Translating Dōgen.

Via Matt at No-sword, a wonderful essay by Carl Bielefeldt called “Translating Dōgen: Thoughts on the Soto Zen Text Project” (paper delivered to the conference The Many Faces of Dogen, Mt. Tremper, July 8-11, 2004). As Matt says: “This is not one of those essays about how translation is really hard, man, with a few challenging lexemes thrown in as examples.” Bielefeldt takes a passage from Dōgen‘s 13th-century Shōbōgenzō (which he’s been working on for years — he says charmingly “Frankly, speaking as one of the translators, I don’t think our translations will be better than the best of what we’ve got already”), provides a smooth, easy-reading version (“The ocean seal samādhi is what is actually happening all around us; it is our own expression of what is actually happening…”) and quotes a previously published one he calls “actually more difficult to understand than the original” (“This samādhi is actualization and attainment of the Way. When we are sleeping at night and grope for the pillow there is no thought of discrimination…”), and then gives us the translation he had just sent off to Dharma Eye, “the Sōtō Zen journal that has been including one of our pieces in each issue.” Here’s the paragraph in full:

Samādhi is the actual present; it is a saying. It is “the night” when “the hand gropes for the pillow behind.”(1) The groping for a pillow like this of “the hand groping for the pillow behind” in the night is not merely “hundreds of millions of tens of thousands of kalpas”; it is “in the ocean, I always preached only the Lotus Sūtra of the Wondrous Dharma.”(2) Because “they don’t state, ‘I arise,’” “I am in the ocean.”(3) The former face is the “I always preached” of “the slightest motion of a single wave, and ten thousand waves follow”; the latter face is the Lotus Sūtra of the Wondrous Dharma of “the slightest motion of ten thousand waves, and a single wave follows.”(4) Whether we wind up or let out “a line of a thousand feet” or ten thousand feet, what we regret is that it “goes straight down.” The former face and latter face here are “I am on the face of the ocean.” They are like saying “the former head” and “the latter head.” The former head and the latter head are “putting a head on top on your head.”(5)

And here’s the first footnote:

1. Allusion to a dialogue between Yunyan Tansheng (780?-841) and fellow disciple Daowu Yuanzhi (769-835) regarding the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who in one form is represented as having a thousand arms with an eye in the palm of each hand. “Yunyan asked Daowu, ‘How does the bodhisattva of great compassion use so many hands and eyes?’ Wu said, ‘Like a person searching behind him for his pillow in the night.’”

The rest of the footnotes and the original Japanese text are at the link, along with much interesting discussion of the problems involved in translating such a difficult and allusive text; he ends:

We tend to treat Dōgen as a wise Zen master, not a wise guy, as a master of Zen, not a Japanese student of Chinese language. But the fact is, Dōgen is also an outsider, an eccentric. His Zen is different from that of both his Chinese and Japanese contemporaries. His Shōbōgenzō is a different kind of book from other texts of his time, a genre almost sui generis. And his use of language in the Shōbōgenzō is different from other authors, very odd and very self-consciously odd. How are we to understand this book and its language? How are we to understand the author’s view of his book and the language in which he chose to write it? How are we to understand the author, his book, and his language as Zen?

Translations like those of the Sōtō Zen Text Project that seek to preserve something of Dōgen’s language may not be the sort you want on your night stand; but, if they can serve not just to help other translators or scholars do their work but to get us thinking about big questions such as these, then I’ll be happy enough with our efforts.

I can understand how people can be put off by this kind of heavily annotated text, but for myself, it is exactly the sort I want on my night stand; I have no interest in somebody’s attempt to assimilate a difficult text to my presumed (low) level of attention and (limited) set of cultural references. I want the whole catastrophe or nothing.


  1. Derrida is nodding at the part about “getting it” only when it’s too late to “get it.”

Speak Your Mind