Just as bad translations of software impact the usability, inadequate renditions of Dogen doom his thoughts to be lost in translation.
More than about philosophy, this article is about the thing I do to set my table: translations. I have avoided this topic because what I have to say is usually close to disclosing confidential facts about the company I work for and its customers.
Instead of talking about software giants of the 21st century and how they go about ‘localizing’ their products, I am going to discuss translations of the famous 12th century Japanese thinker Dōgen. His writing is characterized by elegant structures which often mix Chinese characters and quotations, and is notoriously difficult to translate.
Just as bad translations of software today impact the ‘usability’ of the products, inadequate renditions of Eihei Dōgen ruin the understanding of what he was trying to say. Let’s take a look at his Genjō Kōan, a famous essay which in most translations starts in a way that made me feel that Dōgen’s expositions are impenetrable, or completely nonsensical.
Typically, the opening paragraph in English reads something like this (don’t get scared):
When all dharmas are [seen as] the Buddha-Dharma, then there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings.
When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death.
The Buddha’s truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are beings and buddhas.
And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish. (Tanahashi/Cross)
So first he says there are some things, then not, and then yes again? What is that thing about abundance and scarcity? And what do flowers and weeds have to do with any of this?
It wasn’t until I read a translation and discussion thereof by Bob Myers that I started to suspect that most translators got it wrong, and was compelled to turn to the original text to battle with the unfamiliar languages until I would see if it was indeed the case. Here is the same section as translated by Myers:
Viewing various things as Buddhistic things, then we have wisdom and we have practice, we have life and we have death, we have buddhas and we have sentient beings.
Stripping all things of their essence, we have no delusion and no satori, we have no buddhas and no sentient beings, we have no beginnings and no endings.
The way of the buddha inherently soars above such extravagance and austerity, uniting beginning and ending, uniting delusion and satori, uniting sentient being and buddha.
It is falling blossoms uniting love and sorrow, spreading weeds uniting indifference and dislike, nothing more.
Myers clearly differentiates between the first two sentences (introducing three pairs of things which exist or do not exist), and the third one with a different structure. His translation also links the ‘extravagance’ (‘abundance’ in previous translation) to the first statement, and the ‘austerity’ to the second one, implying that the ‘true way’ is superior to them.
Myers also notices that the sentence about flowers and weeds uses the same two-character compound structure employed in the third statement, and thus assumes that these are used to illustrate how this synthesis works.
Below, I made an attempt at adapting Myers’s translation into a more word-for-word interlinear form. Even if it does not make for a smooth reading, it shows that Dōgen’s point indeed was not as mystically unfathomable as it would seem:
When various things are [viewed as] Buddhist teachings‘various things as Buddhist things’ was actually more literal than my adaptation but readers might fail to realize that ‘Buddha things’ is a phrase meaning ‘Buddhist teachings.’, then
there is delusion-enlightenmentWords connected with a dash represent two-character Chinese compounds. Here, Myers made a clever choice in using one word (‘wisdom’) not to interrupt the rhythm of six concepts as six nouns., there is practice, there is birthThe word for ‘birth’ means equally ‘life.’ I wanted to avoid cluttering the text with ‘birth/life.’ It can be very well rendered as ‘life’ depending on the context, especially here., there is death, there are buddhas, there are ordinary beings.
When myriad‘myriad’ was chosen as it has the same meaning in English as the original, i.e. ‘ten thousand.’ things are stripped of their selves‘selves’ was preserved as the literary translation to maintain consistency when later the chapter speaks about the existence of a self.,
[there is] no confusion no understandingI chose ‘confusion’ and ‘understanding’ as literal translations to show these are Japanese words different from the Chinese characters for ‘delusion’ and ‘enlightenment’ used in other sentences., no buddhas no ordinary beings, no birth no perishing‘perishing’ is awkward but I wanted to distinguish this Chinese word from ‘death’ in the first occurrence where Japanese is used..
The way of the Buddha inherently soars above [such] abundance and lack,
[so] there is birth-perishing, there is delusion-enlightenment, there is ordinary [being]-buddha.
If it can be said it’s like that,
it is the love-sorrow of falling blossoms, the indifference-dislike of spreading weeds, nothing more.
As you can see, the first sentence has six concepts introduced with “there is,” the second one six similar concepts introduced with “no,” and the third one has only three “there is” phrases introducing two-character compounds.
When some translations put an “and” between the nouns in the third sentence, and help the reader by logically grouping the items in the first two sentences into three pairs of “there is X and Y,” then the first and third statements end up almost the same, and what Dōgen said is completely lost in translation.
It follows that Dōgen’s mention of ‘abundance’ and ‘lack’ was most likely referring to raising above the first two world views, and not to an unrelated background from which the Buddhist religion sprang up.
And if that is the case, and all the sentences in the paragraph are closely connected, it also makes sense the closing statement was chosen to show that Dōgen’s argument is nothing outlandish: as we see around us, different characteristics such as indifference and dislike are embodied, unified, and (grammatically) compounded in one thing (spreading weeds), just as delusion and enlightenment are.
For many readers, the question might be: So what? To this I would say: Translating 12th century Japanese is not as next to impossible as some make it appear, so it is quite worrisome that one of the most influential and prolific Japanese writers is not available in reliable translations. I think it has to do more with cultural preconceptions than with Japanese being unlike any other language — which is exactly what every language is.