Translating Shakyamuni and Sappho across time and culture Barry Magid October 25th 2014

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Isn't he just divine!

that boy sitting at your feet,

gazing into your eyes

soaking up your laughter...

Me, I go to pieces just

looking at you - I can't think

of a thing to say. I break out

into a cold sweat, my heart's going

a mile a minute, the blood roaring

in my ears. I turn green as the grass

and faint dead away.

translated by Barry Magid

Some years back I devoted some of my leisure time to studying and translating Greek. I was mostly interested in reading Aristotle but I also tried my hand at some translations from Sappho. And when you’re doing translations like that from a culture that is long gone, you’re always making choices about whether to emphasize the continuities we feel with that culture, all the attributes that make us interested in it and allow us to have some affinity with it, that we’re doing it at all, versus doing translations that emphasize the strangeness or otherness of this culture so distant from our own. There’s a continual question about how much should you make the Greeks sound like us, so that we can genuinely commune with them versus how much should we preserve their difference, their alienness.

As an amateur, I found it easier to simply translate them in a contemporary style. In a way I think it’s much more difficult to recreate the strangeness of another culture. That’s the path my mentor in these translations, Guy Davenport, took. I remember one poem of Sappho, where the first line is traditionally translated as: “That man is peer of the gods who. . . .” and I translated it as “Isn’t he divine?” So that’s the kind of choice you have to make all the time in translation.

Now Sappho was roughly a contemporary of Shakyamuni. We’re looking back about twenty-five hundred years, give or take in both cases. I think that we, in this practice, are engaged in a similar act of translation. In our practice, in our understanding of what Buddhism is, we’re faced, over and over again, with the question of how much we want to make Shakyamuni into our contemporary and how much we are willing or able to see him as a representative of an extremely different, extremely strange culture, that we can in some ways identify with and in some ways remains very alien to us.

Certainly the life we lead as Buddhists in America in the twenty-first century looks nothing like the life Buddha led in India, yet it is part of the tradition or the mythology of Zen that each generation of teachers has experienced the realization that Shakyamuni experienced under the bodhi tree and in turn passes that realization on to their successors, and that that realization is somehow identical despite all the differences of time and culture. Sappho writes about love, and I’ve been in love, but have I been in love the way Sappho was? How much do we use that word in the same way? I’ve had my realizations but are they the realizations of Shakyamuni? How would we know? We can either emphasize the identities or we can emphasize the differences.

Very often, particularly when it comes to religion, people are very uncomfortable with the number and depth of decisions they have to make, or have made for them, in terms of how they see what they’re doing in the present compared to what has been done by the founders. The fundamentalist approach in religion seeks to preserve as much as possible what we imagine is the original experience or the original practices of the founding generation. Sometimes this is done in the name of authenticity, sometimes in the name of trying to clarify or purify the current practices of the contaminants of modern life. And we see it in many guises. We see it in the law, where some justices seek to recover the original intention of the framers of the Constitution in interpreting law for today. And we have to ask, how much is that possible? Or how much is it desirable?

My son in high school, now, is being assigned plays by Shakespeare to read, and with some effort, he can understand the language of Shakespeare’s time, mostly by turning it into a difficult immersion of something he would understand, as though it were written today. It’s hard to penetrate into the otherness of it, but it’s manageable, just. We can immerse ourselves in that language until it sounds natural to us and we can even build a replica of the Globe Theatre and perform the plays in the very setting in which they were performed in Shakespeare’s time. And if we stage them with all the parts played by men, the way they were then, we might find it interesting, but I think it would be impossible for us to find it natural. There are some things where you can’t simply recreate the past and move into it as if it were the present.

Anyone who is attempting to maintain a kind of monastic or mendicant lifestyle, whether in the manner of medieval Japan or India two millennia ago, is faced with that Globe Theatre dilemma: How much can you recreate something from the past? What does it mean for a modern to move into an old structure like that? How much can your experience ever recreate the original experience? How much of it will forever be play-acting?

I think what we do here, to a much greater extent than we ever comfortably acknowledge, is constantly reinvent Buddhism in the present day, much in the same way we reinvent poetry and the theater, the arts. They’re parts of a continuous tradition and they’re constantly changing. Constant change is supposed to be one of the attributes that Buddha pointed out about everything, and yet it rubs up against that desire for authenticity and identity, where we want somehow to feel that there’s an unchanging, permanent essence in our practice, even as that practice teaches us that the idea of an unchanging, permanent essence is an illusion.

If we cannot compare what we’re doing now to what was done then, in what sense can we say it’s authentic? See, authentic so often means to identity with some paradigmatic or earlier model, right? But the authenticity of our practice and our experience has to be judged with a whole different basis, and that is how it transforms our lives and the lives of those we come in contact with. If I trust my own experiences of realization, it’s not because I say, “Oh, that’s just what Shakyamuni felt!” It’s because I can feel something of the old doubt, self-criticism, comparison, longing, regret, drop away, and a feeling of groundedness and rightness and certainty take its place.

We judge the authenticity of our experience not by some comparison to the “real thing” somewhere else, but what it’s doing now in our lives. William James put it very neatly: “Judge your experience not by its roots but by its fruits.”

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