Note: The following interview originally appeared on http://www.lotsawaschool.org, Lotsawa House’s former sister site.
Lotsawa School: How did you learn Tibetan?
Sangye Khandro: I am still learning! But it all began in Dharamsala, India, when I had been a buddhist for about five years. I was studying in the Gelug tradition at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I went there in 1971 just searching for ‘the meaning of life’ and that kind of thing. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had just opened the library and he had one of his best geshes, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, teaching there with two qualified translators, Sharpa Tulku and Kamlung Tulku, who had trained in New Jersey. There was a course every day except on Sunday on buddhist philosophy from texts like Bodhicharyavatara, Madhyamakavatara, and the beginning of Lamrim Chenmo.
My partner and I used to go just to sit and listen. We didn’t really know anything at the time. There was a group of about eight or nine young westerners, including people like Georges Dreyfus, Alan Wallace, Alex Berzin and all the ‘old timers’. Jeffrey Hopkins would show up from time to time, although he had been there earlier and was already in another league. That is how we began hearing, contemplating and meditating.
That went on for about five years. I lived in Hawaii at the time and I would come and go. Geshe Dhargyey was kind of my root teacher, but I was really frustrated because I could never speak with him directly and every time we went to see him, we’d have to get a translator in order to have a meaningful conversation or ask any questions. We were fortunate because there were the two translators and they were very kind, but still I figured out that if I was going to stay on this path, I really needed to learn the language. In those days none of the teachers really spoke English, and there were other teachers in the area whom I would go and sit with. So I just decided I should try to learn. I got a tutor named Losang Thonden, who has actually written several Tibetan grammar books. He became my private tutor and also I took some classes at the library. Mostly I would go to Lobsang-la’s and he would teach me. I was also really close to the monks at Nechung Monastery, and they would teach me too. I just became a student of the language and started using ‘street’ or conversational Tibetan, and I learned to read.
I learned to read by studying the u-chen script not by studying Wylie. I never really got into Wylie, which is why even now I am not very good at spelling. I just learned to read and learned terms, but I didn’t really hone in on the spelling factor. I have found that a lot of people have this amazing ability to spell, like Jules Levinson our colleague who studied Tibetan with Jeffrey Hopkins, as well as others who have studied with westerners who teach Tibetan using Wylie.
After going back and forth for a few more years, when I had a basic understanding of colloquial Tibetan and I could read classical Tibetan, I began to do translation work, just slowly. Initially I was working with Gyaltrul Rinpoche in Berkeley. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche founded a centre there, called Yeshe Nyingpo, and he asked Gyaltrul Rinpoche to be his representative, and since I was also Gyaltrul Rinpoche’s companion at the time, he asked me to stay there and help.
Rinpoche decided to teach Kunzang Lamé Shyalung and at that time we had no translation like The Words of My Perfect Teacher, which we have now, but we still did it. There were weekend classes and only very few people came, but we would study all week just to prepare for the weekend, with the text out, looking up every single word, and trying to write down and figure out what each line was saying. During the talk Rinpoche would read very slowly and I would read what I had written and we would discuss it. It was through that kind of process that I was able slowly to learn.
Then Rinpoche invited other teachers to come and teach there, like Lama Gönpo Tseten. This was in about 1979 and suddenly there were some really great lamas coming to the West. They needed translators, and I was the only one to do it in that area, or at least the best one at the time. There were a few other people around who knew some Tibetan, but they had never even tried to translate. So I ended up, almost by default, being the one that had to do it. I can remember being really horrified at first. I was always shy about speaking in public, so it was really hard for me to be put in that position, and especially to have the responsibility of explaining what the teacher had just said to an audience of sincere people wanting to learn about such a profound spiritual path. But I was in that position time and time again; it was just karmic. It was not my aspiration to become a translator initially. I studied and learned Tibetan for personal reasons, I have to say, but it became an opportunity to share and help others and so of course I was happy about that too.
Chagdud Rinpoche came and I translated for him many times in the early years. Khenpo Palden Sherab came right about then and I did the translation. I am sure it was horrible, but you know I did something; I was just trying. Lama Ganga of the Kagyu lineage came and gave teachings in a private way and I translated. I always had the texts and studied, studied, studied. I was doing nothing else with my life. I had dedicated my life to Dharma and the language. I was very poor and barely getting by, but that’s all I wanted to do, so I just did it. And I did it all the time. I lived with Gyaltrul Rinpoche so I was constantly with Tibetan lamas. So that is how I learned.
Then in 1981, when His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche went to Hong Kong, he invited me to come and be his translator. Shenphen Rinpoche, his son, was acting as his translator, and of course he was much better than me, but he didn’t want to be the translator. So I had the great honour of translating for His Holiness for an entire month in Hong Kong, and that was a real turning point for me.
Lotsawa School: What were the audiences like? Did a lot of people attend those teachings?
Sangye Khandro: Yes, hundreds and hundreds of Chinese. In a way that was nice training because I would speak to their translator and he would translate for the masses. So I was the ‘in-between’ and it was a great way to train. You have more time, because when it is three-way you are not on every second.
That led to more study of Dharma and more translation work. I spent a lot of time in the early years translating liturgies for Pacific Yeshe Nyingpo. I would ask Gyaltrul Rinpoche questions, but Rinpoche is not a scholar and of course he would help me when he could, but I was pretty much on my own. So I am afraid to say that these days when I look at those sadhanas, I would like to redo every last one of them…whenever I can get around to it.
Lotsawa School: Did any of the lamas you were translating for speak difficult dialects?
Sangye Khandro: Those lamas that were coming through then were all refugee lamas, and I find that refugee Tibetans have a common, modern language. It wasn’t until later, in the early 1990s, that the non-refugee Tibetans from China started to come and that was another story.
That began with Khenpo Jikmé Phuntsok. I was his translator in the States for the whole tour, except in Napa Valley, where it was Chökyi Nyima. It was very challenging. I was fortunate though, because before his visit we did have some Golok lamas living with us in Oregon at the temple, including Lama Chönam. So I had heard their dialect and I had conversed with them, and I was a bit familiar with it. Also before he came, I was given tapes of his teaching and I listened to them continuously and Gyaltrul Rinpoche helped me to identify different terms. Gyaltrul Rinpoche has always been extremely helpful and kind to me.
Lotsawa School: What were the most difficult things about translating in the beginning?
Sangye Khandro: It is difficult because you are put on the spot. Yet, if you are not willing to be put on the spot, how are you ever going to learn? Obviously the first times you ever translate publicly it is going to be rough going. That has been the case for me countless times, because I have worked with so many different teachers. Then, once you become familiar with their dialect and so on, it begins to iron out.
Lotsawa School: There are stories about you remembering long sections of teaching, sometimes lasting even half an hour, when translating for Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. Was that a skill you developed, or did you always have a good memory, even in the beginning?
Sangye Khandro: I really think that if you have a strong karmic connection with a particular teacher, there is some kind of magic that just happens. I can’t do that for every teacher. It is really because of a teacher’s blessing. I don’t feel that it has so much to do with me. It is really their blessing, and being within the field of the transmission that is happening.
But another turning point for me was working with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, most definitely. I wasn’t his translator for years or anything like that. Actually Thinley Norbu Rinpoche doesn’t use translators. Of course he knows the English language very well and is a master of terminology like Trungpa Rinpoche was. You can tell that by reading his books and seeing how he uses terms and how carefully he selects them.
He was requested by Lama Tharchin Rinpoche to give a teaching and he was very tired and thought he couldn’t do it in English. He must have mentioned me, or else Lama Tharchin Rinpoche did, I am not sure, but whatever it was, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche called me. I was in Oregon and I was so shocked and honoured. I just went right down. I still remember when I got there, Steven Goodman and some other people just looked at me, shook their head and said, “You know Rinpoche has burned out every translator he has ever worked with within the first ten minutes.” So I just thought “Well, he’s asking, so I am just going to try.” That is why I say it was just a blessing and a connection with Rinpoche, because I really have a lot of faith in him. I don’t see him as being different from his father, who was my root guru, and now he is my root guru. It was just amazing the different things that happened during that time. He taught me how to remember like that. He trained me specifically.
Lotsawa School: By giving you advice?
Sangye Khandro: Different things. There was the string on the toe thing.[i] And Rinpoche likes to speak from the space of his meditation and not to be interrupted. I think a lot of teachers are the same; when they’re giving that kind of mind transmission it is better for them not to have to stop. I wasn’t going to stop him, and no one else said a word. I was able to do it because he was blessing me. It pleased him that I was able to say most of what he had said—I mean, he knew, he can understand me. After a while, he started getting up and leaving. He would go out into the forest and listen.
I also have this kind of connection with Khenpo Namdrol. That is why it works. I really admire him and have a lot of faith in him and he is also one of my most important root teachers. I just enjoy working with him so much. I feel that that ability comes through the connection with the teachers and their blessing.
Lotsawa School: Do you take any notes while you are translating for Thinley Norbu Rinpoche?
Sangye Khandro: Yes, it is the same as I do here. I have my own short-hand. It is also true that it helps if you are familiar with the material. By now I am familiar with a lot of material: I have been at this a long time. Translation work is not just repeating words; you also have to study and learn Dharma and take it very seriously. You have to practise and do retreats and internalize what you learn. If there is no practice then it becomes like an intellectual game, and that will not work out in the end, not for these great Nyingma teachers.
Lotsawa School: Do you have any memories that stand out for you as being your best or worst experiences while translating?
Sangye Khandro: The best memory I have from more recent times is that month with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. That was the best month of my life and unforgettable really.
The most difficult experience was translating for Kusum Lingpa, whom I really love and have a strong connection with to this day. Lama Chönam and I see him every year when he comes, although I am no longer his main translator. I have translated for him recently, but when he first came to the States he was like a crazy, wild man and it was always difficult to say what he was saying without changing it and without putting my personality in, which you are not supposed to do.
Lotsawa School: Because what he said was so outrageous?
Sangye Khandro: So outrageous. I mean it was unbelievable. One of the most difficult times was during an interview in Hong Kong. Here was this student, a major jindak [ed.—sponsor], who had come over from Taiwan to meet him. One of my best friends brought her because I had told her how great this lama was, and the whole thing was happening because I had encouraged it. In comes this lady, who is very proper, and she sits down. He didn’t even say hello. He just said, “So, how much money do you have?” And I had to translate that.
It was difficult because he had no social skills. I don’t want this to come off as my saying bad words about Rinpoche. All the money he gets goes to the Dharma. It is only for Dharma. He doesn’t even own a watch. He is really a character, but every single penny he ever gets goes towards building stupas, supporting hundreds of lamas and nuns and poor people. He is really a beautiful, beautiful master and a crazy yogi. But in the West it was a disaster, because he has no social skills and people were so shocked by him. We would go to someone’s house because they had asked him to do a puja, and whenever he offered a serkyem [ed.—usually black tea or some kind of alcohol], he would just throw it in their house all over the walls.
Lotsawa School: I would like to ask about your choice of terminology, and how you decided on certain terms, because I know some of them come from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche.
Sangye Khandro: A lot of it comes from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, because I study with him now. We spend the winters with Rinpoche and I am continuously learning from him.
With the translation group [ed.—Light of Berotsana] we make decisions together about terms too. If there is a chance we run them by Rinpoche. If it’s Rinpoche’s term then we run that by Jules, our colleague, and he almost always agrees with it. There have been a few times when he came back after looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and contemplating and in the end found that Rinpoche’s term is really correct.
I’ll give you an example. When I was translating Chokchu Munsel [ed.—Dispelling Darkness in the Ten Directions, Longchenpa’s commentary to the Guhyagyarbha Tantra] in Alameda, California this last April, I was using the term ‘exaltation’ for bde ba chen po. Some people sent me notes saying it should be ‘exultation’ with a ‘u’, but if you look up these two words in the O.E.D., you’ll see there is a big difference. In the end it is exaltation that wins out. People were thinking of bliss, but bde ba chen po is really ecstasy. ‘Ecstasy’ somehow just doesn’t fit in this context, but exaltation really does.
So we are really trying to refine the terms. At first, a lot of people might think they don’t like a term or they’re not used to it. But if you look it up and see what it really means and compare it with the Tibetan and check the context in which the term is being used, I think it will probably work. We are trying to decide on our terms in this way and run them by masters like Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and Khenpo Namdrol Rinpoche. We ask Khen Rinpoche questions all the time about the inner meaning to determine the correct terms.
Lotsawa School: Do you have any advice for people who want to become translators?
Sangye Khandro: Always check your motivation and make sure that you have the highest aspiration in mind. Practise continuously throughout the whole process and don’t just take it as some intellectual pursuit, because in the end that won’t be of very much benefit to anybody. Then you should spend time with Tibetan people, which means you are probably going to have to go to Asia and immerse yourself in the Tibetan culture. You will have to learn colloquial Tibetan if you want to be an oral translator. If you just want to translate literature of course that’s not necessary, but even translators of literature who don’t know spoken Tibetan are a little bit handicapped.
Try to fit into the ‘golden standard’[ii], which will hopefully become more well-known as time goes on. Don’t be discouraged: things are getting better and looking up for translators. There can be a career in this and there will be.
There is a lot more respect now and dignity with the job, but the fact that there wasn’t in the beginning was also okay. I don’t regret that. I feel really happy that I had just a pure intention to learn the Dharma and serve, without expecting to get anything. In effect, it was much purer than it is now, because now we expect to get things.
Basically people just have to surrender to it, watch their motivation and become a real practitioner, not just a tokgewa [ed.—intellectual scholar], as Thinley Norbu Rinpoche says. He always says that Patrul Rinpoche praised those who spoke simple words that were genuine, rather than those who spoke the dry, intellectual words of a scholar with no practice. I have learned a lot from that because when you are learning to be a translator you run into a lot of scholars, who really are smart, and you feel intimidated. You feel like you should use their terms because they are more accurate, but that may not necessarily be the case.
If you are working with a lama, then you need to ask the lama what a word really means, and then also if you have some practice you can kind of figure it out and understand on your own, without having to follow others. If the right terms are chosen and they are really correct, then I think that when we do have a translators’ conference, it will be pretty easy to decide on them.
This interview took place in August 2004 near Montpellier in the South of France, where Sangye Khandro was translating for Khenpo Namdrol.
[i] Whenever it was Sangye’s turn to speak, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche would pull on a string tied to her big toe.
[ii] As set out by the Light of Berotsana translation group.