I've been reading philosophy and Eastern Religion, poetry and shamanism, from every book store and library I could get to in America, for about 30 years now, and I like to say we're about 15-20 years deep into the golden age of Eastern philosophy translated into English well. There was some stuff on the shelves from before my time, but I didn't find it compelling, partially I think because, neither did the authors; it seemed more of an academic exercise and a dry rendering.
For me it was reading David Hinton that lit up this field, who it seemed every year would come out with another translation of a Chinese poet, usually a "Buddhist / Daoist", beginning with TuFu. At first, I figured what I loved was TuFu, he was the "Shakespeare of Tang China" they said. But when I stood at a shelf full of other, older translations of TuFu, and looked for my favorite poems, and looked at the bottom for my favorite lines, they weren't there!
That was my introduction to Chinese translation.
I'd heard it was about "context", but I thought they meant context of the sentence, maybe context of the paragraph, even context of the chapter. Context of the book? Not at all. More like, context of your life, and everything you've learned within the field you are translating, and every mediation that grew from what you learned, and every understanding that grew within you as you lived your life in the big city, as you went camping in the country, as you stared up at the stars...
Unlike German engineering or our similar very precise English communication, this 1500 year old set of Chinese characters that modern Chinese speakers and readers look at as hieroglyphics is more art than science, it's sentences leaving huge gaps for a person's own understanding and vision to come alive, but like the I Ching, full of a mystical force to pull that understanding and vision and develop it, raising it up into the heavens. It is meant to be read, and contemplated, over and over, I think, at different times, until gradually the images begin to come together into a grand vision that opens up before the reader in magnificent glory revealing the universe itself, ultimately surpassing precision communication with a powerful visionary art.
But naturally, most westerners say "that must be hard", and indeed have headed toward translating Sanskrit, or Tibetan rather than venture into the "hieroglyphics" that many modern Chinese tell me are incomprehensible within their considerable frame of knowledge.
So I just continued to appreciate David Hinton's gift to us, a happy surprise for me at the bookstore once in a while to see something new, something I'd go home and meditate on for weeks or months.
I was reading Zen Buddhism, after years of reading translations from German of Hegel, all of that just my introduction to mysticism.
I found a few books in the local bookstores when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, near Berkeley, about the various Daoist beliefs and practices, books by Livia Kohn, Kristofer Schipper, Robert Ford Campany, and, maybe unlike most of my peers, I took these books into my heart, and made the effort every day to see the universe in this more open way.
Then only a few years ago, one day, I don't actually remember the initial moment, I happened to find Norman Goundry's artistic translations of just parts of two scriptures of the Taoist Canon that had not previously been translated to English anywhere. I painstakingly copied it all off the web pages and printed it out, stuck it in my pocket and walked around with it, learning it and living it, as I tend to do, but I thought this was a whole new level of beautiful; for someone who'd been digging through the City and College research libraries for this stuff, I'd suddenly found a gate swinging open into unforeseen beauty and power of understanding.
I'd been reading the Hindu Upanishads, too. All 108 have been translated from Sanskrit into English, some with great modern exegeses to go along with it, and though I found them in a New York City research library, after I knew what I was looking for, I found them free on the web.
But Norman's stuff, I soon realized, was merely a tip of a tip of an iceberg. There are over 1500 scriptures, or "books" in the Taoist Canon. Norman had picked two; one of them was comprised of 61 "scrolls", maybe you could call them chapters but these are really almost "books" in themselves in terms of content. Norman had translated five of these 61 scrolls.
But what Norman did, which none of the other authors had, was provide screenshots of each woodblock, the actual stuff he was translating from; then he had researched each character - his publisher says he learned from the old Chinese men in British Columbia, but clearly he had done some research as well - and gave the "pinyin" or the sound, for each character, along with a line by line translation.
Knowing that was there, as I read and re-read my favorite scripture, "Book 5" of the Taoist Canon, the scripture of Boundless Universal Salvation, I decided maybe I could learn to write out, maybe, one or two of my favorite characters; what I found was I'd have to learn a little more, would have to learn the basic set of brush strokes, and the stroke order, I'd need a Chinese dictionary.
Living in San Francisco, with the largest Chinatown outside of China, getting access to brushes, how to books on the basic strokes, and a dictionary, were not difficult; (I soon decided the paint and brushes were too messy and the octopus ink too smelly, and went for the "brush pens" in the art stores instead). And I started writing a character or two a day, as a hobby, kind of an artistic "zip file" to store my favorite philosophical ideas in.
Then came a short period of unemployment, as sometimes happens in the IT field, and the day they ended my contract, I knew I was going to spend a bunch more time with this new favorite hobby of mine.
As the summer went by, I pulled many favorite words, then phrases, then larger and larger "sentences" out of the scripture, and worked on researching each character in my dictionary, sitting there with a magnifying glass and spending alot of time looking up a single character, but taking the "scenic route" though what I thought was a beautiful world of Chinese characters and meanings. I realized that you could say subtle things in Chinese that you couldn't parse in English very elegantly at all.
Norman's work was impeccable, as I retranslated all my favorite lines; once in a while I'd want to rephrase something he'd written, in order to include some of the things I thought the character might also be inferring, from the research, but his work always made it easy for me to re-research these things.
Except for the 0.1% of the time he had gotten it wrong, or been off by a line on copying it up to the website, tiny things, but when they involved my favorite line, the first thing I did was try to contact the owner of the website.
Nicholas listened carefully and forwarded some of my questions on to Norman, but he had retired, and had become mysteriously and magically reclusive, so there was very little feedback and no recourse for the parts I found wanting or missing. And that was the best thing that could have happened, because that forced me to learn how to research the words from scratch, without Norman's help in telling me the sound of the word and what it means, and it turns out that today, with the internet, there are several tools, which I gradually found and learned to use over that summer on unemployment, and then, one night, I had a phrase I really couldn't figure out, and I googled for it, sifting through all the Chinese entries trying to figure out what this phrase might mean, and then another great gift, the phrase was nowhere, except, within this particular scripture, and so all the other places on the web that had the scripture were turning up. In addition to the five scrolls that Norman had translated, I suddenly stumbled onto all the other scrolls, all sixty one of them. I looked through them, spotting only one out of every four or five characters that I recognized, but it was enough to know this was the good stuff, so I graduated from checking Norman's stuff, to translating my own, kind of suddenly.
So 'the freedom of translating'; you might think, who am I, with maybe a couple of years of hobby experience looking up words in a dictionary, who am I to be translating the Taoist Canon into English? Well, that couple of years was like a mentorship with Norman, and pointed me in a very specific direction in translating the LingBao sect of Daoism, it turns out, and the previous ten years or so of reading - and internalizing - the other Daoism philosophy books of the time, also had served as a mentorship. But there's also a trust, a trust that the original authors had in the universe to carry down their art, and a trust in the universe on my part, that the muse would help show me the way.
My analogy for translating ancient Chinese characters is a story of one Christmas a few years ago at my sister's house. The kids were in bed, and the parents were putting together a two story dollhouse for my five year old niece; my brother in law was putting together the frame, taking it apart, and putting it together better, while my sister sat on the floor and opened a box labeled "furniture"; that box is my analogy for one character in a Chinese scripture. And an uninspired translator could certainly get away with calling it "furniture for the house", like the label on the box.
But my sister, opening it and seeing the jumble of items, realized right away you can't give the box like this to the five year old, she'll be overwhelmed and she'll walk away from the mess. So she carefully began taking out each piece, separating it by color, then by room, eventually putting the different "sets" of furniture in separate boxes as other presents under the Christmas tree. That's my analogy for the research work; it's sometimes slow-moving, pain-staking research work, but she put her time into it and put it all together nicely, like looking up each component of each character, looking at how they are related to each other, how each of the components has been used, looking up other instances in literature of how the word has been used, and boxing that up and setting it under the "tree" of the translation-in-progress.
The next morning, on Christmas, when the kids came down to open their presents, is my analogy for the "fun" part, the creative writing piece of translating. My niece opened up the different boxes of furniture, and she carefully placed them in the house structure, and we put up the ceiling lights and put in the bathtub, and she took out her dolls, and she started doing what she liked to do, telling herself a story as she played with the dollhouse. And that story, which she had to put herself into, the "context" of every thing she had learned so far about people living in a house, that living story, is my analogy for a good translation of a Chinese character. It's going to be different, a little bit, depending on what kid and even what day the actual story is told.
But are any of those variations on the story "wrong"? Aren't they all what was generally intended by the artist who created the design for the house and the furniture in the first place? And it was the author's trust in the universe, I think, that let him cast it off onto craigslist in a box, and let an anonymous "reader" pick it up, years later, as well as the implicit trust of the "reader", the "child", to get up on Christmas morning and start playing, and, magically, to put the story back together, in a way that might just make the original author proud.
And that's one character. What we do is build three to ten of these "houses" next to each other, then watch the story tell itself as the characters from houses visit each other!
So there are two requirements, I think, in a person who takes on translating these scriptures. One is the ability and willingness to do research - and as an IT professional for 30 years, research is something I'm very familiar with; and the other is "getting it", a spiritual understanding and appreciating the material, "loving the ideas" that comprise Daoism, and some of them are very beautiful ideas about the universe and divinity that I have never seen anywhere else.
But this model that the website owner, Nicholas, had, of one guy - Norman - translating a few scrolls until he gives up and becomes mysteriously unavailable, and then the next guy - me - comes along and translates one more scroll, staying up too late and drinking too much coffee and too much beer, till he's exhausted, just wasn't going to work, it was going to take 500 to 1000 years to get through it all at this rate.
The story of most of the Buddhist sutras being translated is collaborative, a group of people doing some of the legwork alone and then getting together to discuss the "story" as the people "visit the houses", until they agree on something beautiful that carries the principles handed down in other scriptures. So I thought, maybe I can show other people what I learned over the last couple of years, and how much fun it can be to see a page of scripture come together, and it could become a group project and a giant gift to the modern world. The people of the past 1500 years worked so hard over the course of their centuries to copy and to transmit and to save and treasure these works, and when we unpack them in all their glory it's easy to see why. But someone in this modern world would need to climb that last mountain of their journey, to get the magic to the destination of waiting hands in our own generation. I want to help a team make that climb.
Everybody's gonna translate it differently, just like every little kid is gonna have a different story to tell, yet there is definitely something sent down from the original artist, as well; it's a collaborative project, all the way along.
---- in my essay, "with a simple step (the green jade is inhabited)", i have backed up with dozens of sentences from the scripture the vision that has begun to occur to me while contemplating it's various concepts and seeing the pattern take shape. the trajectory of the essay is simple, in a way. the first step is the simple step, to go from looking down into our own minds and feelings to looking outside of ourselves at the universe around us and begin to appreciate it's subtle energy and beauty. the second step is to envision what is beyond that, "primal heaven" surrounding us and raining down it's bounty of blessing like mullberry dew onto us, and the final step is for us to fly up, out of ourselves, to look back down at the scene, and to radiate outward, like a mirror, the beauty of the divine gifts that have been rainging down on us for all time.