We all have different reasons and motivations that fueled our search for “something else,” leading us to look outside the familiar. But as Western practitioners of the buddhadharma, most of us probably found our way to Buddhism in a similar manner: through a book. Perhaps that book was recommended by a friend, a teacher, or even a stranger; maybe it was assigned in a college class, or it caught our attention at the library. For me, that first book was the Dhammapada. As a college freshman, I was determined to learn anything I could about Buddhism. However, my small college did not offer any Buddhist studies classes. I had to convince the philosophy professor to offer a class in Eastern philosophy, and then I had to collect signatures convincing classmates to enroll in the class. I remember reading each verse of the Dhammapada, analyzing it, wanting to know more. I found different translations of the text and compared them to see if a different translation, the use of different words, different ways of expressing the same idea, would lead me to a deeper understanding of each verse. I even read Spanish translations, hoping they might provide new insight.
For most practitioners in the West, every traditional text we’ve ever read is a translation. But how much thought do we give to the translator?
For most practitioners in the West, every traditional text we’ve ever read is a translation. But how much thought do we give to the translator—their training, their view, their process? What follows are two pieces that explore these questions, providing us with an opportunity to reflect on how the role of the translator, both historically and in contemporary times, is not only central to the establishment of the tradition in a new context, but also plays a vital role in the development of the tradition.
The buddhadharma is a living tradition, one that, while rooted in the Buddha’s teachings, has adapted and continues to adapt, evolving differently in different places and times, continuously growing and taking shape through its teachers, practitioners, and translators. Buddhism has not only changed over time, but thanks to its adaptability, it has also changed according to the cultural contexts in which it finds itself. Thanks to this characteristic, through the spread of Buddhism in Asia and to the West, we now find different and unique Buddhist traditions that reflect its practitioners’ varying needs and cultures.
In the articles that follow, we hear from two translators, Cinthia Font and Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön, whose practices have become inseparable from the nuanced work of navigating the teachings in multiple languages. In my interview with Cinthia Font, we discuss the historical role of the translator as Buddhism became established in Tibet and the role of translators today, as they carry on that tradition. Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön, in her article, takes us through her journey, from interpreting as a little girl for her Cuban immigrant parents to discovering, through her study of Tibetan, how the act of translation can become a personal offering for those who are willing to listen. Both offer us a glimpse of the dedication and love of words that support—in ways we may not recognize or often consider—how each of us receives and understands the Buddha’s teachings.
—Mariana Restrepo, associate editor
Mariana Restrepo: Historically, what role have translators played in the transmission of the dharma?
Cinthia Font: During the early transmission of Buddhism in Tibet, in the late seventh century, there was a massive initiative by King Songtsen Gampo, and again in the mid-eighth century by King Trison Detsen, both of whom sent scholars to India to gather and translate the original teachings of the Buddha. As part of that endeavor, the teachings had to be integrated within the new culture, not only from the standpoint of the language, but also transmitted and incorporated into the native culture itself. In order for that to happen, translators and scholars played the most important role. They not only brought the teachings back and codified them in the native language, they actually studied and practiced them at the feet of living teachers. There was a process of understanding, realizing, and embodying those teachings while working with teams of scholars and other highly accomplished practitioners to render those teachings in a language that would be accessible to the native people in Tibet.
Authenticity can only come if it is guided by practice. We’re talking about something that goes beyond the scope of merely understanding the language or the culture.
From that perspective, translators, known as the lotsawas, were seen as more than translators. The word lotsawa connotes more of an accomplished master of the buddhadharma, someone with outstanding knowledge, wisdom, and the capacity to transmit those teachings in a way that people would understand. The lotsawas’ role went beyond the scope of what we think a translator is; they were considered teachers in their own right and, in some cases, lineage holders as well.
What are the characteristics of a modern translator/interpreter?
The ideal translator and interpreter is a Buddhist scholar and practitioner, someone who has both textual knowledge of the tradition, as well as experiential accomplishment. Thus, ideally, it is somebody with twofold training: the traditional scholastic training in the philosophy and the contemplative training. The latter entails receiving instructions for the practice, accomplishing them, and spending time in retreat under the supervision of a qualified master who guides the path.
Can you talk about the relationship between the teacher and the translator/interpreter?
The model I think is probably the most successful, in terms of faithfulness to the original teachings, is a translator/interpreter who can study under an authentic teacher, thus receiving guidance, being able to practice, develop, and assist in the transmission of the teachings of that master. There is a distinction between oral interpreters or textual translators who work for Buddhist masters and train within the living tradition, and translators focused on academic studies who might not be practicing Buddhists. It is not uncommon to find experts in the field who are outsiders to the tradition. For a Buddhist practitioner who studies under a teacher and goes on to take on the responsibility of translating their teachings, the teacher–student relationship is of foremost importance. It is a model that requires the student to rely upon the wisdom of the teacher who can elucidate, clarify, and help the student develop more awareness and wisdom to gain certainty of the meaning of the teachings that he or she is studying.
Has the role of the translator/interpreter changed in modern times?
It is an important—and vast—question that I hope to hear discussed in more depth among modern translators. In my opinion, a modern translator needs to embody their teacher’s vision and ideal of the tradition in order to preserve the authenticity of the teachings without diluting them, without leaving room for misinterpretation, and with awareness of the things that might get lost in translation.
Certain aspects are inevitably subject to change. We are talking about a millenary tradition being implanted in the modern world, in different countries, with different linguistic approaches and cultures, with independent appropriations pertaining to the specific milieus in which the tradition becomes rooted. Therefore, we are not talking about one endeavor; we’re talking here about many different endeavors.
I don’t believe there is just one way to do it. I think the guidance of masters with a visionary perspective and approach as to how this can be done is extremely important. It is a collaboration with sensitive, open-minded, and highly accomplished individuals who are solely dedicated to authentically embodying the teachings of the Buddha. That authenticity can only come if it is guided by practice. Committed practitioners with deepened understanding and realization of the meaning can work on that together with their masters. We’re talking about something that goes beyond the scope of merely understanding the language or the culture.
Can you talk about your own personal experience as an interpreter/translator? How do you prepare to translate, how do you get into the headspace, and how do you relate to your teacher in that context?
Something really beautiful happens when one has the opportunity to be the conduit of the words of one’s teacher into one’s own language. In this context, it is not your words but the words of their wisdom-mind, emerging from the Buddha’s wisdom. You are the conduit of a vast tradition, including all the generations that are presently embodied in the teacher him or herself. One could say it is a sacred moment. In trying to do justice to that, what is most useful, in my case, is to observe how the teacher’s shower of blessings pours down. I just open up to that space and try to get myself out of the way. When I say “I try to get out of the way,” I mean I try not to interpret based on my own personal likes and dislikes or my attachments and narrow ways of viewing the world. I try to open up my mind, listen attentively, without projecting, and, whenever possible, to find or reproduce the same words the teacher is using. I attempt to convey the same energy in the sense that, if the teacher is being humorous or using metaphors to help us understand better, I try to adopt language of the same or a similar register. By getting out of the way, I’m hoping my personality as an individual doesn’t come across as strongly. Ultimately, the teachings we are trying to understand and accomplish are rooted in the philosophy of no-self. It has been extremely humbling and beautiful in my own path of practice to remember the meaning of refuge in the Buddha, the teacher, the lineage, and just let the teachers do their magic through their blessings at that moment. ä
As an oral interpreter/translator, to what extent do you try to translate within a cultural context? What kinds of adjustments do you make based on audience or place?
That is the challenge, because it has to do with skill. It is the balance of that sacred space and inscribing oneself within that transmission, but also using your skill in both the target and source languages to serve the audience to the best of your ability. In my case, I am from Mexico originally, and when I speak Spanish, I speak with a Mexican accent, influenced by Mexican humor, Mexican cultural references, and Mexican vocabulary and colloquial expressions.
If I’m interpreting or translating, I try to cater to that audience. I try to be aware of the audience’s linguistic culture so that the point can come across in a way that is understood in their own cultural context. When I speak to you, for example—you are Colombian—I want to convey to you that I know how to express myself in a way that can relate to your own experience. I lived in Colombia when I was a child, so there are certain words or expressions I could automatically say to you when we’re speaking in Spanish because I have that way of relating to you.
I translate into Spanish for Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Most of her students are from Spain and Mexico. I’m conscious of the different ways in which some words and verbal conjugations are used by native Spanish and native Mexican speakers. For example, if the people in the audience are mostly from Spain, I know specific Mexican terminology might come across differently to a Spanish person’s ear. It does not necessarily mean they will not understand, but it might not have the effect that I intend as a Mexican person. Therefore, I try to translate taking the cultural context into account. I keep the analogy or the example that Rinpoche is giving, but metaphors often don’t overlap. For example, I recently had to translate the English saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I wasn’t sure how it is expressed in Spain, so I said the Mexican version, el que mucho abarca poco aprieta—“He who holds much can squeeze very little.” We all had a good laugh because that sounds humorous to someone in Spain. There are also some Tibetan proverbs that can be challenging to transpose into the Spanish-speaking culture, such as “today the sun rose from the West,” which means something unbelievable has occurred.
In those cases, as an interpreter, you have to quickly think of something that will translate, or be as close to the metaphor, saying, proverb, joke, or pun uttered by the speaker. You ought to have the ability to offer a parallel.
Some of the students that attend the teachings are from different Spanish regional groups, as well as students from all over Latin America. In those cases, the audience is mixed, so I try to use neutral language.
How do you navigate the choice to translate meaning as opposed to translating just the language?
That question is fundamental—I ask it to myself every time I translate, and I suspect I always will; I have even asked that question to Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche and requested guidance about it. Rinpoche’s style, when speaking, could be described as the use of manifold precise adjectives to describe things, often strung together in a beautiful sentence, like a delicate flower garland. Sometimes Rinpoche describes something with five or six different nuanced adjectives. When interpreting in this context, unless you know the teacher and the analogies they use well, and you are familiar with their particular style, it is not always easy to immediately come up with that level of precision and accuracy in your own language.
Words are very important, as the words point to the meaning, but one must not get hung up on the words. Rather, try to be faithful to the transmission of the meaning.
Luckily, I’ve been translating for Rinpoche for a few years and have gained some familiarity with her teaching style. I have to be prepared to listen carefully and try as best I can to render the register faithfully. I’ve been told that the most important thing is to convey the meaning, which is why Buddhist translation has to become experiential. What I understood from Rinpoche’s instructions and teachings is that, first, you need to really understand the teachings and practice, to gain direct experience. Only then will you be able to transmit the meaning. Words are very important, as the words point to the meaning, but one must not get hung up on the words. Rather, try to be faithful to the transmission of the meaning.
What if one doesn’t feel confident doing that? That was another question I had. It is a big responsibility! I think my understanding of the answer has been evolving for years, or at least I’ve been trying to understand it for years. It has to do with the confidence that comes from the devotion in your own practice and your own path. Therefore, I think it’s important to continue to deepen one’s understanding through the accomplishment of the practices and, for me, personally, to continue to mature in the relationship with the teacher and the path.
Is there a difference in approach when you are translating teachings as opposed to something more experiential, such as an empowerment or pointing-out instructions?
That question points to what I was alluding to. There is a sacredness of that space that is held by the wisdom holder in the room, the teacher who is bestowing the teachings to the students. It is said that everything is held by the teacher and the mandala created at that moment. Hence, the interpreter also becomes part of that mandala, that sacred space.
I remember a few years ago, at Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu, we had a fascinating lecture by Erik Pema Kunsang, a senior and highly respected translator and practitioner. He was talking to students who were training to become oral interpreters and translators, and we had the opportunity to ask him questions. He advised us that, in the midst of that sacred moment, when you look around and you see the master, the audience—yourself included—the statues, the thangkas of the deities, the lineage holders, and so on, to remember that every single person in the audience is a bodhisattva. He said to visualize them no longer in their ordinary form but in their highest form, aware of their inherent buddhanature, viewing everybody present as manifestations of the female Tara and the male Manjushri. By doing so, you establish the view that what is happening in the room is not an ordinary thing. You are not in an ordinary space. You are not with ordinary people. The teacher is not ordinary, and the words are also not ordinary.
Erik Pema Kunsang’s advice has stayed with me throughout all these years. It has helped me the most when I’m interpreting because of something similar to stage fright—even if you’ve done it many times. At least for me, when I’ve been there by the teacher, facing the audience, I’ve thought to myself “Oh my! What am I doing here? Am I capable of doing this?”
This is a training that has to do with incorporating the view of the five perfections: the excellence of dharma, perfect time, perfect teacher, perfect place, and perfect retinue. This gives rise to pure perception. That has always been helpful. At that moment, what you’re doing as a practitioner is attempting to dissolve the habitual, ordinary perception of your identity and the identity of others. Instead, you train to understand the emptiness of self and others, to let the wisdom take over your fixations. There is an attempt to let go of even what is perceived as language or understood as transmission. All of it is held in the sacredness of that moment.
I think this description might set the scene for what is happening. By letting the guru lead, you become a piece of the puzzle. Everything happens via the power of that transmission. The way I see it is that it is not really you, the interpreter, who has agency; it is, rather, a form of surrendering. Then the magic begins.
Digesting the Dharma
By Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön
I wish I could tell you that my love of language—of transferring the sense and heft and lushness of one tongue to another—rose unbidden, ripe, and startling, like a Botticelli goddess emerging from a sea. ¡Ay, cuanto lo deseo! A better storyteller than I would fashion all manner of fables out of my passion—habla claro, mija, es pasión—for the English language.
The truth, however, is pedestrian, cobbled together of necessity in supermarkets, schools, and Social Security offices. A child of a Spanish journalist and a Cuban law school graduate who fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took power, I was born in New York, only to be whisked immediately to Caracas, where my father and others struggled to revive the Cuban magazine Bohemia.
When that venture failed, my family, now including my younger brother, returned to New York to start anew. I was five years old, I began learning to navigate this land whose customs differed from ours, whose etiquette cast my family as boisterous, whose politics peered at us askance, and whose language I did not know, even though everyone else did.
Except my parents.
No sooner did I learn English, in the impossible, seamless way children have with language, than I became my parents’ official translator. At shops, parent–teacher conferences, bank counters, and bureaucracies, I strained to embrace words too big for my scrawny arms to carry all the way to a parental ear. I wish I could tell you I was proud, that I took up the role of helping them with joy. Desgraciadamente, no. I dreaded every instance.
Decades later, when I arrived at Pullahari Monastery in Nepal, I came with advanced degrees in biology and law, fluent in transposing complex technical jargon to modern parlance in sentences worthy of the nineteenth-century British literature I devoured. My mind was honed to brittleness—un huesito reseco—primed to weigh terms against each other in a dry quest for precision.
Ah, but the poetry. La poesia. Where was the poetry?
At the monastery, flowers, blooming red against azure skies, perfumed the air. Gongs sounded, rhythmic and compelling, fussing the skirts of monks in the lanes and along the stairs. At dharma teachings, English came second. Tibetan held pride of place, washing over me as I sat awed and cross-legged before a golden stupa studded with coral, turquoise, amber.
My days passed in an impressionistic blur of study and practice, chanting, singing dharma songs—¡baila yogini!—and amassing many thousands of full-body prostrations, a far cry from pinning myself to a desk, tracking my labors in six-minute intervals. Dime con quién andas y te digo quien eres.
Slowly, imperceptibly, I eased into my body. Not a body consigned to the margins—aqui que blanca, allí demasiado trigueña—nor one aching to assimilate, camouflaging its truths to meet unspoken expectations, divining assumptions that no amount of fluency could decipher.
Here, my tawny skin and straight hair signaled belonging. Natives addressed me in Nepali. Shopkeepers offered me local prices. I floated into viharas without obstacle, pastel shawl fluttering. My meals were served spicy. This world reached out to meet me, just as I was.
Indulgent, I waited for words come to me. No need to chase them down, fileting them, scooping out all I could find. I nibbled at them, juice dribbling down my chin, digesting them in the sun, resonances spilling forward with the languid gait of organic things.
The Rigpe Dorje Institute Program for International Students stressed a natural approach to Tibetan language acquisition. Grammar was learned in situ, so to speak, rather than from rules. Operating in tandem with contemplative analysis of dharma teachings, this approach altered my relationship with translation radically. In time, I came to own being a translator, even to love it, amidst the strangeness of a language wholly unrelated to either English or Spanish. The embeddedness of Tibetan enchants me, how words elusive without context take sense in relation to surrounding words.
First in practice liturgies, then classical texts, then oral teachings, the delicate magic of not merely translating words, but carrying significance between languages, knit itself into my sinews. Slowly, my translation process became embodied: breathe in—al inhalar; Tibetan—tibetano. Breathe out—al exhalar; English—ingles.
To this day, I experience my language work as visceral, alive, playful—an exuberant dance of wonder, improbability, and unrequited yearning. What I do feels less like translating than enfleshing—ingesting the dharma, sensing it in the marrow of my bones, and nurturing words to evoke that experience until one rises, a pearl from an oyster, able to elicit the experience in another.
I highly recommend this eating of dharma.
You may not see my pearl as one of great value. Or another’s pearl. Or even the Buddha’s. Take it up still. Turn it this way, then that. There is no disrespect in this. We are not meant to accept what’s on offer, predigested, like a fledgling in a nest, waiting hungrily at the receiving end of the alchemy. Put it under the jeweler’s loupe and take its measure. Not just once. Again and again, with gusto. Disfruta. Take it in. Enjoy.
Perhaps you prove yourself right. ¡Ándate con cuidado! But if you are truly fortunate, you will be surprised by the unexpected dazzle lying unseen in one simple pearl.
Digesting the dharma lets us absorb it in our being. Send it on to our cells. This is the embodied dharma, live and electric, coursing through our body with significance. Guiding our way in the world.
The precision and the poetry. El ritmo y