BY: MARCEL VOTLUCKA
Days in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, are like living in an eternal spring and summer, and the people are as warm and sunny as the weather. Ancient shrines jostle for space alongside modern malls, and elderly locals practice tai chi in the parks while their grandchildren play around them. Nights are abuzz with motorbikes zipping past night market vendors and bubble tea shops, and some of their drivers pause their homebound commutes to say a brief prayer at one of the many colorful shrines in the city.
In the middle of it all is a small converted garage serving as a makeshift classroom. There’s about seven of us tonight, staring at a Word file projected onto a large screen, pondering how best to translate the words on it. Master Benkong, our teacher, starts to read the next line of the text, but is interrupted by the crashing sound of gongs and bells outside. There’s a festival this week honoring the patron spirit of a neighborhood temple, and people outside are parading around a statue depicting said spirit. Benkong smiles and jokes, “Oops, gotta pause for a sec – we’ve got God coming down the street now.”
Life can take us on many wonderful and fulfilling paths, if only we say “yes”. That’s how I, a white guy in a Protestant family from Queens, ended up connecting with a Chinese Buddhist translation group in Taiwan.
As a legal and medical translator, I work from Spanish and Japanese into English. Japanese language and cultural studies were my introduction to Buddhism, and embracing Buddhism was my bridge to a local Buddhist Meetup group here in New York, and the meetup group was how I met Master Benkong. Our Meetup group leader took us on a walking tour of temples in Chinatown on a cold winter day several years ago. At one of them, Grace Gratitude Temple on East Broadway, we were greeted and given a brief introduction to the temple by Benkong, who was its vice abbot. The temple was home to a couple dozen monks and nuns, mostly from Fujian province in China, but Benkong was a tall white man with a wry sense of humor to match his New Jersey accent. He had come to Taiwan fifty years ago to study Chinese in college (one of the first American students to do so), then worked and translated for various NGOs around the world for many years, and eventually joined the monkhood in Taiwan later in life.
After he gave us a tour of the temple, Benkong mentioned that he was a translator before donning his monk’s robes, that he translated Buddhist texts with a group of friends and colleagues, and that we were welcome to join his group if we were interested. Intrigued, I immediately introduced myself to him, and passed him my business card. That was the start of a years-long collaboration and friendship. He and his team would translate a wide variety of Chinese Buddhist lectures and sutras and commentaries into English, send them out to the rest of us on their mailing list, and I would read through the translation and make suggestions and comments for the team. They are all native Chinese speakers who are practicing Buddhists and/or interested in learning English. Meanwhile, with my Japanese abilities I could sometimes read and understand bits and pieces of the original Chinese.
Those who are native English speakers and aren’t translators or language teachers may find it hard to appreciate just how difficult English is, what with its crazy spelling, grammatical complexities, and slang. So when I edited the team’s work I would do my best to explain things clearly and offer helpful suggestions so they could learn and improve upon their good work, even as I deepened my knowledge of Buddhist concepts by reading their translations. After two or three years of doing this editing, at Benkong’s suggestion (“three years of indoctrination”, as he jokingly calls it) I decided to formally study Chinese through a combination of in-person and remote classes and self-study using textbooks, podcasts and videos. I’m now studying to eventually take the HSK qualification exam and add Chinese as a working language pair.
This has culminated in two long-term visits to Taiwan, where I got the chance to meet his translation team in person and get to know them, explore their charming home city of Tainan with them, and actually put my budding Chinese skills to use in daily travel throughout the rest of the country. I still have a ways to go before achieving fluency and the ability to translate proficiently, but the more I learn, the better and more useful my editing collaboration becomes for the team. Besides sessions with his team in Tainan City, Benkong also leads discussion groups about their translated texts with friends of his in New York and Taiwan via Skype, connecting us with the Buddha Dharma over time zones and space. Here too, we can all offer our own translation suggestions to each other in English and Chinese on the spot, as we ponder the ideas in the materials we study.
There’s a saying in Chinese: 教学相长 (jiào xué xiāng zhǎng), which means “when you teach someone, both teacher and student will benefit”. I’ve been helped by many people and had many teachers in my life and career, and I enjoy taking chances to give back to others and mentor up-and-coming translators, whether it’s through Master Benkong’s Buddha Dharma translation team or NYCT’s or the ATA’s Mentorship Program. No one is an island onto themselves, so saying “yes” to such opportunities lets us all learn from each other, make connections we never expected before – such an important thing in a world of increasing tension and strife.