19 Ways of Looking at Milarepa

November 19, 2018 | American Academy of Religion, Denver

Translation is a multivalent process. A translation is a reading, an interpretation, an argument about the text, its author, its time and place, and about its reception in the new spaces the translator imagines herself to be placing the text. A close reading of all available translations of a given verse, for instance, reveals, potentially, as many imagined authors, times, places, doctrines, and world systems breathing life into the text as there are translations. This roundtable panel takes its inspiration from the epitome of such work: Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Asphodel Press, 1987), a slim book that provocatively comments on nineteen translations of four lines of Chinese Buddhist nature poetry. Through a close reading of multiple English renderings, Weinberger and Paz elicit the ways in which, “a translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of a poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life. As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different—not merely another—reading” (43).

In this roundtable, our task is to similarly reflect on a few lines of verse attributed to Milarepa, Tibet’s earliest and most famous Buddhist poet. We ask, how might an English translation evoke emotional responses, or reflect comparable religious aspirations attributed to the Tibetan source? How do choices about the tone and timbre of a translation—reflected by word order, meter, rhyme scheme—alter a poem’s religious meaning, or transform its efficacy as a vehicle for religious transmission? To what degree can we consider the poems ascribed to a Buddhist teacher, in Tibetan or English, to be Buddhist? If translation is “a reimagining of a poem,” the roundtable participants seek to illuminate how the translation of Tibetan Buddhist poetry entails reimagining the very nature of religious expression itself. This becomes especially acute in literature where environment, feeling, experience, doctrine, and ethics are so concisely bound together in a single discourse. How do we make sense of this synthesis in Tibetan religious poetry, and how does translation work within this process of making sense?

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