Translating the word “time” in Dogen’s “Uji”

In “Uji”, Dogen is trying to tell us something about time. The problem is that the only means he has to communicate with us are words like “time”, that we think we already understand. It’s like trying to understand how a telescope works by looking at a distant telescope though your own telescope with its thoroughly smudged lens.

Faced with this problem, the approach Dogen takes is to resort to his patented trick, which basically amounts to hitting us over the head with the telescope. He keeps using the word “time” in weird, disconcerting, unaccustomed ways, forcing us to see it outside of our usual framework.

Which is all fine and good but now I am faced with the problem of trying to translate this into English. Suddenly we are confronted with a layered series of issues, including what Dogen’s theory of time is, what typical preconceptions of time people of his time listening to or reading “Uji” had that he was taking for granted and trying to break through; but also the preconceptions of the typical reader of the 21st century in the West about “time” and the word “time”.

In particular, it seems to me that the word “toki” as it existed in medieval Japanese may not even correspond that closely to the word “time” in modern-day English, even though all translators mechanically translate “toki” as “time”. I have the suspicion that 700 years ago people in Japan had a more quantum view of time, where now people in the West have a more wave view. They viewed time as a series of moments, coming one at a time, whereas we view time as a flow, as an unmeasurable quantity, like a river. Given this gap, translating “toki” as “time” in “Uji” is misleading—or even just wrong.

That’s why I think “toki” should be translated as “moments”, and why I am translating the title of the fascicle as “Some-Moments”—explicitly trying to capture the ambiguity that Dogen was constructing with his neologism “Uji”, able to be parsed as either “Ji which U” (moments which are something), or “Ji for U-ing” (moments for something).

Besides, translating “toki” as “moments” makes the whole fascicle read much better in English translation—which is at least one valid test of the quality of a translator’s terminology decisions, and one which one wishes were applied by more translators.

2 Responses to “Translating the word “time” in Dogen’s “Uji””

  1. Kay Says:

    What does this quote by Dogen mean
    Miracles are practiced three thousand times in the morning and eight hundred times in the evening? What is the significance of the numbers?

  2. Gregory Wonderwheel Says:

    Sorry, but I can’t agree with translating Uji as “some-moments”. Though I like the creative impulse that is shown. To me “U” can’t be translated as “some” or “something.” “U” means to be, to exist, to have, not the “thing” that may be, exist, or have. “U”must be translated in the context of the Buddha Dharma (worldview or metaphysics) where is is contrasted with “MU”, nonexistence, unbeing, etc.. Superficially it seems like “some-none” would be a good match for the dichotomy of U-MU, but the English “some” connotes a countable portion as in “a few”, not the beingness of existenceitself, which is how “U” is used by Dogen.

    Also, the idea of flowing is clearly described in Dogen’s Uji and so is definitely a big part of the aspect of time as Dogen views it, thus negating the hypothesis that the Japanese of his day had a more quantum approach to time than other peoples in other times. Both flowing and moments are clearly discussed in Uji, so an interpretatio of JI that presents time as predominately one or the other, e.g., more like moments than like flowing, is clearly not the intent of Dogen’s use of “JI”.

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