The Translator’s Workinghouse 4

dzogchentoday-paul Baffier

Written By Paul Baffier

Paul, translator from Tibetan into English and French. He was trained at INALCO and Rangjung Yeshe Institute.

Blog | Reflections on translation

In this article “The translator’s workinghouse 4, The forge of lexicon 3: Be kind to your reader” Paul talks about translating for the readers.


The Translator’s Workinghouse 4: The forge of lexicon 3

Be kind to your Reader

Adapting without betraying… We mentioned it in our article The Hermitage of the Mandarin and the apartment of the yogi, and Grégoire Langouet theorized about it in his Translation as adaptation. Adaptation is a matter of transmission and sharing: one must know how to be faithful to the meaning without becoming obsessed with the letter, and to convey the experience without intellectualizing the meaning. The famous traditional saying puts it this way:

Rely on the meaning and not on the words.

So it is with two key terms of the Tibetan Dzogchen, a country of wood-cutting mountaineers and high-altitude pass crossers: “trekchö” (khregs chod) and “thögäl” (thod rgal).

“Readability remains the cardinal factor in any translation, as Princeton University professor David Bellos nicely put it in his lecture Be kind to your reader (In French, “Prends soin de ton lecteur”).”



Chögyal Namkhai Norbou writes in The Crystal and the way of light that trekchö “means ‘to free by cutting’; as the tightly tied sticks of a bundle unfold freely when the tie is cut, one relaxes completely.” Jigme Lingpa in his Treasury of Precious Qualities says: “Trekchö causes the internal elements to dissolve, they break”. “Trek” indeed means “bundle” or “bushel”, i.e. a collection of branches or pieces of wood gathered together; “chö” is a resultative verb which means that something is cut off, chopped off (so it is not the causative verb to cut or chop here which would tell us that someone is doing the action). So there is a bundle that breaks, that falls apart. My grandmother, in her Bourbonnais dialect, would say that it is “ébouellé” (which means here that it falls apart, and not that its entrails are torn out of it as it is the case in the dialect of Geneva, hello to our Swiss friends!). So the bundle falls apart. Does this mean that we have to translate it literally? In the face of a world population that is mostly urbanized, would the term be well received?

A first solution can be found in the English translation “cutting through rigidity”, which provides a synthesis of the experience and the meaning of the words: the wood of the bundle is abstracted into rigidity, to be cut becomes again the causative verb to cut, which can imply that there is behind this experience a form of mental or physical effort, which is not the case.

Another interesting proposal is “breakthrough”: a single bisyllabic word, like the Tibetan one, carrying within it both the aspects of breakthrough, of innovative or liberating discovery, and more subtly of glass ceiling, of illusory limitation that in fact does not even need to be destroyed.

Thus the bushel of our illusion is untied: this is the path of the simultaneous emergence and collapse of thoughts, the path of primordial purity. As the fundamental nature is free from all defilement, it is beyond all liberation: that is why there is nothing to cut (gcod, “chö”) deliberately and everything is already cut (chod, “chö”) from itself. The bundle opens and shows that it was empty from the beginning. As the branches scatter, the shape and size of the bundle passes beyond characteristics, free of intention, purpose and result.



Chögyal Namkhai Norbu writes that this practice “means ‘beyond the ultimate’. The term “thö” means a height, a peak that is crossed, “gäl”, an illusory and spontaneously surpassed goal where the objective is reached immediately, by skipping the steps.

The practice of “thögäl” is related to “lhundrup” (lhun grub), “spontaneous fulfillment”. The term does exist in Sanskrit, anābhoga, and François Chénique writes that it could be translated “without contortion”, which evokes the famous dzogchen image describing the experience of natural liberation, “rangdröl” (rang grol): a snake that unrolls its knots with ease.

As you can see, the image is intimately linked to the Himalayan landscape, and its commentary refers to Indian culture, full of dancing snakes. If you live in the bayous or play Bullit in the hills of San Francisco, you’ll have an idea of what we’re talking about, but if you’re a flatlander like me, the image might not strike you.

One of the usual translations of this basic term is “leap-over”. It has the merit of being simple and translating both parts of the original word. With the Dzogchen Today! translation committee, we have tried, in the same vein, “the immediate jump”.

The adaptation to the cultural norms and representations of a time and place is thus indispensable, as it is sometimes impossible to stick to a literal translation. The other solution, more erudite but still possible, is to translate the term literally and then to fill in the gap in understanding with all sorts of footnotes explaining the cultural background of the terms.

Readability remains the cardinal factor in any translation, as Princeton University professor David Bellos nicely put it in his lecture Be kind to your reader (In French, “Prends soin de ton lecteur”).

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