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Between Words and Worlds

ཚིག་ནས་འཇིག་རྟེན་བར་

A magnificent anhinga taking flight. I took this photo on a recent stroll with my fiancée through The Morikami Gardens in Palm Beach County, Florida, December 2017.

 

With the first semester of my graduate studies in Buddhist translation and philosophy under my belt, I recently said goodbye to my flat and cat in Kathmandu, Nepal and headed home to the USA for the holidays. As it turns out, being back on my home turf has left me feeling split between two worlds. And those worlds are far more existential than they are geographic.

It seems like I've come down with a case of having gotten what I wanted.

I feel really happy and privileged to be pursuing my dream of studying Buddhist languages and philosophy far away in Nepal. I wanted to connect with something deeper than what I thought the American dream has to offer me, and I have. But living and studying Buddhism abroad has come with an unexpected cost: a feeling of unintended alienation from my own culture. The unique experiences with which I wanted to build my character have apparently made me less relatable. Now I can't help but question where I ought to be standing. Should I feel obliged to conform to cultural expectations for the sake of acceptance, or should I continue pursuing an unconventional lifestyle at the expense of sharing common ground with my American peers?

 

I was lucky to spot this incredible mural just outside the city gate (dhoka) of Lalitpur, City of Artisans, while traversing across Kathmandu to meet with the Gyawali brothers. Bachan and Lochan Gyawali are the co-owners and co-founders of the Jun Chiyabari Tea Garden in Hile (pronounced Hee-lé). This is one of a handful of murals painted in collaboration with a city-wide art exhibition last year. Photo by the author, December 2017

It's safe to say that one cause for these existential musings is my translation work at school. As a matter of fact, this semester I tried something so crazy that it nearly became sane: I translated a section of an sixteenth century Tibetan philosophical commentary into an American Southern rural dialect. And it worked.

It's funny to say that "it worked." After all, what exactly are translators trying to accomplish?

Are translations the very tools for self-reflexivity, wherein a given translation is akin to a mirror capable of reflecting back the uniqueness of an individual translator's existence? Or is it the case that individuals cannot be distinguished apart from their linguistic, social and cultural allegiances such that the translator's individual existence unravels in the very act of translating? Put another way, are translations produced by autonomous individual selves, or are they mere byproducts of communication that exist beyond the scope of individual personhood?

It seems natural that translators are indebted to their social and cultural allegiances since the target audience of a translation will greatly impact how the translator interprets a text. I think it is worth testing whether a translator is capable of reaching out to audiences outside those which accept them and reflect their own beliefs. While I wouldn't blame anyone for writing exclusively to their own peers, I think there's a lot of merit (especially literary merit) to be gained through connecting with people who have a diversity of outlooks on life.

I don't want to droll on forever, but before I share my American Southern dialect "cowboy" rendering, I'll say a word about the source text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 I look at my study setup one spoiled evening--here I was pairing a delicious heavy-roast Tie Luo Han yancha oolong (juniper, cacao, grapefruit) from Wuyi mountain, China with a delightfully smooth Glenfiddich 18 single malt scotch whiskey (musky grapes, goat cheese with honey). Made complete with a side of Duke Ellington...Photos taken by the author October 2017.

 

The original Tibetan text which can be somewhat confidently attributed to the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje (1556–1603) is a commentary on the 8th Karmapa Mikyod Dorje’s (1507-1554) points on Chandrakīrti's (600-c. -650) Entrance to the Middle Way (Skt: Madhyamakāvatāra), which is a commentary on Nagarjuna's (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Skt: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā). 

Yeesh.

I don't want to write (and I doubt you want to read) an entire dissertation on the history of Madhyamaka, so I'm going to refer you to this link just in case you feel the urge to learn more about Madhyamaka philosophy. 

The context of Wangchuk Dorje's text is as follows: since the prāsaṅgika-madhyamaka followers do not make any philosophical claims, it therefore entails that they are free from all faults. It goes to say then that even the existence of something called a prāsaṅgika-madhyāmika tradition must be disproven using valid cognition! Anyone who calls something a prāsaṅgika-madhyāmika tradition is erring and therefore mistaken from the ultimate, immutable truth which is beyond conventions. 

Weird, right?! It's okay if that didn't make sense, hardly anyone is able to make heads or tales of it.  

Without further ado, I present to you my original "Cowboy Madhyamaka" translation. I preserved some of the proper titles in Sanskrit for clarity's sake. You can find the original Tibetan contained within the parentheses:

Now, I ain’t sayin’’(gang dua’ng mi ‘dod) Goin’ To The Middle Lane (dbu ma ‘jug pa) is a part of the prāsaṅgika. Aw shucks, (‘o na) who done said (su la grags she na) that Middle Lane (dbu ma) books is our tradition? Everybody from the Svatantrika and below think Chandrakīrti a prāsaṅgika. Them city-slickers (‘jig rten gshan grags) really believe in all types of stuff, like sixteen emptinesses! They said “politically correct” cause and effect (gshan grags su las ‘bras) is really there…just ’cause it done look like it?!— that’s just wrong; Looks ain’t all that (tha snyad du yod pa min). If they say they is,  it's ‘cause they lookin’ at it; or, ‘cause its “politically correct,” and that ain’t right neither. (de chos chan/ der thal/ gshan grags su tha snyed du yod pa’i phyir she's sam tha snyad du gshan grags su yod pa’i phyir/ gang zee yang ma khyab/)

 

I don't believe Madhyamaka literature has ever been translated like this before, and this alone fills me with a sense of accomplishment!  The Madhyamaka translations out there are often stuffy and painfully dry because many translators choose to remain extraordinarily faithful (even slavish) to making sure every individual word is represented.  

This anal style of translation can be incredibly useful, but its just not for me. The type of English that madhyamaka literature often gets translated into is not an English that most people speak, and that is fine. After all, its not a subject that most would be interested in. But I couldn't help but wonder: what if it could be? And how could it be done?

I would describe my translation as a kind of caricature. I don't think it would be stretch to call it an expressionist translation (According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the typical trait of expressionism is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas). One obvious reason for adventuring into the "cowboy Madhyamaka" was to make it more fun and interesting to read. In all seriousness, I realized that American Southern English (which I think of as a more organic form of English) gave me the freedom to access a nifty variety of colorful cadences and idioms which capture emotion of the Tibetan text far better than academic English. Of course, there's a lot of room for improvement, but I can't help but feel like I'm onto something!

Why argue philosophy when you can simply drink tea? Fresh Himalayan Shiiba from Kora Tea and Crafts.  Photo taken by the author, November 2017.

 

The inspiration for reimagining the translation of Madhyamaka philosophical texts for audiences beyond the academic stature arose out of my budding apprehension to embrace the world of Buddhist academia. I have yet to feel convinced that becoming a certified professional Buddhist is the best use of my time and energy. I'm very much in the midst of self-discovery, and that's okay.

I'm happy to say that Kora Tea and Crafts is a positive force during this transitional and exploratory time in my life. There is so much to learn about how I want to be in this world. One thing I feel most excited about is learning how to make Kora Tea and Crafts grow and grow. I have lots of ideas in the works, including keeping this blog updated from time to time. You're absolutely more than welcome to share your thoughts and feelings in the comments below. Should you decide to leave a comment, you'll be automatically registered for your chance to win a free new years gift! I'll be updating the site layout and adding a special new tea item in the next few days as well, so please stay tuned for that.

Thank you for checking out the blog, and may the new year bring you happiness and tasty sips of tea!

 

 -Aaron

 


6 comments

  • Your photographs and writing are beautiful.

    Notes on Tea
  • But if yew really want thiyis to git threw to us rayidnecks, you gotta transpose it from Boo-dism intew Babtist philophosy. OM YEE HAW HUM!

    Bei Dawei
  • I think there’s huge value in translating in such a way that is comprehensible to “the common man” and often times a huge problem with academia is not steering in this direction. Good for you for starting this conversation, especially considering the texts you are translating are religious and philosophical word, which in my humble opinion, should be the most accessible kind of works, as they do directly affect everyone. Nice to hear from you dude. ❤️

    Liz
  • Hi! I am glad that you are having fun & successful their in Nepal. Hope you are warmer their then us in the states. Happy New Year!!

    Christina V.
  • ‘Ohoooooo’..enjoyed reading!
    What conventionally seems real is not real! Like a dream! however, happening of a good dream is nicer than happening a bad one, and I think you’re totally going in that good flow! keep doing the good work. Tashi Delek! Tashi shyog!

    Pemba Prayag Sherpa

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