A Translation Experiment

About five years ago I had an idea for an experiment.  As I conceived it, the experiment required organizing a group of translators, half of who would be native English speakers and the other half would be native Mandarin speakers.  The raw material used in the experiment would be a poem, originally composed in either English or Chinese, but preferably one that was previously unknown to members of the group.  The poem would be passed from one translator to the next, in assembly line fashion, going through successive iterations in English and Chinese respectively; each translator would only have reference to the immediately preceding foreign language version, and not to the full antecedent chain.  Once the cycle was complete, the first English iteration would be compared to the last, and the same would be done with the first and last Chinese versions, in order to assess the semantic drift that occurred in the course of passing the poem back and forth across the language and cultural divide.

Of course, the same experiment could be conducted using any two languages, or more than two for that matter.  But English and Chinese would seem to provide a particularly fertile ground for experimentation, given the fundamental differences between the languages and cultures.  Whereas a good number of academic theorists claim it’s impossible to undertake a true or complete translation of any poem, given the inevitable loss of meaning when passing across the language divide, my hypothesis in conceiving this experiment was just the opposite – namely that just as much meaning could be discovered as lost over the course of successive rounds of translation.  Perhaps a good poem could be made even better.

Although I found a few friends who were interested in participating, I never succeeded in getting the experiment off the ground.  I’d still like to try one day, except that other business always seems to intervene.  In any event, imagine my surprise and pleasure when I discovered that this very experiment had, in fact, already been conducted more than a millennium ago and the results had proved a resounding success.  In fact this was the very method of composition that had been used to produce one of the loveliest and most often recited poems of all time – The Heart Sutra – a foundational text of Chan and Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Xuanzang - poet and pilgrimThe Heart Sutra is most familiar to us in English as it has been translated from Sanskrit in the last generation or two.  But according to the most recent scholarship by Jan Nattier, the Heart Sutra, as we presently know it, originated in China in the 7th century, most likely as the handiwork of Xuanzang, the great Tang pilgrim and monk.   As further elaborated in legend, this is the very Sutra that Xuanzang chanted in the course of his journey from China to India and back again, in order to ward off the myriad evil spirits and dangers.

So the Sutra passed back and forth, across the Himalayas, just like Xuanzang himself, undergoing whatever changes along the way.  If as Nattier proposes, the Sutra was first composed in China, the Chinese version itself was based on a distillation and translation of older Sanskrit texts, and then in turn Xuanzang’s Chinese rendition (the first to be entitled as The Heart Sutra) was retranslated back into Sanskrit to be incorporated once again into the Mahāyāna canon.  

Now here I present the modern day fruit of this fourteen-hundred-year-old experiment.  This is my translation of the Heart Sutra by Xuanzang.  In many respects, this rendition closely tracks other readily available versions, including English translations from the Sanskrit text.  One notable exception is the way I have translated the Chinese phrase 舍利子 (pronounced shlzi), which appears in two places in the Sutra.  This phrase is almost always understood as a reference to Sariputra – one of Buddha’s closest disciples.  Instead I prefer to translate this phrase as meaning Ashes and Dust.   This is a permitted and not uncommon secondary meaning for these words in Chinese – the funerary remains after cremation -- and I much prefer the way this sounds and scans, as part of the overall poem.

And this points to what is perhaps the major difference in the approach I’ve taken with this new translation.  My primary intention is to try and capture the beautiful sound and rhythm of Xuanzang’s original.  For those of you who can’t enjoy it yourselves – you must take my word for it – the Heart Sutra in Chinese has a wonderful sound, filled with liturgical repetition, like the great psalms of the Bible and suras of the Quran.  No doubt this at least partially explains the Sutra's enduring popularity.  Whatever liberties I have taken with the text are in the interest of conveying this poetic quality.

The Heart Sutra

The Bodhisattva Guan Yin 
While meditating upon
The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

Saw clearly
How the Five Bundles
Each and every one of them
Is completely Empty

Everything passes
All suffering
And distress
It’s nothing but
Ashes and dust

Form is
No different
Than Emptiness

Emptiness is
No different
Than Form

Form is identical to Emptiness
Emptiness is identical to Form

Willfulness and
Are all the same too
Nothing more than
Ashes and dust

All the teachings
Of Buddha are Empty too
Unborn and undying
Unblemished and impure
Neither increasing
Nor diminishing

In the midst of Emptiness
There is no Form
Nor is there feeling
Sense perception
Volition nor

Without eye ear nose
Tongue finger or mind

Without shape sound smell
Taste texture or learning

Without the visible realm
Without even unconscious thought

Without delusion and also
Subject to delusion without end

And even without age and death
But also subject to age and death
Without end

Without the Four Noble Truths

Without wisdom and also
Without means to attain wisdom
As no such thing is attainable

The Bodhisattvas all relied
On the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra
Fixed in the their hearts
Without hindrance
Without obstruction
Without fear
Far from confusion
And illusion
In the end
To attain Nirvana

Indeed the Buddhas
Of all Three Realms
Depended on the
Perfection of Wisdom
Sutra to attain
Supreme Enlightenment
For all Eternity

The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra
It is the holiest mantra
The clearest mantra
There is none higher
A mantra unequalled
The mantra to end all suffering
Truly without a false syllable
In the entire chant

The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra
Chant it thus

Bodhi svaha

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度一切苦厄 舍利子



亦復如是 舍利子


無無明 亦無無明盡 乃至
無老死 亦無老死盡
無智亦無得 以

菩提薩埵 依
般若波羅蜜多故 心

故 得阿



If you are interested in pursuing this experiment further, here is a link to the translation of the Heart Sutra from the Sanskrit text by Edward Conze.  Click here for the Conze translation.  This was one of the first versions of the Sutra in English and it remains one of the most widely available to this day. 

No doubt, the strong similarities between the various translations of the Sutra - whether from an original Chinese or Sanskrit text - can be explained as a result of the easy reference any translator has to a well developed set of beliefs and religious doctrine. Whether phrased as the Five Skandas or Five Aggregates or the Five Bundles, a translator has a pretty clear idea about the intended meaning of the source document. 

Of course, this shared belief system is not always available when translating poetry.  So I remain very interested in conducting further translation experiments.  As I mentioned at the outset, such an experiment might be particularly interesting in the case where none of the participating translators has any prior familiarity with the original poem.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any interest in participating.   

Thanks and best regards, in the Tang Spirit --

Joe Lamport (formerly known as Lan Hua)  
July 2013

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The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Joe Lamport and Steve Zhang. Our goal is to help preserve and promote the spirit of Tang poetry. Whether you are new to Tang poetry or already an enthusiast, a student of Chinese or a lover of poetry, we hope you'll visit our site and find something of interest there.