Tibetan Translators Plan New Guild

Amid rising demand, Western translators of Tibetan Buddhist texts want to form a guild.
2008-10-27
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DHARAMSALA, India:  Tibetan monk reads Buddhist scripture, March 2008.
DHARAMSALA, India: Tibetan monk reads Buddhist scripture, March 2008.
Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON—Western translators say they want to create a guild to share resources for the study and translation of Tibetan Buddhist texts, which have grown far more popular internationally in recent years.

More than 100 Tibetan translators gathered at a conference in Boulder, Colorado, last month—both veteran translators and younger, more recent students of the Tibetan language. They agreed at the conclusion to try to form a Tibetan translators’ guild.

“We met for three days and we talked together, and we found ourselves to be a community. And we decided to follow through on that by creating a guild of translators,” said Jules Levinson, a founding member of the Boulder-based Light of Berotsana Translation Group, which organized the conference.

We see a solid demand for translations..."
Jeffrey Cox, president of Snow Lion Publications

Craftsmen through the ages have formed associations, or guilds, to set standards for their work and advance shared interests. And similar groups, including a Guild of European Translators, exist today.

A Tibetan translators’ guild could help its members attain a “viable livelihood,” said Levinson, who began his study of Tibetan 30 years ago at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

A guild could potentially also provide health insurance for translators of Tibetan, many of whom are uninsured, he said.

‘More and more translators’

Levinson cited a “widely shared enthusiasm for doing this.”

“We’ll have to see how we actually implement the idea,” he added.

Conference discussions clearly pointed to the need for “some kind of organization that “will look out for the profession and also look out for the well-being of the translators,” said Terence Barrett, a professional engineer and recent student of Tibetan.

“There’s more and more [translators] out there,” Barrett said. “Things are really expanding rapidly.”

Western translators of Tibetan work in a religious and cultural environment “halfway between regular Western culture and Tibetan culture,” he said.

Many are devoted students of the lamas, or Buddhist teachers, for whom they translate and interpret.

“So different [Buddhist] groups have different ideas about how the translators are supported,” Barrett said. “Some believe they shouldn’t support the translators at all, that it should be all-volunteer.”

Other groups have a more “professional outlook” and believe that translators should be paid and share in the royalties of the books they work on.

Solid demand

Discussion of a guild comes amid growing demand internationally for Tibetan texts in translation, with titles proliferating in English and other Western languages.

“We see a solid demand for translations [from Tibetan], especially when the translator can also write an explanatory introduction,” said Jeffrey Cox, president of Snow Lion Publications, based in Ithaca, New York.

“We can sell from 5,000 to 10,000 each of many of these books,” said Cox, who helped to found Snow Lion Publications in 1980 as a press “devoted to the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism and culture.”

Cox said that of the many kinds of Tibetan Buddhist texts, including spiritual biographies and poetry, now being translated into English, the more challenging philosophical texts remain the most popular.

Web resources

A guild could “develop Web resources like a database for translations,” said Holly Gayley, a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “And maybe some work on a dictionary that would include more in-depth research into particular important terms.”

“When a group needs a translator, they [could] go to a database and have some assurance not only of the quality of the translator, but what kinds of things people generally translate,” Gayley said.

The translation of Tibetan religious texts into Western languages presents challenges that were the subject of “fruitful discussion” at the conference, said Gayley, who has studied Tibetan for the last eight years.

Finding the right balance between “precision” of meaning and “elegance,” or readability, is one of the most common challenges, Gayley said.

“Maybe a philosophical text should be dense and difficult to read, just like it is in the Tibetan, whereas a poetic text should have lively language.”

Western readers of Tibetan religious literature should experience a kind of “culture shock,” Gayley said.

“What you want to do is to bring readers into a kind of Tibetan Buddhist world, and so you have to challenge them a bit,” she said. “They have to encounter some sense of the strangeness of another way of thinking and another culture.”

Reported in Washington by Richard Finney. Edited and produced for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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