Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

Other people in the monastery had more lofty reasons for wanting to learn Chinese. They wanted to bring the Master’s teaching to the West and translate the Buddhist canon into English. I wanted to help with those things too, but more pressing for me, I wanted to know what was so funny. Our teacher had an outrageous sense of humor, even in English, but those who understood Chinese would be laughing uproariously, and even after hearing the translation, I’d still be wondering what the joke was.

 One afternoon, I sat down with the Chinese text the Master was explaining and my brand-new Matthew’s Chinese-English Dictionary. With a month or two of Chinese 101 under my belt and a beginner’s zeal, I was determined to look up all the characters I didn’t recognize—which was most of them—before evening lecture.

 This wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Chinese is an ideographic language. Each character represents one sound or syllable, so arranging them in alphabetical order isn’t actually possible. Each character has a portion called the radical, which usually relates to its meaning. The other part has to do with pronunciation. Chinese dictionaries are organized according to these 214 radicals. Once you figure out which part is the radical, you then count how many more brush strokes it takes to write it and then—oh, never mind. Just take my word for it. It’s not easy to find a Chinese character in the dictionary.

To make it “easier” for non-native speakers to pronounce Chinese characters, two linguistic scholars, Mr. Wade and Mr. Giles, came up with a system they called “Romanization,” or writing Chinese characters using our alphabet. Let’s not get into what it had to do with the Romans. This is complicated enough already.

My Matthew’s dictionary was set up in alphabetical order using the Wade-Giles system of Romanization. Once again, this is not as helpful as it sounds. There are hundreds of characters with different meanings, all Romanized the same way, kind of like homonyms in English, except that different intonations create different meanings. Then there are those that sound almost the same, like shu and hsu. I still remember the smirk on my Chinese teacher’s face when I insisted one of the characters in the passage he’d assigned for homework was not in the dictionary.

Once you do find the character, though, hopefully the first definition will be the one you’re looking for. Unfortunately, characters are most often used in combination and then usually mean something entirely different. For example, ta tso (打坐), literally “hit the seat,” means to meditate, and ta tzu (打字), “hit the character,” means to type. All of this is more than a bit daunting for a beginner.

The first two characters in the text for that evening’s lecture were erh shih (爾時). When I finally found the character erh (爾) in my dictionary, the definition said, “you, yours.” It further elaborated, “Dr. Hu Shih explains it as the possessive or plural of address.” Clear as mud, right? The next character in the text, shih (时), means “season, time or period.”

I was sitting at a table in the dining hall, puzzling over how the text could begin with “your time,” when the Master came up behind me.

“What doing?” he asked.

Seeming to materialize out of nowhere when one was least expecting it was one of his many skills as a Buddhist Master. Sometimes it elicited a sigh of relief: rescue had arrived. At other times, it felt more like, uh-oh, busted again. People often asked the Master why he didn’t learn to use English. He usually said it was because he wanted his disciples to learn Chinese, but he actually understood English quite well. He had a unique way of speaking, though. The first time he spoke to me in English, I turned to someone for a translation.

He had a strong Chinese accent and translated his thoughts into English using Chinese sentence structure. I came to love the way it sounded. If you were helping him carry a table and he wanted you to lay it on its side, he might say, “Put it sleeping.” He said our goal in studying Buddhism was to “Go to enlightenment,” and if he wondered what you were up to, he might say, “What doing?” like he did the day I was struggling with the Chinese dictionary.

“I’m looking up the characters for tonight’s lecture,” I told him, hastily putting my palms together.

He laughed. “You find all words, still not know meaning.” He patted my head and moved on. At lecture that evening, I found out that “erh shih” means “at that time” or “when.”

Sometime later, I was doing my Chinese homework when one of the monks asked me to serve tea to the Master and his guests. Feeling honored to be entrusted with this task, I took the tray and began my ascent to the third floor. “Serve Shrfu first,” he called after me. Shrfu is what disciples call their teacher. Shr means teacher and fu means father.

When I entered the guest room, I found the Master seated at a table with two Chinese nuns. He motioned me forward with the tea. My Chinese was still rudimentary and my understanding of Chinese etiquette, let alone Buddhist monastery etiquette, was non-existent. Unfortunately, so was my awareness of that fact. I dutifully poured tea for the Master and then offered tea to the two nuns. Both of them covered their cups with their hands, shook their heads, and said, “No, thank you,” in Chinese. So, I didn’t give them any.

The Master immediately jumped in, as if averting disaster: “Ta bu dung. She doesn’t understand.”

But I did. They’d said they didn’t want any. “Wo dung,” I insisted. I do understand what they said.

The Master then picked up the teapot, poured tea in each of the nuns’ cups, and dismissed me. I was mystified, but nothing else was ever said about it. However, I was not asked to serve tea to the Master and his guests again.

Many years later, I learned that the Chinese almost always refuse food or drink when it is offered to them. According to Chinese etiquette, the host continues to insist until the person acquiesces. I have noticed that a guest usually still refuses to drink the tea until it is almost time to leave and the tea is no longer hot. I may still not have any of that right, since it would be the height of rudeness to tell me that I’d gotten it wrong.

When the Master lectured, those who knew enough Chinese took turns translating. None of us were completely fluent. The lecture was recorded on an ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder, then rewound for the translator, whose earphones were plugged into the recorder. Anyone who had earphones could plug in and listen as the lecture was being translated into English. Once I started doing this, my Chinese improved more quickly, and after a year or so, I understood most of what the Master said, even the jokes.

The Master noticed and suggested I join the translators’ rotation. A few days later, there I was, sitting below and to the right of the Master, who lectured from a raised platform called the High Seat. He leaned over toward me, smiling his thousand-watt smile: “Are you scared?”

The lecture hall was quite full and I was terrified. “Yes,” I answered in Chinese. Sweat trickled down my back, even though the unheated, mattress-factory-turned-Buddha-Hall, affectionately called “the icebox,” was quite chilly.

He smiled again: “Don’t worry. We’re all just here so you can learn.”

Still, I was nervous. Whenever it was my turn, the senior American nun assigned to help me sat, not next to me, but across the aisle, and made it quite clear she wouldn’t baby me. Sometimes I got so anxious that even when she did provide a word I didn’t know, I couldn’t hear her. I was convinced she was doing it on purpose. She suggested I get my hearing tested. I did. There was nothing wrong with my hearing.

On the days my turn went smoothly, I was elated and my confidence soared. On other days, the translator’s chair became the hot seat. Perhaps the Master quoted ancient poetry, selections from The Book of Changes, or some other classical text. He had them all memorized. It was like asking a beginning English speaker to translate Shakespeare or Chaucer. On those nights, I emerged exhausted and demoralized. I felt like a bumbling idiot, my faults clear for everyone to see. Sometimes I’d get so flustered, the Master gave up and translated for himself. He certainly didn’t need me to translate for him.

By the next summer, my Chinese had improved, but not as much as I’d thought. The Master was invited to conduct a meditation session on a farm near Reedsport, and many of us went with him. The session, held under a tent with open sides, alternated walking while reciting the Buddha’s name with silent meditation. In addition to our community, about thirty young people attended. Each afternoon and evening, the Master gave instructional talks. When my turn came to translate, I was feeling pretty special. I knew Chinese and was a translator for the Master.

He began telling a story* I knew quite well. This was going to be easy. I picked up the earphones and began to translate: “Once there was a young man who wanted to shave his head and become a monk, but the other monks wouldn’t have him because he was too stupid.”

The Master looked over at me sternly. “No, that’s not right.” He turned to one of the nuns who then retranslated. “There was a young man who wished to shave his head and become a monk,” she said. “But the other monks wouldn’t have him because he was too stupid.”

The Master smiled and nodded.

I tried again: “When they tried to teach him to recite ‘Homage to the Buddha,’ if he remembered ‘Homage,’ he forgot ‘Buddha.’ If he remembered ‘Buddha,’ he forgot ‘Homage.’”

“No, no, no. That’s not right,” the Master insisted. Again, he looked to someone else to translate.

Another translator corrected me: “They tried to teach him to recite the Buddha’s name, but if he remembered ‘Homage,’ he forgot ‘Buddha,’ and if he remembered how to recite ‘Buddha,’ he forgot how to recite ‘Homage’.”

“Yes.” The Master beamed at everyone but me.

Some say that the Master could read minds. Whether that was true or not, at this point, what was going on was as clear as if I had “Needs to be taken down a notch” written on my forehead. I had no choice but to continue. “When the monks told him he was too stupid to study with them, he appealed to the Buddha.”

“Try these two words,” the Buddha told him. “Sweep clean. Just sweep your mind clean.”

“That’s wrong,” came the Master’s voice.

Someone else translated, saying almost exactly what I said, and the Master nodded. It went on this way for what felt like forever. 

At last, I managed to translate the ending of the story without being corrected: “The monk the others had called stupid was so sincere and diligent he got enlightened very quickly, unlike the monks who had thought themselves so superior.” By this time my inflated ego had shrunk down to nothing. If there was a joke here, it was certainly on me.

When the lecture finally ended, a young novice, a buddy of mine, came over and whispered in my ear: “What did you do to deserve that?” The words the Master had spoken on the day I translated for him that first time came back to me then: “We’re all here so you can learn.”


*I actually don’t remember what the story the Master told, just that it was one I had heard many times, but this one fits the situation well.

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