Trangdön and Ngedön
The Translation Committee learned early on that translating Tibetan could force one to explore new frontiers of the mind, effecting permanent alterations. In fact the Vidyadhara told an aspiring student that what was needed to learn Tibetan was “a new mind.” Translating single terms or phrases can present challenges, since these terms are likely to enter our dharma vocabulary and have a very long shelf life. The translations of the Tibetan terms trangdön and ngedön (Sanskrit: neyartha and nitartha) are good examples. These two terms have important implications about how one studies and teaches the dharma, and naturally have a critical place within Ngedön School (not to mention Nitartha Institute). In learning the dharma, it is said, one must first grasp the trangdön in order to appreciate the ngedön.
The Committee translates ngedön as “true meaning,” which is acceptable to most people, although there are acknowledged drawbacks: is true meaning the opposite of false meaning? (Other common alternatives are “certain,” “final,” “definitive,” “ultimate, “clear,” or “absolute meaning” or “truth.”) To add even more to the mix, the Sanskrit word literally means “the meaning that has been drawn out” as opposed to neyartha, “the meaning to be drawn out.”
Trangdön has been translated as “literal meaning,” which no one, including the Vidyadhara, was completely satisfied with. Some would have preferred a term along the lines of “provisional meaning,” i.e., something that calls for more explanation. But the Vidyadhara insisted that the term should not be pejorative: thus “literal meaning.”
In the Vidyadhara’s understanding, these terms describe not so much levels of dharma as levels of understanding. So it’s not that, for instance, mahayana is ngedön whereas hinayana is trangdön. Rather, there is a ngedön (profound) and a trangdön (literal) way of understanding both hinayana and mahayana. In his usage, these terms come to mean “the words” and “their sense.”