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Monday, December 20, 2010

Sanskrit Translations

What do we want to achieve with the translation of a Sanskrit term? Who are our target-readers? This seems to me to be the chief question while deciding about a translation. In fact, in many cases a translation ends up being understandable only to specialists.

A good example is, in my opinion, the translation of vyāpti, the invariable concomitance holding between the elements of an inference, e.g., between fire and smoke.
Vyāpti is a nomen actionis from the root vyāp-, which literally means 'to pervade'. Hence, many (most, I would say) authors translate vyāpti with 'pervasion'. This has almost become a terminus technicus in the works dedicated to Sanskrit logic. But is it a good choice? Is not it only understandable by an elite, which hence runs the risk to appear non-interested in communicating with any scholar outside itself?
To elaborate, 'pervasion' seems to me to be not-understandable for non-Sanskritists. It does not correspond to any logical term (as, instead, probans for hetu) in Western logic, nor is it intuitively understandable (as 'invariable concomitance' for vyāpti, which at least describes what is at stake). 'Pervasion' is just a literal translation of the Sanskrit term, which tries to reproduce the metaphor in English. Personally, I (and I suspect many others) only understand it, because I automatically translate it back into Sanskrit.

However, against 'invariable concomitance' Michael Williams (Manchester) made me aware of the fact that it does not point out that a vyāpti is not necessarily a commutable relationship. For instance, wherever there is smoke, there is necessarily fire, but it is not the case that wherever there is fire there is smoke. Indeed, according to the Ancient Indian Physics, there is fire in a piece of melting iron, though there is no smoke accompanying it.
Hence, one could use a paraphrase, such as "Smoke is invariably concomitant with fire", thus implying that the opposite is not necessarily the case.
Moreover, 'pervasion' is delusory also as for the 'direction' of the relationship. In the standard example, the point is that there is no smoke without fire. But, if one says that "Fire pervades smoke", does the listener understand that fire is a larger set than fire? Or does not s/he imagine fire 'permeating' (i.e., becoming diffused within) smoke, thus implying that smoke is a smaller set?

8 comments:

michael reidy said...

To this non-sanskritist this particular form of inductive reasoning is blindingly simple. It's a form of inductive reasoning or indeed inference to the best explanation. The term pratiyogin and its associates 'pratiyogita' and 'anuyogin' are more fraught as they have no precise analogue in Western Logic. I fall back to my old thesis that Philosophy is not Poetry. Poetry as they say is what is lost in translation. Philosophy can always be got at, those ancients were not from Mars. The aporia are drawn from a universal stock in the aporiai shop.

elisa freschi said...

Very interesting thumb-rule, thanks.
But what do you think of vyāpti as "pervasion"? Most importantly, did you understand it when you started reading Sanskrit texts in translation?

michael reidy said...

I never encountered it as pervasion any more than I encountered 'upadhi' as burden. When the actual account of the inference from invariant concomitance was given then the notion was clear. These are metaphorical terms in the original which the translator will find other corresponding technical terms for. I presume the idea from the metaphor of pervasion is that one set of circumstances eg. smoke is penetrated entirely by another eg. fire. One could talk of venn diagrams as a more mathematical representation of the same idea.

When a concept like 'pratiyogin' comes up which has no clear analogue then description has to precede translation. When I encountered 'counterpositive' in Vedantaparibhasa I was puzzled but as you look in other sources the fog clears a little. It is also rendered as 'counter-correlative' and 'absentee'. The main thing is to get a grasp of the work that it is doing in the system and work from there much as you would do if you were a native speaker.

Patrick said...

Very interesting, grazie! I'm presently correcting a translation into French from English from Tibetan from Sanskrit, and I was worried by a "vyāpti-pervasion" I only saw as a kind of correctness between premises & consequence -- althouh the example of fire & smoke was present in my mind... BTW, I'm translating the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra into French (this is my main work as for now) from Śikṣānanda's Chinese version, & you cannot imagine the number of abysmal gaps & discrepancies I can find in the Chinese text (considered as a genial translation) when I compare it with the original Sanskrit & its Tibetan translation... I'm not a sanskritist but a "buddhologist" -- & as such I highly appreciate your "blog" I dicovered recently. Can you speak French ? T'would be molto più facile per me se bisognava communicare un po' più... Mes hommages !

elisa freschi said...

Michael, I agree, "The main thing is to get a grasp of the work that it is doing in the system and work from there much as you would do if you were a native speaker". The problem is that often one has several 'incognita' in one sentence, for instance one discussing a pratiyogin, an anuyogin, within the context of abhāva or samavāya. Hence, the translator needs to enable her readers to have an initial, though approximate, grasp of what is at stake, so that the hermeneutic wheel can be set into motion. Venn diagrams are often intuitively understandable. In all other cases, however, I am not sure that mathematical or logical symbols are in themselves a solution, in case they imply that from the reader a double competence is required, so that things are made more complex instead of smoother.

elisa freschi said...

Cher Patrick,
mon francais n'est pas suffisant pour ecrir ou communiquer seulement en francais, mais je peut le lire tres aisement. C'est genial que vous pouvez comparer Chinois, Tibetain et Sanskrit. Comment comprenez vous la difference entre tradition de traductions chinoise et tibetaine (les traductions tib. semblent plus precises, n'est pas?)?

Patrick said...

Bonjour et Joyeux Noël !
Autant les traductions chinoises avant Xuanzang sont "libres", fondées uniquement sur le sens (plus ou moins bien compris) de l'original, autant les traductions tibétaines sont "proches" de l'original au point de parfois le calquer en en reproduisant tous les préfixes, etc. Mais à tout cela il y a des exceptions, assez nombreuses. Pour prendre deux grands textes traduits du sanskrit en tibétain, le Sandhinirmocana et l'Avatamsaka, le premier a été traduit par Cog ro klu'i rgyal mtshan et le second par Bairotsana, tous deux proches de Padmasambhava, etc. Et pourtant, la trad. de Cog ro est TERRIBLEment littérale, très incompréhensible, amphigourique et laide, alors que celle de Bairotsana, très proche du sanskrit et du BHS des parties versifiées, est d'une remarquable clarté, et même "de lecture agréable". Cette dernière traduction est un exemple parfait de la non-séparation entre littéralisme et inventivité (relativement libre) de la part du traducteur. On peut reprocher à l'ancienne traduction chinoise (Kumarajiva, Bodhiruci, Siksananda, par exemple) les immenses libertés qu'ils prennent par rapport même à l'organisation de l'original, ce qui n'empêche que la tradition, la foi, et l'appréciation "populaire" sont toujours allées à cette ancienne traduction. Le miracle, c'est que les traducteurs chinois (sauf Xuanzang) se respectent tous, et dans leurs prédécesseurs ils ne voient pas de fautes mais du "travail en cours" ou une autre façon de dire les choses... Ce qui me frappe le plus, c'est que, même apparemment fautive, une traduction puissent ne rien perdre en fait de "charge illuminative" -- les traductions "anciennes" ont fait autant de "saints", sinon plus, que les "nouvelles traductions" -- et cela, aussi bien en Chine qu'au Tibet.

elisa freschi said...

Well, while I was studying Tibetan I pondered a lot about the etymology of lo tsa ba as 'lokacakṣuḥ', "eye of the world". My teacher (Fabrizio Torricelli) used to say that the true lo tsa bas (and I guess the same could apply to the best Chinese translators as well) were able to 'think back' the content and render it into Tibetan. Hence, it does not surprise me that their texts were spiritual achievements on their own right.

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