Sunday, January 16, 2011

Translating the Tengyur

Some people may think that because I push for recognising the importance of religious translation I must be religious myself. I'm not. But in trying to observe the whole range of translating activities objectively, I see that religious translation is still a major segment of it, as it's always been.

Not just Bible translation. It's true that missionary translating by the evangelical wing of the American Protestant churches is in a febrile state; a subculture with its own organisations, training schools, manuals, financing and media of communication. But not only Protestants. Vernacular translations from Latin of the Roman Catholic Missal (prayer book) have been a hot topic around the globe – and in some quarters a hot potato – ever since the Vatican II Council.

And not just Christianity. I've mentioned before (on September 15, 2010) the work of the King Fahd Complex for Printing the Holy Qur’an, at Medina, Saudi Arabia. There's traditionally been prejudice among Muslims against translating the Qur'an because they consider its Arabic text to be verbatim what the archangel Gabriel dictated to Mohammed on behalf of Allah. But they too have discovered that religions cannot proselytise and expand without translations, so they call them 'meanings' instead.

Here's a news item about yet another long tradition.
Dharamshala: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama... will address Tuesday (11 January) the ongoing conference on the translation of one of the Tibet's most precious treasure of [commentaries on] the Buddha's teachings known as Tengyur [Transmitted Word] at the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS) in Sarnath.
The four-day Tengyur Translation Conference: In the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda, which began on 8 January, is being jointly organised by CUTS and the American Institute of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University.
The conference is aimed at focusing on issues pertaining in particular to the translation of the Tibetan Tengyur not only into English, but also Sanskrit, Hindi, Chinese and other languages, according to the organisers.
The conference is part of the long-term project initiated by the American Institute of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and Tibet House US of translating the Tengyur into English and other modern languages, and to publish the many works in a collection called The Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences. The project received the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for its historic initiative to support, create, and publish authoritative English translations, studies, and editions of the entire Tibetan Tengyur and its associated literature.
The works of the foremost Indian scholars of Nalanda tradition are presently preserved in the collection of their writings known as Tengyur in Tibetan translation. It took teams of Indian masters and great Tibetan translators over four centuries [between the 11th and 14th centuries] to accomplish the historic task of translating them into Tibetan. Most of these books were later lost in their Sanskrit originals, and relatively few were translated into Chinese. The Tengyur is truly one of the Tibet's most precious treasures, a mine of understanding that Tibetans have preserved in Tibet for the benefit of the whole world.
The Buddhist culture that flourished in Tibet can rightly be seen to derive from the pure tradition of Nalanda, which comprises the most complete presentation of the Buddhist teachings. Foremost Indian scholars of Nalanda Monastic University such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Aryaasanga, Dharmakirti, Candrakirti and Shantideva wrote the scriptures that we Tibetan Buddhists study and practise.
When translated into Tibetan, these works in turn inspired Tibet's own enlightenment renaissance. Accordingly, the Buddhist teachings in these Tengyur texts are deemed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many other great Tibetan masters to be of the highest value, the organisers said in a statement.
Expressing his support to the American Institute of Buddhist Studies' Tengyur translation project in 2007, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had said: "At the present time, when there is a great emphasis on scientific and technological progress, it is extremely important that those of us who follow the Buddha should rely on a sound understanding of his teaching, for which the great works of the renowned Nalanda scholars provide an indispensable basis.
... It surely will require the intelligent and creative efforts of generations of translators from every tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, in the spirit of the scholars of Nalanda, although we may hope that using computers may help complete the work more quickly.
Participants from different countries like the US, Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Russia, Taiwan, Japan and Nepal are taking part in the conference.
Well, if that doesn't convince you...

Fr. Antony Ronald Serrão. The English Translation of the Missale Romanum-2002., Mangalore, January 8, 2011.
An extensive account of the history of the post-Vatican II Missal and its translation into English, including controversies.

Tibetan Leader to Address Tengyur Translation Conference. The Tibet Post International, January 10, 2011,

Tibetan Buddhism. ReligionFacts.

Buddha with the Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones. Source: Tengyur, in Wikipedia, 2009.


  1. Religious translation and interpreting is fascinating for many reasons. Have you read the book by Dan Everett "Don't sleep there are snakes" on his work on documenting the Pirahã for missionary purposes and his conclusions on that. I take it you are familiar with Alev Balci's doctoral work on sermon interpreting

  2. No, I haven't read the Everett book. I'll get it.

    I've been in touch with Alev Balci. Her thesis isn't finished yet, but it should be soon.