Thankfully, Paul Verhaeghen just posted the opening statement he gave at the “Writers as Translators” panel that he was during the PEN World Voices Festival. All of the opening statements from the panelists were really interesting, but this one stood out to me:
Allow me to open with a simple statement of fact.
We do not know what planet writers come from, but we do know the precise place of origin of their translators: They all, without exception, hail from the planet Tralfamadore.
Allow me to elaborate.
But before I do that, I’d like to take you on a trip to Upstate New York first.
There’s a Zen Buddhist Center there that I once visited with a friend who was so much into that kind of thing he had his head shaved and took vows, or whatever they call it. The head monk of the Center was a nice Jewish lady with a decidedly military haircut; she went by a Japanese name. If you wanted to speak to her, you needed to prostrate before her, thrice. You didn’t call it a talk either, you called it doing dokusan. In the meditation hall, we bowed before a small imported statue of the Buddha, my friend and his companions slipped into black robes — the nice Jewish lady’s was a gold-embroidered monstrosity that was all sleeves and pleats — we all bowed some more, sat down cross-legged on Japanese cushions, and then we chanted – in no language known to man.
“What on earth was that?” I inquired about the chanting.
Turns out the chant was an ancient pronouncement of the Buddha’s, originally delivered in the Pali language, but written down in Sanskrit, then translated and transliterated into Chinese, picked up about 1,200 years ago by some Japanese monks who brought it to their island, where it is chanted using the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. It is this American approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese version that is chanted in Zen groups across the continent.
Everything, my patient friend explained – the robes, the funny names, the bows, the lotus position, the chanting – was to make sure that no essential part of the teachings got lost in translation. We do not know, after all, what can be safely changed, and what needs to stay exactly so.
Still intrigued by the sound of twenty or so earnest Americans chanting Japanese mispronunciations of Chinese phonetic attempts at Sanskrit that should have been Pali, I asked: “And what is that that you chant?”
“It’s the Heart Sutra”, he replied. “You know, the one that states that Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness?”
When I remarked that this was a rather elaborate but quite splendid way to get this simple point across, his smile suddenly seemed somewhat strained.
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