Interpreting for Tibetan masters – Are Dharma Interpreters Professionals?

Interpreting for Tibetan masters - Part 2

Are Dharma Interpreters Professionals?

After reading the first post on this issue, it should be clear now that the answer can only be yes. It is a highly specialized profession which requires intensive training. Many interpreters look back to 10-15 years of studies. A lot of people need a long time to properly master the Tibetan language. An interpreter also needs a good knowledge of the subject matter he works with. This is often underestimated. In the case of Tibetan interpreters working with Buddhist masters, extensive Buddhist studies are required. Learning the Dharma and its terminology properly is something which takes a lot of time. Hence, a good Tibetan Dharma interpreter ideally is a highly qualified specialist. 

Nevertheless, there is indeed a big difference to a regular profession: people usually receive a salary for their job. Very often, Dharma interpreters are not paid for their work. In many groups, it is customary that they receive a little donation though. From a traditional religious perspective, this is of course fine. There is however a problem.

Why are there so few good Tibetan interpreters?

People sometimes ask me why there are so few good interpreters (or translators) for Tibetan. Is it that the language is so difficult? I don’t think so. There are also so many institutes which try to educate interpreters and translators. Why aren’t they able to produce more capable people in the end? Some seem to think that the education in these institutes is not very good. One can’t deny that there are certainly things which could be improved. Still, overall I would say that most of these institutes do quite a good job and offer a wonderful education. 

There are graduates who show great potential for becoming professional interpreters. In many cases, those who want to dedicate their lives to this profession do not find appropriate means to sustain themselves. How can one actually expect that they continue their training and work in this field for their entire life? Many begin when they are young and do it as a kind of hobby or service to their communities. But remember from the last post, we are talking about a lot of week-ends or weeks away from home in which you do not have time to earn money otherwise. 

Unless one has chosen a monastic life-style and is supported by donors, and this is rather rare in the West, everybody has to earn his living. If one has a family, it gets even more difficult. Can one really expect highly specialized professionals to offer their labor power almost for free throughout their entire life? 

An example: just recently I learned that another friend stopped working as an interpreter. I heard it from a person who lives at the Dharma center where he was active. He told me that he considered it a good decision, adding that he thought it was about time for him to find a proper profession and do something with his life. To me that sounded absurd. The friend was highly qualified. He already had a profession! He had done 12 years of extensive training, and by all standards, was excellent at what he was doing. He worked hard and interpreted almost every week-end for a Tibetan master. I think there might be something wrong with such a system.

The monetary value of interpretation

What would the normal income of a Tibetan interpreter be if he would receive fees corresponding to a normal market price? The Austrian Interpreters’  and Translators’ Asscociaton Universitas suggests an average daily rate for consecutive interpreting of 600-750 Euros for the year 2012. Given that freelancers have high taxes to pay and private insurances are very expensive, the income of a full-employed interpreter (~ 80 interpreting days / year) amounts to a normal initial salary for graduates. Since Tibetan interpreters work with a very rare language and are highly specialized, the market price should be even far higher than the one quoted above. 

Don’t get me wrong – I am not complaining about money. Presumably, none of us interpreting for Tibetan masters started to do so out of materialistic considerations. For as long as I do have another job that allows me to work as an interpreter, it is actually fine for me. The problem is that it’s neither very easy nor extremely healthy to do two jobs at the same time. Isn’t it also a very odd construction that you need to have one job in order to be able to do another job? 

If interpreting for Tibetan Lamas is a hobby, one can’t really expect interpreters to do a good job. They don’t have the time to improve their terminology or general skills. They also don’t have the time to prepare their interpretation jobs properly. They are already juggling very hard with their regular job, family and different interpretation assignments.

Importance of good interpretation

It seems as if interpreting for Tibetan masters wasn’t really something of high value. Dharma centers are naturally concerned about inviting the best possible teachers. This is of course very good. Still, allow me to ask a provocative question: what do you do with the best Tibetan teacher, if you don’t have also a good interpreter along with him or her? At the beginning of my own Buddhist studies, one of the Tibetan Khenpos told us the following joke: 

“There is a Westerner who doesn’t speak Tibetan but says that he received oral transmissions from a Tibetan Lama who doesn’t speak English.”

I agree, it is not very funny. Nevertheless, it is quite true. If you receive a teaching through an interpreter, you are not receiving the teaching directly from the teacher but from the interpreter. You will only get what the interpreter was able to understand. The whole thing stands or falls with the capacity (or incapacity) of the interpreter to properly convey what the teacher intended to say. (This information served as a strong motivation which kept me going with my Tibetan studies. I didn’t want to be dependent on interpreters.)

The other side

Dharma centers are of course not at fault. Most of them are very small, have a lot of things to organize, and sometimes have already a lot of difficulties to cover the travel expenses and basic costs of a visit. They simply can’t afford to pay market prices for interpreters. 

Still, I believe that a solution needs to be found on another level. Many of the smaller Dharma centers are organized in larger societies. It might be something that rather needs to be solved by these larger institutions and authorities. It is these who have a responsibility to create appropriate job positions. Only if there are regular jobs for interpreters, graduates of the various institutions can be attracted to work as professionals in this field.

Not only interpreters

Such a system might not only be needed for interpreters, but also for translators and Western Dharma teachers. There are hardly any larger monastic institutions in the West. The majority of Western Dharma teachers, interpreters and translators are lay practitioners. Many of them may face serious problems when they are getting old. Who is going to pay their pension if they can't continue to work or teach? What happens also with those who give up a monastic life-style when they are getting older?

Paying Dharma teachers, interpreters and translators a small salary would allow them to live from it, being able to cover basic health insurance and not having to worry about paying their rent. They could focus fully on their duties and work on improving their necessary skills. This would ensure that the Dharma is properly being taught, interpreted and translated. 

You can find the first part of this post here

1 Kommentar:

  1. My name is Mingxiu (April) Zhong , and I am a student studying an MA Degree in Interpreting at Newcastle University in the UK. As a student interpreter and Buddhist myself, I decide to focus my final dissertation on exploring the possible criteria for Dharma interpreters who interpret for Tibetan Buddhist teachers, mainly from Tibetan/Chinese into English. I am writing to see if you could be kind enough to fill in a questionnaire for me, it won't be very long; all the data gathered from the survey will be kept confidential, and used for academic study by the researcher (me) only.

    It would be greatly appreciated if you could agree to do this. Please find below the link for this questionnaire:


    I hope everything goes on well with your work and practice! Thank you very much!



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