On a chilly morning this September, laughter rang through the Dalai Lama Temple, situated in McLeod Ganj, a town perched above Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama had just told a joke, and an audience of elderly Tibetans, seated in the temple’s brightly painted inner sanctum, were giggling. However, in the vast concrete outer hall that surrounds the inner sanctum, separate audiences of hundreds of listeners remained silent. Moments later, pockets of laughter broke out among them and rippled through the hall. Dotted among the listeners were roughly half a dozen figures who sat in intense concentration, cross-legged at low wooden desks, wearing headphones and talking quickly into microphones.
While the Dalai Lama spoke from the inner sanctum, this group translated his teachings. Their voices were broadcast, live, to a number of public radio channels. The listeners, visiting the temple from all over the world, wore headphones and cradled portable radios, following the translations on crackling FM waves.
All of the Dalai Lama’s interpreters have either completed, or are completing, a 16-year curriculum at McLeod Ganj’s Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, where they study Buddhist scripture and the Tibetan language. They are not paid for their translation services, and they have to travel abroad frequently to the Dalai Lama’s speaking engagements. Before each session, the interpreters receive literature related to the teachings, but not the actual text. The Dalai Lama does not pause for translation, so they listen and interpret simultaneously for the entire speech, which often lasts between three and four hours. While conveying philosophical ideas may be tough, several translators I spoke to said the Dalai Lama’s jokes posed some of the greatest challenges.