February 14, 2015

Tibetan Philology

During his recent visit to Universität Hamburg, rDzong-gsar mKhyen-brtse Rin-po-che (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) asked me how I would translate “philology” into Tibetan. I briefly explained that translating it as (a) sgra rig pa would be inaccurate and misleading for sgra rig pa is used for “science of language” and specifically for “Sanskrit grammar.” One also cannot translate it as (b) skad rigs rig pa (which would be better suitable for “linguistics”) and as (c) mtshan nyi rig pa (which is a misleading translation for “philosophy”). So I proposed, on the spur of moment, to translate it as tha snyad rig pa (i.e. “science or study of terms”), about which I am not happy. But frankly, none of the dictionary meanings of the word “philology” that I find seems satisfactory. (a) One of the meanings given is “the study of language; especially: the study of how languages or words develop” or “linguistics; especially: historical and comparative linguistics,” which is extremely narrow and misleading. (b) The other meaning “the study of human speech especially as the vehicle of literature and as a field of study that sheds light on cultural history” seems a bit better but still deficient. Actually, none of the above meanings seems to represent its spirit suggested by its etymology (i.e. “love of learning and literature”). The explanation given in the Wikipedia seems a bit better: “Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history, and linguistics. It is more commonly defined as the study of literary texts and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning.” But a practicing philologist might not agree with this description either and might think that it does not really represent what philology is. Perhaps one can try to define “philology” by carefully studying the methodical attitude and approaches of an “archetypical philologist.” (Although it might seem circular.) As far as I can see, (a) an archetypical philologist works mainly with the textual materials from the past that have somehow transmitted to the present. (a) An archetypical philologist has an excellent command or mastery over the pertinent source languages. (c) An archetypical philologist have a deep and keen sense and sensibility of history. Someone who thinks ahistorically can never be a philologist. (d) An archetypical philologist attempts to determine and explain the inception, transmission/evolution, and dissemination/reception of those texts, languages, and idea conveyed by them. (e) An archetypical philologist is acutely aware of the problems, limitations, and the hypothetical nature of the proposed solutions and explanations. (f) An archetypical philologist presupposes the efficacy of languages in conveying certain ideas and also presupposes that a text or its author intends to convey or express specific (not any) ideas, and that one should make an honest attempt to understand and explain them. (g) A greater part of an archetypical philologist’s work would consist in critically editing the texts, critically translating them, and explaining both the texts and the ideas and their historical evolution. The discipline of such a scholar can be called “philology.” “Tibetan philology” may be defined as a “discipline that is devoted to investigating textual sources written in Tibetan language and the ideas transmitted therein,” or a “discipline that is devoted to gaining diachronic and synchronic understanding of textual sources written in Tibetan language and the ideas transmitted therein.” I see that the expression “Tibetan Philology” is used by Berthod Laufer (“The Application of the Tibetan Sexagenary Cycle,” 1913, p. 574, n. 1). There may be also earlier sources.

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