Thurman on Translation and Death

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

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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