April 28, 2009

Translating Ignorance or Ignorant Translation

Words should be simpler. Or the mind more advanced. That is why translation is like constructing a puzzle without any pieces. All the pieces of the puzzle are scattered in a vast jungle and you only know the picture they form because of some gossip you heard back in town. That was before you got lost in the jungle. The gossip said the puzzle showed an image of a house, but now you think to yourself: I know what a house looks like, two levels constructed of wood and brick stained a deep cedar red. What if their house is something else, maybe its cement, maybe its fiberglass, maybe it’s what I call a cave, maybe it’s a tent, maybe it’s a tree canopy, maybe it’s a cardboard box, maybe signifies the place of one’s birth, maybe…maybe…

A common English dictionary defines ‘should’ as a word “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.” It is easy enough to loose a house in translation, how is it possible to realize the significance of a word created from another cultures standards of morality, social and familial responsibility, and degree of taboos. But that’s large scale, a society size example. What happens when getting down to the individual with all his/her conditioning and understanding, an entity more or less remote from the norm yet still affected by social constraints? Then bring it back around to where I started, translating a near two-thousand year old text from a vastly different society. It is a wonder people can even communicate the most basic information when speaking the same language; throw in a handful of obscuring factors and you’re back in the jungle.

The transmission of meaning is a dirty business, never simple. And it must be utter stupidity to base our existence on what is heard, what is told to us, what is read, or what comes as “information”. But since this is largely how we live, is life not often a play of ignorance and is there not an imperative for the apprehension of the fundamental basis of that ignorance?

As for the sentence, it comes from Nagarjuna’s Middle Way Chapter 18. For the moment the translation reads like this:

If the self (soul) were the aggregates of consciousness it would arise and it would pass away.

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