So the other day I was translating the synopses of each episode of Ultraman Max for work. I came across one that was particularly difficult. So I decided to run it through one of those on-line translation thingies, Babelfish. The translation into English was a mess and didn’t help me at all. Among the things Babelfish got wrong was the phrase ????? (pronounced “ki ga tsuketa”). This is a common Japanese phrase meaning to wake up after having passed out. But Babelfish translated it as “the air was attached.”
The reason for this weird translation is that the word ? (ki) can, in some cases mean “air,” as in ?? (kuuki, “air”), though it has a wider meaning of “energy” particularly spiritual energy. In Chinese this character is pronounced “qi.” Some of you martial arts fans have certainly heard it in words like aikido or reiki. It’s also used in words relating to Chinese medicine. In fact, just today I saw a guy get out of a souped up lemon yellow VW bug in front of a trendy Beverly Hills clothing boutique with ? tattooed on his arm. I bet the tattoist told him it meant, like, spiritual energy, y’know. And he was probably all like, oh fer sure, that’s what I’m all about, dude, spiritual energy. The word ??? literally does mean “attached.” So the translation “the air was attached” isn’t really wrong in a sense, although it is completely mistaken. It seems the people who programmed Babelfish didn’t make it sophisticated enough to handle common set phrases like this. It’s often possible to translate something in a way that can be called correct but is still wrong.
Last weekend when I was getting ready for my Saturday Zen class I couldn’t find the Nishijima/Cross translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo chapter ?? (Shoji) or “Life and Death” (sometimes “Birth and Death”). So I went for the next best thing I could find, Kazuaki Tanahashi’s “Moon in a Dewdrop.” Although Tanahashi’s translations are pretty good — probably the next best after Nishijima/Cross — I wasn’t really happy with it and I thought I’d explain why. In a way it’s like Babelfish’s problems with the Ultraman Max story.
The first line of ?? is ??????????????????????????????????????????(shoji no naka ni hotoke areba, shoji nashi. Mata iwaku, shoji no naka ni hotoke nakereba, shoji madowazu). Except for the use of a few words no longer common in modern Japanese, this is, grammatically at least, a fairly easy phrase. Nishijima and Cross render it as,“Because in life-and-death there is buddha, there is no life and death. Again, we can say: Because in life-and-death there is no ‘buddha,’ we are not deluded in life-and-death.” The only thing they really add that’s not in the original phrase are the quote marks around the second usage of the word “buddha.” In Tanahashi’s version, this line is given as, “Because a buddha is in birth and death, there is no birth and death. It is also said, ‘Because a buddha is not in birth and death, a buddha is not deluded by birth and death’.”
The thing that bothers me about Tanahashi’s version is something very, very small — the single-letter word “a.” There are no articles or true plurals in Japanese. So when Dogen uses the word ? (hotoke) meaning Buddha, this could be translated into English as “Buddha,” “a Buddha,” “the Buddha,” or “the Buddhas.” All would be technically correct.
The difference reflects a different understanding of the meaning of the text. In the Nishijima/Cross version it is made clear that Dogen’s use of the word hotoke here is meant as the conceptual idea of Buddha, or Buddha as a description of reality. It’s very straight-forward. But Tanahashi seems to want to make it something mystical. By putting an article in front of the word he seems to want us to wonder just who this Buddha is who is in birth and death. He compounds that by saying that “a buddha is not deluded by birth and death” rather than “we are not deluded.” So this Buddha, whoever he is, has some mystical ability to avoid being deluded by birth and death like we are. In Japanese the subject is not stated, which is common, so either translation can be called correct. Possibly Tanahashi wants us to come to the understanding that this undeluded Buddha is we, ourselves. I have no problem with that idea. What I do not like is the way that meaning seems to be set in a riddle in his version while in the Nishijima/Cross version it smacks us across the face.
In Dogen’s original, we could read it either way. When he spoke this aloud to an audience, he probably made it clear which way it was to be taken. But we can never know for certain just how he said it. So the modern translator into English is left with the burden of choosing how to express the idea. All translation, even when it’s just translating the stories of Ultraman Max, is interpretation. You can’t possibly avoid it. Nishijima and Cross put Dogen’s words into English as clearly and unambiguously as possible and I like that. I’m not equating Tanahashi to Babelfish. Just that, in the same way, though his translation is technically correct, it doesn’t really work for me.
I don’t really want to get into a scholarly or linguistic debate here because they’re a waste of time and no fun. I just thought I’d give you my take on why I prefer the Nishijima/Cross translation above and beyond the fact that I know the authors.