Thursday, November 02, 2006


So the other day I was translating the synopses of each episode of Ultraman Max for work. I came across one that was particularly difficult. So I decided to run it through one of those on-line translation thingies, Babelfish. The translation into English was a mess and didn’t help me at all. Among the things Babelfish got wrong was the phrase 気がつけた (pronounced “ki ga tsuketa”). This is a common Japanese phrase meaning to wake up after having passed out. But Babelfish translated it as “the air was attached.”

The reason for this weird translation is that the word 気 (ki) can, in some cases mean “air,” as in 空気 (kuuki, "air"), though it has a wider meaning of “energy” particularly spiritual energy. In Chinese this character is pronounced “qi.” Some of you martial arts fans have certainly heard it in words like aikido or reiki. It's also used in words relating to Chinese medicine. In fact, just today I saw a guy get out of a souped up lemon yellow VW bug in front of a trendy Beverly Hills clothing boutique with 気 tattooed on his arm. I bet the tattoist told him it meant, like, spiritual energy, y'know. And he was probably all like, oh fer sure, that's what I'm all about, dude, spiritual energy. The word つけた literally does mean “attached.” So the translation “the air was attached” isn’t really wrong in a sense, although it is completely mistaken. It seems the people who programmed Babelfish didn’t make it sophisticated enough to handle common set phrases like this. It's often possible to translate something in a way that can be called correct but is still wrong.

Last weekend when I was getting ready for my Saturday Zen class I couldn’t find the Nishijima/Cross translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo chapter 生死 (Shoji) or “Life and Death” (sometimes “Birth and Death”). So I went for the next best thing I could find, Kazuaki Tanahashi’s “Moon in a Dewdrop.” Although Tanahashi’s translations are pretty good — probably the next best after Nishijima/Cross — I wasn’t really happy with it and I thought I’d explain why. In a way it's like Babelfish's problems with the Ultraman Max story.

The first line of 生死 is 生死のなかに仏あれば、生死なし。またいはく、生死のなかに仏なければ、生死にまどはず。(shoji no naka ni hotoke areba, shoji nashi. Mata iwaku, shoji no naka ni hotoke nakereba, shoji madowazu). Except for the use of a few words no longer common in modern Japanese, this is, grammatically at least, a fairly easy phrase. Nishijima and Cross render it as,“Because in life-and-death there is buddha, there is no life and death. Again, we can say: Because in life-and-death there is no ‘buddha,’ we are not deluded in life-and-death.” The only thing they really add that’s not in the original phrase are the quote marks around the second usage of the word “buddha." In Tanahashi’s version, this line is given as, “Because a buddha is in birth and death, there is no birth and death. It is also said, ‘Because a buddha is not in birth and death, a buddha is not deluded by birth and death'.”

The thing that bothers me about Tanahashi’s version is something very, very small — the single-letter word “a.” There are no articles or true plurals in Japanese. So when Dogen uses the word 仏 (hotoke) meaning Buddha, this could be translated into English as “Buddha,” “a Buddha,” “the Buddha,” or “the Buddhas.” All would be technically correct.

The difference reflects a different understanding of the meaning of the text. In the Nishijima/Cross version it is made clear that Dogen’s use of the word hotoke here is meant as the conceptual idea of Buddha, or Buddha as a description of reality. It’s very straight-forward. But Tanahashi seems to want to make it something mystical. By putting an article in front of the word he seems to want us to wonder just who this Buddha is who is in birth and death. He compounds that by saying that "a buddha is not deluded by birth and death" rather than "we are not deluded." So this Buddha, whoever he is, has some mystical ability to avoid being deluded by birth and death like we are. In Japanese the subject is not stated, which is common, so either translation can be called correct. Possibly Tanahashi wants us to come to the understanding that this undeluded Buddha is we, ourselves. I have no problem with that idea. What I do not like is the way that meaning seems to be set in a riddle in his version while in the Nishijima/Cross version it smacks us across the face.

In Dogen's original, we could read it either way. When he spoke this aloud to an audience, he probably made it clear which way it was to be taken. But we can never know for certain just how he said it. So the modern translator into English is left with the burden of choosing how to express the idea. All translation, even when it's just translating the stories of Ultraman Max, is interpretation. You can't possibly avoid it. Nishijima and Cross put Dogen's words into English as clearly and unambiguously as possible and I like that. I'm not equating Tanahashi to Babelfish. Just that, in the same way, though his translation is technically correct, it doesn't really work for me.

I don’t really want to get into a scholarly or linguistic debate here because they’re a waste of time and no fun. I just thought I’d give you my take on why I prefer the Nishijima/Cross translation above and beyond the fact that I know the authors.


PA said...

Wierd - I just bought Book 1!
Little did I know, I'll need the other 3 volumes to get enlightened :-(
Amazing to have translated such a complex piece of work...hats off to Cross/Nishijima!

Lone Wolf said...

I thumbed through Book 1 and 2 at the Yellow Springs Dharma Center in Ohio. Many parts seemed quite difficult to understand(though I was just thumbing through it). But with the new Sit Down Shut UP commentary on the Shobogenzo, I figure I will be able to understand a little more.

I am asking for my own 4 volume set of Shobogenzo (Nishijima/Cross) for Christmas.

Lone Wolf said...

Brad- Didn't the controversial director Takashi Miike direct an episode of Ultraman Max?

Dan said...

this is pure genius

and so's this

and this


Dan said...

ooops wrong post!

Anonymous said...

No, no, definitely the right post!

Here's one more (the live shows blow
away any MTV videos):

The Great Curve

(They achieved immortality when
Adrian Belew was in their line-up ;)

Matt said...

Fun with Babelfish:

lowercase lifestyle--embrace the random xiii

Anonymous said...

from English:

"The spirit is willing,
but the flesh is weak."

to Russian,
and back
to English:

"The vodka is strong,
but the meat is rotten."

Anonymous said...

Zen dialogue/question...

Iggy Pop:

"Why can't life be...
a Swedish magazine?"

Van Morrison:

"It ain't Why? Why? Why?...
it just is."


"The Great Way is not difficult;
it is just a matter of not
picking and choosing."

So, does this mean we shouldn't
distinguish between good and bad
music? Is Seng-Tsan advocating the
way of mediocrity?

So Daiho Hilbert said...

Thank you for this really interesting disccussion on Shoji. Sometimes those pesky little things are really annoying. I prefer a big stick. Be well Brad.

Jinzang said...


"The Great Way is not difficult;
it is just a matter of not
picking and choosing."

So, does this mean we shouldn't distinguish between good and bad music? Is Seng-Tsan advocating the way of mediocrity?

I remember listening to a tape of a talk by Trungpa Rinpoche. During the question and answer after the talk someone said something was "really good." Trungpa Rinpoche replied sharply, "There's no real good and there's no real bad." And then in a sweeter voice he said, "There's just a splendid mediocrity."

I think the point is that if you think good and bad come from outside yourself, then you're at the mercy of circumstances. But if you realize that you make good and bad, then even the bad is good.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I don't think Billy Joel needs any help
from me in being just plain bad.

"What is it?"


yudo said...

Translator, traitor. So say the Italian.
Yesterday, I had a student who needed help for an essay he had to write in French about re-writing. Is it something serious or a parody? Starting with Aesop's fables and 17th Century French Author Jean de Lafontaine who adapts them, we went through the various possibilities which range from a serious attempt, like the King James Bible, to put an ancient text to the reach of ordinary people, all the way to the various lampoons of the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

I am presently toiling with an attempt to translate Nishijima Sensei's comments on the Gakudo Yojinshu into French, and this is no light thing because I can't speak or write decent Japanese. Knowing him, I know that, in person he can be quite efficient in explaining his ideas, but this is much more difficult by writing. It already is between two persons of the same language!

Translating is an awfully terrible task, because, if you don't rewrite, you may be unable to convey the meaning, and if you do, you are always in danger of straying far away.

Drunken Monkey said...

Talking about translating; heres an educational video on the matter.
Everybody should watch this;

Justin said...

Interesting article. Not sure I'm entirely convinced by Brad's impartiality though. ;)

Anonymous said...

1000 years from now, radioactive
cyborgs in some virtual reality will
be trying to grok the story of how
Drunken Monkey Roshi achieved profound
enlightenment upon hearing the words
"Uh-oh, hot dog!"

Scholars will be asking themselves:
How can we translate "uh-oh, hot dog"
into Martian (and maybe Venusian too)?

uh-oh, hot dog!" totally ruined
my zazen today -- cracked up at
least three times, and only
remembered to pay attention to
my breathing when the timer went
off. Thanks!

yudo said...

You ought NOT pay attention to your breathing!

Anonymous said...

drunken monkey,

methinks the faux tony soprano shows
far too much grandmotherly kindness
with his Louisville Slugger kyosaku

Anonymous said...

Don't bother translating into
Venutian. You may think those
mutant, one-eyed Venutians are
ignorant barbarians (mere country
bumpkins), but that one eye is
The True Dharma Eye with which
they see far beyond words and
letters. If you don't believe me,
just ask T. Lobsang Rampa.

BTW, how do blind beginners tell if
their "teacher" does indeed have at
least one eye? How can you tell if
your "teacher" isn't just pulling
your leg (rather than the elephant's

Anonymous said...


Enough already with that
Zen blind donkey crap!

Can someone tell that
anonymous ignoramus (or
maybe ignoramus anonymouses)
to just sit down and shut up?

Jinzang said...

TW, how do blind beginners tell if their "teacher" does indeed have at least one eye? How can you tell if your "teacher" isn't just pulling your leg (rather than the elephant's leg)?

A genuine teacher will be modest and kind. A fake will put others down in order to build themselves up.

zenducker said...

Not a single spiritual seeker of any faith or description anywhere in the world throughout all of history, past, or future, would ever be satisfied with your explanation or anyone else's for that matter. So why bother trying? Such descriptions are not only meaningless, they are also always, always, always wrong. It's like trying to describe the color green without using any words for colors. Hell, it's like trying to describe the color green while using every word for color in the dictionary. It don't amount to nothin' and it never will.

zenducker said...

That above post is a quote from the Article "All along the Watchtower" off Brad's Main Webpage. Thought that was a good answer to all this rot.

Anonymous said...

"Ki ga tsuketa" is not correct Japanese, so I guess Babelfish just chose the best option. To wake up is "ki ga tsuku" ni Japanese, while to care is "ki wo tsukeru". "Ki ga tsuketa" would literally be "ki did attach sth".
Please ask your wife.