Essential Terms for Tibetan Translators

Do you remember your first lessons on how to “read” classical Tibetan? As for myself, I remember struggling with (and enjoying) learning how to write the script, and how to pronounce the letters, both individually, and in syllable stacks, and then finally fumbling through the pronunciation of a sentence.

But once mastering those basic tasks, did you notice how, in the classical Tibetan classroom, we simply stopped speaking & writing, and moved on to translating? We didn’t keep learning how to speak, moving from the alphabet to speech. And we didn’t keep learning how to write, moving from words to expressing our thoughts in full, Tibetan sentences.

It makes me wonder: Why did we bother learning how to pronounce the Tibetan alphabet at all? That is, if we aren’t going to learn how to speak Tibetan, why did we bother associating Tibetan symbols with sounds in the first place?! And why did we bother writing the letters, if we weren’t going to learn how to write in Tibetan?

I think what happens is that, when we’re studying classical Tibetan, we’re anxious to put the cart before the horse. We want to dive straight into the ‘good stuff;’ we want that rich, sweet, tasty Buddhist philosophy… “Who cares about ordering momos in a restaurant?” as I heard it once put. 

But we’re skating on thin ice if we think this doesn’t have consequences: The implicit claim of the classical Tibetan classroom methodology is that if we take (1) the alphabet and simply (2) sprinkle in some basic grammar rules, that’s the entire recipe for a rich, tasty translation

The reality is, however, that that recipe is severely wanting. What we are doing in the classical Tibetan classroom is not reading; nor is it translation. And if our goal is becoming textual translators, I’ll make the contentious claim that we should both know (1) what it means to read and (2) what it means to translate.

Essential Terminology: “Reading”

Reading is defined as a complex cognitive process where (1) symbols are decoded in order to (2) comprehend meaning.


Let’s analyze our classical Tibetan classroom for a second. What we do when we pronounce a sentence, without understanding it, is this first step of reading: decoding. While decoding is a step in the reading process, it is not reading—unless we understand what we read as we read it.

Think, for a moment, about how you read in English; the process of decoding and comprehending are nearly simultaneous, so seamless that it’s hard to tell one from the other. Note that this is a one-language process; we understand English in English.

Now, compare that to what we do in a classical Tibetan classroom: (1) We decode the Tibetan, turning it into sounds (or written letters); (2) We use the Grammar-Translation strategy to turn the symbols, word-by-word, particle-by-particle into English words; and, finally, (3) We try to comprehend the English. Note that this is a two-language process; we do not, following the classroom model, understand the Tibetan only in Tibetan!

Below: On the left, we use Grammar-Translation to morph the Tibetan text into recognizable English words; we then try to puzzle out the meaning in English! Compare to the right, where we’re able to understand the Tibetan in Tibetan before we engage in translation.


The reason we learned how to pronounce Tibetan is that the decoding process relies on turning symbols into sounds. The sound symbols in our thought—our auditory imagery—is how we connect language to a sense of meaning. Here, though, Grammar-Translation hijacks the process and inserts an intermediary step: that of “translation into English” before “comprehension!”

Why is this problematic? Well, it has been long-recognized that linguistic facts—like vocabulary and grammar—aren’t the only things about language that create meaning. (After all, if they were, Google translate would be perfect!). Also critical in comprehension processes are extralinguistic facts: to state it briefly, context, or what the literature sometimes calls world knowledge.

What is happening here is that the classical Tibetan classroom lacks the ability to impart Tibetan language comprehension because it cannot give world-knowledge experience to its student; thus, it fails to fulfill the most important part of what we call reading—reading comprehension.

Beyond not providing meaningful reading comprehension, in the process, the classical Tibetan method passes off decoding + Grammar-Translation—what is actually called “transcoding”—as a legitimate method for really translating.

Essential Terminology: “Translating”

Translating is a complex skill requiring two tasks: (1) the comprehension of the source text and (2) reworking the source-meaning into writing of the target language.

What happens, then, when our writing-in-the-target-language process is the one-and-only strategy we employ for comprehending the source text? When the linguistic facts, minus the extralinguistic facts, are the only ones we’re privy to? When we can’t understand a Tibetan message in Tibetan?


Well, if you’re anything like me, it makes for a damn hard time! And a frustrating one, too. Why? It’s because we aren’t truly comprehending any Tibetan! We’re up a creek without a paddle. When comprehension is a natural part of the process, when we have all the extralinguistic context, we are thinking like the author; we are inside their mind. We can feel their language from the inside out.

We can sense their humor; their sarcasm; the full heft of their inner world, and the full weight of which words they’ve chosen to string together, and why. But if we’re stuck in our English language world, the inner world of the Tibetan author is many miles away. We are stuck thinking in English; yet the author communicated in Tibetan. How do we begin to traverse that landscape, to cross those divides? How do we begin thinking in Tibetan?

The answer: by continuing where we left off at the alphabet. By speaking in Tibetan, and by writing in Tibetan. By building up a foundation of sense and understanding in Tibetan contexts. Producing language builds the skills we need to comprehend language; for it is only by understanding our own internal worlds that we are able to relate to another’s.

Below: Language is what ‘bridges the gap’ between self and otherreader and author. The closer our ‘internal voice’ matches the author’s, the easier we understand them, the more they ‘speak’ to us. For example, there is hardly any gap, and thus hardly misunderstanding, between a friend from the same town of the same age who speaks the same dialect; harder to understand is the stranger from another city and generation; finally, an author from another language, culture, and time period.