them could use a refreshing. But the majority of these texts really do not have living people who know what they mean, who can explain in detail what every word means. Whereas some of the texts—the most famous of them—can be explained word by word. Now, whether that is the same explanation as would have been given a thousand years ago, we don’t know. But at least there is some continuity there. But the majority of this literature doesn’t have that. So for those of us working on these texts, it’s very challenging, very difficult. There is no one alive to ask, “What does this really mean?” But there are a lot of super smart people—many of them Tibetans—who will probably make a better educated guess than we will. (“We” Westerners).

I had a conversation with Gene Smith, the great Tibetan scholar I hope many of you know about. And this conversation occurred before the 84000 project was created, but only a few years before that. He and I were friends—as anyone who works in Tibetan would want to claim friendship with Gene Smith, and he really was friendly with hundreds of people, and I am very fortunate to be one of them.

And I asked him, “What do you think of this idea of translating the Kangyur?” I knew he was coming [to a conference] with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Ponlop Rinpoche. In particular, Ponlop Rinpoche was the main advocate of this at the time. And we went back and forth about our own feelings about this, whether it was really important or not. But one thing that Gene said to me that I am reminded of in today’s question is: “We just need to get it done and make it available and not worry too much about doing a perfect job in the way that an academic Buddhist scholar would.” And I think that is crucial.

An academic approach to these translations would really take so long. I am not saying that it’s not a good idea. I’m just saying that it is just really, really difficult and requires enormous linguistic knowledge and capability. There is a limit to what you can really know. Gene really felt that we shouldn’t do that; we should do whatever we can, do our best job, put it up on the web, make it available to people. And, over time, maybe it will be improved upon by those people getting inspired to want to do that. So I want to leave you with that. Gene Smith is kind of our mentor for so many things. I think we should follow his advice (with tears in his eyes).

Larry Mermelstein is the Executive Director of the Nalanda Translation Committee, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. More information can be found at: