Philosophy of translation (II)–what words "mean"

“You always try to fit the original word to your understanding, instead of the other way round. But a good translator cannot be like that.”

I disagree profoundly (previous post) with these words of Mike Cross (website) addressing his teacher Gudo Nishijima in a comment (now deleted) on the latter’s blog. (Cross is perhaps best known as the co-translator of Dōgen’s Shōbō Genzō.)

Actually Mike, translators should neither “fit the original word to [their] understanding” nor the other way around. Instead, the original word(s) and the translator’s understanding should inform and resonate with each other.

Complaining about Nishijima’s rendering of the Sanskrit nirodha as “self-regulation” and proposing instead that it “means” “stopping, checking, inhibiting”, Cross goes on to say, “First you should say what the original word literally means; and then you should explain your interpretation of it”.

Now I know nothing about either Sanskrit or Buddhist theology. But I do know something about language and meaning, and this statement reveals an abysmal lack of understanding of the nature of both. The “original word” does not “literally mean” anything other than itself in its own language. Words are mere linguistic force fields; wet, squishy semantic blobs; kaleidoscopic mappings onto realities which themselves vary among both writers and readers.

Cross continues, “It is necessary to respect the original word more than one’s own opinion”.

Hmmm. I can “respect” the word(s) Genjō Kōan in its own language, but what does it mean to “respect” them when I am translating? The “literal meaning”, taking the “meaning” of “literal meaning” “literally”, is something like appear-become-public-notice. But in the Nishijima-Cross translation this is glossed, instead, as “The Realized Universe”. How does that translation “respect” the “literal meaning” of the “original word” Genjō Kōan? In the translator’s notes, Cross claims that genjō “means” realized . Who’s fitting words to his own understanding now? (Personally, I think “unfolding”, my translation, is a far better translation of genjo than “realized” (past tense), but then again, I do not claim to be “respecting” the original Japanese nor to be conveying its “literal meaning” as Cross does.)

Cross continues his criticism of Nishijima, saying “If people saw your own original translation of Shobogenzo, they would be astonished, because it is so interpretative”. It’s interesting to learn that Nishijima did an original translation into English. I’d love to see it. Interpretive? Well, I hope so. Every linguistic act—writing, translating, reading—is by definition an act of interpretation. And that’s the only way it could be.

3 Responses to “Philosophy of translation (II)–what words "mean"”

  1. k.mallika Says:

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  2. k.mallika Says:

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  3. 777 Says:

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