Bob’s Dogen translations

This note is an introduction to my translations of Dogen. For those who don’t know, Dogen was a medieval Zen teacher who founded the Soto school in Japan, as well as writing prolifically.

The main page is here.

I’ve translated three “fascicles”, as they’re called, of his major work, called “Shobo Genzo”:

  1. Genjo Koan (“The Present Issue”), available here in HTML format
  2. Bendowa (“Dialog on the Path of Devotion”), available here in PDF format, here in MS Word format, and here in HTML without footnotes
  3. Uji (“Some Moments”), available here in MS Word format, here in HTML format without footnotes, and here in PDF

What qualifies me to translate Dogen, even though I have no training in medieval Japanese? First, I am a translator with long years of experience in the fundamentals of translation: understand the original to the maximum extent possible, including what it says between the lines; then take great care in creating the most fluid possible target-language rendering. I know modern Japanese thoroughly, and have studied medieval Japanese. And then there’s the fact that I’m willing to spend excessive amounts of time working on a single paragraph or sentence, if necessary.

So what’s the problem with all the existing translations of Dogen into English, of which there are many, often up to half a dozen for the more popular fascicles, often authored by revered Zen masters and learned scholars? Well, when I started reading Dogen, in English translation, I found I simply could not figure out what they were trying to say. They just didn’t make any sense. It seemed to me less like a problem with my ability to understand what Dogen was saying, and more the fact that the English words just didn’t really seem to mean anything sitting there on the page, disconnected.

So I started translating Dogen by accident, when in my frustration I got my hands on a book containing the original text as well as a modern Japanese translation. Then I started playing around—what would be the best way to translate that? Before I knew it, I was on my way to translating “Genjo Koan”.

Translating is an art, and a balancing act; there is no single “correct” or even “best” translation. The majority of existing translations have leaned heavily towards the “faithful” or “literal”. For example, one translation advertises itself as “adher[ing] closely to the original Japanese”. The same author (Nishijima) says “”I like the translation from which Master Dogen’s Japanese can be guessed”. But wait a minute—a native English speaker is never going to be able to guess Master Dogen’s Japanese, right? In theory, the “literal” approach reduces the risk that the translation will end up being something that the translator just invented, and lets the reader connect the dots. In practice, it’s often just an abdication of responsibility to figure out what the original text really means, or to work with the English until it reaches a point of actual readability, or, in most cases, both. The result is often mechanical and fragmented.

Someday, Dogen should be translated into colloquial English. My approach, however, is to maintain a relatively formal tone, retain most (not all) of the Buddhist imagery and terminology, but put great emphasis on clean, flowing English.

I hope you enjoy my translations. Please show your support for them by donating.

3 Responses to “Bob’s Dogen translations”

  1. Scott Greiff Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your translation of Genjo Koan, Sensei.

    The section that really spoke to me was the section that postulated that the air is to the bird in the sky, as the pursuit, and practice of enlightenment is to man on earth.

    That really is the only purpose humanity has in this world. However, some men seem to think time on earth is about personal (corporate, national) gain… How many more centuries have to pass before we all get it?

    – Scott Greiff

  2. 韋�� Says:

    I enjoyed your translations. They are clear and beautiful. Thank you.

  3. koshin dosan Says:

    Did too much caffeine today, as a result I’m up at 3AM . I’ve learned to read the obscure ((in this case dogen’s text /uji/ ) popping up links to your site) late at night, or more effective yet, attempt to sit zazen; that’ll usually send me to sleep quickly. thought I’d ask for your help translating the expression/ i shin den shin/ from the article .

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