Note: The following interview originally appeared on http://www.lotsawaschool.org, Lotsawa House’s former sister site.
Lotsawa School: How did you first learn Tibetan?
Peter Roberts: I had been going to a centre in Manchester for about a year, and I had developed an interest in learning Tibetan, but there didn’t seem to be any possibility at the time. Then I went to live in Samye Ling and while I was there I remember going to see Akong Rinpoche because I wanted to know the names of the masters in the refuge tree. He said the names were all written on the back of the picture, and then, after a pause, he said, “… in Tibetan.’’ So I said, “Well, I’ll just have to learn Tibetan then.” And he said, “Yes.” But of course it was what I wanted to do anyway.
At that time there was really no way to learn. I started trying to work it all out from the phonetics, and then, after about a month or so, someone gave me a copy of the alphabet. About a year later, there appeared a book on conversational Tibetan in French put out by Kalu Rinpoche’s centre, and because there was no photocopy machine around, I just had to copy it all out by hand. Then there were some classes for a few weeks about three times a year, and I ordered Das’ dictionary from India. This was in 1977 or 1978.
I got hold of a text by Gampopa and I can remember just reading it through and looking up each word in the dictionary. Luckily [Dharmacharya] Tenpa Negi came from India at the time in order to be Khenpo Tsultrim’s translator. He came to Samye Ling and gave a month-long Tibetan class, going through the Sumchupa and everything. Then we had another a month of Tibetan, because another khenpo could not come from Bhutan. By the end of this I had a huge mass of files, and I spent the winter going through them.
We went on to receive teachings from Thrangu Rinpoche for three months and then from Gyaltsab Rinpoche for another three months, during which they taught everyday. I managed to get hold of a photocopy of the texts they were using, but I had to go to Dumfries to get it done. Then I could follow their teaching together with the text, but it took me a long time to be able to understand them as they were talking. Sometimes I would spend time going over a tape, and I used to have a daily class with an attendant of whichever Rinpoche was there.
Lotsawa School: How long did it take you to learn?
Peter Roberts: Well, I got my copy of the alphabet in December 1976 and the first Tibetan classes were in spring 1977, the big two-month course was in 1979 and I think I did my first translation in 1980 or 1981.
Lotsawa School: What did you translate?
Peter Roberts: I translated a text with Thrangu Rinpoche’s attendant, who is also his nephew. We had done a lot of Tibetan together and become friends, and we worked together on a delog text, making quite a free translation.
The very first lama I interpreted for was Lama Thubten, who was from Palpung Monastery originally. At the time he was living in Birmingham. That was at Samye Ling to a very small group of people. No, actually even before that, in 1981, I translated for a group of people who were going to do a three-year retreat. Lama Ganga, who was originally from Thrangu Monastery, but was based in California at the time, gave some teachings to the retreatants. We had a rota for interpreting and I sat at the front on the day before it was supposed to be my turn. But I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I tried to find Akong Rinpoche to take my name off the list, but I couldn’t. So after a night of anxiety and praying to Manjushri, as I sat next to him the next morning, I suddenly found it all very different. It was like a gear change; the kind of thing you are able to do in extreme circumstances. I could follow him and even though I got lost half way through most of the sentences, it was a lot easier. I translated for Lama Thubten and Lama Ganga regularly from then on, first for a small group at Samye Ling, which then grew bigger, and then also at other places, but each time was very nerve-racking.
Lotsawa School: All this was before you had ever been to the East?
Peter Roberts: Yes, I was always broke anyway and I couldn’t go anywhere. The first time I went to India was when I went to Kalu Rinpoche’s translation committee, after I had translated for him. The plane ticket was paid for, and I went out to Bodh Gaya. That was in December 1987. Then the year after that I went to Nepal for the first time, to translate for Thrangu Rinpoche. The only time I have ever been to Tibet was in the late 1990s, when the Foreign Office sent me together with some ambassadors.
Lama Thubten always used to tell a story, but I don’t know how true it is. He said that in order to choose a translator he had asked several different people how good their Tibetan was. They had all said their Tibetan was good, but when he asked me I said “terrible.” He took that as a sign of humility, so he worked with me.
Lotsawa School: What was the most difficult thing for you in the beginning?
Peter Roberts: I always found it difficult to meet and talk to people. I don’t know if there is such a word as anthropophobia—fear of human beings? So for me to be translating in front of even a few people was quite difficult emotionally, terrifying even. That was the biggest thing for me, that kind of anxiety, quite apart from not knowing the language. Then eventually, of course, I had to translate in front of a few hundred people. Once in Malaysia it was supposed to be twenty thousand people! They kept changing their minds as to whether I would have to go on stage or not. They told me I would, and I sat and waited till the whole thing was over, because they had changed their minds again without telling me.
In the beginning it was always like listening to somebody on a bad phone line, when you can’t hear everything. I would usually have to ask and check some details, because I wanted to get everything.
Lotsawa School: Did you have any problem with different accents or dialects?
Peter Roberts: Well, I started with Lama Thubten who was supposed to be difficult to understand because of his accent, and also because he was fairly old and didn’t have all his teeth. He didn’t have very clear enunciation and I think enunciation is quite a big part of it. I got used to Lama Thubten and Lama Ganga and then when I translated for Thrangu Rinpoche for the first time in 1984, even though he is perfectly clear, I found it difficult because of the way he said things, and the way the sentences progressed, which was so different from Lama Thubten or Lama Ganga. That was something I had to get used to.
I find sometimes it is the way teachers approach things and the way they say things. Sometimes teachers go on for a long time and sometimes for a very short time, and often the shorter it is the more difficult it is, particularly if you don’t know where it is all going. Sometimes their voice can be unclear, a bit like mine, or sometimes their words get slurred. Of course, an accent like Golok is really different, but once you have the basic Tibetan, I think it’s not impossible to adapt.
Lotsawa School: Do you take notes as you interpret?
Peter Roberts: No, I don’t take notes, which may not be a good thing. From the beginning I started by just remembering. I find it very difficult to take notes and listen and remember at the same time.
Lotsawa School: Some lamas speak for so long it must be difficult if you don’t take notes.
Peter Roberts: I think the longest segment I’ve ever had to translate was about forty-five minutes. Somebody timed it. The lama was eighty years old; it was his first time out of Tibet and he was also a bit deaf, so you couldn’t really interrupt him. I can’t say it was a word-for-word translation. He was talking very rapidly, and, as you may know, the main thing is to remember the beginning and the different changes from one subject to the next. They were all piling up in my mind and by the end I was holding onto quite a lot of stuff and I had to get it reeled out as rapidly as possible.
On the whole, I try not to paraphrase. I try and do it as exactly as possible. I leave any ‘filling in’ to the teacher, maybe in the next thing he says, or if somebody asks a question at the end.
Lotsawa School: What have been some of your most memorable translation experiences over the years?
Peter Roberts: I remember when I arrived to meet Khenpo Petse in London and there was a talk the next day in front of two hundred people. I found that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and he couldn’t understand a word I was saying. We were just standing there and then his nephew came in and we got out the text of The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, and started reading through it. Then I could see that in his dialect all the ‘i’s are pronounced ‘a’, a na doesn’t effect the vowel and a sa changes an ‘a’ to an ‘i’ and so on. So bad karma, lé ngen, for example, would be li ngan, Nyingma would be Nyangma, and that kind of thing.
When we were talking in conversation he used a lot of Golok words, which were completely new to me, but when he was teaching, he stuck with literary Tibetan. So we spent some time in the room going through it and I was able to understand what he was saying. Then of course out on the stage he was a long way away and just looking at the audience. He wasn’t talking to me any more. It started, and I remember that everything he said would collect in my mind as syllables that didn’t mean anything, and then I remember those syllables suddenly transforming. It was like a notice board at a train station; everything flipped round, and I realized what all the syllables were. Occasionally the sounds didn’t change into words and I would have to ask him to repeat himself. Or I would have to ask his nephew for some help.
I translated for him in London and then again in New York. I remember once in New York, we were at a small Shambhala Centre and whenever I hadn’t understood something and asked him to say it again, a lama sitting in the front row would start explaining it to me in English. What was I supposed to do then? Repeat the English that everybody had just heard?
The biggest audience I have translated for was at Rigpa with nine hundred people. I translated for Dzogchen Rinpoche, and then Zenkar Rinpoche, who never really teaches, agreed to do a question and answer session for one hour. He started at 9am and finished at 2pm! It went on for five hours continuously. I think at 1pm, Patrick Gaffney said to him, “Maybe we should stop now, Rinpoche.” But he said, “No, there are still some more questions.” I was feeling pretty tired at the end of that, but it was a great opportunity, because of course he is really brilliant, and he gave some great answers to the questions.
The very first time I translated was probably the worst time for me in terms of terror, and also the first time I had to translate in front of a lot of people, which was with Kalu Rinpoche in London. I was in a state of terror all day.
Lotsawa School: Have you overcome that fear now?
Peter Roberts: Not really no, not if it is somebody new and so on. I don’t think it is as bad or as crippling as it was. With Thrangu Rinpoche now I am more used to it, but I wouldn’t say it has gone completely.
Lotsawa School: How about your best experience?
Peter Roberts: Well, I think that would be with Thrangu Rinpoche, because I have now been translating for him for about twenty years. When he gave the Mahamudra Ngedön Gyatso teachings, it was very nice to be able to translate and hear them because they were so good. The event actually took place in a Tibetan tent outside in some fields in Maine. After the first few minutes of the first day, I got bitten by a big horsefly, which was really painful. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, the first bite after two minutes. This is going to happen every two minutes for the next two or three weeks!” But fortunately it only happened once more a bit later.
With Thrangu Rinpoche we often have a lot of laughs and it is always very relaxed, so it has been great fun. Sometimes I laugh so much that I stop being able to translate.
I also remember once translating for Kusum Lingpa in a Shambhala Centre in London. He spent the first twenty minutes explaining why the Earth is flat. Everybody was just stupefied. I don’t know if you’d call it a best or a worst experience. It was kind of a mixture.
Lotsawa School: How do you determine which terms to use?
Peter Roberts: There is often a multilingual audience when I translate and I am aware of that, so I try to keep the words simple enough for people to follow. I try not to use too many long words. I use terms that seem to sound right, I suppose, and what people can understand, or are already familiar with. I don’t try and do something new instead of ‘bodhisattva’, for example. If it is an oral translation, I sometimes give a couple of words for the same thing, especially if I am not sure what people are familiar with.
Lotsawa School: Are you free to choose your own terms?
Peter Roberts: Yes. In Kalu Rinpoche’s translation committee there was an attempt to try and come to some agreement on which words to use, but now I am on my own. I did a Sanskrit BA at Oxford and that has helped me to see what the original is and what the Tibetans have made of it. I used to use more Sanskrit terms like klesha and jñana and things like that, but now I probably use a bit more English instead.
Lotsawa School: What do you say for klesha?
Peter Roberts: Well, if it’s a talk I might say both the English and the word klesha. I used to say ‘affliction’ and then after looking at the Sanskrit I found that it means something more like defilement. So I try to use ‘defilement’ more, particularly if it is a Tibetan translation of a Sanskrit text. If it is a talk in a Shambhala centre, they are used to the word klesha. It really depends on the audience. But I never translate klesha as ‘emotions’ or ‘conflicting emotions’. Thrangu Rinpoche thinks that is not correct, because not all emotions are kleshas, and not all kleshas are emotions. Fear is not a klesha and ignorance is not an emotion. He said that himself. He had obviously become aware of the translation and he said he didn’t think it was right. That was the only time I have heard him actually comment on a word like that.
I remember when we had the translation committee with Kalu Rinpoche, people were trying to create new words, for bodhisattva and so on, and there was almost a majority in favour of using ‘awakening hero’, but Kalu Rinpoche said we should stick to what was already established.
Generally, I find Erik’s dictionary very useful and also the Tshig mdzod chen mo. Then, with words that are derived from Sanskrit, I try to look at the original. They have already gone through one change from Sanskrit into Tibetan and sometimes the change from Tibetan into English can take them even further from the Sanskrit original.
Lotsawa School: Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to become a translator?
Peter Roberts: I remember Tenpa Negi saying that the best way to learn is to enjoy it. When I started, if there was something I found boring, I just ignored it. Instead of making myself learn the spelling, I just did something that I enjoyed, and that kept me going, whereas everybody else gave up. I didn’t feel I was going to get anywhere, but I carried on just because I enjoyed it.
What else? Choose to be born to wealthy parents! Or have a taste for poverty. I am 52 years old and I have 20 dollars in the bank. No, 22 dollars, I don’t want to exaggerate!
Lotsawa School: But it sounds like you’ve travelled a lot.
Peter Roberts: Yes, you get to see the world; it’s like joining the navy! Without even being able to afford a plane ticket, I have been all around America, Europe and the East.
I would also advise people to try to be calm and relaxed. That helps. I am someone who has tended to be very tense and anxious and gradually as time went by, I found that being relaxed was helpful. When I hear my early translations they sound like they were done by somebody who is terrified. I would say, “Be relaxed and try to make it as pleasant as possible for the people listening.” I try to sound calm, even if I am having difficulties. Unfortunately the audience has only got the translator to listen to, so sometimes sounding like you’re having fun makes it easier for people. Some people are naturally like that and great to listen to anyway, but I wouldn’t count myself as one of those. I have to try and make an effort, and usually my diction is not very good, so I have to take care that people can actually understand what I am saying.
Lotsawa School interviewed Peter by telephone at his home in Los Angeles on 20 May 2004.