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Lotsawa Training 1

Thonmi Sambhota

Lesson 1: Do You Want to be a Lotsawa?


So you think you want to be a lotsawa. What does it take? What skills should such a person have? Obviously, a command of Tibetan is essential, but that is not enough by any means.


The ideal neo-lotsawa, translating Dharma from Tibetan into English, would possess the following:

  1. Fluency in spoken Tibetan
  2. Fluency in reading Tibetan
  3. Sufficient memory skills to remember long, often complicated passages
  4. The ability to communicate clearly and fluently in the language of the audience
  5. A broad knowledge of the Buddhist teachings and Tibetan history and culture
  6. Familiarity with specialist Tibetan vocabulary in areas such as logic, science, and politics
  7. A positive attitude, sincerity, humility, patience and so on.

The seventh requirement is arguably the most important, and there are many other qualities we could have added, but let?s now focus on each of these in turn.



1. Fluency in Spoken Tibetan


Anyone even vaguely familiar with the characteristics of the Tibetan language will know that spoken Tibetan is not at all homogenous. There are, in fact, many ?spoken Tibetan?s. First of all, there is a distinction between the technical language of the Dharma (chos skad) and the colloquial language spoken by ordinary Tibetans in everyday situations (phal skad).  Then, of course, colloquial Tibetan itself must not be thought of as uniform. Not only does pronunciation vary from region to region, but many words do too; making it possible to speak of, for example, Amdo dialect or Kham dialect, as if they were distinct languages in their own right. These regional variations are also detectable, to some extent, in any Dharma teaching, and so there is really no such thing as pure ?Dharma Tibetan?.


Ideally, you should aim for some familiarity with all forms of spoken Tibetan. If there is a particular teacher for whom you will be translating, then of course concentrate on his or her particular style of spoken Tibetan, but, we would argue that it is always best to begin your studies with the form of Tibetan known as ?settlement dialect? (gzhis chags skad).


Settlement Dialect


The most widely used and understood form of Tibetan spoken today is that which has developed among the exiled community, especially in India and Nepal. It is sometimes referred to as ?Lhasa dialect,? since it is more closely related to the Central Tibetan dialect than to Eastern Tibetan or Amdo. That said, it differs considerably from the Lhasa Dialect as it was spoken in the capital before 1959.


Many students of spoken Tibetan are struck by the difference between colloquial and Dharma Tibetan. When they realize that a good command of the former does not guarantee an understanding of the latter, they question why a trainee-translator should spend time learning basic conversation. Of course, it is possible to function perfectly well as a translator without total fluency in colloquial Tibetan, and many translators do, but it is still relevant. Lamas often use colloquial words and expressions in their teachings, when telling stories for example. What?s more, as a translator, you will need to translate people?s questions, and you will find this much easier if you have a basic command of the spoken language.


2. Fluency in Reading Tibetan


As a translator of Dharma, you will mostly be reading what has come to be known as ?Classical Tibetan?. This term serves to distinguish the older form of written Tibetan from the innovative, post-1959 style known as ?Modern Literary Tibetan?, which is mostly used in political writings and newspaper articles.


In spite of its name, ?Classical Tibetan? is still widely used today. Once again, it is not really homogenous, but consists of various styles corresponding to particular periods in history, and different literary genres. It is worthwhile knowing some of the characteristics of the more common styles.


It is also helpful to know some modern written Tibetan. Not surprisingly, however, there is not a single style here either. Broadly speaking, there are two: one that is being developed in India, and which has been influenced by English and Hindi; and one that is being developed within Tibet and China that exhibits Chinese influence.


We should also mention at this point that a number of different scripts are used to write Tibetan. In these modern times, most texts are published using the script known as ?U-chen?, which was traditionally used in wood-block printing. Even so, it is helpful to learn the various forms of cursive, or U-mé, script. Tibetan handwriting is especially challenging, and also comes in numerous shapes and sizes.


3. Memory Skills


Translation, particularly oral translation, is an art in itself. As many people realize when they attempt it for the first time, translation is not simply a matter of having the necessary linguistic skills. Oral translators must also be able to concentrate intently, retain large amounts of information, and switch back and forth between two languages with formidable dexterity.


Most oral translation from Tibetan is not simultaneous, which is more common among other forms of interpretation. It is more likely that the translator will have to translate during pauses in the teacher?s discourse, a form of interpreting known as ?consecutive.? In extreme cases, teachers may pause only once every ten or fifteen minutes, and on occasion they have been known to go on for much longer. When you consider that information is held in the short-term memory for an average of 10 to 30 seconds, you will appreciate the difficulty of the interpreter?s task.


4. Clear and fluent communication


As an oral translator you will frequently need to express complex notions clearly and accurately. In doing so, a fluent command of English (or whichever language you are translating into) is a real advantage. This is an important part of your task! It is not enough simply for you to understand what is being said, the entire purpose of translation is to communicate that understanding to others.


5. A Broad Knowledge of the Dharma


In a field as vast and complex as the Buddhadharma, many terms and ideas are difficult to translate unless you have some prior knowledge of their meaning, or the context in which they are used. In order to gain this knowledge you need to study widely, consulting Tibetan original sources as well as secondary ones. Given the vastness of the teachings, you will not be able to master every area before you begin translating, but you can certainly ground yourself in the basics.


?Knowledge? here should be taken to include some first-hand experience developed through meditation practice.


6. Specialist Vocabulary


Even within Buddhism, texts on topics such as logic or Madhyamika employ technical vocabulary that must be learned. Among non-Dharma topics, two of the most frequently discussed among Tibetans today, are politics (for obvious reasons) and science. Most talks by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will include some reference to these topics, and will be incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the basic terms.


Click here to go to the Specialist Terminology page.


7. A Positive Attitude


Translators need to work hard. Whilst interpreting for a teacher, you are required to maintain concentration 100% of the time. Talks often last for several hours, by the end of which you can feel mentally and physically exhausted. There may be the added frustration of not understanding a difficult point, or forgetting something when the teacher has spoken for a long time without a break.


Throughout all of this, it is crucial that you maintain a positive attitude. The act of translation can be extremely meritorious, but as with everything else, it depends entirely on your motivation.


Remember that as a translator you are a spokesperson for the teachings and be mindful of how you conduct yourself.



  • Reflect on each of these skills and make a plan detailing how you can work to develop each in turn.

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