Author  Helene Imislund

In August 2023 I had the chance to participate in DRBU’s summer translation seminar, making up a small Norwegian team with a friend from Norway. Jetlagged and a bit dizzy, we stepped into the peaceful and friendly atmosphere at the Sudhana Center’s courtyard. In our bags we had a draft translation of the first half of the Vimalakirti Sūtra and a long list of questions.

Many Norwegians are fluent in English, so the need for translations of Buddhist texts is not as urgent in Norway as in some other countries. Still, reading sūtras in your mother tongue makes the Dharma come a lot closer. Also, the fact that a sūtra exists in a certain language is quite powerful. The text is there, accessible to those who are interested. The task of making that translation available, however, is one that continues to humble me, be it in Oslo or Ukiah.

Earlier I had been learning some Chinese on my own, but by far not enough to translate directly from Chinese into Norwegian. My friend knows a lot of Mandarin, but Classical Chinese is another story. So we had embarked upon translating some of BTTS’ English publications into Norwegian, starting out with three wonderful children’s books and continuing on with the Vimalakirti Sūtra. Meeting once a week the past half year, we had been very faithful to the English edition of the sūtra. Not wanting to risk changing anything, we had often pondered to find the right expressions where the English version used words that were not so commonly used in everyday English. We knew what terms like “guest dust,” “skillful means,” or “bringing forth the bodhi resolve” meant in a Mahayana context, but in Norway, where the knowledge of Buddhism is quite sparse, a direct translation from the English would maybe not do.

For this reason, one of the most useful things at the seminar was to simply listen to and take part in the discussions going in other teams, parallel to working on our translation of the Vimalakirti Sūtra. Mostly gathering outside in the courtyard, the team discussions hummed and mixed with the chiming of the little bell under the crepe myrtle in the corner and the purling water of the fountain: Must wuwei 無畏 be translated as “fearlessness,” or could we be bold and use “courage” instead? Should zhuangyan 莊嚴 be read as a literal adornment, or could it be understood in a more metaphorical way?

Every group worked on different texts, and each group had its own fruitful dynamic. The discussions taught me a lot about how little is fixed in translation, even when the translator is faithful to the original. Before the seminar was over, nearly all the questions I had noted back home were answered just through listening to the knowledge and considerations of the other teams. The answers were mostly not final. What I brought back home was more like a toolbox with fresh supplies or a fan of different possibilities. I am also very much inspired to go on with studying Chinese.

When working with the translation of Buddhist texts, one gets very close to both the text and the limits of one’s own understanding. Do I really grasp the deeper meaning of this passage? If not, how can I be the bridge between two languages? This is where the benefits of working in a group become clear—unpacking the terms together and then jointly packing them up again in another language. Some are experts in the source language, others in the target language. What happens in a group when a term is unpacked and not yet rewrapped is quite fascinating. The term is in transit between two languages, and all the while everyone in the group is jointly holding, exploring, and caring for its meaning.

Getting to know people through translating together was a new and precious experience to me. The seminar was a wonderful chance to get into translation as a spiritual practice, and I am deeply grateful to all those who carefully planned and facilitated the program, the meals, and the field trip, and to those who provided the bikes my friend and I used to go to CTTB for morning recitations. I encountered a lot of kindness that I will try and translate into my own life.