Friday, April 22, 2016

On the use of parentheses in translation

This deserves a fuller discussion; I'm just doing a quick note here, arising out of a conversation with Dagmar and Jason Birch.;

My thinking is influenced by my teachers Gombrich and Matilal, both of whom had a lot to say about translation, and by reading materials on translation by Lawrence Venuti and Umberto Eco (Mouse or Rat?).  There's a huge literature on translation, including specific materials on Skt like Garzilli, E. (Ed.) Translating, Translations, Translators from India to the West.  Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ., 1996.

I wonder about the heavy use of parentheses by Indologists.  One does not see this in English translations from French, say, or German.  Or even Latin or Greek.  What are we up to?  I can distinguish several reasons for parentheses in English trs. from Skt. 
  • Fear.  We are asserting to the reader that we know what we're doing, and making our word-choices explicit.  This is a defence against the small voice in our brains that says "professor so-and-so won't accept a fluent, uninterrupted translation from me, seeing it as bad.  I'll get criticised in public."
  • Habit.  We see others doing it and absorb the habit.
  • Germanism.  Venuti has shown compellingly, in The Translator's Invisibility, how different linguistic audiences receive translations differently.  English readers and reviewers approve strongly of translations of which they can say, "it reads as naturally as if the author had written in English."  German readers are different, and want to experience a sense of foreignness in their translations; if a translation reads fluently in German, they feel there is some deception being carried out. Since so many translations from Sanskrit were done by Germans, English readers like us get used to the "German" presuppositions of the nature of translation, and simply carry on in that idiom.  See the attached Kielhorn example.  

The Kielhorn exemplifies another major problem, that Matilal used to talk about passionately.  If you read Kielhorn's tr. leaving out the parentheses, it's gobbledegook. Matilal said that if one has to use parentheses, then the text not in parentheses should read as a semantically coherent narrative.  This is because the Sanskrit is a semantically coherent narrative.  To present an incoherent English text is a tacit assertion that the Sanskrit is incoherent.  In which case, we should see parentheses in Sanskrit too.  Sometimes we do, as in Panini's mechanism of anuvṛtti, when parts of previous sutras are tacitly read into subsequent ones.  Anuvṛtti is doing similar work to that done by parentheses.  So Vasu's translation of Panini uses parentheses in a valid way, I would argue.
What are valid reasons for parentheses?  I would say that very, very rarely it is justified to put a Skt word in brackets when not to do so would be seriously confusing or misleading for the typical reader, or when the Skt author is making a tacit point.  "He incurred a demerit (karma) by failing to do the ritual (karma)."   Or, in the RV, "The lord (asura) of settlements has readied for me two oxen ."(Scharfe 2016: 48).

Then there's the psychology of reading. For me, this is one of the important reasons for not using parentheses or asides of any kind.  I've never articulated this before, so what follows may be a bit incoherent.​  When I watch my mind during reading, I absorb sentences and they create a sense of understanding.  It's quite fast, and it's a flow.  As I go along, the combination of this flow of sentences and the accumulation of a page or two of it in memory produces the effect of having a new meaning in my mind, of having understood a semantic journey shared with me by the author.  But when there are many parentheses, that flow is broken.  The reading becomes much slower, and I often have to read things several times, including a once-over skipping the parentheses.  This slow, assembly-style reading is not impossible, and one may gain something.  But one loses a lot.  What's lost is the larger-scale comprehension, and the sense of a flow of ideas.
What I find works for me as a reader and writer is to avoid the branching of the flow of attention while reading.  Branching is often done through parenthetical statements, -- and through dashed asides -- (and through discursive footnotes), but not citation footnotes.  In my mind, it's like travelling in a car and taking every side road, driving down it for two hundred metres and then coming back to the main road, and continuing just until the next side road, etc.  As a writer, I find it quite easy to avoid branching.  I do it by thinking in advance about the things I want to say, and then working out a sequence in which I want to present them so that the reader gets the sense of connection.  Cut-n-paste is very helpful.
I'm not sure whether the above is totally personal to me, or a widely-shared phenomenon.  I've never read anything about this topic.  I have read about eye-movements during reading, and the relationship of this to line-length and typeface design.  I should look around for material on the psychology of comprehension during reading.  There must be something out there.

Wendy Doniger, who writes well, said last year:
I sound out every line I write, imagining the reader reading it, and never imagining as the reader certain scholars, who shall remain nameless, who might be watching with an eagle eye, poised to pounce on any mistake I might make; no, I always imagine the reader as my father, on my side. I try to be that person to my students, who are otherwise vulnerable to an imaginaire of hostile reception that can block their writing, as it keeps some of my most brilliant colleagues from publishing. My father saved me from that.
-- "A Life of Learning"


  • Eco, U. Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation.  Phoenix Press, 2004
  • Garzilli, E. (Ed.) Translating, Translations, Translators from India to the West.  Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ., 1996.
  • Scharfe, H. "Ṛgveda, Avesta, and Beyond—ex occidente lux?"  Journal of the American Oriental Society, 2016, 136, 47-67.
  • Venuti, L. The Translator's Invisibility: A History Of Translation.  London, New York, Routledge, 1995

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Essay-writing support

For those of you who are writing essays for the first time, here are some guidelines.

There are many guides available to help you with essay-writing.  However, I am mainly familiar with those in English.
  • One of my favourites is the long-established students' guide published by the UK's Open University,
    • The Arts Good Study Guide by Chambers and Northledge (2nd ed., 2008).
      It's clearly printed, well-written, and realistic.  I find the book at, and the OU.  It's £15.  There is a preview of about 40 pages available from the publisher.
      The sister volume, The Good Study Guide, is also, er, good.
  • The University of East Anglia has an excellent reputation for teaching how to write well.  They have a free, online guide that you can download.  It is basic, but you may find it useful. Free, online PDF.
  • The University of Southampton has a Study Skills Handbook by Barbara Allan that addresses essay-writing in chapter 7.  Chapter 13 on Reflection is unusual and rather good, I think.   Free online PDF.
  • The Modern Humanities Research Association puts out an excellent booklet on writing: The MHRA Style Guide. You can buy it in print (cheap at $19), or download their free PDF version. Be aware, though, that unlike the other guides above, the MHRA guide is only about the mechanics of writing, spelling, punctuation, footnotes, and bibliographies.  It does not help with how to assemble your ideas, or plan an essay.  But since it's free as a PDF, it's still worth getting, and will help you answer questions about silly details like what English words should have capital letters, or how to put together your bibliography.

Many guides to writing suggest that you should begin by having a question, and then doing some research, organising your notes, and then writing your essay.  Or some variant of this procedure.
I am not sure I agree.  I think it's important to start with a question, yes.  But sometimes the best way to begin can be to actually sit down and start writing or typing.  Write a sentence, or two, or a paragraph, about the question.  Then you will begin to feel how much you know and can say, and how much you need to go and read in order to be able to write the next sentence.
The great cultural historian Peter Burke makes some very interesting remarks about his own process of thinking and writing in this 2004 interview (from 3min 11sec).  He goes to his desk in the morning and writes.  No preliminary reading.  Then, in the afternoon, he goes to the library.  Writing precedes reading.
Two more late additions.  These can be bought second-hand in the UK from Amazon for 0.01p, plus postage!
  • Ashman & Creme, How to Write Essays (1976). PDF
  • Ashman & Creme, Reading for Study (1976). PDF

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Re: Against the petition against Pollock

A petition that started this business was posted on  I noticed it on 26 Feb.
The background causative issues include present government policies in India towards national culture, and the publication of the book by Rajiv Malhotra (USA) called The Battle for Sanskrit.  I haven't seen the book, but it appears to be an attack on Sheldon Pollock's scholarship.   Malhotra is a rich American who funds attacks on American scholars of Indian studies etc.

My response to the petition was posted to the INDOLOGY forum on 27 Feb.:
Some media responses:

Friday, February 05, 2016

Babylonians used geometrical methods, 350-50 BCE

"Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiter’s position from the area under a time-velocity graph" / Mathieu Ossendrijver

Science  29 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6272, pp. 482-484
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad8085


The idea of computing a body’s 
displacement as an area in time-velocity space is usually traced back to 14th-century Europe. I show that in four ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, Jupiter’s displacement along the ecliptic is computed as the area of a trapezoidal figure obtained by drawing its daily displacement against time. This interpretation is prompted by a newly discovered tablet on which the same computation is presented in an equivalent arithmetical formulation. The tablets date from 350 to 50 BCE. The trapezoid procedures offer the first evidence for the use of geometrical methods in Babylonian mathematical astronomy, which was thus far viewed as operating exclusively with arithmetical concepts.

BBC Report

Sophisticated geometry - the branch of mathematics that deals with shapes - was being used at least 1,400 years earlier than previously thought, a study suggests.
Research shows that the Ancient Babylonians were using geometrical calculations to track Jupiter across the night sky.
Previously, the origins of this technique had been traced to the 14th Century.
The new study is published in Science.
Its author, Prof Mathieu Ossendrijver, from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, said: "I wasn't expecting this. It is completely fundamental to physics, and all branches of science use this method."

For the rest of the BBC report, see:

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Primitive Man

Greater lack of cultural values than that found in the inner life of some strata of our modern population is hardly to be found anywhere.

-- Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (2ed, 1938), p.198.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Cranial surgery on Bhoja

Bhojadeva Bhiṣajām

The king cleansed his head at a tank, but a baby goldfish (śaphara-śāvaḥ) got into his skull.  Physicans couldn't cure the pain, so the king prepared to die, and banished all the physicians from the kingdom, throwing their medicines into the river.
Indra told the Aśvins about this, and they went to the king's court, disguised as brahmans.  They make the king unconscious with moha-cūrṇa and took his skull out and put it in a skull-shaped basin.  They removed the fish and threw them into a dish.  They reassembled his skull with glue, and woke him up with a reviving medicine (sañjīvanī) and showed him the fish.

Saradaprosad Vidyabhusan (ed.) भोज-प्रबन्धः श्रीबल्लाल विरचितः The Bhoj-Prabandha of Sree Ballal (With English Translation) (Calcutta: Auddy & Co., 1926), pp. 222-228. 
See also the tr. by Louis Gray in the AOS series, New Haven, 1950.

The Bhojaprabandha Ballāladeva of Benares, apparently 16th century (so not toe be confused with Ballālasena the father of Lakṣmaṇasena). 

From the भोजप्रबन्धः बल्लालसेनेन विरचितम् 

मनीषिणः सन्ति न ते हितैषिणो
हितैषिणः सन्ति न ते मनीषिणः |
सुहृच्च विद्वानपि दुर्लभो नृणां |
यथौषधं स्वादु हितञ्च दुर्लभम् ||५८||

Wisdom is knowledge together with goodness. -- S. Wujastyk

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Linux Mint swapfile

Getting the swap file working in Linux Mint.  Using LVM

sudo /sbin/mkswap /dev/mapper/foobar [e.g., mint--vg-swap_1]
sudo swapon -a