Martine & Stephen

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Recently a translation I had done of the Chinese/Korean Bodhisattva precepts was published.  I did the first translation long ago when I was a Zen nun in Korea as I could see that these precepts influenced very positively the life of the Korean monastics.  When I worked again on this translation to improve it for publication, I had great fun for two months going over the text (in Chinese and Korean) in minute details, at the same time checking my translation against a French translation of 1880 and a more recent American translation from a Chinese perspective in two volumes with commentary.

Most of the time we all translated the text with the same meaning but using different words.  This is when I realised how much the words we use in translation can slightly alter the meaning or the feeling of a certain passage.  At the same time there were certain passages, which were translated very differently.  They were not important passages and they were not very long – 3 or 4 Chinese characters, but how we decided to translate them changed the whole meaning of the passage.  I was very concerned, as I wanted to translate the ‘true meaning’.  So I asked a friend, a scholar and specialist, what was the true meaning and he replied that there was no true meaning as such but only the one we manage to ‘construe’ when it came to these obscure and opaque passages.  So there! 

There was a certain liberation in hearing this but also a realisation that any translation can only be relatively accurate.  This might lead us to be more cautious when we say to defend some position “But the Buddha said this!” or ‘This is the true meaning”.  Possibly at any given time it is the meaning that makes the most sense to the translator or to a certain number of people.

As an example, here are four different translations done by four different translators of the first four lines of the same Chinese poem of the Sixth Chinese Patriarch, Hui Neng:

 

Real knowledge of the teaching and of the mind is like

The sun in space.  To transmit the self-realising Dharma

 Is why (the Buddha) on earth appeared

And to destroy all heresies…..

 

With speech and mind both understood,

Like the sun whose place is in space,

Just spread the ‘seeing-the-nature way’

Appear in the world to destroy false doctrines…

 

A master of the Buddhist canon as well as of the teaching of the Dhyana School

May be likened unto the blazing sun sitting high in his meridian tower.

Such a man would teach nothing but the Dharma for realising the Essence of Mind.

And his object in coming to this world would be to vanquish the heretical sects.

 

Proficiency in teaching and proficiency in the mind

Are like the sun and empty space

Handing down this sudden teaching alone,

Enter the world and destroy erroneous doctrines.

(The last translation is of an earlier version of the Chinese found in Tunhuang).

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