Interview of Philippe Cornu, Dharma translator, writer and teacher
November 16, 2020. During the second European lockdown
Your are well-known in the French world of Tibetan Buddhism, but maybe not abroad. Could you introduce yourself?
Philippe Cornu. I have been a Buddhist, in fact, for forty years, more than forty years. I met the sixteenth Karmapa in 1978, and then Sogyal Rinpoche and Dudjom Rinpoche i1980. Soon, we were introduced also to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and other masters. So I was very quickly introduced to the most important masters of the time, but it was with Sogyal Rinpoche that I really continue, at Rigpa. But in the beginning Rigpa didn’t exist, so it was when Rigpa was founded, a year or two later.
And in 1983 I also met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, who was my second master, and I followed some of his retreats as well, at certain times, quite assiduously. So I had always several affiliations, Rigpa being my root-centre, basically.
And why is that? Sogyal Rinpoche stayed in Europe, while the other masters were just passing by?
He was frequently in Europe. And when I met Namkhai Norbu too, he was based in Italy, Sogyal Rinpoche was based in England. That’s why we had the opportunity to meet them regularly. And there were retreats: short, regular retreats in France, or in England, or in Italy.
And was it already in English? How did you begin the translation from Tibetan ? Did you have a good command of English at that time?
No. I was following… I wasn’t very good in English, so I followed as much as I could, I listened to the French translations… Namkhai Norbu, he was speaking in Italian at that time, and Italian is closer to our language [French]. And, with a bit of attention and relaxation, I was able to understand what he was saying. But there was someone to translate, of course. And then Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, after a number of years, taught in English. But let’s say that the first ten years I listened to him, it was more in Italian. Which I found very pleasant given the proximity of the two languages.
Yes, quite, it gives a Mediterranean feeling to it…
And then afterwards, but that’s after… 1992…in fact much later, 1995-1996, I also met Lopön Tenzin Namdak, one of the leaders of the Bönpo schools, but who is also a great teacher of Dzogchen. And he is a « Yongdzin », the equivalent of “His Holiness”. At the present time , he is the head of the school. So he is someone as important as Dudjom Rinpoche or Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. And he is extremely learned.
I have always looked for something different, that-is-to-say I really learned all the basics at Rigpa, but I have always looked for other masters, who were more in the scholarly approach. Because I needed it, because I am a student, I am an intellectual, and I started translation in 1985. I learned Tibetan quite early, from 1982 until 1986-87, first with lamas who were hanging around, one of whom was at Rigpa. Then I studied at Langues O [University of Oriental Languages, Inalco, Paris], but I never actually finished the diploma itself.
And then especially I worked with the help of Patrick Carré [French translator from Chinese and Tibetan]. He was really the key person to really train me in translation. Because I didn’t dare to translate much, and he encouraged me. We used to do sessions…. He happened to be living in Paris at the time, and we used to have very regular sessions. He was living with a friend in the basement, not far from where we had our little Rigpa center in Paris. This friend, Bruno, was a kind of Zen aesthete, he had a little garden below our main room, a Zen garden. And sometimes we were doing rituals, and sometimes we were throwing tormas. And he would pick up the tormas and send them back to us, saying, “You bunch of gradualists ! ”[Laughter]
Clash of worlds, it’s excellent!
It was great. And so between two courses of pasta, Patrick and I started translating together, and he corrected me on the translations. He advised me to really read a lot of Tibetan, even if I didn’t understand everything, regularly, every day, etc. Which I did.
And after a while, I started translating sadhanas for Rigpa, and also some texts for the Dzogchen Community, but it was always more difficult with the Dzogchen Community, because since none of the Italians spoke French, I would have had to do the translation into French, then to make it translate back into Italian, or into English, so that they could check. So it was a bit… “bureaucratic”. At one point I just let it go, it was a bit frustrating to work like that. At Rigpa, on the other hand, I translated a lot of practices, most of them.
And was it done spontaneously, naturally, or was it a request at one point, from Sogyal Rinpoche?
It was a bit… crossover.
It was set up by itself…
Exactly. I trained in a way, on texts either of ngöndro or sadhanas, things like that. Or short texts. But I’ve also worked on my side on texts from Mipham and so on. And after, I did a translation into French of the Ye shes bLa ma, which was used a little bit at Rigpa, for a while, when there was talk of teachings on the Ye shes bLa ma. Recently, it was really used by Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche and her French group. And I even published, I made about a hundred copies for his students. I’m happy about that, because it’s a translation that I’ve put in the closet for years, and it’s being used now. Of course, I corrected and re-worked on the translation. A translation always has to be re-worked.
Why does it need to be re-worked?
You have to know that there is no definitive translation. That’s the first thing about translation. It’s a job of humility, because if you are translator and you feel that you are an elite because there aren’t many of us doing translation, it’s a danger, because you very quickly become a translator with a big ego issue. And on top of that, you always find that there are flaws in other people’s translations.
And since the translation from Tibetan, unfortunately, reflects the posture of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, that-is-to-say parochialism : a lot of groups that don’t communicate with each other, with translators who are at the service of one certain Lama, and who often translate only the things they are given to translate (officially at least), and with a terminology that reflects the posture of the Lama. The situation is that there is no coordination between all those groups. This is very damaging to the establishment posture of Tibetan Dharma in the West. Because it is « every man for himself ». And it actually reflects the attitude of many Lamas who are in such posture of « every man for himself ».
So they didn’t understand that what they had benefited from in Tibet was the establishment of teams of translators, obviously with the imperial support. The monasteries were patronized, and so on. This system made it possible to do this remarkable work of systematic translation.
Whereas here in Europe, everything is done in the greatest disorder : there are texts that are translated ten times differently in different Dharma centers, while other much more important texts are still not translated. Now, for example, the Uttaratantraśāstra, that’s it… we have five or six translations in French. So it’s always good to have several translations, but… alongside there are other texts that are not translated. For example, the sutras…
Well…fortunately Marc Agate translated the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra and the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanādasūtra, which are sutras at the origin of the commentary that is the Uttaratantraśāstra on the nature of Buddha. But many texts that are ancient root texts are not translated. There are some changes, but unfortunately only in English, in the Anglo-Saxon field, by the 84000, the initiative of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
But otherwise, even at the Anglo-Saxon level, there is also parochialism, people have translated in their own corner. I have always regretted that. And at the French level, what I have seen is that, indeed, this situation encourages this kind of narcissism from the translator, whereas there is a lot of work to be done, and we need to train more people: because the more people who know Tibetan, the less the egos will swell, and the more collaborative work can be done. And that’s what I think is most important.
So would you say that “collaboration” is the most important ? This is actually, in the traditional way, « teamwork » ? Because that’s what they were already doing in the 8th century, isn’t it?
Teamwork and especially reflection on vocabulary. It is important not to depend on the Lamas, except for the explanation of terms, obviously. But not to depend on the Lamas for the translation of terms. Because it is not their language, and we know very well that in our languages, there are a lot of traps.
Yes for example, there is the translation of “puṇya” which is a textbook case. The translation by “mérite » is the only one we have in French, but it is not adapted to our context. And yet it is the only one we have had for a long time.
I translate “bienfait”, sometimes it works well. The vocabulary, I think that will be an other part of our interview.
Yes, absolutely, we can come back to it. But then, what would you say ? Is there a need to bring about a kind of “Council of Translators”, a French-speaking one, to exchange views? Making a Tibetan-Sanskrit-French Mahāvyutpatti?
Yes… If we really want to work seriously at some point, we will have to do it. Because if not, it is the practitioners and the students who suffer.
Yes, You were telling me once: « we have to re-translate the translations », in what we have heard from the other oral lineage… because we are from another oral lineage, and so forth….
And that’s damaging, it’s a lot of energy, a lot of fatigue, which could be avoided if there was a little more centralization of translation.
And for that to happen, translators must be able to accept that their translation is not necessarily the best, which means a work… uh… So, what I would reproach in the field of translation as well, is that the Lamas don’t take care of it. Very little. It’s very recent that Dzongsar Khyentse does something. But again, this is only a matter for the Anglo-Saxon field. And there, I think they missed something important for the transmission. So it’s up to us to take ourselves in hand, since it was not done by the Tibetan masters themselves.
Well, that’s the whole problem of acculturation. We see it in China, it is the Chinese translators who went to India and came back, both with an intellectual background and with a certain level of accomplishment, we know that for Kumārajīva at least, he was someone who had an accomplishment. But are we capable of doing that in the West?
For China, it was even more complicated because we were going from an Indo-European language to a non-Indo-European language. And besides, most translators, it must be admitted, except perhaps Xuanzang as a great late translator, were often people who were not even Chinese, they were people from the Silk Road. They were Indo-Scythians, they were Kucheans… And in fact, they were the ones who really did the great work of translation. Kumārajīva was Kuchean, it was not Chinese.
But it’s also true that the final translations sometimes took three, four, five centuries to be chosen and definitively established, as the original text that everyone used afterwards.
On this aspect of acculturation and the setting up of canons, models of thought, we see it on Kumārajīva, for example, when he translates “araṇyavāsa”, which means “place of retreat in the forest”, something like that. And in fact Kumārajīva doesn’t translate that at all, and translates a sort of equivalent of the Russian “dacha”, “second home”, “country house”, into Chinese “empty leisure place” literally. And in fact this is not an invention of Kumārajīva, it comes from another translator, one or two centuries before, I don’t remember the name… Zhi Qian, and Kumārajīva is just going to keep this, because it was appealing to the Chinese aristocracy, and it fit into a cultural context, where it was feasible. And that is where we have to ask ourselves, I think, for us: what do we do with this kind of stuff? For example, do we still have forests in France and in Europe?
There are also, indeed, aspects of adaptation. And there is also one thing, and that is that most translators have been “trained-on-the-job”. Some of them learned Tibetan at university, or something like that, but they became translators just by doing it. And it is very recent that there are institutes like the Rangjung Yeshe Insitute, and so forth, really propose a training program.
But there is a huge lack of hermeneutics lessons. And as long as translators don’t learn the basic rules of hermeneutics, there will be translation problems. How to interpret a text? A text which has a distance, towards us, first of all cultural, and then in time. It addresses a lot of problems. Because the purpose of a text written in the 8th century in a Tibetan context might not meet our expectations in the 21st century in the West.
What major projects have you worked on? What are the major text cycles that have shaped you? What is your work?
I was very interested first of all in small texts by Mipham, some Dzogchen tantras, and especially in Longchenpa. So it was the translation of texts by Longchen Rabjam that was my first in-depth work. I published La Liberté Naturelle de l’Esprit in Le Seuil editor, around 1994. It is the whole Rang grol sKor gsum, the Trilogy of Natural Freedom. It is the root texts, with the corresponding don khrid, the whole cycle. That was really the first thing I did.
Then I did the rDor je sems pas snying gi me long, the Vajrasattva’s Mirror of Heart, which is one of the seventeen tantras of Dzogchen. I dared! But I also asked for permission to publish it, which was given to me by both Sogyal Rinpoche and Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. Although some people have criticised the fact that I publish this kind of work…because there are always a few fundamentalists hanging around… I did it anyway, and I think it was useful, because actually a lot of people have read those two, Natural Freedom of the Mind and then the Mirror of Heart, and then it inspired them a lot to get on the path.
I’ve read the Mirror of the Heart in Ladakh, in Lama Yuru, you know the little town where the Naropa cave is… I read it there. So, thank you! [Laughter].
And then when you translate this kind of text, you are really carried away… So, somehow, the translator is a little bit overwhelmed by the context and the translation. When I read again those books sometimes, I don’t have the impression that I am the one who translated them…you see… What I often do when I translate a text, even today, sometimes slightly complex texts, for example, some bönpos of the Dzogchen, I translate a little on automatic pilot, without understanding too much at the time I do it, I let it rest a little, and when I proofread it, it has a coherence. Then, obviously, afterwards, I correct it all over again, if there is a need to re-adjust, to re-correct. But it is amazing. These textes, I would say, almost have a performative aspect, if you’re a practitioner at least! That is to say, in my opinion, a translator must also be a practitioner of what he translates, or have a deep knowledge of it.
Since we are in this: what I think is: “translating words is not enough”.
That-is-to-say, there is an aspect of experience behind it; and it is the relationship between the word and the experience that will determine the rendering in the target language.
Yes, yes. So I also translated Mahayana treatises, and then sutras. So the biggest sutra I have translated, which is still a major sutra, is Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra…
Yes, Le Dévoilement du Sens Profond [The Unveiling of the Deep Sense]…
It was no small matter, because there were problems even in the Tibetan text that was translated in the 8th century.
Who did it?
I don’t know anymore, you would have to look at the colophon! Tchokro Lüi Gyaltsen. This is really the first period of translation, and you can see that they had problems with translation themselves. We have the impression that the translators are perfect: Bairotsana was perfect, Kawa Peltsek… – but in fact, no! At times, they also stumbled.
Do you see for example copy and paste from Sanskrit into Tibetan, things like that, that translators sometimes notice?
Well, sometimes you see things that are relatively obscure in Tibetan, because there was actually some obscurity in the translation. That can happen. Well, the main texts that are used a lot, for sure there is no obscurity in itself.
But on the other hand, the way of translating is important. For the sutras, for example, when I translated the Diamond Sutra… In fact, I did it in collaboration with Patrick Carré, who was my collection director, because we did that at Fayard [French publisher]. He was the collection director at Fayard for the collection « Trésors du Bouddhisme »: it lasted a few years, he and several other translators and myself, we still published a dozen or fifteen texts. Unfortunately Fayard stopped because it was not profitable enough, obviously, for Fayard’s shareholders.
For the Diamond Sutra, there were already a lot of translations: some made from Sanskrit, others from Chinese, they were all unsatisfactory to our taste. Because there was a problem of vocabulary, of the use of vocabulary. And as it is a sutra that is still quite repetitive, with very paradoxical formulas, you have to give them back a meaning anyway. The paradox has to hit the nail on the head. And we didn’t think it hit the nail on the head.
Yes, it is difficult. I remember: “We call it transcendent because it is not transcendent, that’s why we call it transcendent. ” Things like that to render…
There you go… And so, we really tried to make something impactful.
How did you work? How do you work on that in terms of style? For example, do you recite out loud, or is it natural…?
No, at the level of the text, I was trying to translate more or less, I was also looking a little bit at the translations that had been done before, but I was mainly looking at the Tibetan, strictly speaking, to really see the articulation of the ideas. And then, once I had made my « homework » so to speak, I would send the chapter, for example, to Patrick, who was very critical of me, and I would rework the text, again, when he came back with his remarks.
And that is how you make progress. It is by working together, and with someone who has experience behind him and who is really able to push, so that we can be the best, the best we can be. And I think that is very important. Because right now…in fact, it is something that strikes me in students in general, because as a university professor I see it, it is that the current generations are not reading their homework back to correct it. So for a translation work, it is ten times worse. Because already in a text, in a text essay, if you don’t read it back, it is automatically full of defects, errors and spelling mistakes…and that is quite a problem at an academic level. But before a translation can be delivered truly in its final state…it is a bit like a sculpture that needs to be refined. And then, once it is done and published, five years later when you look at it, you want to change things. And the vocabulary you use will evolve.
And have you had the opportunity, « editorially speaking », to change texts back and republish them, like Patrick Carré did for his translation of the Vimalakirti, for example?
Maybe not in the publishing business, but for texts that I did for Dharma centers: for example, the Ye shes bLa ma, I did it for the 1992 Rigpa retreat, so it was used for the preliminaries, it was used for the teaching of khregs gcod a little bit, but not for thod gal, which was not covered in that retreat. And on the other hand, when two years ago, a student, a disciple of Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, informed me of Khandro Rinpoche’s wish to have a French translation, I explained to her that I had made it, I revised everything from top to bottom, before making a small book for his students. And Khandro Rinpoche was also able to verify that my translation was quite accurate. That’s it. Well, I haven’t had any remarks about any errors so far.
And you’ve had this from masters sometimes? Who would say to you: “No ! That’s not a match at all”?
In general, they don’t look at the translations. That is also a problem. They don’t bother to really check the translations in detail. Maybe because it is the target language and they are in the source language. Of course, one is always stronger in version than in theme. And then, when a Lama translates a text, it is usually not very accurate… with all due respect ! They have the meaning, they have the understanding, but they do not necessarily have the rendering in the target language. So it is really up to us to work.
But obviously, what is desirable is to have a collaboration with a Lama, who takes the time to answer questions, to explain difficult terms or obscure passages in a text that we are translating. It is not always easy to find a master who is available for that. It is not easy at all.
That’s where you have to find the ancient method of really having a master available for translation, as they used to do: an Indian master with a Tibetan translator.
Exactly. In the last fifteen years, notably with Lopon Tenzin Namdak’s team, with Khenpo Tenpa Yongdrung for example, each time I went to meet him to ask questions he answered me. But I myself had to do the effort to go and meet him to really check the difficult points, the obscure parts. Because I translated the entire cycle called zhang zhung snyan rgyud, which is the oldest cycle of Dzogchen and the most valued in the Bönpo school, and there were times when I really had to check a lot of things. I also checked some things at the beginning with Lopon Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche himself, who is a very, very great scholar. But his Khenpo has an extremely strong scholarship too. And there, when you are lucky enough to have those interlocutors, the work becomes more interesting too: because you learn too. Whereas when you are alone in front of your work, with the Tibetan text and its obscure parts, and when you can’t reach your friend, who himself is struggling with some translations, and sometimes, even when he is reached, he has no light on the problem that arises, well, you feel very alone. So yes, it is the translator’s loneliness…hence the importance of being able to work in a team if possible.