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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Should we just write in English?

English native speakers have the undoubtful advantage of having the chance to write in their own language while writing in a sort of lingua franca, understood by the whole Academia. But what about the rest of us?

  • Should we just write in English —since, after all, we address a public which is supposed to read English well enough?
  • Should we write in English while addressing an academic public and in our mother-tongue while addressing a more general one, one which could still need introductory works on, e.g., the Bhagavadgītā or the Yoga system?
  • Should we write in English our essays and in our mother-tongue our translations? (This seems to be the policy adopted in Vienna by E. Steinkellner, H. Krasser, their students and colleagues.)

In favour of the idea of writing in English speak many compelling reasons, one for all is the wider accessability of essays written in English. However, against it, I can find at least two interesting points:
  1. 1. It is hardly the case that one's English is good enough to master all nuances of the English language. Translating in English, hence, entails translating in a less-refined way.
  2. 2. We all work on Indian topics, because (among other things) we are convinced of the importance of keeping alive the lore of Indian thought, safeguarding its différence within the process of homologation of thought. Doing it through a single medium —does not this entail a contradiction?

Which languages do readers use while blogging/writing/translating? Which different readerships do you address? And, if you are an English Native Speaker, how do you feel about "our" use of English?

You might read here and here some interesting comments on translating from Sanskrit into English (especially if one has not English as one's native tongue).


Vidya Jayaraman said...

Interesting questions..

On one hand, when the area you work/write/publish on is not a popular one, it seems a good idea to not fragment the audience further and adopt one language.
Today, English has as many variants as many non-native speakers
it has so as long as the idea is communicated (which is the
primary purpose of a language) well mastery of a language is

That said, I'd like to add this even if this may not be a popular view. I personally find it extremely natural and easy if one writes in the "language
of the original text" one is talking about. For instances my
sanskrit and Tamizh (of which I am a native speaker) teacher(s)
have always adopted Sanskrt/Tamizh as the mode of instruction for
their classes and reading commentaries in the language works well for me. So why not papers in that language too?

This resolves many problems such as
inaccurate translations and the search for word-approximations
in a language where existing vocabulary has to be force-fitted
to establish a meaning. Perhaps this is not a popular view
in academia perhaps because of the fluency limitations of
the writer/speaker where they are not expected to master the language
fully before analyzing a text but only have an advanced working knowledge of the language. In summary, I'd rather that a scholar writes and discusses
a text in the language of the text irrespective of what their
native language/popular lingua franca is.

I also understand that this view would limit people to the kind of texts they read and may be bad for comparative. interdisciplinary studies etc.

Dominik Wujastyk said...

Vidya Jayaraman's point about writing in Sanskrit or Tamil is very interesting, and pleasingly orthogonal to the points raised by Elisa.

The reason I don't write my research articles in Sanskrit is a) I am not very confident about writing Sanskrit. I can, but I'm not used to it, and initially, at least, I would spend too much time getting the language right, when I would prefer to spend that time getting the thinking right.

Second, and more important, I write in order to communicate my discoveries. I do not feel that writing in Sanskrit will succeed in communicating to a wide enough audience to justify the money spent on my research. I am also aware that the Sanskrit-reading audience is not, and has never been, very interested in research that makes use of contemporary, modernizing modes of theorizing. This can be demonstrated by the poor response of the pandits at the Sanskrit College in Benares to the many strenuous initiatives of Ballantyne to get them engaged in discussing modern topics. It failed entirely.

Another interesting example is the case of Gananath Sen, the ayurvedic scholar, who in the early 20th century (1920?) wrote Pratyakṣaśarīram, a large book on anatomy, all in Sanskrit. In his introduction, he justified this decision on the grounds that it was the language most likely to reach the biggest audience, across the different states of India. He was writing for practising vaidyas, mainly.

My personal response to Elisa's question is to point to the important study of Lawrence Venuti, "The Translator's Invisibility", and to suggest that translating into English, French, Italian or German, is not merely a matter of notational variation. The reading communities of these different language groups have profoundly different expectations of their translators, as Venuti so eloquently and convincingly demonstrates. So a native English-reading audience expects a translation to read as if the original were written in English. If it sounds "foreign" it's no good. By contrast, a native German-reading audience needs a translation to mirror the source language in certain ways, and to feel and sound foreign. A German translation that reads like completely fluent, native German, is considered to be disturbingly dishonest or duplicitous in some way, to be masquerading as something that it is not.

There are equally different expectations in the reading publics in Italy and France, Poland, and so on.

In short, the decision about the target language must include issues of competence of course, and the desired audience, but it is also important to recognize the reflexive influence of the audience's language-specific expectations on the nature of the translation itself.

In one of Elisa's referenced notes, she uses the expression "Literal translation." There is no such thing as a literal translation. This is a pernicious expression that obscures many unexamined assumptions about translational processes. It reminds me of people who say "I have no philosophy about that," or "I don't have a religion." Everyone has a philosophy about everything, it's just a question about whether it is explicit or not.


Aleix said...

Hi again Elisa!

I do no subscribe the point number 2:"We all work on Indian topics, because (among other things) we are convinced of the importance of keeping alive the lore of Indian thought, safeguarding its différence within the process of homologation of thought."
What is the problem with homologation of thought? I think the problems in the world arise just because we are not able to homologate the thought. I never argue with people who think like me, but I usually hate the ones who disagree with me. I don't know why. And I think "tolerance" is a joker in order to behave as if we all agreed. Without tolerance, the latent hostility of different thoughts arises again.
I know what I say looks stupid, but I really think that.

Actually sanskrit is important because it was a lingua franca. So is English today, and fortunately we can have a conversation being from different places, each of us having his or her particular mother tongue.

Why do you blog in English, by the way?


Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa,

It is a dilemma. If only because many English speakers are snobs. So, re point #1, a word like "undoubtful" is almost right, but not quite. It should be "undoubtedly" for no very good reason - it's not that undoubtful is ungrammatical, but it's not idiomatic. But it affects the way the writer is perceived - though this is informal writing, and I don't doubt your articles are more idiomatic. And I know you a little and have no doubts about your intellect.

But English speakers, and I may say especially highly educated English speakers, are snobs. Being mildly dyslexic I have seen this for myself - and relying on spell chequers has got me into trouble too!

Personally I'm grateful that you do write in English because I am one of those typical English speakers that never learned another language (until learning Pāli as an adult).

I suppose it boils down to how widely you want your ideas to be read. Could one publish in multiple languages simultaneously?

The internet standards we use (TCP/IP) are not the perfect standards, and were not even the best available standard at the time the internet was created. They just happened to come with the Unix computers that we used for the first internet connections, and became the de facto standard. English is not the best language for a lingua franca (it is far too unpredictable and idiomatic!) but it just happens to have found itself in that position.

I imagine that the world of scholarship would be impoverished is scholars only published in English. Buddhist scholars should really read German and French as well as Pāli and Sanskrit (and probably Chinese, Tibetan and/or Japanese), as some seminal work was only published in those languages. It's a constant frustration to not have access to it.

I don't think there's any easy answer. But I imagine the pragmatism means that one must write at least some of the time in English. Or find a way to make scholarship another language irresistible.

elisa freschi said...

Dear friends,

first of all, I apologize for answering just now (I have been on holiday, with no internet access —the blog post had been written long ago). Thanks a lot for the interesting points you raise.

@Vidya, I agree, commenting in Sanskrit is easier, if only because it does not entail thinking about new, odd translation for technical terms. On the other hand, having to think about a translation may be helpful, insofar as it forces you to clarify your understanding of the concept. What does pratiyogin *exactly* mean? Is it the same as pratisambandhin or not? Moreover, for the very same reasons you mention, it might be useful to write in an European language if you are using Sanskrit texts within the frame of a philosophical discourse (which has, until now, mainly been expressed in European languages).
Last, I do not agree that Western scholars do not write in Sanskrit because they do not "master the language". I would rather say that there are different ways of mastering a language. Personally, I need to be able to actively create new sentences in a language to feel like I am mastering it, but I encountered many students (and scholars) who were more writing-oriented and who were, e.g., great translators of Sumerian or other "dead" languages.

@Dominik, you are right and I am sorry for my usage of "literal translation". No translation can be literal and if it claims it is, this is just as dangerous as if it claimed to be "objective". Still, what would you say re. the usage of English outside translations, e.g., for studies about Sanskrit texts?

@Aleix, I blog in English because the kind of readership I am interested in (which includes you, for instance) does not read Italian.
I am not sure I understand your point about the homologation of thought. I guess you mean that the "latent hostility of different thoughts" should be let free to express itself, without the hypocritical cover of tolerance. Fine, but in order to have such dialectical moments, you need different points of view, isn't it? Now, I hope I will not be hated too much…;-)

@Jayarava, thank you also for your inside-comments!

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