06 April 2008

Sunday morning translation Zen

I have been reading Enlightenment Unfolds, a collection of the writings of the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen Zenji. The book was translated by several people and edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Unfortunately, there is no way I can read Dogen's original writings and it is inevitable that translations will stray from the author's meaning (see this post for examples).

Here are 2 questionable passages from Enlightenment Unfolds (italics mine).

If inherent knowledge is correct awakening, then all sentient beings will automatically become completely enlightened...
According to my Random House dictionary, the word automatic entered the English lexicon around 1750. I very much doubt that the 13th century Japanese had a word with an equivalent meaning. I wonder if naturally or spontaneously would be better replacements for automatic in that sentence.

Here is the 2nd example. This one is from a long paragraph of prohibitions Dogen's teacher is recommending.
"...don't look at pornography or talk about sex..."
Pornography is even a newer word; it dates to the 1840s.

I realize it would be difficult to translate a 13th century text from any language into present day English, but using words of rather recent origins for what may have been esoteric concepts or long phrases doesn't quite cut it.


Dave Coulter said...

Who knows? Maybe they had some really racy woodblock prints back then...

Duane Smith said...

There are several schools of thought on translation these days. Among them are "formal equivalence" and "dynamic equivalence." Both lie in their own way. Without putting too fine a point on it, "formal equivalence" seeks, in so far as possible, to give a word for word translation while "dynamic equivalence" seeks to render the "thoughts" of the source language. In fact, there is a kind of continuum between these two approaches and, in practice, most translators move freely between the two. Some strong advocates of "dynamic equivalence" see nothing wrong and everything right about using completely modern, language specific, idiomatic expressions when translating. Strong advocates of "formal equivalence" consider such things sins of the worst kind. Having not seen either the translation or the original (and not being able to make heads nor tails of the original if I did see it), your examples lead me to guess that the translators tend to lean rather strongly in the direction of "dynamic equivalence."