Right or Rang?
In the history of the translation of Tibetan into English, translators have spent much time puzzling over how to translate the term rang (the vowel sound is pronounced the same as in the seed syllable AH). No sooner has one translation been settled upon than another context presents itself where the same translation choice seems misleading. Rang is a perfect example of the flexibility of the Tibetan language and of the need, when translating the dharma, to investigate the intended meaning of a text and not just translate the words alone.
At first glance, rang seems like no big deal—more of a prefix than an actual word, appearing in conjunction with a verb or noun and often translated as “self.” The term rang-jung (rang byung) is a good example: jung means “to arise” or “to occur.” What sounds more commonplace and simple—to those of us used to reading Tibetan Buddhist materials—than the words “self-arising”?
But when you take a closer look, often something that is “self-occurring” is merely something that occurs by itself—amounting to nothing more exotic than a different way of saying the word “natural.” Yet in other contexts, rang-jung describes an entity that arises by its own power—an entity occurring magically without dependence on causes or conditions. For this interpretation translations like “self-born,” “self-existing,” or “self-arising” have been used. When you think about it, there is a big difference between a “natural rock formation” and a “self-arising rock formation.” For a related discussion, see page 2 of the newsletter.
The term rang-nang (rang snang), often translated as “self-appearing,” allows for similar interpretations. Rang-nang is often used in the section of a text describing the visualization of deities. Here, rang-nang is sometimes taken to mean “appearing to oneself”—a way of saying that the image of the visualized deity is generated by one’s own mind, as opposed to being an externally perceptible visual form. In that way, it “appears to oneself.” For this reason, we’ve sometimes translated rang-nang as “one’s own perception,” or even “projections.” Alternatively, the same term in the same context is sometimes explained as referring to the quality of the visualization manifesting spontaneously in the space in front of the practitioner, implying almost the opposite meaning for the source of the image. In this case, “self-appearing” may be a better word choice.
In two other cases, the translation choice for rang has played a large role in our understanding of dharma: rang-rik (rang rig), often translated as “self-awareness,” and rang-dröl (rang grol), often translated as “self-liberated.” In these cases,“self“ could be misunderstood. With both of these terms, rang indicates that there is not a separate agent performing the action in question: rang-rik is a description of mind having an inherent quality of awareness, without there being a need for a second-hand observer for consciousness to take place. In this case, the translation of rang as “self“ is sometimes misconstrued as a dualistic description of one’s being conventionally aware of oneself and one’s behavior, more like the term “mindfulness.” For this reason, many prefer translations like “innate awareness,” “reflexive awareness,” or “natural awareness,” instead of “self-awareness.”
The translation of rang-dröl can be misleading in a similar way. For example, speaking of the kleshas as “self-liberated,” can erroneously conjure up the idea of “I liberated them myself!” rather than the intended message that the kleshas are inherently liberated without one having to do anything at all. Many have suggested alternative translations to “self-liberated,” such as “innately liberated,” “freed-in-itself,” or “inherently free.”
It is important to work to “choose the right word” when translating. When studying, it is tempting to become quite critical and attempt to categorize each translation of rang we encounter as right or wrong. However, just having an awareness that multiple possibilities exist is much more important than settling on one particular translation. It shows us the need for deeply studying and understanding the texts we work with. The way even a simple word like rang can only be understood by understanding the dharma behind it shows us that, in the long run, only through our practice, understanding, and realization of dharma will truly accurate translations come about.