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Tibetan Translators Plan New Guild

October 28, 2008

Radio Free Asia (RFA)
October 26, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Western translators say they want to create a guild to
share resources for the study and translation of Tibetan Buddhist
texts, which have grown far more popular internationally in recent years.

More than 100 Tibetan translators gathered at a conference in
Boulder, Colorado, last month--both veteran translators and younger,
more recent students of the Tibetan language. They agreed at the
conclusion to try to form a Tibetan translators' guild.

"We met for three days and we talked together, and we found ourselves
to be a community. And we decided to follow through on that by
creating a guild of translators," said Jules Levinson, a founding
member of the Boulder-based Light of Berotsana Translation Group,
which organized the conference.

Craftsmen through the ages have formed associations, or guilds, to
set standards for their work and advance shared interests. And
similar groups, including a Guild of European Translators, exist today.

A Tibetan translators' guild could help its members attain a "viable
livelihood," said Levinson, who began his study of Tibetan 30 years
ago at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

A guild could potentially also provide health insurance for
translators of Tibetan, many of whom are uninsured, he said.

'More and more translators'

Levinson cited a "widely shared enthusiasm for doing this."

"We'll have to see how we actually implement the idea," he added.

Conference discussions clearly pointed to the need for "some kind of
organization that "will look out for the profession and also look out
for the well-being of the translators," said Terence Barrett, a
professional engineer and recent student of Tibetan.

"There's more and more [translators] out there," Barrett said.
"Things are really expanding rapidly."

Western translators of Tibetan work in a religious and cultural
environment "halfway between regular Western culture and Tibetan
culture," he said.

Many are devoted students of the lamas, or Buddhist teachers, for
whom they translate and interpret.

"So different [Buddhist] groups have different ideas about how the
translators are supported," Barrett said. "Some believe they
shouldn't support the translators at all, that it should be all-volunteer."

Other groups have a more "professional outlook" and believe that
translators should be paid and share in the royalties of the books
they work on.

Solid demand

Discussion of a guild comes amid growing demand internationally for
Tibetan texts in translation, with titles proliferating in English
and other Western languages.

"We see a solid demand for translations [from Tibetan], especially
when the translator can also write an explanatory introduction," said
Jeffrey Cox, president of Snow Lion Publications, based in Ithaca, New York.

"We can sell from 5,000 to 10,000 each of many of these books," said
Cox, who helped to found Snow Lion Publications in 1980 as a press
"devoted to the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism and culture."

Cox said that of the many kinds of Tibetan Buddhist texts, including
spiritual biographies and poetry, now being translated into English,
the more challenging philosophical texts remain the most popular.

Web resources

A guild could "develop Web resources like a database for
translations," said Holly Gayley, a professor of Buddhist Studies at
the University of Colorado in Boulder. "And maybe some work on a
dictionary that would include more in-depth research into particular
important terms."

"When a group needs a translator, they [could] go to a database and
have some assurance not only of the quality of the translator, but
what kinds of things people generally translate," Gayley said.

The translation of Tibetan religious texts into Western languages
presents challenges that were the subject of "fruitful discussion" at
the conference, said Gayley, who has studied Tibetan for the last eight years.

Finding the right balance between "precision" of meaning and
"elegance," or readability, is one of the most common challenges, Gayley said.

"Maybe a philosophical text should be dense and difficult to read,
just like it is in the Tibetan, whereas a poetic text should have
lively language."

Western readers of Tibetan religious literature should experience a
kind of "culture shock," Gayley said.

"What you want to do is to bring readers into a kind of Tibetan
Buddhist world, and so you have to challenge them a bit," she said.
"They have to encounter some sense of the strangeness of another way
of thinking and another culture."

Reported in Washington by Richard Finney. Edited and produced for the
Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.
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