Translation as Spiritual Practice

Richard Sadowsky / サドゥスキー リチャード

I left the U.S. at the age of 20 sparked by an interest in Zen, not knowing I would spend the rest of my life in Japan. Earning a living as a freelance translator is something I feel fortunate to have accomplished and for which I will always be grateful.

Why grateful? Because I get paid to do what I enjoy. I like translating— finding creative ways to re-express meaning, solving myriad problems along the way. Translating for me is like doing crossword puzzles for a living, rewarded by each box filled in correctly or sentence well translated.

It also makes sense to me, considering how many waking hours we spend working, that we should use the time for a higher purpose. Of course, earning hard cash to build a life in the material world is enough purpose right there. Almost full stop. A relatively steady income and the security that brings contribute to peace of mind, even knowing nothing lasts forever.

Income isn’t everything, though. There’s satisfaction, fulfillment. . . And the mindset we apply during the workday will shape that experience. You might, for example, treat a job as drudgery or as an inconvenience. You might blame the writing style for being convoluted or the client for not providing necessary reference material. Look and you shall find obstacles to “perfect conditions.” The real world is messy—that’s a given; how you perceive and frame things is not. Everyone deals with ups and downs in different ways. You may be predisposed to negative thinking, succumb to stewing, or find your mindstate easily overwhelmed by anger, frustration, worry, confusion. You may want everything to be just right.


Think of this possibility—reframe, take a new approach to a difficult situation. Let’s say you drop the resistance to getting what you don’t want and not getting what you want. You just relax into the moment and take whatever comes, open and attentive to the possibilities, seeing the situation realistically and taking it as a creative challenge.

Silent meditation is of course really helpful. If you do sit, you will find that merely slowing down and breathing is restful and regenerative. You soon realize there is a witness to how the mind jumps from one thing to another, how constant is the running commentary. Through the simple act of observing the mind, even if for a moment, you are no longer enthralled by its machinations, hooked by hungry ghosts, line and sinkered by seductive stories.

It is a natural tendency of the discursive mind to rehash the past and rehearse the future, but a commitment to returning to the present moment is all you need for a subtle shift to take place, a letting go into non-clinging awareness that can have transformative effects.

Once we accept that life is a messy struggle, we respect that. We learn to be kind to ourselves for insistently making bad choices— unproductive toward the wellbeing of ourselves and others. And we fess up to not taking responsibility for being in a pickle of our own salting.

Then we become free. We don’t need to get defensive when language choices we have made are called into question, or feel inadequate or embarrassed by mistakes, but can confidently admit our failings. We apply thoughtful patience to problems, maintain prompt communication habits, and try to make life easier for others, all the while keeping in mind that our profession is an interdependent web of relations—and our niche something to be grateful for.