the lede Language

Karmic Relief

Translating the Dalai Lama's jokes

By eloise stevens | 1 December 2015

On a chilly morning this September, laughter rang through the Dalai Lama Temple, situated in McLeod Ganj, a town perched above Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama had just told a joke, and an audience of elderly Tibetans, seated in the temple’s brightly painted inner sanctum, were giggling. However, in the vast concrete outer hall that surrounds the inner sanctum, separate audiences of hundreds of listeners remained silent. Moments later, pockets of laughter broke out among them and rippled through the hall. Dotted among the listeners were roughly half a dozen figures who sat in intense concentration, cross-legged at low wooden desks, wearing headphones and talking quickly into microphones.

While the Dalai Lama spoke from the inner sanctum, this group translated his teachings. Their voices were broadcast, live, to a number of public radio channels. The listeners, visiting the temple from all over the world, wore headphones and cradled portable radios, following the translations on crackling FM waves.

All of the Dalai Lama’s interpreters have either completed, or are completing, a 16-year curriculum at McLeod Ganj’s Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, where they study Buddhist scripture and the Tibetan language. They are not paid for their translation services, and they have to travel abroad frequently to the Dalai Lama’s speaking engagements. Before each session, the interpreters receive literature related to the teachings, but not the actual text. The Dalai Lama does not pause for translation, so they listen and interpret simultaneously for the entire speech, which often lasts between three and four hours. While conveying philosophical ideas may be tough, several translators I spoke to said the Dalai Lama’s jokes posed some of the greatest challenges.

The Dalai Lama is known for his sense of humour. According to Tenzin Tsepak, a gentle man in his fifties who works as the temple’s Tibetan–English interpreter, the Dalai Lama’s humour is an asset to his teachings because it allows him to “draw the listeners’ attention, and stops them falling asleep.” Jamyang Rinchen, the Tibetan–Mandarin interpreter, a 38-year-old with a firecracker laugh, could barely contain himself as he recounted the Dalai Lama’s joke from that same morning.

“One day, in Lhasa, a man had invited some monks from Gyume monastery to perform some prayers in his home. He knew the monks were reputed for being very slow, so, to hurry them, he told them to make the ritual food offering, which follows the prayers, at 10 o’clock. ‘Please watch the clock on the wall very carefully,’ the man told the lead monk. The monk nodded obediently, keeping silent about the fact that he did not know how to tell time. The lead monk raced through the prayers, and finished them at ten minutes to eight. ‘What happened?’ asked the man. In earnest, the monk replied, ‘I was looking at the long hand!’”

Yet, for many other translators, accommodating the Dalai Lama’s quick wit is not so easy. The structure of Tibetan sometimes prevents translated jokes from crossing the linguistic divide. Tsepak recalled one of the Dalai Lama’s jokes about an Englishman who learnt Tibetan in a very formal way, only using the language’s honorific forms. The man went to visit an aristocrat in his home, and was bitten by the host’s dog upon entering the gates. Tsepak told me that he translated the guest’s complaint as “Your dog bit me!” His punchline was greeted by silence. Tsepak said “Her Majesty the dog nobly bit me on my honourable leg!” might have been a more direct translation, but he wasn’t sure if even that would have been funny to an English-speaking audience.

If linguistic differences weren’t enough, cultural differences often also pose difficult barriers to translation. Tsepak related how, once, in Ladakh, a number of English speakers complained to him after they saw the Tibetans and Ladakhis laughing heartily. “You didn’t translate the jokes,” they accused him. Tsepak remembered shrugging his shoulders and apologising. “I didn’t have a way to translate that part.”

The Dalai Lama’s humour is not the only part of his speech that is difficult to translate. Once, during a teaching in south India, someone in the audience started screaming, “as if possessed,” recounted Tsepak. The Dalai Lama calmly told the listener to be quiet, and when he didn’t stop yelling, directed a forceful admonition at him: “Katsum!” Later, he asked Tsepak how he had translated it, and expressed disappointment that he had only delivered a meek “be quiet,” in place of the more apt “shut up.” “I was wrong actually,” Tsepak admitted to me. “I was thinking a holy person wouldn’t say that.”

Rinchen, however, was not fazed by the impasse that interpreting often presented, especially for humour. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he suggested he was the funniest translator in McLeod Ganj. “Have you noticed that when His Holiness wants to make a joke or tell a funny story, he will turn his face towards me?” Rinchen also recalled once missing a short joke that set off raucous laughter from the Tibetans, while the Chinese waited, expectant. “So I said into the microphone, ‘Sorry I missed the joke but if you still want to laugh, then you can laugh yourself, no problem!’” To his delight, he remembered, the temple resounded with the laughter of Chinese listeners.

Eloise Stevens is a writer and radio producer based in Mumbai. She has made programmes for BBC Radio 4 and Australian Broadcasting Corporation and written for Songlines and the Jaipur Literature Festival. She now makes audio heritage tours for AudioCompass.

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