Monday, June 24, 2013

Reflections on translation from Sanskrit

The following was written by me in another context, as part of a conversation.  I'm reproducing it here in case it is of general interest:
Literal.  Flowing.  The whole question of what translation actually *is* and what counts as good or bad translation, is a huge one, of course.  It's been theorized and discussed in a voluminous secondary literature.  I've only dipped into this literature, but I found Lawrence Venuti's book, The Translator's Invisibility enormously helpful, and a real eye-opener.  One of Venuti's big empirical discoveries in this book (from doing statistics on book reviews) is that "good" is a term that means very different things to different national audiences.  There's no absolute goodness, where translations are concerned.  In the Anglophone world, a translation that is generally judged "good" by reviewers is one that reads as if the original author wrote in English.  In the German-speaking world, readers typically feel translations naturalized in this way to be deceptive or ethically false.  Germans want their translations to feel foreign, to reproduce certain syntactic awkwardnesses of the source language.  French and Italians are different again.  Venuti's book is very enlightening, I thought. 
My personal position, as a translator into English, is that the deeper my understanding of the Sanskrit sentence I'm working on is, the more natural and even idiomatic becomes my English translation.  For me, translation is a sentence-by-sentence process of internalization.  I first have to really, fully GET the sentence in Sanskrit, without translation.  I often achieve this by repeating it again and again, silently, until I truly hear and understand it in Sanskrit, not in English.  Then, I write out what it means in English.  I will quite happily invert the syntax of a Sanskrit sentence, move the subject or verb from the end to the beginning, re-order it's clauses, paraphrase past gerunds with a temporal sequence (not "having eaten, he left" but "he ate and then left"), use different English words for one Sanskrit word in different contexts, or break a Sanskrit sentence into several separate English ones.
Some of my German-speaking colleagues find this hard to swallow.  They sometimes feel I am betraying the Sanskrit, that I'm not accurate.   In my view, my translations are MORE accurate, because they (try to) reproduce more accurately what happens in the mind of a fluent Sanskrit reader, say a pandit.   I'm not attempting to teach English readers how Sanskrit syntax works. I'm not attempting to protect myself against critical colleagues by producing "defensible" translations that transparently reveal the underlying Sanskrit syntax, and thereby demonstrate that I know Sanskrit grammar.  What I am trying to achieve is to give my readers an experience that is as close as possible to the experience that a Sanskrit reader of the past would have had.  I presume that they were comfortable with the language, and that as they read, their attention was engaged with the actual meanings of sentence- and paragraph-length units. 
However, I hasten to add, that my own translations are by a native English speaker and for an English audience.  If I ever had to translate into German, I would have to rethink my style considerably, and adapt it to the expectations of a German readership, perhaps abandoning some of my cherished stylistic preferences.

If my back were to the wall, I would say that I do not believe in such an animal as a "literal" translation.  When I see the word "literal," I immediately think that the translator hasn't thought enough about what they are doing, and that they are making an emotional appeal rather than a thoughtful one.  When translators claim that they are privileging literalness, they are just using "literal" as a code word for "good."  There's no such thing as literal.  And "good," as Venuti showed so well, is a matter of fashion and national preference.  One of the central problems for all of us, when judging translations, is that we too often think that there is some absolute criterion of correctness, a True or Correct translation, when in fact it's all entirely contingent and determined by local, national and temporal preferences. 


  1. We discussed the topic together in the past, but I do not think you are referring to our conversation here and I thus dare repeating:
    A lot depends on what you want to achieve/who your target reader is. In many cases, Sanskrit translations are not meant for the general non-Sanskrit-knowing public. Rather, they are meant for Sanskritists, as a compass within the text. If this is the purpose they want to achieve, they have to resemble closely the Sanskrit original.

    As for the modifications you mention (changing a gerund into a temporal subordinate clause, or changing the word-order), these and many others (e.g., changing the nominal style of Sanskrit śāstra into the verbal style typical of most European languages I know) are not really "modifications", but simple adaptations to the new linguistic code. English does not have dual: would anyone ever say: "I am looking at my two feet through my two eyes"?

  2. I disagree with your reasoning, which contains a non-sequitur. Why should translations aimed at a scholarly readership of specialists "resemble closely the Sanskrit original?" In fact, isn't the knowledgeable audience exactly the best audience for translating in a manner that does not artificially reveal inappropriate features of the source language in the target language? In such a situation, since translator and reader both know the source language, it is a situation in which a beautiful, idiomatic, and accurate translation would be most appropriate of all.

    But again, I think the discussion you introduce has moved away from Venuti's central and crucial point: there is no absolute "right" or "best" translation. It is all a matter of reception. And a Sanskrit-knowing readership in Italy will have different expectations from a Sanskrit-knowing readership in Britain.

    Your example of the dual is an excellent one! Thank you. :-)

  3. Anonymous8:37 am

    What I am trying to achieve is to give my readers an experience that is as close as possible to the experience that a Sanskrit reader of the past would have had.

    or the present. :-)

    I think this is the right approach though, whether the intended reader wants to read just the translation or wants it as guide to help understand the Sanskrit original.