New English translations of core texts of the world's religions give ever more Americans entry into the timeless wisdom of the great spiritual traditions. Patterns of immigration, persistent interest in the spiritual teachings of the East, changing language usage--these and other factors have combined to produce both competent contemporary translators and eager readers.
Beginning in 2002, Baha'i scriptures will be made readily available to an audience beyond the religion's five million worldwide adherents. The spring debut list of a new trade imprint, Baha'i Publishing, includes a compilation, Refresh and Gladden My Spirit: Prayers and Meditations from Bahá'í Scripture, which draws on the writings of the 19th-century founder of the faith, Bahá'u'lláh, and his successors 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. "We have these books in forms that Baha'is can understand," says Jim Neeb, marketing manager for the new imprint. "The goal of Baha'i Publishing is to bring that message to a wider audience, and give some elaboration and exploration so that people who are not familiar with the faith can learn more about it." Another spring title, A Wayfarer's Guide to Bringing the Sacred Home by Joseph Sheppherd, will apply Baha'i scripture and commentary to the topics of personal spiritual growth, the spiritual well-being of the family and the spiritual transformation of the community and world.
Translating the Koran is not undertaken lightly or often. Within Islam, the expectation is that the believer comes to the Koran, the words of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, in the original Arabic, and not the other way around. No new translations for the trade have been published in 2001, says Laleh Bakhtiar of Kazi Publications, the oldest and largest publisher and distributor of books on Islam in North America. But several anticipated commentaries or reference works appeared this year. Among them are the first volume of An Encyclopedia of the Qur'an (Brill, July), a five-volume series of comprehensive comment, exegesis and dictionary, edited by a team of international scholars for scholarly and general audiences. Prolific translator Thomas Cleary produced The Wisdom of the Prophet: The Sayings of Muhammad (Shambhala, Oct.), a selection of ahadith, documented teachings of Muhammad that form part of Islamic tradition.
The perennial wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, a 3,000-year-old sacred epic poem relating a conversation about the nature of life between the god Krishna and the despondent warrior Arjuna, continues to attract translators, commentators and readers. Among editions flowing from the tap in 2001 are an annotated version from SkyLight Paths, part of the publisher's Illuminations series of sacred texts from the world's religions. "The target reader for our new series of classic spiritual texts is the seeker who has never read them before," says associate publisher Jon Sweeney. "We select an accessible translation and then add facing-page notes that make reading the classic without prior knowledge effortless." Bhagavad Gita: Annotated and Explained (Sept.) pairs a prose translation by Shri Purohit Swami with new annotations by Kendra Crossen Burroughs, a longtime Gita student. God Talks with Arjuna: Royal Science of God-Realization (Self-Realization Fellowship, Sept.) is a paper edition of a two-volume translation and commentary by Paramahansa Yogananda, who taught Indian spiritual wisdom in the U.S. for more than 30 years. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (New World, Mar.) by Jack Hawley is, as the title underscores, intended for Westerners. Gita student Hawley, a part-time resident of India for 12 years and student of guru Sathya Sai Baba, synthesized more than 30 translations and commentaries to produce his own prose version.
The forthcoming Bhagavad Gita as a Living Experience (Lantern, Nov.) by scholar Wilfried Huchzermeyer and yoga instructor Jutta Zimmermann, who provides illustrations, approaches the Gita by linking its teachings to the different practices of the quintessentially spiritual discipline of yoga. Carl E. Woodham produces a Gita in rhymed couplets in Bhagavad Gita: The Song Divine (Torchlight, May); Woodham is a disciple of guru A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Another of the swami's disciples who is also an ordained Hindu priest, Krishna Dharma, has condensed and popularized India's 100,000-verse epic Mahabharata (Torchlight, May) into a single volume.
The entire Mahabharata, an epic of love and war comparable to the West's Iliad and Odyssey, actually contains the Bhagavad Gita; Sanskrit scholar James Fitzgerald at the University of Tennessee wishes more attention were paid to this and other ancient Indian sacred texts. He and colleagues in the field are trying to remedy that with a 10-volume translation of the Mahabharata for the University of Chicago Press that may be completed by 2004 and, while scholarly, is also intended for a general, educated audience. Fitzgerald observes increasing American interest in reading and studying the sacred texts of Hinduism, especially among the generation of young Americans with South Asian ancestry. "There seems to be a demand on the rise," says Fitzgerald.
Chinese Spiritual Masterworks
David Hinton's contemporary and poetic translations of ancient Chinese wisdom texts will finish with the paper version of Tao Te Ching (Counterpoint, Feb. 2002), Lao Tzu's 2,500-year-old spiritual masterwork. The series began with The Inner Chapters (1997) of Chuang Tzu--considered the cofounder with Lao Tzu of Taoism--followed by The Analects (1998) of Confucius and Mencius (1999), a record of the teachings of the 4th century B.C.E. sage Mencius. Winner of an American Academy of Poets translation prize, Hinton has also translated both ancient and contemporary Chinese poetry.
Buddhism from Zen to Tibet
In addition to its Chinese wisdom classics, Counterpoint also weighs in on the Buddhist tradition with The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom translated by Red Pine (Dec.). Red Pine, a scholar who knows Chinese and Sanskrit, combines his translation of this central sutra, or teaching of the Buddha, with a synthesis of dozens of commentaries from among the more than 20,000 believed to exist about this Buddhist text.
Blue Cliff Record: Zen Echoes (Codhill Press, Dec.) is not a strict translation of this 12th-century Zen Buddhist storehouse of koans--paradoxes used by Zen Buddhist masters to help students break through ordinary logical thinking. Instead, author and poet David Rothenberg presents his own rendering of the text, in the manner of sacred text interpreters Stephen Mitchell and Coleman Barks. The year-old Codhill Press was founded by David Appelbaum, editor of Parabola, the magazine of world spiritual traditions and archetypal psychology. Appelbaum said he saw too many manuscripts with merit that wouldn't fit into his magazine; Rothenberg, for example, is a Parabola contributor. "I'd like to see [Codhill] have a place in that part of the book market that caters to people who have spiritual interest, or interest in poetry and literature that deals with the spirit speaking through the many world traditions," Appelbaum says.
Thomas Cleary's translation of the same Zen classic is combined with his fresh translations of commentary by 18th-century Zen masters Hakuin and Tenkei in Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record (Shambhala, Jan. 2001). A master of East Asian languages as well as Arabic who has translated more than 50 volumes, independent translator Cleary is a mainstay of Shambhala's list. His Classics of Buddhism and Zen (Nov.) are collected in four volumes from the publisher. It's unusual, and fortunate for Shambhala, that Cleary has developed repute. "Usually a translator is sort of invisible," notes Jonathan Green, v-p and associate publisher. "But Cleary has a name. You rely on him to do things you think are interesting."
The vast treasury of Tibetan Buddhism continues to fuel new translations of texts, as a maturing and growing generation of American scholarship in the field slowly works its way through untranslated work or refreshes outdated translations. The Splendor of an Autumn Moon (Wisdom, June) presents, in Tibetan and English, devotional verse of Tsongkhapa, the 14th-century teacher and founder of the Gelug tradition, the Tibetan Buddhist school to which the Dalai Lama belongs. Translator Gavin Kilty teaches Buddhist studies in England as well as Tibetan in Dharamsala, India, home in exile of the Dalai Lama. Peacock in the Poison Grove (Wisdom, Aug..) contains two key poems from the 11th century in the Kadam tradition, the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The texts give mind-training teachings. Geshe Lhundub Sopa, founder of the Deer Park Buddhist Center in Oregon, Wis., translates and adds commentary; American Buddhist scholars Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling co-translate. Translation of another significant work by the Tibetan master Tsongkhapa will be completed in fall 2002 with volumes two and three of The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path (Lamrim Chenmo) from Snow Lion in Ithaca, N.Y. The Lamrin Chenmo Translation Committee includes 14 renowned American scholars of Tibetan Buddhism.
Wisdom publisher Tim McNeill said these translations will continue as scholars tap into the vast library of the Buddhist canon in response to interest from scholars and serious practitioners. Small print runs meet needs and then some. Wisdom sold out its initial print run last year of 4,000 of The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodi, a hefty work with a hefty price tag of $120. "A work of this size and complexity interests more than just professionals," McNeill says.
Finally, even Gnosticismenjoys a new translation of an important text, The Fall of Sophia: A Gnostic Text on the Redemption of Universal Consciousness (Lindisfarne, Nov.), translated from the Coptic by Egyptologist Violet MacDermot. Gnosticism is an ancient body of secret wisdom that early Christianity emphatically disavowed and that incorporated beliefs from a number of wisdom traditions. The text contains an allegory in which the resurrected Christ tells how he freed the divine Sophia, personification of divine wisdom, from imprisonment..