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advice for beginners to translation

first it takes a lot of time to translate, that’s what hard about it;

second there is no standard to translate, anywhere no matter who is doing it or who is published or who is not. You work out a system and stick to it, learning as you go or you spend buckets of money taking language courses hoping it will help you become a future translator.

Academia doesn’t have the last word on what is a good translation the monastic Sangha does.

What makes a good translation is what is recitable, what is easily understod by the reader who is the beneficiary not the phd committee nor the prestige of the group the translator works for.  Of course the Sangha who have the academic background of these academic programs are going to be offering a different perspective than just a secular approach to translating.

Sangha we are guided by tradition, our temple, our vinaya and training with whatever skills we have brought into our monastic lives. We care about accuracy but realize that communicating dharma teachings of the Buddha needs to be clearer when source texts are written in long lost poetic rhythms and style of their day or in the style of the translator who has preserved teachings for their home country and then we get those rather than long lost originals.

What makes a sutra/sutta? It’s content. Buddha taught his disciples who while Buddha was alive were teaching their disciples and so on until schools formed, changed, merged and died to form again in new schools change merge and die. It’s the way it is. Sure some councils came together not all, usually regional and not at all inclusive of all the schools or existing sanghas.

It’s clear to translators who get into their work for a year so that the evidence of their work shows that variations in suttas/sutras exist causing an educated best guess due to lack of resources to refer to; access to earlier texts in supposed origin languages is not available to modern translators. history is sketchy and full of big giant holes as to origins and wherabouts, and we rely on inserted lines of declarations by the translators and editors and publishers of the time.

Then there were patrons, kings, emperors who were the final say in translators work, and it most like differed according to patronage level whether high with editing approval or hands off with seals of approval or denial.

Translators motivated by desire to learn the content of the sutra/sutta are truely a treasure versus the ones that just do it becuase its their job or for prestige. Not criticising just trying to set apart those who benefit from dharma teachings of the Buddha and those who profit from it.

Did I mention there is no standard? Tho’ there be much written about words and translations that try to claim authority that at best is sketchy and unknown among the public at large. No matter how much money people who have it try to through out there to claim to be authorities there just aren’t any.

There is small groups of consensus in translation circles tho’ that helps when you flail about trying to come up with sources and learn for yourself. However they benefit only small groups of say-yes-ers those that use the work, testing it out in temples and dharma places know well the perils they face with complaints of oddity in word choices, borrowing from other religions terms that technically fit but read odd in the Buddhist context thus changing the meaning in the reader’s mind and altering the dharma for them.

Ok, so lets review:

1. do translate, start from a common text or phrase to build your vocabulary, keep all your notes, keep them legible as you can, store them away after your done with a text; re-edit many times, checking for accuracy in transcribing original text, then review those notes. Make many more notes. Don’t give up, no talking yourself out of being a translator.

2. prepare your personal dictionary in another very large file or best on computer for legibility.

3. share your work freely, knowing plagarizers exist in Buddhist world. Don’t worry about them because they are just planting bad seeds for themselves.

4. good for you if you get published, however, know that publishers won’t beat a path to your door unless your famous for being a scholar or writer or some kind of expert they can deal with.  In the long haul contributing to the Mahayana Chinese Tripitaka translation effort to English or any other Indic-European language is historic, can you imagine that your efforts right now to be a translator are just that! History in the making! Thank you!

5. Words work to clarify the meaning so use what you can to clarify but not be so technical nor borrow from other religions, use phrases or definitions, include the word in variations in your footnotes and DONT over do the footnotes or endnotes, it is distracting to the readers, especially if your work is used for services, it has to be readable.

Don’t give up, keep going stipulate in your will that your notes and copies go to one of the Dharma places like a recognized translation center or group; try not to be stingy with them. This is the effort that may hold a key to others after you, so be dilligent about it please.

Amituofo, learn to declare yourself to other translators and centers, get them working with you by sharing their work too, then you be sure to share yours. It will help very much in significant ways.

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Author:

I am a Bhikshuni ordained in Mahayana Chinese Buddhist tradition. I'm currently translating Vinaya sutras from the Chinese Mahayana Tripitaka.