“Translating Buddhism” conference

My head is still whirring from last week’s conference on “Translating Buddhism” at York St John University. The conference was wonderfully stimulating, as well as warm and collegial, and I left with plenty of new ideas and reflections, as well as a long reading list.

I enjoy themed conferences, and this theme proved very fruitful. The conference planning team came up with three sub-themes, which broadly mapped onto three streams of parallel panels:

  • Translating Texts

  • ‘Translating’ Buddhism across different Asian contexts

  • ‘Translating’ Buddhism from Asia to the West

I mostly attended the first stream, learning a lot about the different approaches to textual translation. Of particular interest to me were discussions of the different ways in which Buddhist texts might have been used, and how this affects our approach to translation. For example, Natalie Gummer talked about the performative nature of early Mahayana sutras, Karen Lang explored the translatability of humour, and Andrea Schlosser puzzled over how to translate wordplay. My own paper was about considerations of genre, asking how our understanding of what jataka stories are affects our approach to translating them, especially with regards to folkloric conventions (e.g. “Once upon a time”), repeated or formulaic passages, and humour or bad language.

Each of the three themes was also addressed by an invited keynote speaker, and all three of these were very stimulating. Collett Cox started us off with a reflection on the search for a text to translate, asking what it is we are really looking for and whether or not we are right to seek it. I particularly enjoyed her thoughts on viewing texts as processes, rather than as things. Very Buddhist!

The second keynote speaker was Lori Meeks, who addressed the second theme through an exploration of how a Chinese sutra on the blood-bowl hell (a special hell for women – best not to ask!) moved into new contexts in Japan, and how it became situated in the wider context of women’s position in Buddhism.

The final keynote speaker was Prof Jonathan Walters, whose work has long been a favourite of mine. Although I therefore had high expectations of his paper, I was not prepared for the spectacular tour-de-force that it turned out to be! We were treated to a historical walk through the lesser-studied stream of Western Buddhist “translation”, namely popular forms of Buddhist (and particularly Buddha-) imagery. From a rather disturbing American trend for postcards depicting nude women next to Buddha statues, to the recent Donald Trump Buddha-meme doing the round online (do a quick search – you’ll be amused!) we were immersed in image, song, and the careful and critical reflections of our speaker about the need to take this stream of Buddhist translation seriously.

In between all this intellectual stimulation there was plenty of opportunity for further chat, and I must say it was a relief to be able to talk about something other than politics for a change! (Though there was a fair bit of political discussion too, inevitably, especially after we were served Eton Mess for dessert one night – political metaphor anyone?!)

Huge thanks to the wonderful organising committee and hosts!


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Academia, Buddhism, conferences, Translation. Bookmark the permalink.

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