Against The Stream ~ TRANSLATION

BECAUSE MY TALKS are often translated, I want to say something about translation for those whom it may concern.

The job of a translator is often a thankless task, as the attention is on the person he is translating for; he himself is supposed to be faceless at that time, yet without him, nothing much can be said to people who do not understand the speaker’s language. His job is very important, and must be seen as such.

After speaking in public for many years, I have grown wary of translation as I have seen how inaccurate and misleading it can be. Over translation into Thai, Vietnamese or Indonesian, for example, I have some control, as I speak enough of those languages to be able to check when something I say is translated from English, and tell whether it is accurate or not. This is not because I speak those languages fluently— I don’t— but because there are various ways to verify translation, such as, if it is much longer, or much shorter, than what has been said; if there is some hesitation on the part of the translator, as if he is unsure; if certain key words are used that should not be used, or not used that should be used; by looking at the faces of people in the audience; and so on.

Strange as it may sound, I speak more of a foreign language than I understand by hearing. It is usually the other way around: that people understand more by hearing than they are able to speak. So, how is this? It is because I have never learned another language formally, but only picked up words here and there, stringing them together in my own way. Consequently, the Vietnamese, Thai, Malay, etc., that I speak are my versions— pidgin versions— of those languages, and not the authentic ones. I mean, I can get my basic meaning across, if people are willing to listen to me and meet me half-way, so to speak, but when people speak proper Vietnamese or Thai to me, I don’t understand much at all.

This sometimes causes me embarrassment, because when people hear me speak a few words of their language, some think I speak it fluently, and try to converse with me in it; I’m then stuck, and must explain that I speak only very little of their language. And even in the middle of translation, if I correct the translator, it doesn’t mean— as some listeners think it does— that I understand every word; it merely means that I know the context, and what should and should not be said. Checking translations of things I have written, I’ve detected mistakes and asked the translator: "What does this mean? It doesn’t seem right", and it often turned out that the words or terms used were not correct. One develops a feeling for it.

Although many people do not know it, there is a great difference between translation and interpretation. Translation means to convert— or change— one language into another, as clearly as possible, with as little change in meaning as possible. Interpretation, however, leaves much room for inserting one’s own ideas about what has been said. One is objective, and the other subjective. When people come to me and introduce themselves by saying: "I will be your interpreter tonight", I tell them: "I do not want and will not have an interpreter; I want a translator— someone who will give my ideas, and not his own ideas about what I say".

There are good reasons for being so particular; it is not a matter of playing with words. I talk mainly about non-material things, abstract things, ideas, concepts, and so on; things that change our lives by acting on and through our minds; things equally important as the material side of life, and maybe moreso. It is relatively easy to translate words about material things, for we can point to them, touch them, show them, and say: "What do we call this in your language?" For non-physical things like ideas, however, it is not at all easy to translate, for how can we be sure that the translator has the same idea as the speaker about the concept being discussed? If he doesn’t, or if he doesn’t understand at all, how will he translate and convey that idea in his language? I have known many ‘translators’ try to muddle through and say just whatever came into their minds instead of asking for clarification; it was as if they were afraid to admit that they didn’t understand, which meant pride, of course, a thing that has no place in translation; as said earlier, a translator has— or should have— no face of his own at the time of translating. How difficult it is to understand and keep this in mind. How noble is this task if properly undertaken and carried out.

No doubt many people would say I am a difficult person to translate for; indeed, I admit this to be so. And why? Because I take seriously the subject-matter being translated. If the translation— as often happens— is not accurate, people may be misled, and I feel it’s better to say nothing at all than to mislead people, as the harm done— the impression created— may take a long time to undo.

Many years ago, I was requested to give a talk in the oldest temple in Malacca. I went a few minutes before the scheduled time, and met the man who would translate for me. I’d never met him before then, but his English seemed adequate, so I thought: "Okay, let’s go". During the talk, I said something like this: "It’s not necessary to think about Enlightenment (Nirvana); just do the work that’s needed". After the talk, when I had returned to my abode, someone told me that the translator had badly mistranslated what I had said about Nirvana, and had said: "Don’t work for Nirvana". This was diametrically opposite to what I had said and meant, and it made me very cautious about translation ever since.

I have had Malaysia’s best-known translators translate for me over the years, and though I do not doubt their competence, even with my limited understanding of Mandarin, I knew that they didn’t catch certain of my ideas. Perhaps it was because my ideas are somewhat different than the ideas they were used to translating, and they were therefore not prepared for them. One example is the distinction I draw— or perceive— between Dharma and Buddha-Dharma. Dharma is what the Buddha discovered beneath the Bodhi-tree, not something He invented or formulated. What He formulated, and what we have in the scriptures, is Buddha-Dharma. It is extremely important to discern the difference. In their translation, my translators did not make this distinction, and when I spoke about Dharma, as distinct from Buddha-Dharma, they translated it as the latter. Because they were older than me, however, I let it go, and did not correct them, as I would have done if they were younger; to have corrected them in public would have caused loss of ‘face’.

At the end of 1995, I met someone who became my best-yet translator, someone who understands my ideas quite well, and who seldom hesitates in his translation. He is always willing to translate for me when he can, and expects nothing in return. Nor does he seem to mind when I neglect to thank him at the end of a talk. (This is why I say it is a thankless task, because I have seldom heard anyone else thank the translator; he appears to be taken for granted, which is very sad, considering the important work he does). Grateful for all the help he has given me (as far as many people are concerned, I would be dumb without him), several times I have said to him: "Where have you been all my life? If only I had met you twenty years and more ago!" Thanks a lot, C.W.! You are not faceless for me!

Some people who translated for me over the years were very casual about their task; one was even chewing gum while doing it! Another indicated me with his thumb and said: "That’s what he said!" when someone questioned his choice of words. This is more disrespectful towards the Dharma than to the speaker personally, and as I have written elsewhere in this book, if respect for Dharma is not there, better not to arrange Dharma-talks; better stay home and watch TV.

The ‘colleague’ who I mentioned elsewhere in this book once offered to translate for me during a joint-talk we gave somewhere, but I noticed that his ‘translation’ of what I had said soon turned into his own words; he hijacked my turn and made it an extension of his own, when the audience was under the impression that he was translating my words. I would not have minded if he had not offered to translate for me, but this was quite unethical of him. It is hard to resist doing this, however, especially if we do not agree with what is being said, which he didn’t, I know— our ideas are so different. This is why a good translator is like a precious gem: hard to come across.



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