Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Translation of Sanskrit philosophical texts: What is at stake?

What are the requisites of a translation in/from Sanskrit of a philosophical text?

  1. 1. Knowing the text and its context. This is the paramount requisite. No one will be able to translate a text she does not fully grasp.
    2. Knowing the context in the target language. One cannot expect to be able to translate the English "rule" as nyāya without taking into account its inner-Sanskrit hues of meaning. Vice versa, one cannot translate Sanskrit philosophical terms without taking into account the complex meaning of the terms they choose to translate them in English (or French or German) philosophy.

This being said, many methodological questions are yet to be faced, e.g.,

  • A. Suppose your source text is obscure. Should you reproduce its obscurity?
  • B. Suppose your source text, though philosophical, uses also a lively metaphorical language. Should you reproduce its style?

These problems are much less urgent in the case of translations within the same cultural area, i.e., from French into English or vice versa. Thanks to many centuries of mutual influences, English and French writers share a common reservoir of metaphors and poetical devices, understandable to both readers. Furthermore, readers share a common background of references and will easily understand short hints, so that it is rarely the case that a text will be really obscure and that this marginal obscurity can be reproduced without emparing the global understanding.

By contrast, in the case of very different cultural areas, i.e., while translating Sanskrit into English or German into Sanskrit (my last endeavours), the residual obscurity might be massive. And this obscurity might have not meant to be such by the author, who relied on the background he shared with his readers. Thus, the translator needs to solve the problem and to convey the text the author wanted to convey. A common example: Suppose the author refers to a well-known verse of the Gītā by just quoting its beginning. His target reader would have automatically supplemented the rest. But this is not the case for contemporary readers, who need the additional help of the whole verse being reproduced in the translation (either in the main text or in a footnote).

The problem is even more complicated in the case of style. I am personally convinced that dead metaphors (e.g., when we speak of a computer's mouse, we are not thinking of the animal the word originally denotes) should not be translated. As for live metaphors, I would try to translate them only if they are relevant (e.g., when they convey a shade of meaning which might have been meant by the author). An English author speaking about loving surrender to God, e.g., might choose to use the metaphor of falling in love on purpose. And a translator might consider reproducing it (kāmabhāvaṃ nipatati?).

What do you think? How do you translate?

You can read a text of mine about the importance of point no. 2 on my Academia page, here
Samira Nekooeeyan recently dedicated an interesting talk to the translation of metaphors in poetical texts. Her practical example was the translation of Shakespear into Persian, but she dealt in general with the problem of what to do with metaphors (one of the viable options being "ignore them"). You can read the abstract of the talk if you download the program of the conference, here.
I decided to write this post after an intriguing discussion (on "flos"/puṣpa) with Sudipta Munsi while we were translating Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. You can read the first step of this enterprise here.


Unknown said...

Dear Elisa,

In your post, you aptly distinguish between live and dead metaphors. Proceeding somewhat on this line I would like to distinguish between universal or common and individual or specific metaphors. For demonstrating the nature of what I call universal or common metaphors, let’s analyse the passage from Paul Guyer’s translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, you and I were already discussing (and which led to your post): “flourishing of all sciences”. The metaphoric element rests in the word, flourishing. Flourishing has the sense of a thing becoming more prominent from its hitherto less prominent or unknown state. This semantic shade is also present in such Sanskrit dhātus as sphur and sphuṭ (from the latter, the word Sphota itself is derived!). And probably such verbs are present in all languages. Flourishing is a universal phenomenon, and it is discernible in every sphere: a flower blooms (or flourishes, in an extended sense, i.e. it matures and comes out of its state of being a bud), one’s youth flourishes or blooms (i.e. both rhetorically and psycho-biologically one comes out of and leaves behind his pre-youth stage), a seed flourishes into a tree (i.e. it advances from its umanifest state), intuitions flourish into arts (in Croce’s Aesthetic, i.e. impressions flourish or develop into expressions, which constitute a piece of art), the Kuṇḍalinī energy flourishes (i.e. it gets kinetised, and remains no more coiled up), etc. So it is the common principle ([I admit here of getting the clue to this from the doctrine of sādṛśyadharma of upamās, discussed in Sanskrit Alaṃkāraśāstra] here it being the common principle of becoming more prominent from less prominent or unknown state), that contributes to the (semantic) universality of a metaphor. And in my opinion, such universal metaphors are translatable. Thus, despite retaining its metaphoric character, the text in question, ‘flourishing of all sciences’ can be translated into Sanskrit, Latin, etc.

Contrary to this, stand what I propose to call individual or specific metaphors. The individuality or specificity of such metaphors is contributed not only by the individuality of the language language it is embedded in, but also that of culture, country, subject-matter, etc. etc. A fitting example of such a metaphor is the one cited by you, viz. the computer mouse. The specificity in this case is contributed by the subject-matter, i.e. computer science. Such metaphors are the ones, which I think, are devoid of the character of getting translated (may I coin a term, anuvādāyogyatva, in the Navyanyāya fashion?). In sum, it is the fittingness (yogyyatva / yogyatā) of a metaphor, regulated by the property of universality (sāmānyadharmatvāvacchinna / sāmānyadharmatvanirūpita), which decides for its translatable character. To put it bluntly, it is the innate potency of a metaphor, which makes possible (or impossible) its translation.

The aforesaid comments proceed from my practical experience as a translator.

I would like to know what others think of it.

elisa freschi said...

This is an apt distinction and one we can keep in view in our work as translators.
However, I would add that:
1. In poetry, metaphors are often needed because of their imaginative content and cannot get rid of. By contrast, in "scientific" literature, they are usually just used as if they were "normal" words, for lack of a better option (cf. the case of the computer's mouse). Thus, rendering a metaphor with a metaphor might be important in the first case and superfluous in the latter.
2. We should be quite cautious with "universal metaphors", since it is hardly the case that they are really such. You referred to the "flower" as a metaphor of "becoming ripe", whereas Kant meant with the Latin word *flos* "the best part". Both ideas are related to the direct experience of a flower and I can easily imagine that other cultures will use flowers in still different metaphorical contexts. Another example: the brightness of the full moon is a common, universal experience. Nonetheless, it is a metaphor of beauty (candramukha) in Sanskrit and an insult in several European languages (because a full face corresponds to a fat woman).

Unknown said...

True, we were discussing the translation of technical treatises, where the translation of metaphors or other rhetorical elements is not of paramount importance. But since now-a-days deconstructionists go to the extent of unearthing unforeseen meanings out of extremely simple sentences, the semantic obviousness whereof is almost taken for granted, it becomes imperative for us to try to translate (again the question of translatability crops up here) such simple lines and such not-so-important rhetorical constructions. Moreover, mine was a theoretical cogitation over the problem of translatability of metaphors – and as well known, theories are not always translatable into practice.

elisa freschi said...

The more one gets close to authors for whom form is part of content (i.e.: poets, several mystics, many philosophers such as Levinas or Veṅkaṭanātha…) the more the need of translating metaphors becomes urgent.
My general point is: if I have to give up either poeticity or understandability, I would rather give up the former.
An interesting case of a non-universal metaphor is that of Enlightenment vs. nirvāṇa (see the following blog post http://kabbasetu.blogspot.co.at/2012/11/the-endarkened-one.html)

Unknown said...

Nirvāṇa and buddhatvam are closely linked to each other. Buddha is derived from the Sanskrit root, budh, meaning ‘to awaken’ (for more on the philosophical implications of buddhi, a cognate word, see Sri Anirvan’s extensive article, ‘Buddhi and Buddhiyoga’, from ‘Buddhiyoga of the Gītā and Other Essays’, pp. 1-77, Samata Books, Madras). Awakening (or in an extended sense, consciousness) is closely connected to a state of illumination. It is common experience that too much light (ālokamayatva) is also not visible - it is 'darkness', as it were. It might be the case that this 'seeming' darkness (andhakāratulyatvam) ensuing from the fullness of light (ālokamayatvam or ābhāsvaratvam) is spoken of here. And thus, it may be treated as a case of darkness in a metaphoric sense.

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