Thursday, October 09, 2014

Regalia Untranslatable - Part One




“Time is short, the aspects of learning so many,
there is simply no telling how long life will last.
So, like the duck extracting milk out of water,
what you treasure most is the thing you must do.”*





*The text of the verse is from the late Michael Hahn's edition, although the translation is my own.  It tells us to live the good life performing deeds of genuine value. I would hold that translation is one of those deeds.  Still, translation can be a source of great frustration. In this verse the gces-pa could be translated as 'holding dear,' 'finding something attractive or cute,' 'valuing' and so on, and if I settled for 'treasuring,' it only means, well, that I settled for it, not that it closes the book on other meanings that weren't quite captured. The point is you ought to spend your life in an ethical manner doing what you love and loving what you do. Otherwise, it's a waste.


The translation process is, as we all know, fraught with anxieties, or a more Tibetanesque formulation, it’s filled with hope-fear (re dogs; རེ་དོགས་), meaning everything from the highest hope to the most dreadful dread. It seems to be built into the very act of translation, the idea that there is no such thing as good enough. We often feel inadequate. At every word or turn of phrase we get into heated internal debates which would be the better way to go with it, if there might be some better way to put it.

If translating causes us so much anxiety, why do it? Well, why do we have families (for instance)? Why do we have friends?  We do what we love, for better or for worse. It’s a kind of commitment, of course, but it does give us pleasure. We’re happy to do it. We hope other people will benefit from our efforts even when they have little idea what our role in the process is exactly, even with their lingering doubts about our capabilities and our honesty. We cheat on the truth and claim to deliver it unvarnished without missing a beat. No wonder they don’t trust us. We don’t trust each other and we doubt ourselves.

I want to think that what I have to say today is not just a pathetic cry for help, but something a little more positive than that. I would like to argue in favor of hope in difficult situations like the ones I’ll point out soon, when the passages we need to translate threaten to swallow us up and spit us out. No doubt we translators could just sit and exchange war stories all day long about our experiences on that front, but I’m not sure what that would accomplish. Would it really be a good use of our precious human rebirth?

So instead of griping I want to start by thanking everyone who was responsible for deciding I would translate the book you see here, but especially the donors, who gave me the freedom (and responsibility, of course, although I do thank them mainly for the freedom). I have them to thank for my new identity.


The front cover of the history by Mkhas-pa Lde'u - མཁས་པ་ལྡེའུ་


Back in 2010, for the first time in my life, I started waking up day after day thinking of myself as a translator. Sure, I’d done translations before. But not on anything like a permanent basis, and nothing on this scale. I liked it — I liked the new me — at least for the first two years. I was doing what I loved (actually, starting from 1989 when I first tried reading a few parts of the history book in question). After doing the original translation in the first year, I gave it a thorough going-over for another year. What I was left with at the end were the real difficulties!

What is this text? Well, just briefly, it has a little over 400 pages. It’s half a history of Indian and half a history of Tibetan Buddhism. Half of the first half is a biography of the Buddha. Much of the beginning of the second half is more about Tibetan royalty than Buddhism per se. It dates to sometime soon after 1261 CE, the date of the chronological source quoted at the end.

The author (more on that fascinating concept in a moment) is unknown apart from the name Mkhas-pa Lde'u, that I amuse myself by translating as Professor Riddle. Still, I believe there is some evidence that hints at who he was. He was part of a specific, if obscure, Dzogchen lineage that descended from Zhig-po-bdud-rtsi who died in 1199. A full volume of Dzogchen teachings of this lineage has been preserved in the Expanded Kama Collection of Kathog Monastery.

The author intended to complete an earlier history by a member of his lineage that was left incomplete. But he did it by compiling material, not by composing his own prose — So much so that I now think he didn’t write a word of it; well, except an apology at the very end — an apology for not being skilled in composition! — and even then just perhaps.

That’s why we can’t speak about his authorial style, tone etc. We would have to talk about the authorial style and tone of each of the authors he anthologized. I’ve long ago stopped complaining about his lack of originality, since I think he selected the very best texts to fill out his outline, and seems to have left them basically untouched in the process. And — this is a significant point — many of these texts in the Tibet half of his book would no longer be available to us (or not as extensively available to us) if he hadn’t quoted from them at length.

I should add, although there is no time to go into it in detail now, that at least one of the old texts incorporated surely belongs to the period of the Emperor Ralpachan (re. 815-838 CE). I have my own standards of historical truth that I try to make use of whenever practicable. I call this triangulation. One is, or ought to be, somewhat less than satisfied that two texts or artifacts point to the same historical event, rather one strives to find three texts or artifacts that in some way mutually support each other, preferably by separate authors, or even by people with otherwise conflicting points of view or the like (some people call this outside verification, but really, it often falls short of the three-way outside verification that I call triangulation). In this case, the text incorporated in the Lde’u history, as well as a pillar inscription written in stone and a Dunhuang document share some aspects of their vocabulary and phraseology as well as information on similar if not identical events. And there is even a unique fourth text incorporated into a still-later text that, even if it isn't necessarily as old as the other three, does point to similar events with identical actors. I will go into this in more detail some other time.

Occasionally he abridged these texts, it seems — in the life of the Buddha he alternated between two different sources — but I don’t think he did any other kinds of editing on them. He made transcripts of the earlier texts, and sure, he very likely committed some small errors in the process (when and if these cannot be blamed on scribes), altering spellings and so on (as you would expect in any manuscript tradition), but he didn’t try to fix old and difficult vocabulary items and the like (as routinely happened to canonical texts when they were revised). For this, depending on our mood, he may be either praised or blamed.*

*I know I've had the problem of dealing with Trikâya Buddhology, Abhidharma, Nyingma tantras, archery, legal codes and 8th-century (obsolete) vocabulary wrapped up in the same package. In effect, you're being required to be an expert in every possible area of traditional knowledge both Buddhist and secular. I even had to study medieval weaponry to make myself clear about objects such as scabbards and hardened leather body armor....


Well, there is so much more to say about the Mkhas-pa Lde’u history, but I want to go straight to what I regard as one of the most obdurate of the remaining difficulties in it, with the thought that we could share ideas on how to deal with this and other passages like it.



Although I’ve included a bit of the context in the cutout above (from the first published version of 1987, pages 384-5), I want to concentrate on the part you see enclosed between the parentheses. This represents a traditional type of footnote (called mchan - མཆན་). For the moment I just want to point out that there are several opaque bits, like the gud-sa bang-so-canme-tor ti-lig-can and so on.  Other items are perfectly intelligible, like the silver serving spoon with stags (dngul-skyogs sha-ba-can). You may see here below a page from the facsimile edition, showing how the footnote actually appears in the original manuscript, in smaller letters below the main lines of the text (click on the photo to enlarge it to readable size; if you need to hone your cursive reading skills, try taking the test). This is a list of the so-called Can-dgu (ཅན་དགུ་), or Nine Possessions, royal heirlooms, or indeed, regalia. We’ll talk more about regalia in Part Two.

Page from the facsimile of the manuscript kept in the Social
Science Institute in Lhasa

(Continued here)


Note:  This three-part blog represents a revised version of my informal notes meant to accompany a slide show presentation at the conference on Tibetan Translation held at Keystone, Colorado a few days ago.  All visual materials presented here are for educational and non-commercial purposes only. (That means you must not download them from here and then go on to sell them. You can and should download and use them for any educational and non-commercial purpose.)


It is possible to locate an audio version here.

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