Translation and Spiritual Practice

Here’s part of a reply I sent to a friend, who asked how we were to come up with what he considered very good translations, and what he could do to improve his own work.
       Translation is an interesting topic to me, because while one form is from Korean to English, another equally difficult form is from general concept to our daily life. How do you turn one idea into ten applications? 

I’m a native English speaker, so that helps some, but not a lot, really. The main thing is practice. One has to be putting the teachings into practice, and then understanding begins to arise. Without this, they won’t make any sense.
The first step we do, is make sure everyone in the translation group (those who are actually working every day on the translation) all agree what the Korean means (English, in your case). This turns out to be a surprisingly long and hard step.

We basically discuss, argue, persuade, etc, until we arrive at an understanding of each sentence and paragraph that is at least 70-80% acceptable to everyone.  The situation is that people bring all their other life experiences into their understanding, so often they’re looking through different lens. And Dharma talks like Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s happen on many different levels at the same time.

People may also have a feeling that they understand what the text says, but then when they have to express it, and especially put it into another language, they can’t do it so well. Which also implies that their understanding wasn’t as clear as they felt it was. So people have to explain why they think a certain way of putting things is correct, and also to set aside their understanding and try to see it from the other persons point of view, to see if that way might be better.
Because it often means looking at things from the perspective of experiences I don’t have, it can be quite exhausting. If I still disagree, I try to think of a way that might explain why another expression or understanding is more appropriate. There’s a lot of chances for bruised egos in this process, but it works for us because everyone is trying to apply Daehaeng Sunim’s teachings, and working on letting go of “I”. Once we have a version of the original, with notes that express the general undrestanding, then we can begin to translate it into English. Again, this is a bit of a hard process, because people will often not like the english sentence or description, but they don’t have to skills to suggest the right (for them) alternative. So we keep working at it!

The other huge thing about the process is that when discussing what the text means, we have to set aside normal ideas of high and low. So even though I’m ordained, and the others are laypeople, everyone’s view has to be treated equally. And I have to accept that I may be wrong in my understanding. This way of working is very important here in Korea, because normally, once the senior person speaks, all the junior people stop taking. It’s normally hard for a junior person to argue about the meaning with a senior person. But this has to be possible to produce the best possible translation, because seniority or ordained status does not guarentee a complete understanding of the Dharma.

These are some thoughts about our work process that have come to mind. I’m sure I’m leaving something out, so feel free to ask if you have questions.  The key part of this is when I’m searching for what the text means, or how to express it in English, or how to understand what someone else is trying to explain, or how to explain my perspective in a way that they understand, I let all of those sink deep down inside me, and keep looking there until some idea arise. What arises then often tends to be very good, and brings everyone (suddenly!) together in agreement.

2 thoughts on “Translation and Spiritual Practice”

  1. Seems like all the detail boils down to one thing: practice.

    Without practice our words – and our life – will probably be “dry.” But when we let life “sink deep down inside,” then we can “translate” our life and our texts into something rich and meaningful.

    Thank you, Sunim!

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