(Crushed marble sculptural installation ‘Flying Dakini’ 2014, by artist Agnes Arellano)
The other day I got sucked into a Facebook comment thread which got me thinking about the connection between translation strategies and the ways that practitioners think about and actually practice religious texts. To give you a little context, the thread was about spirit conjuration procedures and offering practices as found in Western magical traditions, and as the discussion unfolded I found myself reflecting upon the way that certain key technical terms often found in Tibetan sadhanas or tantric ritual manuals have been translated into English.
Translation is a double-edged process – to translate a thing involves both drawing it near and holding it apart. Depending on the circumstances, understanding can arise as much from domesticating a term in a target language as it can from choosing to hold onto a word’s strangeness through a literal translation. What is lost and gained, for example, when we translate the Sanskrit Dakini/Tibetan Khandroma – a tantric goddess – with a loaded Judeo-Christian-Islamic term like angel, and what is obscured, what is illuminated when we opt for say, a literal translation of the Tibetan term (khandroma, mkha’ ‘gro ma) ‘femalesky-goer’? Continue reading →
Today, I used Hozier’s song ‘Take me to Church’ as part of an English listening exercise with some Tibetan students. I chose the song strategically: it is loaded with Christian and sexual themes but also reframes these in surprising, perhaps even blasphemous ways. I figured that the song could provide a good lesson in how important cultural background can be for language comprehension and offer a nice parallel with things the students were more familiar with as Tibetan Buddhists: in this case, the much celebrated if somewhat scandalous poetry of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, who in the early 18th century bucking the bonds of his royal, monastic education, returned his vows of celibacy and wrote erotic poems laden with tantric Buddhist religious imagery.