October 13, 2010

First Person

Tibetan translation team busy minting scientific lexicons

Tsondue Samphel is a research assistant and translator for the Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.

Since the inception of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative in 2006, a team of translators, based at Emory and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamsala, India, have been busy minting scientific lexicons in Tibetan and translating scientific materials prepared by ETSI’s science faculty. 

With a good number of the initiative’s monastic students having little, and in many cases minimal, English language training, translation becomes an essential part of the initiative’s science education efforts. Moreover, given the larger goal of introducing a comprehensive science education into the monastic curriculum, production of scientific literature in Tibetan — including textbooks, reference materials, teaching tools and so on — takes an even more central role in this endeavor, which His Holiness the Dalai Lama once called “the 100-year project.”

The translation team, consisting of three translators at Emory and four at LTWA, labors hard to provide not only literary translations of course materials, such as syllabus, lecture notes and handouts of all sorts, but also in-class and on-the-spot translation of lectures, discussions and dialogues. The team has thus far translated materials for six textbooks and three primers, all of which will eventually be used in majority of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in India.

The translators, or lo-tsa-was in Tibetan, have to grapple with words as simple as “switch,” which when translated into Tibetan not only becomes object-specific but rather quite cumbersome; to words loaded with meanings such as “process” that may seem easy to an English reader but carries a range of meaning not easily duplicable in a Tibetan translation.

Creating names for almost all of the brain parts and other anatomical features may seem daunting, but even more challenging is the coining of names for the thousands of molecules, chemical compounds and drugs, which will require developing a very systematic and thorough method, and a strong dosage of patience. The ETSI translation team has thus far avoided venturing into this solution (pun unintended) by taking the easy path of transliterating the names of chemical compounds. However, this in itself is another bitter medicine to take.

As daunting as it may seem, we can draw inspiration from our history and the precedence set by our pioneering lo-tsa-was, who not only translated and transported entire Buddhist thoughts from Indian languages and in the process created a whole new set of vocabulary, but were highly successful in capturing the Buddhist thoughts perfectly. We take comfort in the fact that Tibetan language is a very flexible and creative language.

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