Interpreting for Tibetan masters – a profession like any other?

“Interpreting for Tibetan masters“ – a profession?

Some people might be puzzled about the use of the term "profession" when reading this. Of course, working closely together with a high Lama or Rinpoche is not a job, they will say. “It’s a blessing. How can you even equate this to an ordinary mundane work or job?”

This is indeed true. For the most part, it is very inspiring to spend time with Buddhist masters, helping them to promote their teachings. On the other hand, for those who do this on a regular basis, it has some features which are quite similar to a normal job. Interpreting for a Tibetan master for example goes along with a lot of duties, tasks and responsibilities.

Interpreting is time-consuming

Much like a regular job, it is also very time-consuming. If you interpret 15 to 20 weekend courses a year, this will amount to approximately 40 full interpreting days. According to information on the website of the AIIC, this corresponds to 50% of a conference interpreter’s yearly workload.

Interpreting needs preparation

In addition to actual interpretation work, a Tibetan interpreter also has to prepare for his or her engagement. Being invited to interpret at a Dharma course, one is very often also involved in the preparation of the course. There is quite a lot that needs to be done beforehand. If you live in a center, you are anyway involved. Even if not, you may still have to help with the communication between teacher and Buddhist community, for example determining the teaching’s topic, its exact title, content and program.

Ideally, you also prepare before coming to a course. Tibetan teachers have a great repertoire with a large range of subjects. Each field has its own terminology which you may need to learn or repeat beforehand. Just think about H.H. the Dalai Lama. He often speaks about Western science and uses associated Tibetan terminology. These terms are often even unknown to a majority of Tibetans. You really can’t afford to show up at a course with no clue about the subject. 

Occasionally, there are no (or no good) translations of a needed text available and the interpreter might be requested to provide English translations for the participants. Depending on the length of the text, this involves an enormous additional amount of time. The translation project 84000–Translating the Words of the Buddha has estimated that an average translator needs 12,5 hours to translate a Tibetan text page (pecha). (For more details see here)
People often think that interpreting for one specific Tibetan master means you will also have no difficulty to interpret for any other Tibetan Lama. In fact, Tibetan language is very diverse. There are many different dialects, and some of them are very difficult to understand even for Tibetans. If you have never worked with a teacher before, it is advisable that you listen to available audio records in order to accustom yourself with his pronunciation. Very often interpreters prefer to work closely with one and the same Tibetan teacher over longer periods of time.

When you are there

Photo: www.zentrum-jaegerndorf.de (2005)
People will expect you to appear on time, mostly even a day or two earlier. When people attend Dharma teachings, they want that everything works out fine. Once you are there, you therefore need to function properly. The audience depends on you. If you are afraid to talk in front of people, interpreting for Tibetan masters is nothing for you. The teaching of the master is the middle of the attention and so is your interpretation. In case the teacher will talk for three hours without break, you will also interpret for three hours. But while a lot of people will doze off during long teaching sessions, you can’t. You will have to be alert and do your best at all times.

Endless teachings

If an almost endless teaching session finally ends, everyone is exhausted and looks forward to the well-deserved break - the interpreter not necessarily so. Breaks are a perfect time for participants to engage in discussions with the teacher. They are sometimes about the teachings, individual practice, private problems or completely unrelated things. Very often, this type of informal Dharma conversation continues also during meal-times. While the interpreter tries to eat something, he is often also expected to accurately interpret the table-conversation. 

Most Lamas are very patient and all day-long attend to each and every demand that is brought forward. They will not hesitate to go beyond the limits of their own physical capacity. While it is certainly exhausting for the Lama, it is even more so for the interpreter. While the Lama can relax a little bit as soon as the interpreter starts to speak, the interpreter has to be highly concentrated all the time.

Professional interpreters’ working time

Interpreters who work for business companies are actually in a much better position than Dharma interpreters. If you hire a freelance interpreter in Europe, the contract will probably limit daily workload to a maximum of 6-7 hours. Personally, I can hardly remember a Buddhist course with less than 7 hours of interpreting a day. The reality for Dharma interpreters probably lies somewhere between 8 to 10 hours. With many masters, it might even be quite a little bit more. Of course, as a Tibetan interpreter you presumably have a strong interest in the Buddhist teachings. Even though it can fell like hard work at times, you still very much enjoy what you do.

Is there a difference between interpretation and translation

Many people do believe that interpretation and translation is the same thing. Some interpreters do also work as translators. The two activities nevertheless involve very different skills and require individual training. While a translator can reread a sentence twice or more, an interpreter has to get it right on the spot. He or she needs to be capable to listen attentively to all that is being said, to mentally process and structure it, and immediately find the right words to communicate it to an audience without the help of any dictionary. He or she needs to depend on split-second decisions. A good interpreter has to properly grasp the intention of the speaker, and convey his message accordingly. This requires a lot of experience and training.
In short, interpretation is a real time oral translation that facilitates the communication between two groups which do not share the same language. In the particular case of interpreting Tibetan Buddhist lectures, it also involves a great deal of cultural translation, i.e. mediating between two parties with a very different cultural background.

Are Dharma interpreters professionals? How much value does their work actually have?

This and other related issues will be discussed in another post in the very near future.

Find the second part of this article here.

You can also find a German version of this article here.

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