Eliminating Gender-Biased Language
Over the past decade, we have dedicated a fair bit of thought and time to transforming the language of our practice texts from male-biased English to gender-inclusive language. In recent years, with the encouragement and consultation of a number of advisors, including several women practitioners, we have revised many of our major practice texts, as well as some of the Shambhala termas.
Our general policy is to not create any further translations that are gender exclusive. In addition, our approach has been to amend existing translations–in which the Vidyadhara took part and which the sangha have etched in their hearts and minds–as little as possible, while freeing them of gender-bias and remaining true to the meaning. We have learned that it is not always easy to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. In the happiest of circumstances, through skillful recasting, the gender-exclusive pronoun or word can simply drop away, and the sentence or line of poetry may be left all the more succinct and powerful. But sometimes that is not possible, and then difficult choices have to be made, frequently with some loss of cadence, potency, or ease of expression.
In 2006, we finalized a few gender-inclusive revisions to the Sadhana of Mahamudra, which we are now reprinting. Because the Sadhana of Mahamudra is a terma (according to the Vidyadhara, even the translation is considered terma-like), and also because this was the first translation of the Vidyadhara’s writings from Tibetan, we were reluctant to change anything. Like you, we translators are somewhat attached to how we have been chanting things. We also do not like to change liturgies that have been engraved into our gray matter for the past 20 or 30 years. To the surprise of some, we have only revised the daily chants once, some 25 years ago in 1980, and some of us are still stumbling over a phrase here and there.
While many of the changes we make are quite simple and obvious, others are not. For example, in a discovered text (terma), such as the Sadhana of Mahamudra, one might question whether the voice of the tertön himself is present, as opposed to that of the so-called original author, such as Padmakara. Does the line “Father and son are one in the realm of thought” refer to the Vidyadhara addressing his guru, or is this Padmakara talking? In either case, since all those involved are male, one could argue to leave the translation as it has been. On the other hand, changing the translation from “son” to “child” ensures that it will be easier for everyone (male or female) to identify as a student calling out to the teacher.
There is an interesting, specific precedent for making these kinds of changes. In our translation sessions with the Vidyadhara on the Werma Sadhana, he took note of one instance of the use of “son” in our translation, commenting that it would be better to say “child” so as not to exclude women practitioners. Unfortunately, at the time we didn’t notice that there were other instances, and so it was some time before we changed these as well.
In general, the way we consider making gender-inclusive changes is a very careful, slow, and somewhat tedious process. Of course, we have to start with the original text, usually in Tibetan. In most cases we look at, the Tibetan word can refer to a person of either gender or to a male (just as the word “man” was intended to do in English). Often the Tibetan omits any pronoun at all, which is both literate and commonly done in Tibetan, but which is not so easily done in English. Our task is to determine whether the original text intends to specify gender, or whether, more likely, an inclusive usage is intended.
Next, we explore the history of the translation, where we usually find that the question of gender-exclusivity was not consciously addressed. Although we have become more sensitive to not creating further problems, it is easy for gender-exclusive language to have gone unnoticed for some time. If possible, we relisten to the audio tapes of our meetings with the Vidyadhara or other lama-advisors, and we query anyone directly involved in the translation. In the case of the Sadhana of Mahamudra, there were no audio tapes, and the only living participant was Richard Arthure, aka Künga Dawa. Although Richard did not know Tibetan, he was instrumental in helping the Vidyadhara to shape the English, as he was the scribe and “editor-on-the-spot” when the Vidyadhara orally translated this soon after receiving the terma.
In discussing possible changes with Richard, we found him to be very positive about making these revisions. He has a lot of experience in teaching this sadhana, and he too has encountered gender identification problems with this sadhana among a number of students. Richard is an excellent editor (Meditation in Action being among his other works), a native of the UK, and a trained Shakespearian actor. Recently, in working with him on editing the Vidyadhara’s short Vajrayogini Sadhana, we became aware of his acute sensitivity to the English language, and respect his opinions on usage. Thus, Richard’s support of eliminating gender bias in this text has been meaningful and an important part of our research.
Gender-Inclusive Changes in the Shambhala Termas:
The gender-inclusive revisions to translations of the Vidyadhara’s Shambhala termas are another interesting example of this process. Over the years it became clear that there was a need for a careful review of the translations of these texts. We worked closely with David Rome, the Vidyadhara’s secretary and editor for the original translation of many of these termas, and with Carolyn Gimian, editor of the Vidyadhara’s Collected Works in English.
Very few meetings of the original translations of this material were taped, but we were able to retrieve early manuscripts from the Shambhala Archives, which provided a window into the Vidyadhara’s original intentions. The text requiring the most attention was The Letter of the Black Ashe, where “the warrior” was repeatedly referred to as “he.” Various strategies were considered, such as employing the gender-neutral second-person pronoun “you,” which has the added benefit of bringing a heightened sense of immediacy to the instruction. However, after looking at the Vidyadhara’s first translation of the text and consulting with those who had worked closely with him, we felt he would have preferred the more formal tone of the third-person pronoun.
Alternatives such as “s/he” were considered, but these also did not fit the formal, timeless tone of the material. Using “he” and “she” in alternate stanzas was favored by some, as it retained the directness and force of the singular pronoun. However, this might have carried various unintended meanings. For example, it might imply that the dignity of meek was somehow of masculine character, while the dignity of perky was feminine. Eventually, the group consensus formed to recast the text in the plural, speaking of “the warriors” rather than “the warrior,” which then allowed us to use the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” While this successfully solved the gender-bias problem, a number of us agreed that the language was rendered less potent in this instance. This is one of the difficult compromises we often face.
In all these matters, we have sought the guidance and approval of both Lady Diana Mukpo and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. We had detailed discussions with each of them on several occasions. Everyone involved in the process concluded that these revisions were helpful and appropriate, and completely in line with the Vidyadhara’s intentions. Our decisions to change any of these translations have not been made quickly or lightly.
For the benefit of present and future generations of practitioners, we know how important it is for dharma translations to show clearly and unambiguously the equality of male and female practitioners. The Vidyadhara himself was sensitive to issues of gender bias in language long before it became politically correct. In listening to recordings of his teachings and of our translation meetings with him, we often hear him say “he or she” when referring to the guru/teacher or to the practitioner/meditator. We are confident that he would fully support our effort to use gender-inclusive language in our translations.