Thurman on Translation and Death

An Interview with Robert Thurman


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UR: I'd like to ask you a question about your profession. Translation's reputation as a form of literature is low, to say the least. It is too often perceived as merely a mechanical activity, in which one simply finds words from one language that correspond to words from another. But you have been known to say that the hermeneutic -- or interpretive -- enterprise is the very essence of the Buddhist path, and that the problems of hermeneutics are the problems of life itself. How so?

THURMAN: Well, everything is a matter of perspective and interpretation, right? And so how you interpret things has everything to do with the inner quality of your response to things. Within that, I think that translation is a wonderful exercise in seeing the multiple ways reality can be expressed and analyzed. Different languages carve up reality in different ways. There is an ancient Buddhist symbol of a translator that is a two-headed duck -- not a duck, exactly, but more like a cuckoo or something. It has two heads, meaning that it looks into two different cultures and makes a bridge between them. Now, in modern times, translation is not respected. Modern cultures are fairly arrogant and ethnocentric, and think of themselves as higher than anything from the past, or any other existing 'premodern' culture. So we naturally think that in translating something, we're bringing something from some lower realm into our realm just out of curiosity. Since we're the highest culture, anything we would translate into English would just be for our curiosity. But in the ancient period, and particularly in Tibet, where they had the idea that Buddhist knowledge, which they learned from India, was something of a higher nature, and that to learn about it could elevate a human being, translators were respected, because they had to look into the realm of that higher knowledge and bring it into the lower cultural realm of the target language. In our Dharma communities, though, a translator is a little more honored, because we have the idea that Western philosophy didn't get it together quite as well as the Buddhist philosophers did.

UR: In the introductory chapter to your recent translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, you write that death is 'a strong force close to life, a powerful impulse to the good, an intensifier of positive attitudes and actions.' What do you mean by that?

THURMAN: On a very human level, Tibetan culture shares our Western attitude towards death, that it is a frightening and tragic end of life. On a more spiritual level, however, Tibetans have learned that death forces everyone to let go of everything: You let go of your mind, your personality, and your sense of control over reality. And that is what Buddhism teaches, that nothing we think we are, do, feel, or have has any stability. This state of letting go can also happen in moments of great pleasure, like in orgasm, or sometimes when you make a great gift or a great self-overcoming. Heroic acts are done when people let go of their normal self-guarding attitudes; at the moment of death, then, everyone comes into some sort of heroic state. If you try to be aware that life is fundamentally let-go-able, even when you're not actually facing death, then you can begin to live in a more 'letting-go' way. You can become more sensitive in your interactions, more free, and more open. Being aware of death, even rehearsing death in meditation can make your life more rich. The art of dying is as important as the art of living.

You can contact Robert Thurman c/o Tibet House, 241 E. 32nd St., New York, NY 10016; 212/213-5592.

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