Note: The following interview originally appeared on http://www.lotsawaschool.org, Lotsawa House’s former sister site.
Lotsawa School: How did you first learn Tibetan and how to translate? Did you learn Tibetan so that you could understand your teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche?
Erik Pema Kunsang: No, it came long before that. Translation was something I was already interested in. I was fascinated by the idea of transforming meaning from one medium into another. As a young teenager, I translated a booklet on candle-making from English into Danish. I was delighted to use a skill and express meaning, and I was also happy to do something that could be useful to somebody else, not that anything ever came of it.
Later, when I was still in high school or college, I started translating the Surangama Sutra from English into Danish just for pleasure. I used the translation by Charles Luk. It was basically one long ‘pointing-out instruction.’ Each bodhisattva had to explain how they entered the realm of the unconditioned, or something like that. Not that I understood what they were talking about, but something there was important. Then, later on I studied Padmasambhava’s trekchö teachings in the Karling Shyitro (kar gling zhi khro) from the translation by the Sikkimese lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, and copied the whole text out by hand. That really got my attention. It was the real stuff—Padmasambhava’s teaching on trekchö. It was probably the first book on Dzogchen in the English language. I don’t know what the editor Evans-Wentz did to it; I heard some complaints later on, but the feeling of it was still there.
Then when I met some of the first lamas who came to Europe, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Kalu Rinpoche and so on, I had a sense that there was something there worth pursuing, not only in terms of the oral teachings but also in the written texts. I really wanted to learn, and so before I left Denmark I had already enrolled in the university and also read through some grammar books on my own. I would look at them while sitting on a bus or during a tea break. A friend of mine told me that I should learn at least ten or twenty words every day. So I made a list, and after a month or two, my vocabulary had started to build up. But studying in a western university in the early 1970s would not get anyone very far. By the end of that kind of study, I might have been able to work my way through a text, looking up the words I didn’t know, with a teacher who might be able to help, and who at least might be able to guess some of the meaning. But I knew that there was not really any living tradition there, so I thought I needed to get out. That coincided with receiving an inheritance of one thousand dollars from my late mother, so I used that to go to India. It was just a couple of months after my twentieth birthday.
I arrived in Delhi and immediately got ripped off by a con artist, the very first Indian I met. He invited me home for tea and drove me all the way into Old Delhi. We went into a backyard and then up to the third floor where all of a sudden two large Indian men appeared and said, “You have some nice stuff there, why don’t you give us some?” I had to hand over some of my things, but to be honest, I felt sorry for them.
Anyway, I went to Nepal and the first lama I was introduced to was Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, and then I met His Holiness Sakya Trizin and Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche’s father, but only very briefly.
Later on, when I went to Darjeeling, I also met Kalu Rinpoche. He would teach for one day every week or two, but it just wasn’t enough. I had heard about somebody called Tulku Pema Wangyal who, it was said, knew English, so I went to see him and after a little silence he agreed to teach me. Then everything took on a different feel, and after a couple of months of studying with him, he began to speak only in Tibetan. I started to panic and thought there was no way I could understand because at that time I could not speak Tibetan, but he just smiled and continued to teach from Kunzang Lama’i Shyalung. After a while I was able to understand what he was saying. That was a huge discovery for me: that you can actually listen to a teacher rather than to a translator. I think that’s really important. A lot of people just lean back when the teacher speaks and then wait for the translation. It’s human nature to be lazy.
I went back to Nepal and I also studied with Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. I had studied with him even before I went to Darjeeling. He spoke to me in English. He used to translate for his father in those days. Just before I left for the first time, he told me I should go and offer a khatak [ed.—white silk scarf] to his father. I thought, “Okay, his father must be a nice person and he must really love him, because although Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche is this big teacher he has his father living with him in the same place.” Tulku Urgyen was standing somewhere in the hallway and I went over to him and offered him a scarf. Instead of putting it over my neck and placing his hand on my head like other lamas would do, he bowed his own head down to meet mine. That completely blew my mind. It took some time before I understood the significance of his humility, but it had quite a lot to do with how he would teach.
My first translation—of course we all dabble with translating little verses, phrases and titles of texts and so on, but my first real translation—was in Tso Pema. I was staying up there in one of the caves and there was a very nice lama called Lama Wangdor who had been staying in retreat for eighteen years, all the while sitting and sleeping in a little retreat box. At the time I met him, he was having to sleep in a bed while his box was being repaired. I remember how he complained that his legs really hurt from stretching them out! On one occasion, he was asked by an Australian lady to give a teaching on The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. There was nobody else around who spoke Tibetan, so I was asked and even though I did not feel I could do it, I tried because I did not want to refuse and I also wanted to receive teachings from him, but basically it was a disaster. I could understand maybe twenty per cent of what he said. He had a very strong accent. Since then it’s become easier and easier. I think that was in 1977.
Lotsawa School: And you had arrived in the East in …?
Erik Pema Kunsang: 1975.
Lotsawa School: Were you translating regularly from then on?
Erik Pema Kunsang: That was shortly before I went back to Denmark and translated for Lama Thubten, who’s no longer alive. In those days he would teach the life-story of Padmasambhava.
Lotsawa School: How did you begin translating for Tulku Urgyen?
Erik Pema Kunsang: That was in 1980. I was staying here at the monastery. One day Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche said that he would like me to compile a list of standard buddhist terms, so that I could translate for him and his father on a trip they were due to make eight months later. I worked really hard to produce a list of all the different terms I might need. Then we left in the autumn and we were gone from Nepal for eleven months in total.
Lotsawa School: Was it during that trip that you first translated for Tulku Urgyen?
Erik Pema Kunsang: I translated maybe one short talk before we began the tour. It was very hard and I thought I was going to be in big trouble. But once we were in Germany, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche asked me to stay with Tulku Urgyen. I stayed in his room overnight and I have a very distinct memory of him speaking to me continuously through the dream states for three nights in a row, and after that I could understand what he said quite easily. Maybe you could say that there was less resistance from then on, which is ultimately the trick.
I was translating every day. When you travel there are always interviews and that kind of thing. There were two talks a day and I had to explain what was going on the rest of the time. It was like that for eleven months. About a week into the trip, there was a phone call from the sixteenth Karmapa, who had been quite ill for some time. He told Tulku Urgyen to accept invitations from all his centres. After that, Tulku Urgyen just couldn’t refuse and so wherever people invited him we went.
If I could say a little more about what it was like in Asia in the beginning. We basically had only a few books translated from the Tibetan language: the life story of Milarepa, some of the translations by Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, Guenther’s translation of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, and that was about it. That’s what people read. In Nepal there was only one translator, Shakya Dorje, who is now in Canada. He lived in Pharping. If you wanted to get a little text translated or ask some questions of a lama, you had to go all the way out to Pharping and wait until he did it or force him to go somewhere. And he was in retreat all the time, practising under the guidance of Chatral Rinpoche.
There were no organized teachings like there are nowadays, no seminars and no shedras. There was Kopan monastery, where they taught mainly to beginners, but without a translator. The lamas spoke in broken English, but still their bodhisattva spirit shone through, so they touched a lot of people. In Dharamsala it was said that there were one or two people who could translate for the geshes. In Darjeeling Kalu Rinpoche had one translator called Denis, who is now Lama Denis. The one place you could learn Tibetan there was with C.R. Lama [ed.—Chimé Rigdzin Lama]. There may have been somewhere in Dharamsala too. I managed to find my own tutor, who was a Sikkimese school teacher. He was very nice and very happy to have someone to talk to. The only dictionary available in those days was the one by Chandra Das, which only had one or two Dharma terms in it. In that kind of an environment you really had to study much more earnestly.
Lotsawa School: Given your interest in translation, were you studying in order to translate, or was it mainly to understand the teachings?
Erik Pema Kunsang: In the beginning, it was mainly to understand, but I would always make a wish at the end of my studies or after reading a book. I would say, “May I understand this, practise it, realize it and help others.” That made it open-ended. It might mean translating or making it available somehow.
Lotsawa School: What were the first books you translated and why did you choose them in particular?
Erik Pema Kunsang: It was the express wish of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche and Tulku Urgyen to translate the three most important works of Tselé Natsok Rangdrol, on bardo, Mahamudra and Dzogchen. I think Tulku Urgyen had been told by Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö that they were especially important if somebody wanted to practise and not study very much, because they contain all the key points. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche was told exactly the same thing by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Translating The Gateway to Knowledge was also the wish of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, as was The Light of Wisdom.
Lotsawa School: What would you say were the main difficulties as you began?
Erik Pema Kunsang: Groping in the dark. Words today that look like completely ordinary buddhist words like dngos po [ed.—functional entity] or mngon sum [ed.—direct perception] were a total mystery. There was a lot of arguing back and forth between people who had learned Tibetan about how best to explain these terms. In my case, I had the advantage of being both an oral translator and a translator of texts, which meant I could try terms out on people and see how they reacted and whether they understood them in the right way.
Another challenge I had was that I am not a native English speaker. I had to learn English at the same time as I was learning Tibetan. My wife was very helpful with that.
Lotsawa School: What have been your worst and your best experiences as a translator?
Erik Pema Kunsang: I don’t know what to say about a worst experience. The best experience is when you see that people understand, especially when they make a decision to follow a course in their lives that can bring them closer to liberation and enlightenment. Especially when the ‘pointing out instruction’ is given and they recognize the nature of mind for the first time. That is really satisfying because it is a real turning point in their lives.
Lotsawa School: There are a lot of experiential terms in such teachings that aren’t in the dictionary. How did you clarify what they mean?
Erik Pema Kunsang: I would say, “What does this mean?” Then Tulku Urgyen said, “It’s like this!” and he would demonstrate and explain a bit. Those experiential words usually lean towards either the empty or the conscious quality of mind.
Lotsawa School: Would you say some more about your dictionary. I heard that it began with a list of a couple of hundred words and at some point you gave a copy to Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and then Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche saw it.
Erik Pema Kunsang: Yes, at some point, instead of a notebook, I started writing it out on small cards. That was around the time that Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche asked me to compile a list of terms. I would go and see Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. In those days it was quite easy to see him. A lot of lamas would gather here in Boudha. It started with a few cards and then at some point Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche also saw it at Nagi Gompa. He gave me three hundred dollars and asked me to continue. I typed quite a bit of it into one of the earliest types of laptop computers back in 1983. Then I continued, at times quite obsessively. If you look at the website there are pages where I list the contributors and offer thanks. You’ll see there were a lot of people who donated their terminology very generously. It is not really my dictionary as such, but more like an overall collection of usage from the late 1970s through to the 1990s, a historical record of what was used during that time by a variety of translators from the different schools.
Lotsawa School: Did you edit any terms out?
Erik Pema Kunsang: In some extreme cases, but I haven’t edited it that much. The terminology that is most lacking is probably my own, because I would collect what I didn’t know rather than what I knew. A lot of the translators tell me that they use it all the time, which is quite satisfying.
I think now the dictionary could take two roads. One would be the encyclopedic route with all kinds of scholarly details and dates and places. I don’t want to get into that. The other would be to have phrases which indicate usage. That, I think, would be really important: to show how a word is translated in different contexts. If a grant could be provided, someone could go through ten or twenty sound translations available at the time, and include full or half sentences to show how terms are used. But I am not going to do that myself.
Lotsawa School: Do you use the dictionary when you are translating?
Erik Pema Kunsang: No, never. I use it when I finely edit. Then I look at the choice of words, but when you are in a flow you can’t keep interrupting that. I think it is better to know well what you are going to say and then say it, so that there is a certain tone of decisiveness. That is really important for the reader or for the listener. That is what Tulku Urgyen used to tell me. He said decisiveness is a vital quality for a translator. Otherwise you risk transmitting hesitation and doubt. The point is to be sure, especially in teachings like those given by Tulku Urgyen. Even when I was not completely confident, I would try to act as if I was. That may irritate some people, but so what? It’s for the benefit of beings.
Lotsawa School: What is your advice to anyone wanting to become a translator?
Erik Pema Kunsang: You will need ambition and perseverance but it has to be saturated with bodhicitta. That is the most important thing. Then I would say that you should not hope too much to be acknowledged. In other words, you need to be a bodhisattva. Otherwise, you become too messed up in your relationship to your work and other people. I have seen that in people and also with myself.
Don’t ever translate something with only a fixed number of people in mind. Instead make it open-ended and think, “May it benefit people I don’t even know.” Then there is not too much hope and fear. I think that is really important.
I don’t have anything new to say: just make sure you apply the teachings to the task of translation. I took a vow not to publish anything before I had studied for ten years. I think it is good not to be in too much of a rush. But you can fool yourself, and I am probably still fooling myself. If you are lucky you are willing to listen to what your teacher says and just follow that; that is the safest. It is usually the people working on their own who get into trouble.
Lotsawa School: There is now some broad agreement about many of the most important terms used in the Dharma, but still a lot of terms are being translated differently by different translators, which can be confusing for people…
Erik Pema Kunsang: I don’t know how confusing it is. I know it’s said that it is confusing, but I wonder if it really is.
Lotsawa School: How do you see it being resolved? Will the translators ever agree?
Erik Pema Kunsang: No, they are not going to agree, because there is nobody who can force them to. We don’t live in the time of kings any more.
I don’t believe in consensus either. I think it will be a natural process, not somebody’s decision. There is something else that comes into play and that is wangtang or ziji, the qualities that teachers have. Often when a teacher uses a word it sounds great for some reason, and it then becomes accepted. That is much more important than some little person like myself insisting on using a certain word. In the end people will just disregard what I say because it doesn’t have the same kind of blessing. These blessings are very intangible but I have a feeling that they are what is going to determine the terminology of the future. In other words, great bodhisattvas will appear and naturally codify buddhist terminology in the West. That is how it should be. I don’t see it as my responsibility. I just try to do my best.
I would just like to add that I have really benefitted a lot from all the other people translating over the last thirty years, and I have included a list of thanks on my homepage.
This interview took place at Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling Monastery, Boudha, Kathmandu on December 3rd 2003