Saturday, 1 March 2014
On translation, and the case for learning Sanskrit.
To the followers of #SanskritAppreciationHour and the readers of my blog, this piece will come as no surprise. It's something I've expressed myself very often about on Twitter. Yet, speaking to Advaita Kala made me realise the need to bring all my stray references together. The perils of translation across cultures are a matter of record. The title of Umberto Eco's scholarly and highly engaging book 'Mouse or Rat'1 says it all. A man called मूषक in a Sanskrit text (for whatever reason, maybe it's a Hitopadeśa like story!), would come across to the reader of the English translation very differently depending on whether he’s called Mr. Mouse or Mr. Rat. So the Italian saying 'traduttore, tradittore' (translator, traitor) is not without cause. Yet we’ve translated probably from the day language began to communicate with people outside our speech community. There have always been good/ bad/ reliable/ offensive/ terrible/ obnoxious/ excellent/ mediocre translations, and that description depends as much on the translator as it does on the reader who receives the translation.
I'm inclined to agree with Patrick Olivelle, who says every act of translation is an act of interpretation. And in my experience that interpretation depends on one’s world view (Weltanschauung) and the narrative one is comfortable with. Even on #SanskritAppreciationHour, not a session passes without some participant tweeting - 'I prefer this translation (of say, dharma) to the one you've chosen'. Now if you're reading a play or a poem, it doesn't matter that much if you translate काषाय as red or saffron or ochre. But when it comes to religious texts the story is completely different. If you don't learn Sanskrit, professors at my college will tell you that you have to read at least four English translation to get even close to the meaning of the Sanskrit. So if you’re interested in reading religious texts, the case for learning Sanskrit is a no-brainer really!
Sanskrit words have wide semantic fields, and can consequently be translated in many ways into English. Let's look at some examples. Last week I translated kālabhairavāṣṭakam on #SanskritAppreciationHour, and the word bhīma I took as formidable, because of my personal bhakti to Śiva. I could not conceive of him as being dreadful, terrible, and frightening, which were other options available to me. It took a participant sending me this picture to make me reconsider my translation.
Everyone does this whether they admit it to themselves or not. Let’s look at some other examples that have been in the news recently. Doniger translates kāmasakta (to describe Daśaratha in the Rāmāyaṇa) as ‘hopelessly attached to lust’ (verily, a sex addict). Were I to do so, I might have said something like ‘attached to sensual pleasures.’2 Sakta from √सञ्ज् meaning to cling, to adhere, to stick. From the same root we get सक्तु so called because of its stickiness. And kāma hardly needs translation, but still, for the record can be interpreted as desire, love, longing, sensuality, erotic or sexual love, wish, affection, pleasure and much more. So Doniger with her world view interprets it as lust, whereas another person with a different worldview would not.
Let’s come to another example. During their interview, Dinanath Batra told Advaita that गो means इन्द्रिय rather than cow3. He’s absolutely right. It does mean इन्द्रिय (organ). But it also means cow, which is why we understand Gopāla to mean protector of cows, and Govinda to mean the one who finds the cows, but also the one who pleases the senses. Clearly गो doesn’t just mean इन्द्रिय.4 A classic polyvalent Sanskrit word, गो can mean cow, light, a region of the sky, number nine, mother, water, earth, speech, organ and much more. A lot depends also on context. If I saw गो in a yoga text talking about karmendriyāṇi I would know that it means an organ of action. But if I saw it in a śrauta or gṛhya text, it would mean cow.
Translation is tricky business. Translators are often regarded with scepticism and distrust. And their antecedents alone are often cause to reject their work outright. I’m not here to preach, but seing as it's my blog, I will share my personal view! So long as I know where the translator is coming from, and what filters he/she is likely to apply to the text, I factor that in, and read accordingly. For instance, D.N Jha and Jaidayal Dalmia (Gita Press Gorakhpur)5 stand at opposite poles on the issue of animal sacrifice in Vedic texts. In this case it is not just translation of individual words like go-ghna, but also selective quoting from ancient scriptures to build their respective and mutually exclusive narratives. I would reject neither, read both, and make my way to the original texts to check out the veracity of the references, and assess their translations based on my knowledge of Sanskrit. But to empower yourself this way, it is essential that you learn Sanskrit. Otherwise you'll always be at the mercy of a translator/traitor!
4 Meanings of Sanskrit words have been taken from the following dictionaries: