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Buddhadharma : Fall 2014
52 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY FALL 2014 Buddhist tradition, you’d better be able to read the texts in Chinese and Japanese. We tolerate, and in fact celebrate, really fine teachers in Zen centers who can’t read texts in the original language of their area of study, but it would be unthinkable in the world of scholarship to give a PhD to someone who doesn’t possess that basic knowledge. That said, Zen teach- ers don’t want a PhD and don’t really need it, and as long as they’re willing to try to educate themselves through reading good translations and secondary scholarship, there’s nothing wrong with that. In China, Buddhism was introduced by foreign monks and missionaries but it never really took root until everything was translated, written, and taught in Chinese by people who no longer knew any Sanskrit or Pali. Buddhism became a vibrant religious tradition in China based solely on the Chinese lan- guage. I would hope that someday the same thing will happen in the West with English and other non-original languages. BUDDHADHARMA: Bhikkhu Bodhi, you seem to be saying that the teacher needs to interpret these texts for students, and Griffith, you’re suggesting that people need to actually be able to read teachings in the original language. Since neither of those scenarios are really reflected in Western Buddhist cul- ture, should we be feeling pessimistic about our understanding of Buddhism? SARAH HARDING: I agree with Griffith, though I don’t think most people are going to learn those original languages. That’s why as translators we have a responsibility to make the source material available. There’s no such thing as a literal transla- tion, but I think it should be incumbent upon teachers who don’t learn the language to study a transparent translation. Buddhism has always been known to be primarily expe- riential—people are trying to communicate experiences. But even communicating experience in one’s own language is a kind of translation; I don’t know that my words are having the same meaning to you as they are to me. That can get problematic if teachers think that their personal experience is “it.” Sometimes even translators fall into that trap—they feel they have a deep understanding of a text and change the language to convey their personal experience. It’s a slippery slope, so all the more reason to have something in translation that’s recognizable to check back on. BUDDHADHARMA: We’ve touched briefly on some of the works that have been translated in the different traditions, such as the Nikayas and the Shobogenzo. Are there other works that should be pointed out as translation milestones? BHIKKHU BODHI: One thing to mention, although it’s not quite in the field of translation, is the compiling of dictionaries to aid translators. When we pick up dictionaries, we tend to overlook the enormous self-sacrifice of those who compiled them. They might have been people like ourselves who would have much preferred translating texts from original languages into English, but for the sake of other translators, they went through the very laborious process of compiling dictionaries. SARAH HARDING: That’s absolutely true—it’s a boring job and someone has to do it. Most of my translating life, I’ve had to rely on nineteenth-century dictionaries, which I’ve been extremely grateful for. Now there are online dictionaries avail- able, but they are composed of multiple translations thrown together rather than carefully compiled scholarship. They can be very helpful, but much more work needs to be done. GRIFFITH FOULK: Starting in the early twentieth century, the Japa- nese took it upon themselves to produce reference works deal- ing with the entire Chinese Buddhist tradition, so they have some fantastic Chinese–Japanese dictionaries. But recently I’ve found that all dictionaries, as great as they are, are being put to shame by digital search of the Buddhist canon. The refer- ences can be found so easily, I almost feel guilty. Now it’s possible to see terms in multiple contexts and to understand things that the dictionary compilers never did. Teaching on enlightenment by Chan monk Xutang Zhiyu, thirteenth century, China TOKYONATIONALMUSEUM