Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Lost in Translation

I’m looking at an edition of what is regarded as an important basic text on Vedanta called Vedanta-Sara of Sadananda translated by Swami Nikhilananda and published by Advaita Ashrama. In a chapter on The Jiva and Superimposition the various positions of The Carvakas, The Buddhists, Mimamsakas, and Sunyavadins are delineated in summary form.

All those views are different which ought to warn us that even though those ancients dreamed in Sanskrit they could still disagree. What is the significance of this for those who impugn an understanding of Vedanta on the basis of translations? It is simply this. Those who claim that an understanding as a native speaker is necessary for the understanding of Vedanta are simply wrong. It is neither necessary nor sufficient.

I draw a distinction between Philosophy and Literature in the matter of translation. Poetry is what is lost in translation. If the Philosophy is lost then there was not much there in the first place or the translator is incompetent and lacks a good grounding in Philosophy. I am assuming that he is practically bi-lingual in the ideal case. The difficulty is of course that when the understanding of the text in the original is a matter of contention then that contested understanding may well be transferred to the translation in the matter of difficult issues. Here textual notes are vital. In any case there is no such thing as a vital text that stands alone in an unglossed state in various languages. The serious student will be able to find in the competing interpretations his own rapprochement with the original. I have been pleased in the past but not surprised to find my own interpretation of a difficult text such as the Brahma Sutra Bhasya by Sankara validated by authors with a scholarly knowledge of the orignal combined with a similar acquaintance with the philosophical issues.

So what is at play in the insistence that a knowledge of Sanskrit is a sine qui non of engagement with the philosophical issues? In some cases particularly of the traditionalists there is the belief that Sanskrit is a sacred language and the further away one moves from that initial divine transmission of the scriptures the more one departs from authenticity. This attitude is also to be found in the proponents of Arabic as the language of God and to a lesser extent in the scrying of the Hebrew Bible by kabballists. That is to imagine that ‘messer’ has more cutting power that ‘knife’ or ‘scian’.

That may be the esoteric reason for the elevation of Sanskrit scholarship but the exoteric reason may be even more powerful. Is it not a matter of Brahminical gatekeeping?

An interesting article by Rajesh Kochhar brings the historical roots of this out.
There is nothing in the laws or institutes of the Hindus which authorizes a monopoly of a knowledge of the Sanskrit language by any one caste or order of the people. The only monopoly insisted upon by the Brahmans was that of tuition. They allowed no other caste to teach—they enjoined the military and agricultural castes to learn, even the holy books, the Vedas. 


Since career as a teacher or priest was out of bounds for non-Brahmins, undergoing a 10-year regimen would not be worth the effort for them even if it were permitted. Upper-caste non-Brahmins desirous of learning Sanskrit for the sake of literature may have been taught the language, but their number would necessarily be small. There was resistance from Brahmins to admitting non-Brahmins into the Sanskrit club. In the mid nineteenth century when Isvarchandra Vidyasagar as principal of the Calcutta Sanskrit College proposed the admission of non-Brahmins, he was opposed by the faculty. He silenced his opponents by pointing out that they had willingly taught the Shastras to a Sudra like Raja Radhakanta Deb and the mlechchha Europeans.

Now everyone can join the club but once you are a member the belief that you have interpretive preeminence takes hold.


Vidya said...

I agree in a general sense that knowledge of a language is neither necessary nor sufficient to know philosophy and there is a social history surrounding language, power and knowledge. However, I wanted to add an addition perspective into the mix on your discussion on poetry vs philosophy.

- If you look at the some of the discussions among aestheticians, there are viewpoints that say prAkrta is more beautiful than samskrta when it comes to poetry and music and Samskrta is the preferred route for sastra-s.

- Personally whether it is Samskrtam or another language like Tamizh,I believe it is the "layered meaning" that get lost in translation esp in philosophy.

A subjective opinion here but, I sometimes feel English vocabulary limits me to unidimensional usages in representing some ideas.In Samskrta (or other Indian languages too), we encounter the same terms in many senses based on the context- ie what is termed sAmAnyArtha or generic and visheshArtha or specific/qualified usage. Yet English, I would need to write paragraphs to explain such subtleties of usage. There is also a lot of thought in texts as to why a certain word has been used, background history of its derivation and an awareness of words- either through translation or in original is also part of the knowledge corpus so obtained. I think this is a part of what people mean when they say lost in translation when it comes to philosophy.

What I would like to know is whether such a viewpoint prevails among other European languages too - such as whether someone who translates Leibniz or a Latin theological work into English feels this way? ie The question is if this just a part of universal 'classical' language ivory tower or if it has to do inherent 'linguistic' properties?

ombhurbhuva said...

What do you put down the phenomenon of native speakers disagreeing on the meaning of some philosophical text to? When I read the word 'mind' in Kant, Locke or Hume or Wittgenstein I know that these writers have different connotations. This is part of what is called speaker's meaning. No text stands alone. If a genuinely new problem field comes up it may require a new vocabulary. Even in your native language bridges have to be built using what is available to create new connections and a new understanding. It's a form of translation also. Samuel Taylor Coleridge writing on Plato made some error in Greek which a Professor was quick to point out. However others declared that while the Professor knew more Greek Coleridge knew more Plato.

Vidya said...

That was very interesting. Thank you.

I also think, one of the reasons native speakers disagree on the meaning has to do with mode of transmission. When the preferred mode of transmission of source text is a terse sutra, it automatically opens itself to the possibility of multiple interpretations.

Consider another example, When I encounter words such as moksha, kaivalya, nirvana, mukti and I see them all translated as 'liberation' (or salvation) that is when I perceive a loss of texture and precision. I see that this is a universal phenomenon now. Yes,one solution is to come up with specific equivalent term in the target language or precise explanation would work in such cases or leave some terms untranslated.