The Art of Translating Tibetan: A Masterclass with Thupten Jinpa—Home

We at Wisdom are thrilled to now offer a way for translators and practitioners alike to discover the rich world of translation in our free Masterclass with Thupten Jinpa: The Art of Translating Tibetan, produced in partnership with Tsadra Foundation.

The class is available to anyone with a Free, Plus, or All-Access membership in the Wisdom Experience, our membership platform.  If you’ve already joined, click here to start lesson 1!

You’ll need to be logged in to access the Masterclass. If you don’t have an account yet, you can go to the lesson 1 page and make a Free account via the form you’ll see there.

In this class, you’ll get, for free, 15+ hours of direct teaching from one of the most renowned translators, interpreters, and thinkers in the Buddhist world—Thupten Jinpa, who has worked for years as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s principal English interpreter. We hope you enjoy this truly precious offering.




1. Introduction to Translation, Part 1

In this first lesson, you’ll hear Jinpa’s thoughts on the following points: (1) the importance of translation in general and, more specifically, how for Tibetan Buddhism in fact translation has been the very basis of its emergence; (2) what exactly a translator does, or to put it another way, what we mean by the word translation; and (3) the translator’s twin obligation of fidelity to the original and the need to make that work accessible in the target language. He concludes with some general observations on the specific challenges of translating from Tibetan into English.


2. Introduction to Translation, Part 2
In this lesson you’ll learn how Tibetan translators navigated the twin obligations of the translator, how the remarkable ninth-century lexicon སྒྲ་སྦྱོར་བམ་པོ་གཉིས་པ་ (sGra-sbyor bam-po gnyis-pa) laid out eight specific recommendations for translation, Sakyapandita’s nine points on translation in his Gateway for Becoming a Learned, the importance of thinking of translation at the level of sentences, not words, about Goethe’s 3 epochs of translation, some key lessons from Jinpa for translators, and more.


3. Translating Concepts and Terms: Reality, Part 1

In this lesson, Jinpa delves into key terms used in the Buddhist sources for describing the nature of reality. He examines how different translations of these key words bring significantly different connotations to those words. He delves into terms like existence, conditioned and unconditioned, unique attributes, and generic attributes.


4. Translating Concepts and Terms: Reality, Part 2

How do the words we use—and the way we translate them—affect our understanding of reality? In this lesson, Jinpa investigates the translation of the terms affirmation and negation, including how phenomena can be both positively and negatively identified; and also the terms conditioned and unconditioned. He explains to us the three categories of phenomena that make up conditioned reality: the material world; subjective emotions and thoughts, or consciousness; and abstract ideas. He also discusses the nature of Buddhism’s interest in understanding reality, the important role of understanding dependent origination, the concepts of suchness or thusness (tattva in Sanskrit, དེ་ཁོ་ན་ཉིད་ in Tibetan) and thatness (tathātā in Sanskrit, དེ་བཞིན་ཉིད་ in Tibetan), and the use and translation of the terms ultimate truth (paramārthasatya, དོན་དམ་བདེན་པ།) and conventional truth (saṃvṛttisatya).


5. Getting Behind the Words with Gavin Kilty

In this lesson, meet Gavin Kilty: a renowned translator with a fascinating and unique philosophy of translation. In this first conversation with Gavin, he introduces us to this philosophy with his concept of “getting behind the words”—a profoundly deep practice for translation that goes beyond, as he says, just “taking the words from one language-shelf and moving them to another language-shelf.”

Gavin Kilty has been a full-time translator for the Institute of Tibetan Classics since 2001. Before that he lived in Dharamsala, India, for fourteen years, where he spent eight years training in the traditional Geluk monastic curriculum through the medium of class and debate at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. He also teaches Tibetan language courses in India, Nepal, and elsewhere. In 2017 he won Tsadra Foundation’s Shantarakshita Award for his translation of A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages (Library of Tibetan Classics, Wisdom Publications, 2013).


6. Going Beyond Language and Translation as the Rebirth of the Text with Gavin Kilty

In this lesson, our conversation with Gavin Kilty will go deeper into his remarkable philosophy of translation. Gavin explains the intermediate stage of translation, where the translator really comes into their own, and also the process by which a translator can identify equivalent meaning in the target language. He also discusses how to balance the source text and the current culture when determining how to translate a word; the challenge of placing punctuation and breaking text into paragraphs when translating from Tibetan; and how to recognize what may be present, but not explicit, in the source text (e.g., paragraph breaks; the implicit “I”).


7. Literalism and Translating Terms with Gavin Kilty

In this lesson, Jinpa and Gavin explore the following questions: Does a translator need to have meditative practice experience that’s relevant to the text they’re translating? How should we approach taking passages literally, or not, when translating? Which genres does Gavin find the most difficult or enjoyable to work with? How can we find the tone and nuance of a text when we are not a native speaker? When Gavin is translating, does the genre of the text affect how to approach the translation process (e.g.,, when a text is intentionally oblique)? When a certain translation of a term has been assimilated, but a more accurate translation is then presented, what should we do?


8. The Responsibility of the Translator with Gavin Kilty

What is the responsibility of a translator? In this session, Jinpa and Gavin explore this question in depth, discussing: How much agency can a translator take? How can one stay attentive to the original intentions of the author? How do we balance loyalty to the author and loyalty to the target language? And finally, Gavin’s advice for beginning translators.


9. Translating Concepts and Terms: The Mind, Part 1

In this lesson, Jinpa guides us through essential terms used in Buddhist philosophy and psychology having to do with the territory of mind, consciousness, and the mental faculty. We learn about how certain terms are used interchangeably, yet can also carry different meanings and senses with respect to usage and philosophical orientation.


10. Translating Concepts and Terms: The Mind, Part 2

In this lesson, Jinpa guides us through essential terms found in Abhidharma literature, which represents some of the earliest systematic Buddhist thinking. We learn about how knowledge of Abhidharma taxonomy is essential for the translator, as all subsequent Buddhist thinking and literature develops from Abhidharma terminology and classifications.


11. Group Workshop, Part 1

In this lesson, we experience Jinpa guiding a workshop of professional translators. As participants discuss their respective translations of a famous hymn to Maitreya written by Tsongkhapa, we learn about the nuance, technique, and approach to translating poetic literature.


12. Group Workshop, Part 2

In this lesson, Jinpa shares with a workshop of professional translators his own translation of Tsongkhapa’s famous hymn to Maitreya. We learn about Jinpa’s technique and personal approach to translating poetic literature, and receive a unique window into Jinpa’s process as he responds to questions presented by workshop participants.


13. Group Workshop, Part 3

In this lesson, Jinpa instructs a workshop of professional translators as he shares his translation of a selection from Gyaltsap Je’s famous commentary on Dharmakirti’s Pramāṇavārttika. Through Jinpa’s instruction, along with the questions and insights of  workshop participants, we learn about the technique and process of translating Tibetan prose.


14. Group Workshop, Part 4

In this lesson, Jinpa continues sharing his translation of a selection from Gyaltsap Je’s famous commentary on Dharmakirti’s Pramāṇavārttika. Through Jinpa’s instruction, along with the questions and insights of  workshop participants, we learn about the technique and process of translating Tibetan prose.


15. How Tibetan Texts Were Produced

When translating a text, it can be important to take into consideration its production. For example, in Tibet the multiple stages of printing a woodblock text from an author’s manuscript meant there were several steps during which errors could have been introduced to the text. Jinpa advises translators to be practical when reading revered texts, considering it part of the translator’s responsibility to the community to be critical of the text when necessary.


16. The Use of Particles in Tibetan Texts

In this session Jinpa discusses the use of particles in Tibetan grammar, underscoring the difference between their organization in English by function and their organization in Tibetan by usage. He shares how one and the same particle, de, can function a definite particle as well as, in some contexts, a third-person pronoun; he also describes how the preciousness of paper as a resource affected the use of conjunctions in Tibetan. In addition, we see how important it is to account for the seven cases in Tibetan grammar even while we translate into a modern English style that has fewer cases.


17. Translating Concepts and Terms: Meditation, Part 1

In this lesson, Jinpa discusses terminology specific to Buddhist meditation practice. Jinpa guides us in understanding the nuance behind terms as they appear in Tibetan literature, as well as in their relationship to the actual practice of meditation.


18. Translating Concepts and Terms:  Meditation, Part 2

In this lesson, Jinpa continues his discussion of terminology specific to meditation practice. Here, he delves more deeply into specific terms, including those relating to the faculties employed during meditation. Jinpa guides us in understanding the depth and subtlety behind how these terms relate to meditation.


19. Best Practices with Wulstan Fletcher, Part 1

In this lesson, Jinpa introduces us to renowned translator and founding member of the Padmakara Translation Group, Wulstan Fletcher. In conversation, these two master translators of Tibetan literature offer us exquisite personal guidance into the practice and theory of translation.

Wulstan Fletcher studied modern languages and theology in Oxford and Rome. He completed a three-year meditation retreat in Chanteloube, France (1986-1989) and is a member of the Padmakara Translation Group. He has studied under some of the most extraordinary masters of the twentieth century. He has been a Tsadra Fellow since 2001. Wulstan has completed several Tibetan-English translation projects in collaboration with Helena Blankleder, including Treasury of Precious Qualities (Book 1, 2010, and Book 2, 2013), The Root Stanzas of the Middle Way (2016), The Way of the Bodhisattva (revised 2006), The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech (2007), White Lotus (2007), Introduction to the Middle Way (2005), The Adornment of the Middle Way (2005), Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat (2004), Counsels from My Heart (2003) and the forthcoming The Wisdom Chapter: Jamgön Mipham’s Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva. Wulstan is currently working on Longchenpa’s sems nyid ngal gso.


20. Best Practices with Wulstan Fletcher, Part 2

In this lesson, Jinpa and Wulstan discuss the subtleties and challenges of translating poetry and verse. Jinpa and Wulstan offer us practical and nuanced guidance in approaching poetics, as well as share insights and advice from their personal experience translating this genre.


21. Best Practices with Wulstan Fletcher, Part 3

In this lesson, Jinpa and Wulstan share their approaches to the translation of prose. Through their illuminating conversation, we gain insight into the process and technique each translator employs in this area, and how to approach the particular challenges presented in translating prose.


22. Introduction to Translating Verse

In this lesson, Jinpa introduces us to the translation of Tibetan verse and poetry. Jinpa guides us in understanding the distinction between verse and poetry, and illuminates the diversity of verse genres found in Tibetan literature; including songs and liturgical texts. Jinpa also introduces us to the history and tradition of Tibetan poetry, as well as different poetic forms.


23. Verse Case Study #1: A Song of Milarepa

In this lesson, Jinpa guides us through a line-by-line translation of a song by the famed Tibetan yogi Milarepa. We learn about the function of meter, rhythm, and how the particular form and style of Milarepa’s poetic song creates both an overall aesthetic, and an effect on the reader.


24. Verse Case Study #2: The Book of Kadam

In this lesson, Jinpa guides us through the translation of verses of advice by Atiśa. We learn how the power of Atiśa’s poetic verses rests in the repetition of certain forms throughout the text.  Jinpa also reveals the importance of engaging the intent and context of an author’s voice when approaching translation.


25. Verse Case Study #3: A Poem of Tsongkhapa

In this lesson, Jinpa guides us through a translation from a selection of Tsongkhapa’s famous poem The Crown of Brahma. We learn about the influence of Indic metaphors and mythology on Tibetan literature, as well as how skillful translation can grasp the meaning of a poem even when particular Tibetan forms aren’t replicable in English.


26. Translating Different Genres

In this lesson, Jinpa guides us in understanding how the specific nature of genre influences the approach to translation, and the importance of recognizing the genre of a text. We learn about the different genres of Tibetan literature, as well as how to navigate the dynamic of making translation accessible while at the same time remaining faithful to a text’s meaning.


27. Literality in Translation with Anne C. Klein

In this lesson, Jinpa introduces us to Anne C. Klein, former chair of religious studies at Rice University, founding director of Dawn Mountain Tibetan Buddhist Temple, and author/translator of seven books. They discuss the onus on translators of a too rigid literality and what this can mean when translating for an English-speaking audience that has different cultural understandings than a Tibetan audience. Prof. Klein explains when she feels the need to become more spacious and free in her translations, rather than focus on being “right.” She also discusses her translation of chantable recitation texts that match the meter of the original, thus allowing them to be sung to traditional Tibetan melodies.

Anne C. Klein is professor and former chair of the Religion Department at Rice University. She is also a founding director and resident teacher of Dawn Mountain, a center for contemplative study and practice in Houston. Her publications include Path to the Middle (SUNY Press), Unbounded Wholeness, coauthored with Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (Oxford University Press), Knowledge and Liberation (Snow Lion Publications), and most recently Khetsun Rinpoche’s Strand of Jewels (Snow Lion Publications).


28. Considering Genre in Translation with Anne C. Klein

In this session Jinpa and Anne C. Klein discuss how a translator can consider genre in their work. Prof. Klein shares what she has considered in her translation of the term ཆོས་དབྱིངས་ (Wyl. chos dbyings, Skt. dharmadhātu) in various contexts, sharing the various options she could choose depending on the text’s genre or audience.


29. Translating Sādhanas with Anne C. Klein

Jinpa and Anne discuss the aesthetics of translation of poetic or chantable works. In doing this, Prof. Klein takes account of the meter of the original, and also how the specific melody of the practice goes with the English, all of which relates to how words impact the body. She then shows us a particular case of what a chantable English sādhana can look and sound like.


30. Advice for Aspiring Translators with Anne C. Klein

Jinpa begins this session by asking Anne C. Klein about the current state of the field of Tibetan studies. Prof. Klein also gives practical advice to aspiring translators who are starting in this work. They also discuss how the words that we use in translations matter, even for common terms like དགེ་བ་ (Wyl. dge ba), or virtue.


31. What is the State of Tibetan Translation? (Panel Discussion, Part 1)

In this lesson, Jinpa guides our panel of expert translators—Wulstan Fletcher, Anne C. Klein, and Gavin Kilty—in discussing the state and progress of Tibetan translation. Panelists discuss the benefits and influence of modern technology in facilitating a rapid amount of translation in a relatively short period of time, the challenges facing future translation efforts, and offer ideas about texts those efforts should pursue. 


32. How Do We Prioritize What is Translated? (Panel Discussion, Part 2)

In this lesson, Jinpa guides our panel of expert translators—Wulstan Fletcher, Anne C. Klein, and Gavin Kilty—in discussing the future of Tibetan translation, and the question of what translation efforts should be prioritized. Panelists discuss the dynamics of preservation for future generations, what translations are most needed currently, and how the interest of readers influences what texts are translated.


33. Restricted Texts, Practice Experience, and Recommended Resources (Panel Discussion, Part 3)

In this lesson, Jinpa and the panel of expert translators—Wulstan Fletcher, Anne C. Klein, and Gavin Kilty—explore the topic of translating and distributing restricted material. They discuss the matter of ensuring practitioners have access to necessary tantric texts, as well as the karmic implications of this material being readily available to the general public. They also consider questions such as whether translators must have experience or realization with respect to these texts in order to translate them,  and whether it’s necessary for a translator to have the reading transmission for a text before translating it.


34. Is it Time to Standardize? (Panel Discussion, Part 4)

In this lesson, Jinpa and our panel of expert translators—Wulstan Fletcher, Anne C. Klein, and Gavin Kilty—discuss the prospect of standardization in Tibetan translation. We learn about how contemporary translation efforts are different from those in historical Tibet, where patronage and political decree oversaw translations. Panelists entertain the distinction between standards being implemented, arising organically, and what it might mean for key terminology in Tibetan to be standardized.


35. How Can the Internet Assist Translators? (Panel Discussion, Part 5)

In this lesson, Jinpa and our panel of expert translators—Wulstan Fletcher, Anne C. Klein, and Gavin Kilty—discuss the impact of the digital world on translation. Panelists discuss the prospect of interactive digital media as useful tools, how digital archives may serve the dissemination of translated teachings and transmissions, and how digital media can enliven and interact with printed media.


36. How Should We be Training Young Translators? (Panel Discussion, Part 6)

In this lesson, Jinpa and our panel of expert translators—Wulstan Fletcher, Anne C. Klein, and Gavin Kilty—discuss the reality and  nature of training the next generation of Tibetan translators. Panelists consider prospects of training focused on systematic Tibetan language training, as well as technical translation skills training. Each panelist offers their thoughts and guidance for how the education of future translators might unfold, and what practical realities are needed to encourage translators in training.


37. A Case Study in Publishing: The Library of Tibetan Classics

Thupten Jinpa addresses how the final stage of publishing is an important step for translators to consider. He shares his experience publishing the Library of Tibetan Classics series at Wisdom Publications and how aesthetics and careful copyediting by the publisher are vital to the process of making translated works available to readers.


38. A Case Study in Editing: The Library of Tibetan Classics

In this session Thupten Jinpa addresses editorial issues for translators, such as how to format texts when they are translated from Tibetan into English and other ways to make a text more readable. As a case study he shares with us the editorial considerations behind the creation of the Library of Tibetan Classics series with Wisdom Publications.


39. Three Stages to Approaching a Translation

In a rare “behind the scenes” glimpse, Jinpa shares with us his own personal method for translating Tibetan texts. He outlines three stages of approaching a translation: first producing a literal translation, then making the English more fluid with an eye toward the reader’s experience, and finally returning months later to edit and consult the original Tibetan once more. He also shares how having a background in the subject matter and broadening one’s horizon of reading are essential for any translator.


40. Interpreting Case Study: His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In this lesson, Jinpa discusses the distinction between translation and interpretation: translation as the practice of translating texts, and interpretation as the translation of spoken Tibetan in person. Though the objective of both types of translation is the same, Jinpa guides us through the particular challenges presented by each practice. Jinpa shares and discusses footage of his own live interpretation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, offering us a unique window into the art and practice of interpretation.


41. Closing Thoughts

In this lesson, Jinpa invites us to reflect on our time participating in the course. Jinpa encourages us to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses as translators, as well as offers us advice and guidance in cultivating the skills and practices necessary to become the best translators we can be.


Thupten Jinpa Langri was educated in the classical Tibetan monastic academia and received the highest academic degree of Geshe Lharam (equivalent to a doctorate in divinity). Jinpa also holds a BA in philosophy and a PhD in religious studies, both from the University of Cambridge, England. Since 1985, he has been the principal English-language translator to the Dalai Lama. He is the series editor for Wisdom Publications’ Library of Tibetan Classics, and has translated and edited many books by the Dalai Lama, including The World of Tibetan Buddhism, Essence of the Heart Sutra, and Ethics for the New Millennium. Jinpa has published scholarly articles on various aspects of Tibetan culture, Buddhism, and philosophy, and books such as Songs of Spiritual Experience (co-authored) and Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Thought. He serves on the advisory board of numerous educational and cultural organizations in North America, Europe, and India. He is currently the president and the editor-in-chief of the Institute of Tibetan Classics, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to translating key Tibetan classics into contemporary languages. He also currently chairs the Mind and Life Institute.

Produced in partnership with Tsadra Foundation.

Photo credit: School of Natural Resources [CC BY 2.0 (]
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