A couple days ago I wrote to Jay Garfield and said, “When I submitted Nishijima Roshi’s translation of Mulamadhyamakakarika to Monkfish Books, the title was Mulamadhyamakakarika. Nishijima Roshi had translated this as Song of the Fundamental Way. Monkfish Books said they didn't think that was a marketable title and asked if they could use the Sanskrit as the subtitle and re-title the book Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I was aware of MMK having been referred to by the English title Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. So I OK'd the title change without checking any further as to its source. I had believed it to be just the standard English language title of the piece the way Bhagavad Gita is often called The Song of God or Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra is usually called The Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra.
“I should have checked. The only translations of MMK that I have are the ones by Inada and Kaluphana. I don't have yours (Garfield’s translation of Mulamadhyamakakarika is also titled Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way). By which I mean no insult. I'm sure it's a terrific book. But I am just not a collector of books on Buddhism. I only have the Inada and Kalupahana translations because Nishijima Roshi gave them to me.
“In any case, I am now completely mortified by what has happened with regard to the title of the book. I am truly sorry for having accidentally copped your title. It wasn't meant to confuse the marketplace. It was just due to my own ignorance that this occurred.”
I spoke with Paul Cohen of Monkfish Books about the matter yesterday. We have come to the following decision. The eBook version of the translation, which has not yet been released, will be published under the new title The Balanced State: A Heretical Retranslation of Nagarjuna’s Root Stanzas of the Middle Way. When the current printing of the paperback (which is quite small) is sold out the book will be reprinted with that title. Furthermore the description of the book on Amazon will be rewritten as soon as possible so that the first line is, “This is not a standard translation of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika.” I plan to refer to the book from now on under its new title (though I’ll include the current title in parenthesis until the reprint becomes available).
Neither the folks at Monkfish nor I intended the current title as a way to deceive buyers or to ride on the coattails of the phenomenal success of Garfield’s translation (I think it’s now being made into a film with Robert Pattison from Twilight as Nagarjuna and Scarlett Johansson as his love interest). Paul Cohen’s philosophy was that there were already several translations of MMK on the market but there was no agreed upon standard English rendering of the title. However, Garfield’s title was very close to a straight rendering of the Sanskrit into English and it would do.
Here is how the Sanskrit title breaks down — mula: (noun) a root; basis, foundation, madhyamaka: (noun) middlemost, karika: (noun) concise statement in verse of doctrine. This has been variously translated as Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way and so on. Given the fact that karika refers to verses about doctrine or philosophy, which is often seen as a kind of wisdom, one could argue that Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is an acceptable, though somewhat loose English rendering of the Sanskrit title. Still, Garfield originated that title and I should have avoided using it*.
Even so, Nagarjuna’s poem is reaching the point where it’s about time an agreed upon standard English title emerged. As far as Paul Cohen was concerned, Garfield’s title was already that. So why confuse the matter by re-titling the piece yet again? The idea that this title was chosen to cash in on a book that wasn’t really a runaway success to begin with (no offense to Prof. Garfield intended) is ridiculous. The idea that I was lazy and ignorant about the matter does have some merit however.
The contents of the book will not be changed. They do not need to be changed. In the currently available version of the book my foreword makes it very clear that I do not know Sanskrit and cannot vouch for the reliability of the translation. In part I said, “The other writers who worked on the book before me left the project over disagreements they had with Nishijima’s interpretation of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika. They said it was wrong, a mistranslation.” That’s in the first paragraph of the book.
Further along I said, “At the outset of my work on this book, Nishijima did try to get me to study Sanskrit. But I was already having enough trouble mastering everyday Japanese. Learning Sanskrit, a dead language that’s a bear to learn and that I would only use for this one rewriting job, just didn’t make sense. In any case, it didn’t seem to be necessary for the task at hand. I decided my task in this book was simply to help convey what Nishijima has gleaned from his reading.” I’m not sure how I could have been any clearer than that.
Nishijima’s introduction, which follows this foreword, is very unambiguous about how he came to the conclusions he did regarding his translation. He admits being completely self-taught in Sanskrit. He tells you that he ignored all other translations both in English and Japanese. He cites exactly which dictionaries and grammar guides he used for his work. Furthermore, the book provides the original Sanskrit and word-by-word translations making it possible for readers to check the validity of Nishijima’s word choices for themselves. You cannot possibly be more honest than that.
And, as I’ve said before, it’s a very good book. Nishijima spent fifteen years slaving over his translation (here is a paper he presented in San Francisco in 1997 about his work on it**). This is not a lazy piece of hastily thrown together half-informed writing.
I was among the many people who advised Nishijima Roshi that he’d be far better off issuing this book as his reflections on Nagarjuna’s work rather than as a translation. No one could argue against that. But he insisted it should be presented as a translation.
I think he knew exactly what he was doing. It may not have been what others, including me, thought he ought to be doing. But he was under no illusions that his translation would be accepted by scholars as accurate. He told me very clearly that he knew it would not. He expected hostility. He was ready for a fight. That’s precisely what he wanted. He was quite explicit about that during our many conversations on the subject.
Why did he want such a thing? I wish he were well enough to answer that. But I can speculate. Nishijima Roshi has a bit of a punk rock attitude. That’s what I like about him. If you tell a punk rocker he can’t make an album unless he spends $20,000 at the Record Plant to work for six days with Steve Lillywhite on getting just the right snare drum sound he’ll tell you to fuck off. Then he’ll buy a $25 used cassette boom box at a Salvation Army store, set it up in front of his band, take the results to a local pressing plant, print up 500 copies and hand one to you while flipping you the bird.
The concrete results of this real action will force you to rethink your approach to recording in a way that no amount of reasoned theoretical argument ever could. It sure as hell worked in the music industry. The people in power said records like that would never sell. Now they’ve all lost their jobs and can’t afford any more cocaine. Aw.
I think that Nishijima Roshi wanted to force people to re-examine Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. He believed this was so important that he was willing to risk trashing his own reputation to make it happen.
* Interestingly there is a book called The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way published by Shambhala in 2003 that also uses Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way as the English translation of Mulamadhyamakakarika. The description says, "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way was written in the second century and is one of the most important works of Nagarjuna, the pioneering commentator on the Buddha's teachings on the Madhyamika or Middle Way view." There's no mention of Jay Garfield as the originator of the translation of the title. There are no one-star reviews condemning the author for using it either. Maybe Paul Cohen was right after all...
** If that link doesn't work for you scroll down to the article titled Japanese Buddhism and the Meiji Restoration.