Dictionary Series

The Illuminator Tibetan-English Electronic Dictionary


by Lotsawa Tony Duff. Published by Padma Karpo Translation Committee and Tibetan Computer Company

The Illuminator is the work of Lotsawa Tony Duff, an Australian-born scholar and practitioner based in Nepal, who is well known as the director of the Tibetan Computer Company, the producers of the finest Tibetan fonts on the market.


Lotsawa Duff himself promotes The Illuminator as the answer to the failings of previous Tibetan-English dictionaries, especially Rangjung Yeshe's. In his introduction, for example, he writes:

"Since there has been considerable confusion over many terms, especially from the Dharma vocabulary, many of the terms in this dictionary have extensive commentaries to elucidate the correct meaning. The Valby and Rangjung Yeshe dictionaries are essentially compilations of terms extracted from other sources, often taking a 'shot-gun' approach of providing multiple definitions from many differing sources without really defining the meanings of the words. That approach is fraught with problems, not the least of which [being] that many mistaken translations get introduced into what is supposed to be a dictionary."

What he says is true, to some extent, as we have already seen ?although ?fraught with problems? is perhaps an exaggeration. Unfortunately The Illuminator only goes some way towards providing a solution, and in part this is because it tries so hard to fulfil this role as a righter of past wrongs. This becomes a recurrent theme throughout the entire dictionary, particularly when key technical terms are defined. Take, for instance, the entry for rdzogs pa chen po. We are told that ?there has been considerable mis-understanding [sic] of the name.? And, what is more, that ?there has also been considerable mis-understanding [sic] of the Tibetan term. It has often been translated as the ?Great Perfection? but this is a considerable error.? Of course, words like ?considerable? are not entirely out of place here, given that there are implications for a person?s spiritual path, but after a while the hyperbole begins to grate, and the critiquing seems excessive and out of place.


Lotsawa Duff is clearly a knowledgeable and seasoned scholar of the Tibetan language and the Dharma, who has spent a long time reflecting upon the relative merits and demerits of translation choices, and he makes his points with some force, almost invariably stating the reasons for his preferences. He does well to call to our attention the many cases in which the most popular translation of a word is inadequate, such as the standard rendering of sdug bsngal as ?suffering.? Some of these choices have become so popular by now that Lotsawa Duff obviously believes he has to make his case quite strongly, with the unfortunate consequence that the reader is left with a feeling of being lectured?or even shouted at through a loudhailer?as a solution is presented with a tone of utmost finality, or worse still, as in this case from the entry for don, through the unfortunate use of capital letters:

 ?it does NOT seem to be a good idea to translate don as ?object.?

As you might expect from a lexicographer, Lotsawa Duff favours translations that remain true to the etymological meaning of the Tibetan?witness, for example, his favouring of ?migrator? over ?being? for ?gro ba, or his choice of ?alpha purity? for ka dag. This occasionally leads to some bold choices, such as ?stoppageless compassionate energy? for the Dzogchen term thugs rje ?gags med, but such inventiveness should only be welcomed, because it leads to debate, or at least makes us stop and think about what a word might actually mean.


There are definitely areas in which The Illuminator makes a valuable contribution to Tibetan Studies at large. It is particularly strong on grammatical terminology, for example. Although once again, the reader must face the kind of obtrusive comments referred to above, such as in the entry on tshig phrad, for example, which declares with an almost audible fanfare:

 ?Phrase connector? (mistakenly called ?particles? up till now.) ...

Another strength is in the dictionary?s treatment of so-called myong tshig, the experiential terms which appear frequently in teachings on meditation, particularly in oral instructions, and which are so difficult to render satisfactorily in English.


There are frequent updates to the dictionary, and as with the Rangjung Yeshe Dictionary, there is also an online user group.


The Illuminator has already made a valuable contribution to the field of Tibetan studies, not least by encouraging deeper reflection about translation choices and championing higher standards of lexicography. It is clearly the author?s intention to develop and improve his work over the coming years, and it is to be hoped that he can do so, possibly through greater collaboration with others working in the same field.


Updated 30/10/10/. We are grateful to Mr. Tony Duff for correcting the earlier version, which mistakenly described him as a computer programmer.