Alison Melnick Dyer 

“Gender and the Politics of Translation: Reading the Life of a Female Tibetan Saint”

Alison Melnick Dyer Speaker Photo SORAAAD 2019Translation is an inherently powerful – and therefore political – act, which presents a challenge that is made most apparent when we address how and why we translate gendered language. The impetus for this paper came from a recent conference, where I witnessed two senior translator-scholars arguing over which translation of a Buddhist sutra would be more effective. Should the translator adhere to the direct translation of the text, and thus convey more accurately its original meaning? Or should translation be for the benefit of the reader, and therefore take their concerns and sensibilities into consideration first and foremost, to avoid alienation of a modern readership? Ultimately, the former argument won out, but it raised the question of how and where our own positionality influences our translation efforts, and the impact this can have on the gendered representation of religious texts. What methods can we as translators engage when addressing the gendered expectations inherently embedded in language connected with culturally disparate locations? In particular, how does this apply to how we translate historical works, where temporally embedded gender suppositions are present? We as translators are expected to convey the “spirit” of the text faithfully, while also wrestling with our own culturally and temporally bounded conceptualizations of gender. How can we best do this, without doing violence to the text?

With this paper, I hope to engage participants in the questions I have encountered regarding how to approach gendered language in the translation of an eighteenth century hagiography of a female Tibetan Buddhist saint named Mingyur Peldrön (1699-1769). An unusual figure in her time, Mingyur Peldrön was a Tibetan Buddhist nun who leveraged her privilege and rose to power as a teacher in her family’s tradition. Her hagiography (The Life of Mingyur Peldron: A Dispeller of Distress for the Faithful, or Rje btsun Mi’ gyur dpal gyi sgron ma’i rnam thar dad pa’i gdung sel, hereafter Life) was written by the monk Gyurmé Ösel, a devoted male attendant, some fifteen years her junior. In addressing the linguistic details of Mingyur Peldrön’s Life, it becomes clear that Gyurmé Ösel employs gendered language (feminine, masculine, and androgynous) to convey value-laden meaning throughout his discussion of the saint and her activities. The significance of these terms is especially salient when we explore where and how gendered nouns and pronouns are employed to reference Mingyur Peldrön herself, and the positive, negative, and neutral implications that these appear to carry. In line with this another question that this paper will explore is: How do we convey the meaning of gendered language in translation, and in discussion of translated works, and how do temporal assumptions disrupt accurate translation of meaning? In the context of hagiography, gendered referents have the potential of indicating different perspectives, and possibly even different authorial hands. Taking into consideration the importance of understanding gendered language, what might be the best analytical method(s) for approaching translation of gendered terminology?

In this paper, I discuss how I have made decisions about how to translate gendered language from Mingyur Peldrön’s Life. I will also discuss some of my findings regarding the use of these gendered terms throughout the text, and how linguistic analysis of gendered terminology can be helpful in assessing the expectations of gender in a given historical and literary context. I will also engage participants as thought partners in addressing some aspects of this process – with which I still wrestle – so that we might explore together how to best theorize translation work in a politically and historically responsible way.