Friday, July 30, 2010

A Distinguished Native Interpreter

I’ve drawn attention before to the enormous number of translators who go uncounted in the statistics because they translate on the side but their principal occupation is something else. For example, I worked with a nun and a Franciscan father who did conference interpreting for meetings of NGOs. The nun was one of the best interpreters I’ve met. And I’ve known of two liaison interpreters who were Buddhist monks.

The first of them I knew personally. He was a young Englishman in his early twenties, a fellow student of mine at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was studying Tibetan. (I’d tried to study Tibetan in my teens but had quickly given up on it.) One day he surprised us all by announcing that he was leaving SOAS to become a monk. He didn’t seem the sort. But off he went for training at a monastery in up-country Burma (as it used to be called in those happier times). He was expecting to live a life of contemplation. However, his superiors soon realised that his fluent English was a great asset to the community. So they sent him all over East Asia accompanying Buddhist missions. Until one day they sent him with a mission to Japan. There he fell in love with a Japanese girl, and that was the end of his monastic aspirations.

The second case has been much longer lasting and more fruitful, but I only learnt about it this week, and from an unlikely source (see REFERENCES). He was born Matthieu Ricard in Paris, son of a philosopher and a painter but he’s been doing community work in the Himalayas for more than 40 years. According to the biography on his website, he studied cellular genetics under François Jacob at the Institut Pasteur before moving to Bhutan and Nepal, where he studied under masters of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. His home is now Shechen Monastery in Nepal, from where he coordinates an NGO called Karuna-Shéchèn. He’s a widely published author and accomplished photographer who’s been translated into more than 20 languages: I’ve listed just one of his many publications below. Perhaps because of his early scientific training, he collaborates in research on the effects of meditation on the brain.

There’s no mention of translation studies or an accreditation in his biography. Nevertheless, since 1989, with an ideal background preparation for the task, he’s been personal French liaison interpreter to the Dalai Lama.

Matthieu Ricard.

Journey to enlightenment: the life and world of Khyentse Rinpoche, spiritual teacher from Tibet, with a remembrance by the Dalai Lama; excerpts from the writings of Khyentse Rinpoche and other teachers. Photographs and narrative by Matthieu Ricard, translations by the Padmakara Translation Group. New York: Aperture, c1996. Available from Amazon.

Shechen Monastery. (Amazing how even monasteries have websites these days!)


I learnt about Matthieu Ricard through the latest issue of the Spanish magazine Pronto. It’s a popular weekly stuffed with tittle-tattle about los famosos (celebrities), but it also has a few more serious pages. Translation is so universal, you never know where you may come across something interesting about it.


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