17 November 2008

On reading translations

The Internet connection is not always working here in the backwoods — hence the hiatus in posting here, if anyone noticed —

Still not healthy enough to do much walking in the woods, i'm reduced to walking through words. Often this means relying on translators to help me engage with a writer i can count on to shake me out of a mental rut, such as Dogen. So it's cause for celebration to discover, as i did last week, a complete English translation of Dogen's masterwork, the Shobogenzo, at the Shasta Abbey website.

The translation is by Rev. Hubert Nearman, who dedicated 14 years to the task and seems well qualified for it. Of course i can't compare his translation with the original, since i don't read medieval Japanese, so there's no point in my passing judgment on the quality of his translation. But this observation opens a deeper question about the wholehearted reading of ‘scriptures’ in translation.

The question can perhaps be put best in semiotic terms, since translation is paradigmatic of semiosis itself: a sign-process produces an interpretant, and translation is prototypical of interpretation. For example, take one fascicle or ‘chapter’ of Dogen's Shobogenzo: the title, ‘Kokyo’, is translated ‘On the Ancient Mirror’ by Nearman; the Nishijima/Cross translation (the only other one i've seen) calls it ‘The Eternal Mirror’. The whole essay is about this ‘mirror’ — in other words, the whole Japanese text is a sign and this Mirror is its object. Like any sign, Dogen's essay ‘determines its interpretant to stand in the same triadic relation to the same object for some interpretant’ (Peirce, CP 1.541). The original text ‘determines’ the text of the translation by constraining it to say the same thing as the original in another language; if it didn't, we wouldn't call the new text a ‘translation’.

This implies at least that both texts are about something which can be spoken of in either language (and perhaps in any language). The object of these signs is therefore independent of, and external to, any language used to direct attention to it. And each sign of that dynamic object, as Peirce called it, generates an interpretant which works in turn as another sign, generating a further interpretant, and so on — each sign in the sequence having the same object.

The catch is that whatever this object called a Mirror is, you must already have some acquaintance with it before you can interpret any signs as describing, defining or informing you about it. The sign itself can't supply this acquaintance; it can only give you some hints about how to renew that acquaintance and carry it forward. In terms of Dogen's essay, this is equally true of the original Japanese text and of any translation of it. Indeed the original text was itself a translation, namely of the eternal buddha-dharma, as reflected in Dogen's own reflections on his experience of the Ancient Mirror. And your reading of any translation is another translation of these signs directing your attention to the ancient mirror itself.

The word mirror is a symbol of the object of this infinite succession of signs. Most of Dogen's essay is about how to read this symbol, as used by various ancient masters in their koans and conversations. And this blog post is about how we read translations of that essay.

In that last sentence, i put ‘translations’ in the plural for a reason. It is obvious, but perhaps worth noticing for that very reason, that a single text can be translated in more than one way. In practice, this implies that if we compare two translations, we begin with the assumption that they are equivalent, even when they are different. This has to be our assumption because we are reading them as interpretant signs which have the same dynamic object as Dogen's original essay. So our working assumption is that where they differ, they have chosen different ways of directing our attention to that object, namely the Ancient or Eternal Mirror. For example, compare these two translations of a single Dogen sentence:

We should by all means have as our investigation through training and practice an exploration that broadly spans the sayings of all the Buddhas and Ancestors.

There must be learning in practice that widely covers the teachings of all the buddhas and all the patriarchs.

We notice right away that latter parts of the two translations, from the word ‘that’ to the end of the sentence, are quite similar. But the part of the sentence before that consists of 15 words in the first translation, but only 6 words in the second. Yet we must assume that both say what Dogen was saying in the source text. We might decide eventually that one says it better than the other, but we certainly can't begin with such an assumption. Besides, the differences may be entirely a matter of style, and quirks of style should be considered innocent of misrepresentation until proven guilty of it. Since ancient Japanese and Chinese tend to be more economical in their use of words than contemporary English, i would guess that the Nishijima/Cross translation is closer to being word-for-word than the Nearman. But that in itself doesn't make it a better or more accurate translation. Nearman's Dogen appears a bit more verbose than the Dogen of other translators (for instance, the famous Genjokoan has a four-word title in many English translations; Nearman entitles it ‘On the Spiritual Question as It Manifests Before Your Very Eyes’). But perhaps Nearman captures more of the nuances of the text this way.

One implication of all this is that a translation can work as well as the original text, or maybe better, for ‘scriptural’ purposes — just as one artist can sometimes perform a song better than the artist who wrote it in the first place. A translation need not be a ‘second-hand’ substitute for the original. It can be the real Word itself, if it successfully ‘determines’ your reading to recognize the universal Truth, or some face of it, which dwells in the deepest layers of experience, which is your own because it is everyone's. Just don't be too sure that your reading is the right one! The trick is to recognize the Truth when it comes to you in another new (dis)guise. Are you ready for that?

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