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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are translations harmful?

Filippo, in a recent comment (on this post) proposed a provocative view:

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.

Of course, he agrees that translations are useful for academic purposes ("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"). More important, he also admits that they are useful for one to acquire the broader context one always needs in order to read each text ("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"). Still, the main point remains: if one uses translations, one is bound to be kept far away from the text.
I suppose that part of the problem lies in one's approach to research. Probably I am in favour of the usage of translations —just like I am in favour of each kind of tools (even electronic dictionaries, at least at the beginning)— since I am a gradualist and believe in slow progress. Filippo seems, by contrast, to be an "instantaneist". To put it metaphorically, I would teach one to swim through long sessions in the swimming pool, Filippo would throw one in the water, expecting that she will learn to swim if she must.
I imagine that he might object that the longer one remains close to a "substitute" of the original text, the more difficult it becomes to get rid of it and dare "jump" into the Sanskrit. This might be true, but it is true also of commentaries. Would he get rid of them, too? And what is then the limit between directness and arrogance?

As for a sub-point, namely the need for translations, I tend to think that they are often useful (just like Sanskrit or Hindi commentaries are) even for Sanskritists while dealing with texts outside their competence. Dharmakīrti seems to be one of these examples, but the same holds true for technical texts on Grammar, alaṅkāras, astronomy, etc.

What do readers think about it? What is your experience with translations? Did they ever bring you closer to the text?

The discussion started on this post. I dedicated far too many posts to translations, a list of the main ones can be found below this post.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Translations as auxiliaries

What is the purpose of a translation?
It depends on whether one wants to produce independent text or one wants to help readers understand the original one. If one is translating a poem, one is very likely to prefer the first paradigm. An extreme, and hence interesting example of the second one is, by contrast, Kei Kataoka's translation of Kumārila, Ślokavārttika, codanā, (Kataoka 2011, Wien ÖAW). This translation includes each Sanskrit word in brackets within the translated text, which thus becomes an auxiliary to the Sanskrit one, rather than an independent text. Even dharma will figure in brackets, although it is translated as dharma. Hence, the reader may use the translation to follow step-by-step the translator's understanding of the text.

I discussed translations in many posts (this one is on my personal doubts while translating, this one, this one and this one are the purpose of translations, this one on English-specific problems, this one on a dychotomy between translations). The most interesting parts are, as often, the comments I received (see this post).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What do we have to impose on students?

Do all students have to be philologists (as is often the case in Europe)? Do they all have to focus on a minor detail of the theory of perception, etc. (as seems to be the case in departments dominated by Analitic Philosophy)?

The departments I am more familiar with tend to think that textual criticism, linguistics and (much less often) a rigorous usage of philosophy are the climax of one's academic curriculum. By contrast, history of art (archaeology being an exception), often literature, sociology and religious studies are silently deemed to be apt for less clever students. This implicit assumption is perpetuated by the fact that, throughout the decades, clever students have been lead to study, e.g., linguistics, and are now clever instructors of linguistics, and so on with the other subjects.

Is this really the case? Is textual criticism, to name just one example, the main road to our understanding of texts? Is it so complex that one has to teach it at the beginning of a student's career, since later everyone would be unable to get enough time and energy to focus on it? More importantly, is it formative? In other words, are students trained in textual criticism (and so on) better students (or scholars), whatever they will later do? A very interesting lecture by Ernst Steinkellner on the day he received the Wittgenstein prize (see here, in German), proposed philology as a new way to embrace mutual understandings among cultures. Personally, I tend to teach philosophy hoping that students will become more aware of their implicit assumptions and hence, critical citizens. But I also suspect that each subject might be used as a bridge to oneself and the others, if only done with enough depth. If this is true, than insisting on just, say, philosophy, may have the disadvantage of creating students and scholars who are doing what they don't like, are suffering because of that and are very likely not to produce any interesting contribution, since they are just out of place.

What is your experience? Did you have to study stuff you disliked? Was it formative or just a waste of time?

I have been triggered to write this post by an interesting comment on a previous post, see here. On scholars who love what they work on, see this post.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Typology of students

At the university in which I work, it is nowadays time for the final examinations of many BA and MA students. In Italy, these final examinations focus on the thesis written by each student. Apart from the tutors of the thesis, there are other examiners who have had until that moment nothing to do with the thesis and may also not know the student. Since I work in a department of Oriental Studies, the examiners may teach each of the subjects taught there (from history of Indian art to Muslim right, Chinese language and so on).
I tend to like (or at least not to dislike, which is already quite unusual among my colleagues) sitting among the examiners. This is also a way to have an overview of students I would have never known if it were not for this chance. Statistically, the number of students I meet is non-influential, still I tend to notice that bright students tend to choose to write their final thesis on linguistic topics, and (in a minor amount) on philosophical ones. Students who might be bright human beings but seem to have less to do with academic research (and who often tend to do something completely different after they complete their degree) rather pick up history of art, sometimes religious topics and sometimes topics having to do with "contemporary societies" in Asia. Literature may also be chosen. Of course, there are many exceptions and I do not mean to say anything about the students as complete human beings. One of them became, for instance, an excellent fictional writer, after having written her thesis on the history of Chinese art. Still, these students tend not to keep on studying with a PhD, etc.
Why so? Are bright students just attracted by bright teachers (whatever they teach) or do they prefer challenging, "difficult" subjects? The first choice is no answer, since one could ask further why and if there are more bright teachers teaching a certain subject. The second is also no answer, since I doubt that something is intrinsically difficult and am rather inclined to think that the degree of difficulty depends on the depth required by the teacher. Nonetheless, this degree is also influenced by the general requirements of the wider cultural milieu of one's colleagues and seniors. Hence, nowadays in many parts of the world natural sciences are believed to be more important than humanities and this triggers bright young people to pick up natural sciences.

Do you notice similar patterns in the university/ies you know better?

(We look much less smart than the professors in the photo, at the university of Siena.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Some walks in the philosophical woods

Michel Angot published something long unheard within the history of scholarship on Indian philosophy. In fact, after the time of G. Jhā, hardly someone attempted a complete translation of a master-piece of Indian philosophy such as the Nyāyabhāṣya. Hence, one cannot but congratulate the author for his braveness and for the very fact that he presents to the reader the translation of the complete system of Nyāya in its essential fundament, i.e., the Nyāyasūtra attributed to Gautama and its earliest extant commentary, the Nyāyabhāṣya attributed to Pakṣilasvāmin/Vātsyāyana. Translating it all has the double advantage of helping the reader in better understanding Nyāya and the translator himself in better evaluating the role of each part of Nyāya. No big effort is needed to remember instances where the emphasis on just one part of a system has lead scholars to misunderstand the relationship of this part with the rest and the general purpose of the system itself (Jayarava often enough underlines the case of the Buddhist "atheism", although deities such as Indra and Brahmā do play a role in the Pāli Canon).

Beside the translation, the book also includes a very long introductory study (242pp.), which deals not only with Nyāya, but also with very broad issues, such as the existence of philosophy in India. Further examples of topics are: whether there is an ''Indian" philosophy (pp.26-32, the final view is that ''Sanskrit philosophy'' would make mostly better sense), whether we can possibly use a Western language (and its terminology) to translate and understand Sanskrit texts (pp. 33–37), comparativism (pp.46-50), the real purpose of the Mānavadharmaśāstra (p. 59), the correct interpretation of the first gloss on Pāṇini's Grammar (p.66) and so on. Evaluating the book is, hence, extremely complex. If one were to ask me whether to buy Angot's book or not, my answer would be: it depends on you. If you want to take a ''walk in the wood" of Indian philosophy, this book is excellent. It offers one much food for thought, as if one were having dinner with a brilliant company. If, by contrast, you want to read a rigorous essay, you might find Angot's one disturbing. Part of it is not Angot's fault but the publishing house's one. The book almost lacks margins, so that one will not be able to add notes, arrows or the like. Furthermore, it lacks any index and does not have a complete table of contents, so that one can only dive in the dense, space-less but content-full introduction and read it all, with no reader-friendly help. Similarly, the book is flawed by far too many misprints, also to be charged to the publishing house…

What do you look for while reading a book?

I started discussing Angot's book in this post (on the role of doubt in Indian philosophy), then wrote this one (on philosophy in India), this one (on the purpose of translations), this one (on the concept of "possess" in Sanskrit) and this one (on the concept of duty).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do we have NOT to like what we work on?

Many people tend to think that being "scientific" means being detached. In order to write scholarly about a subject, one should not be involved in it. Is this really possible? Probably not, but even if it were, would it be desirable?

One clearly sees that Friedhelm Hardy (the scholar of Śrīvaiṣṇavism who died untimely in 2004) loves what he is working on. This might make him go too far (in my opinion) in defending Śrīvaiṣṇavism, for instance his treatment of the devadāsī issue seems to me to go too far in forgetting that the institution of devadāsī was itself declining (although he admits the decline at first):

[…] one further topic cannot be avoided: the music and dance professionally cultivated by the devadāsīs. […] Missionaries like the Abbé Dubois and some Westernized Indians, encountering a presumably declining stage in the development of the devadāsī institution, attacked it with a puritanical fanaticism which was equalled only by their complete ignorance of (or unwillingness to understand) its history and the motivation behind it. They succeeded only too well in their task: the abolition by law of the devadāsīs was regarded as a necessary reform of South Indian temple culture, but it also resulted in the total destruction of one major segment of that culture through which for one and a half millennia deep-rooted Southern religious sentiments had expressed themselves. The whole range of art that had surrounded the temple was eliminated, and even the whole issue of temple eroticism was prejudiced. […] Viṣṇu […] derives enjoyment from the art of the girls who are dedicated to him, just as he would enjoy the tulsī, kuṅkuma, camphor, etc. which are offered to him in the pūjā. And just as he returns these objects after the worship to the devotee, these girls are returned. Thus it seems possible to interpret [a man's] union with [a devadāsī] […] as a special type of prasādam.

(Hardy 1977, pp.138-140)

But I still tend to think that being too fond of one's subject is better than hating it (as is often the case). I remember my professor of Indian history, who was an excellent scholar but who really despised Indians, probably like some 19th c. British. He would say things such as "Although they have such an enormous amount of costs, the Indians were unable to build proper harbours until the British came".

Do you dare sharing your attitude towards what you study?
On Hardy, see my post "Do we have to write in a dry, unadorned style?", written on November the 23rd 2011.
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