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Monday, January 17, 2011

Purpose of translations

What is the purpose of a translation? It could be either meant to make the text understandable in itself or to offer a path within the original text. The first option is the one implicitly adopted by most translations of Western texts into Western languages, but it presupposes some common background in order to be viable. On the other hand, the second option is the rule in most Indian and Western translations of Indian texts, which sound often awkward and display an unfamiliar English (or German, etc.). Be it explicit or not, their purpose is not to offer to the reader an independent text, but rather an easier path within the Sanskrit text. One reads them along the Sanskrit text and can, hence, better understand its syntax, avoid looking for the meaning of unusual words and so on. However, one does not use the translation as an independent text and one keeps on thinking in terms of hetu and dharmin, or of bodhicitta and upāyakauśalya. The technical translations of these terms (and of many others) immediately recall their Sanskrit original and often this recollective power is favoured by translators over the English (or German, etc.) shade of meaning. A well-known example is that of vyāpti (already discussed in this blog) translated as ``pervasion", although such translation runs the risk to convey the idea that the pervader (vyāpaka) is of smaller size than the pervaded (vyāpya). In such cases, the translation has, hence, the role a basic commentary had for Sanskrit students. It paves them the way into the text and it has no independent value. In order to do that, it is often more a metaphrase than a paraphrase, as it has already been the case with Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts.

In sum, an independent translation of a Sanskrit text into a Western language is hardly possible, unless in selected topics, where scholars have already developed a common background (perhaps, some branches of linguistics or logic). Hence, if I am not wrong in this analysis, translators are bound to write a translation which plays the role of a basic commentary. However, basic commentaries are hardly enough to fill the cultural gap between today's readers and the Sanskrit authors. Hence, many translators have decided to add extensive footnotes, a line-to-line commentary, a separate commentary or a long introduction to the texts they were translating. Personally, I tend to write a separate commentary in the form of a long introduction because I am afraid that too long footnotes may hinder one's reading too much. Moreover I hope that the long commentary might provide the reader with the common background which will enable her to read the translation as if it were an independent text.

11 comments:

AC said...

Hmmmm, are you preparing a book?

Happy new year!

elisa freschi said...

Strange question, Adi. I have always been preparing a book, in the last 30 years or so. The only problem is that I never end them!
What is your opinion about the purpose of translations? Do you also re-translate English technical terms into Sanskrit?
Happy New Year to you, too!

displayname said...

Good observations. But I think it's also possible, and indeed desirable, to produce a few "translations" that can be read independently, for the general reader.

This is certainly the case with translations of Sanskrit poetry: while (obviously!) no English translation can even approach close to the effect of the Sanskrit original consistently, still some good independent "translations" have been written that appeal to the general non-Sanskritist reader (e.g. translations of poetry by Andrew Schelling, John Brough, or Barbara Stoler Miller).

The situation may be different in philosophy, but as an outsider to philosophy I think this is a problem with philosophy in general (IMHO): that it often appears too tied to specific historical individuals and texts rather than ideas themselves. For instance, in mathematics or science, we don't always keep saying "Gauss proved that…" or "Newton discovered that…" but discuss the ideas themselves, whereas in philosophy it seems to always be "Philosopher X argued that…" or "The work Y says that…", and texts in which the ideas have been assimilated are fewer (at least in Western English works on Indian philosophy).

elisa freschi said...

I am not an expert on poetry, but I also think that there are several very good translations of Indian poetry which are independent of the original text. The translator has been in fact able to reproduce the gist of the verse without needing to take into account the problem of how can could one translate haṃsa or jambū and so on.
This works perfectly whenever what is described (still) corresponds to what today's reader might have felt or imagined to feel: the trepidation of a young girl going in the night to visit her beloved one, a young girl enraged and hence even more beautiful, adulterous love… But we do have translation problems even in the case of poetry when it comes to other cases, such as the depiction of an allegedly beutiful women who is said not to be able to move because of her "fat" breasts… Long story short: I am not sure that philosophical ideas depend on historical circumstances and poetical and mathematical ones do not. Personally, I would suggest that they all depend on historical circumstances (e.g.: one has to share the historically given worldview that adulterous love needs to be sanctioned in order to enjoy Sanskrit verses about it). However, the accuracy of one's understanding is more important in philosophy, whereas in poetry the translator is freer to "create" a beautiful verse on a Sanskrit model. What do you think?

Olivia Cattedra said...

I agree with the vision of Elisa... ... ... ... .., Taking into account the emphasis of Indian tradition in the consciousness, knowledge and understanding, and even, the “understanding of THE understanding”, I believe that without neglecting the essential methodological bases, the search for a way into the text, in terms of make it easier, is a most valid hermeneutic option, and it also converges with the purpose of Indian tradition as it is defined by itself, for example in the Upanishads.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for the comment and welcome in the blog!
I must humbly admit that I can trace back the Upaniṣadic passage you refer to with:
"it also converges with the purpose of Indian tradition as it is defined by itself, for example in the Upanishads."
Could you spell it out?

Anonymous said...

"One reads them along the Sanskrit text and can, hence, better understand its syntax, avoid looking for the meaning of unusual words and so on."

But... but that's cheating!

elisa freschi said...

Dear Anonymous,

you have surely noted that I have problems understanding short comments. What is cheating? Looking at the translation in order to understand the text? Well, only if you then claim you are a great Sanskritist. But you will agree that it is very helpful for students or in the case of very complex texts for people coming from a different field of studies. I, for one, am very grateful to V. Eltschinger's translation of Dharmakīrti… aren't you?

Anonymous said...

"you have surely noted that I have problems understanding short comments."

Sorry, no, I hadn't noticed that. I see that I should probably be using emoticons. I wasn't being that serious. Not THAT serious.

"What is cheating? Looking at the translation in order to understand the text? Well, only if you then claim you are a great Sanskritist."

The more you resort to translations, the further you get from becoming even a good sanskritist. Translations retard progress in the mastery of both text and language. But it's true that it is impossible to be an academic indologist without using translations, since very few non-pandits are capable of reading in the original the breath of texts required for writing academic papers. It all depends on what's important to you: bringing yourself to the point where you can sit alone with a beloved text and understand it on its own terms, without intermediaries, from within its own world, or writing histories of texts that you don't really know very well. That's OK too: even I have enjoyed reading that kind of thing, in the past, and indeed it is not possible for us outsiders to develop a broad sense of the total tradition without them. We begin too late, we don't have the time to catch up. Even if your ultimate goal is the deepest possible relation with a text, you'll need translations to get you to the point where that becomes possible, and you can kick the ladder away behind you.

"But you will agree that it is very helpful for students or in the case of very complex texts for people coming from a different field of studies."

On the contrary, I think the use of translations by students is extremely damaging and retarding (at least where study of the language, rather than of the historical and cultural context, is concerned), and the effect of it can be seen in the numbers of people making their living in the academy today under the name of sanskritist when in fact they would be incapable of understanding a single verse of sanskrit without a translation at their elbow. As for people coming from other fields: personally, I'm not inspired by the work of people who come to sanskrit texts from, say, gender studies, and know no more of the texts they think they're handling than what J.B. van Buitenen and Alf Hiltebeitel tell them, but I guess that, in a shrinking and/or growing world that needs all the mutual understanding it can get, even the work of such people has its importance.

"I, for one, am very grateful to V. Eltschinger's translation of Dharmakīrti… aren't you?"

Never heard of the first guy, the second I know only by name. If I cared enough about Dharmakirti (and yes, it was inevitably through reading somebody's translation that, long ago, I realized that I didn't), I'd take the time and trouble to get to know him face to face. And you undoubtedly know what a priceless experience that is, when the distorting noise of one's memory of non-sanskritic intermediaries, useful in infancy, has gradually faded to zero, and one is left alone in the room with the master. But again, such a relation with a text is not very productive of learned papers, so if you want to write learned papers, you really can't do without V. Eltschinger and company in the room with you. To each his own svadharma.

elisa freschi said...

these are really challenging points, dear anonymous. I will have to dedicate a separate post on them. By the way, would not you like to elaborate on your thesis in a guest post (anonymous, ça va sans dire).

Anonymous said...

Wow, Elisa, I’m really glad that you find what I have written inspiring. I’m not so good at being the first voice in a discussion, though, so I’ll wait for your next post.

अश्वमित्रः (Filippo Anonimo during working hours)

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