The Dalai Lama’s Interpreter Opens Up About Working With His Holiness

By Jon Letman Posted: 10/18/2013

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Tenzin Dorjee and the Dalai Lama, April 12, 2012. | Jon Letman

Dalai LamaHis Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama Of Tibet

Editor’s Note: When the 14th Dalai Lama visited Honolulu for the inaugural Pillars of Peace Hawaii in April 2012, Civil Beat contributor Jon Letman was curious about the interpreter who stood beside the Dalai Lama at every appearance. Shortly after he interviewed him to explore what it’s like to work with the Dalai Lama.

By chance, the Dalai Lama’s usual interpreters were unavailable to travel to Hawaii so Chhime Rigzing, the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary, contacted Dorjee.

After so many years Dorjee was very excited to be reunited with the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist world. “There was an emotional significance.”

Speaking in English, the Dalai Lama can certainly hold his own even discussing topics that would stump many native speakers. Having an interpreter at his side is, in some ways, more for his own sense of security than out of necessity. But for Dorjee, it meant standing close by and remaining attentive at all times, ready to perform a task he calls intensely challenging but a great honor.

Human But Divine

“His Holiness’s thinking is very deep and profound,” Dorjee says.

The Dalai Lama is the author of more than 100 books but because he is not a native English speaker, he occasionally struggles to find commonly used words, leaving him to improvise, like calling a medicine chest a “medicine box.”

On days Dorjee translated for the Dalai Lama, he was almost constantly at his side “Because he would go until 6 or 7 in the evening, it was very exhausting.” One one occasion, Dorjee says, he nearly blew it.

“As a Tibetan, the Dalai Lama is everything to us,” he says. He is a human but also a divine being and so we put him on a pedestal. It was the first time and I got nervous.”

Dorjee had made a mistake to which the Dalai Lama responded with a firm “No.” “I was so scared, I had a blackout,” Dorjee says. “When I regained my senses I realized that  His Holiness was speaking in English and I thought, ‘Well, that was the first and last chance for me. No one will call me back.’”

But they did call back, repeatedly.

“It’s challenging because you have to follow his train of thought,” he says. “He might not be speaking in Tibetan, but if he struggles to find a word, you have to guess it.”

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Hard to Keep Up

“He can quote a hundred different books from memory and you have to catch up with his brilliant mind. It’s very tough,” Dorjee says.

The Pillars of Peace events in Hawaii, he says, were relatively simple because the audiences were primarily students and the general public and the topics — pursuing peace and cultivating compassion — were relatively easy.

Victor Chan, founding director of The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Vancouver, B.C., attended Pillars of Peace. He agreed Dorjee’s task was light compared to what some interpreters face. Chan explains that it’s not uncommon for the Dalai Lama to speak uninterrupted for 15 to 20 minutes before pausing for an interpreter to recall the entire monologue.

“The translator is expected to remember everything without taking notes,” Chan says.

“It’s not easy to translate for His Holiness … unless you know the vocabulary of neuroscience and psychology.

The Dalai Lama calls himself “a simple Buddhist monk” and in a gesture of humility, talks about speaking “broken English.”

“He can easily talk in English non-stop without notes for an hour and a half and hold his audience spellbound.”

Not So Simple

Dorjee points out that Tibetans view the Dalai Lama differently from non-Tibetans. While the Dalai Lama is, in one sense, very down to earth and able to connect with people regardless of background and really doesn’t care about a person’s status or power, he is much more than a “simple Buddhist monk.”

“If we really look at his life’s history and the institution of the Dalai Lama and how it started … he is the 14th in the line, a human incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig), Embodiment of Compassion. That means he can’t just be simple — it’s very different. He’s a highly evolved, realized person,” Dorjee says. “So it’s a challenge how to relate to him.”

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A 15th Dalai Lama?

And what of the future of the Dalai Lama? He has said he will address the question of succession when he is 90 years old.

Dorjee points out that the Dalai Lama often speaks of the importance of cultures adapting to new circumstances.

“We don’t want to think about a 15th because the 14th is very much alive, but at the same time we have to be realistic. As His Holiness often says, he won’t be here anymore. Yes, I do think about it.”

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