This article was revised and updated on October 7, 2018
While Genjo Koan is one of key writings in Japanese Zen Buddhism, this article is not focused on its philosophical or religious aspects but on the challenges of translating old texts. Genjo Koan, written by Eihei Dogen, is notoriously difficult to translate. Japanese, like all languages, has changed a lot since the 13th century, and Dogen often intertwines Chinese characters and quotations.
Even more crucially, when sentences in the original language can be interpreted in several ways, and the translator doesn’t know which one was meant, he can accidentally eliminate it because the translation usually cannot preserve the same range of meanings.
Just as bad translations of software today impact the ‘usability’ of the products, inadequate translations of Dogen’s writings can obfuscate what he was trying to say. Let’s take a look at the opening of his Genjo Koan. There are many things going on there from translation perspective, and I highlighted the key phrases in red. Most English translations of the opening paragraph are similar to this one.
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.
Focusing on the language and what is being communicated, this seems fairly straightforward: First, Dogen says that from one perspective, certain things (delusion, realization, life, death…) do exist; then from a different perspective he says those same things do not exist; and then he turns around and says that from the perspective of Buddha’s truth these same things do exist.
It wasn’t until I read a translation and discussion thereof by Bob Myers that I started to suspect that most translators have missed something potentially important in their translations. This compelled me to turn to the original text to see if this was the case. First, 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 sentence. Clearly, the third sentence in Myers’s translation is not a repetition of the statements in the first sentence.
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 providing a more word-for-word, interlinear, translation. It does not make for a smooth reading, but it does get us closer to Dogen’s original writing:
When various things are [viewed as] Buddhist things,1 then
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.
When translations simplify the phrasing of the first two sentences by grouping similar concepts into three “there is … and …” phrases, and then also translate the compounds in the third sentence with two nouns connected with an “and”, the result is that the first and third sentence seem identical.
Looking at the interlinear translation, there is a clear distinction because the first sentence has six concepts introduced by six “there is” phrases; the second sentence negates six concepts by repeating “no” six times; and the third sentence has only three “there is” phrases introducing three two-character compounds.
This warrants the distinction made by Myers, and further emphasized by his use of the word “uniting.” It follows that Dogen’s mention of ‘abundance’ and ‘lack’ was most likely referring back to the first sentences — to raising above the first two world views — and not to unrelated concepts of Buddhist’s teaching background.
And if it can be said that the above conclusions are true (to borrow Dogen’s language), i.e. that all the sentences in the paragraph are closely connected, it also makes sense to translate the opaque closing statement in that vein (as Myers does). Translated this way, the argument seems to be that as we see in everyday things around us, two different qualities (such as love and sorrow) can be embodied, unified, and — in Dogen’s writing — also grammatically unified in one thing (the falling blossoms).
For many readers, the question might be: So what? To this I would say: Translating 13th century writings of Dogen from Japanese is important for its literary significance — Dogen is one of the most influential and prolific Japanese writers, — and for many people, it also has spiritual significance. Neither aspect can be fully appreciated and understood without faithful translations.
- ‘Buddhist things’ is a phrase that commonly means ‘Buddhist teachings.’ ↩
- Words 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. ↩
- The 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. ↩
- ‘myriad’ was chosen as it has the same meaning in English as the original, i.e. ‘ten thousand.’ ↩
- ‘selves’ was preserved as the literary translation to maintain consistency when later the chapter speaks about the existence of a self. ↩
- I 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. ↩
- ‘perishing’ is awkward but I wanted to distinguish this Chinese word from ‘death’ in the first occurrence where Japanese is used. ↩