Notes on translating “Genjo Koan”

I first encountered the translation of “Genjo Koan” found in “Moon in a Dewdrop” (see below). Started going through that, but felt that something was missing. So I got my hands on a Japanese book (the Mizuno book below). This book gives the original Dogen along with a translation into contemporary Japanese.

I have no interest in seeming to criticize the monumental efforts undertaken by Tanahashi and his collaborators in “Moon in a Dewdrop”. However, the Japanese version said something to me quite different than his version did, so I concluded there was room for another translation taking another approach.

How literal?

A key dimension in any translation is how literal to make it. That in turn depends on the audience. For Genjo Koan, if the audience is Buddhist scholars or students, there is a case to be made for a more literal approach, since those readers can presumably untangle some of the complexities of the original on their own. On the other hand, if the audience is the general public, then a very literal translation will seem stilted, or opaque. Of course, in the case of the Genjo Koan the utter density of the text militates in favor of a more literal translation, since even the best translator may not be able to decipher what is really going on.

In choosing the audience, though, we should remember that Genjo Koan was originally written as a letter to a lay disciple. So I doubt that Dogen wrote it with the intention that it be a turgid philosophical treatise. He was presumably trying to convey some basic ideas to his student in a fairly conversational, second-person way. Just reading the Japanese text from this perspective, to me, makes it more coherent. And in this light, I think a translation should also take the flavor of a teacher talking to his student.

Of course, Dogen used much Buddhist vocabulary, as well as allusions to Buddhist tradition and scripture, being a learned student of the literature himself. But this vocabulary was certainly familiar to the student he was writing to, so in that sense it cannot really be considered technical. An English translation which by definition is targeting English readers, in my mind, needs to make the shift from 13th century Japanese Buddhist terminology to something that the modern reader can relate to. For that reason, I chose to not use the Japanese or Sanskrit Buddhist terminology. Who am I to decide what English should be used to represent the time-honored concept referred to as “buddha-dharma” or “buppou”? Well, I’m the translator. If you want to translate, I think you should translate.

Minor translation issues

Another point regarding the literalness of a translation is to what extent the translator should take liberties with the order of sentences or phrases. There is a natural difference between Japanese and English that’s imposed by the grammar and syntax of the language, as well as the cultural differences. Often an overly-literal ordering of the translation will result in clumsy, unreadable, or disconnected sentence. That’s why I did take the approach of modest reordering where it made sense to better convey the meaning or result in English which flowed better.

There’s one aspect, though, where I prefer what might be called a more literal translation. Let’s say that the original author has repeated a phrase; we should assume that he has some reason for doing so and repeat the phrase in the translation as well. Let’s say that the original author has chosen a different word to represent what seems to be the same concept; we should assume that he has some reason for doing so and choose a different word in the target language as well. Something peculiar to Dogen is that he may have chosen to express something in a “kanbun” style, then possibly followed by the same idea in a “Japanese” style; we should assume that he had some reason for doing so and render the “kanbun” part in an appropriate style, and the “Japanese” part in an appropriate style.

Real-world translators have a little dirty secret: sometimes they leave things out of their translation entirely! There are a couple of cases where this can be justified. One is if the original text is highly redundant; perhaps the redundancy works better in the source language than the target. The second, more controversial, is when the translator doesn’t really know what the original means. In that case, he’s faced with the question of creating a translation which has some reasonable probability of being just wrong, versus assuming that the context will fill in, to some extent, the missing content for the reader. Yes, in my translation I have done this, in a couple of places I won’t reveal.

How to translate the title?

Basic question: what should the name of this essay be? Tanahashi chose “Actualizing the Fundamental Point”, which seems highly contorted. He is translating “genjo” as “actualize” and “koan” as “fundamental point”, of course. But beyond the mere awkwardness of this translation, I think it misses much of what Dogen was intending. In the grammar of noun phrases in Japanese, the phrase “genjo koan” could be interpreted in a number of ways: genjo-ing the koan, or koan-ing the genjo, the koan of the genjo, and the genjo of the koan, to mention just a few. Dogen himself gives us a clue where late in his essay he uses “genjo koan” as a verb, and then a noun. This is why I initially ended up with the title “Open question—becoming real”. I thought there was parallelity to Dogen’s original title, in the sense that it can be parsed as “the open question of becoming real”, or “the open question becoming real”. The verb form Dogen invents can perhaps be glossed as the latter, the noun as the former.

However, in October 2004 I adopted a new English translation, “The Present Issue.” The thinking is that “present” and “issue” have some of the range of meanings of “genjo” and “koan” and together, a similar potential for combining themselves in various ways.


Japanese books:

  • Dogen Zenshuu (Dogen’s collected works), Vol. I, translated and annotated by Mizuno Yaoko, ISBN 4-393-15021-X
  • Zen-yaku Shoubou-genzou, Vol. 1, by Nakamura Shuuichi, published by Seishin Shobou, ISBN 4-414-11201-X.
  • Genjo Koan wo Kataru, by Kurebayashi Koudou, ISBN4-8046-1097-9.
  • Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen by Tanahashi (ed.) appears to have the same translation as is in Moon in a Dewdrop.
  • ç?¾ä»£èªžè¨³æ­£æ³•çœ¼è”µ, 玉城康四郎(大蔵出版刊). I have not consulted this book but portions are on-line.

English books:

  • Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo: Book 1,
    by Gudo Nishijima (Translator), Chodo Cross (Translator)
  • Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen
    by Zen Master Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi (Editor)
  • Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan, by Hakuun Yasutani, Taizan Maezumi

Online translations:

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