In the translator’s workinghouse: The space of freedom and the triple requirement 1

Blog | Reflections on translation

In “In the Translator’s workinghouse: The space of freedom and the triple requirement 1”, Paul talks about the triple requirement that every good translator must have… to translate well.

The triple requirement

A triple requirement regarding translation allows the great traditions to survive the centuries. It allows their foundement, the essence of liberation, to remain through changes in language and culture, and even, one might say, through them.

The threefold requirement is: (1) to correspond to the meaning of the word, (2) to the experience it points to, and (3) that the word and the experience be immediately understandable to the reader.


(1) The first requirement is related to preservation: to correspond to the original meaning of the word.

The first requirement seems the simplest and in some ways the most traditional: a word in one language corresponds to another word in another language. The words correspond to each other because they have the same meaning and designate the same reality. This theory of translation has been used in the translation of many sacred texts: it is considered that the spiritual essence of the word resides in the etymon of the source language, and that it is a matter of finding the corresponding etymon in the target language for the translation to work.

But one quickly understands that this becomes more difficult as soon as one speaks of immaterial realities, of psychic experiences, of dreams and meditation experiences, of all that hidden, subtle reality, escaping the palpable and revoking tangible objectivity, to unfold a whole universe, however vast and rich, of contemplative realities which are not born of confusion but on the contrary, of clarity. How, then, to translate the exact word? How to be sure that it is the same thing, when we do not speak of things?

One way to solve this problem is not to translate and to leave the word as it is: not to translate is a strong act of translation, a choice that carries a long-term vision. It is a matter of importing into a culture a term that did not exist there before, hoping that it will be adopted, that it will open the pages of its dictionaries, that it will be taught in its schools. Sometimes this works and the word remains: in French as in English, everyone knows seraphim and cherubim. These words were implemented in the West during the translation of the Septuagint by a college composed of 72 translators. This translation would have been commissioned by King Ptolemy II at the instigation of Demetrios of Phalerus, the founder of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Not finding the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew kerūv, these translators copied and pasted it as it is. 23 centuries later, we still use it. But the term kerūv itself would come from the Assyrian kerubwhere it would mean “messenger” or “prior”, and designates a kind of winged and bearded bull placed at the entrance of the temples. This evokes the powerful figures with ten cubit wings that are said to have adorned Solomon’s temple and seems a far cry from the little cherubs and other winged babies that adorn our Christian churches. So, successful importation or failed translation?

In the same vein, we did not translate the Sanskrit term buddha, which has remained almost unchanged in French or English. Was this a good idea? Did it spread the experience and practices associated with the word? Did it give rise to a new culture within a culture that had not seen this phenomenon and had no words to identify it? But are we sure we didn’t have the words…?

Nevertheless, the challenge for the translator will be to deliver part of the experiential message in the primary sense of the word, its most obvious and natural meaning.

(2) The second requirement is related to adaptation: the experience that the word designates.

Westerners did not translate the Sanskrit word buddha, but Tibetans did. There was quite a team of translators, in the eighth century, gathered around Vimalamitra, Bairotsana and the other pandits, but that’s another topic. So, at that time, and maybe even a few centuries before, in the time of the legendary Thönmi Sambhota, a clever, agile translator decided to explain the meaning, or the experience of what it was buddha. In Tibetan, this gives sangs rgyas (pronounced “sangyé”). sangs (“sang”) means dissipated, cleansed, and rgyas (“gyé”) means developed, extended, blossomed: it is a blossoming purity, an untroubled radiance, an absolute which can stun everything. Philippe Cornu would tell you that this can be compared to Dzogchen, because we are then talking about the direct experience of the fundamental luminous clarity of the nature of mind: it is no longer an empty and unclear concept, a form of word that is only an ornament and for which we no longer know what it designates, but a word reforged by the fire of real experience. This answers the second requirement which, as we can see, allows us to get out of the dangerous mimicry of the first requirement.

The second requirement, the experiential requirement, supports the literalness of the first and prevents the effects of memetic drift inherent in any tradition that spreads over time: if the ritual and the formula become empty of meaning, the tradition loses all vitality, because its transmission is only an external form without content or real transformative force. It is no longer a vehicle for the liberation of beings, but an additional prison where the wise men have been replaced by monkeys. This is what the second requirement must avoid.

(3) The third requirement is related to transmission, to sharing: to be immediately understandable by the reader or the listener.

Immediacy is cardinal here since it allows the listener-reader to remain glued to the direct experience. If the word is too abstruse, too complicated, the mind stalls, the experience is lost, we swim in the clouds. The choice is therefore decisive: too conceptual, and one goes into endless theories. Too superficial, and you think it’s all just hot air. Too old, and we don’t understand anything because the word has disappeared from circulation. Should we try a neologism? You risk using a word that no one has ever used…and that no one will ever use. So you have to play it tight to find the right word that will hit the nail on the head, while remaining cool and clear. It’s a game of knowing how to stay in touch with your time, your culture and your basic trends, while at the same time exposing something that is not yet clearly inscribed in it.

The choice of lexicon will therefore be made according to criteria of clarity, but in a simple, even popular register. In Tibet, examples abound, and the most essential and ultimate practices have been translated into the most directly concrete elements of this mountain culture (see our article on the translation of trekchö and thögäl). As Mila Khyentse writes, “the best teachers are those who teach not by what they think, but by what others think.”

Of course, many terms of the tradition must be explained, commented on, unfolded, in order to reach a limpidity without error. Nevertheless, the challenge for the translator will be to deliver part of the experiential message in the primary sense of the word, its most obvious and natural meaning. Isn’t the natural obviousness, in essence, the heart of the Great Perfection? And it is this primordial essence that the triple requirement of the translator must convey within centuries of words.

Written by Paul Baffier

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

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