Problems of translation
Wellington Meditation Centre

Problems of translation

Often, WMC uses readings from sources that were not originally in English. The question then arises as to how reliable those translations are? In the end, even those readings that are originally in English may have archaic expressions and unfamiliar words that are not immediately comprehensible. The advice given by H.H. and many others, is that we have to verify everything for ourselves from experience, so, although guidance of some sort can be obtained from translated texts, extracted from non-English sources, they must be regarded as working hypotheses rather than as strict guide-lines.

It is appropriate to ask concerning any translated passage, if it is rendered by a scholastically competent person and not just someone who is interested in providing English readers with something that they find appealing; or indeed  aimed at a financial reward to the translator.

 In the multi-volumed Mahabharata, recently acquired by the WMC Library, there is a note on translation written by Kisari Ganguli, the translator of that work, involving translation from Sanskrit to English. Ganguli was a scholar of renown; with literary honours conferred by his contemporaries for this very work. Ganuli’s notes, on the traps of translations are therefore worthy of notice.

Written, as these notes were, in the 1890s it is important to compare what Ganguli says, with those remarks that modern scholars make about the difficulties of translation. We should also add that translating from a written text differs in important ways from translating from verbatim spoken words; mainly in that live translation takes place almost immediately. However, tape recordings of audiences do provide a chance to modify translations given on the spot.

I have found an almost exactly similar warning to that of Ganguli, written recently by top scholars, on past attempts to translate the poets of the near east, such as Omar Khayam, Hafiz and Rumi. I have provided below the full text of Ganguli’s note.

The WMC has used texts from H.H. that have been translated by several different Hindi and English speakers, interspersed as the texts are with Sanskrit terms.  As far as I know, none of the translators involved had any claims to academic level competency in translation. Indeed, it is likely that, due to the specialised branch of Indian Advaita philosophy that H.H. worked from, academic input may have created an additional set of problems in our interpretation.

One of our translators, Jaiswal, seemed to have a rapport with H.H., a skill with summarising and a memory of verbatim quotes that was particularly valuable. However, both Dr. Roles and Maureen Allan attempted to bring to Jaiswal’s notice his tendency to modify questions asked, and presumably the answers given, in ways that disclosed a personal preference. Both these comments were received as ill-deserved criticism.

Dixit, another translator, read many of Jaiswal’s translations and considered his own work, at least as good. This opinion might be confirmed by one or two audiences where both these men made an independent translation of the same audience.

I was particularly struck by the last paragraph of Ganguli’s note in which he accepts that most translators err because of their own limitations and not because of ill will. 

See below

Translator's Preface - Ganguli (first page)

The object of a translator should ever be to hold the mirror up to his author. That being so, his chief duty is to represent so far as practicable the manner in which his author’s ideas have been expressed, retaining if possible at the sacrifice of idiom and taste all the peculiarities of his author’s imagery and of language as well. In regard to translations from the Sanskrit, nothing is easier than to dish up Hindu ideas, so as to make them agreeable to English taste. But the endeavour of the present translator has been to give in the following pages as literal a rendering as possible of the great work of Vyasa. To the purely English reader there is much in the following pages that will strike as ridiculous.

Those unacquainted with any language but their own are generally very exclusive in matters of taste. Having no knowledge of models other than what they meet with in their own tongue, the standard they have formed of purity and taste in composition must necessarily be a narrow one. The translator, however, would ill-discharge his duty, if for the sake of avoiding ridicule, he sacrificed fidelity to the original. He must represent his author as he is, not as he should be to please the narrow taste of those entirely unacquainted with him. Mr. Pickford, in the preface to his English translation of the "Mahavira Carita", ably defends a close adherence to the original even at the sacrifice of idiom and taste against the claims of what has been called 'Free Translation,' which means dressing the author in an outlandish garb to please those to whom he is introduced.

In the preface to his classical translation of Bhartrihari’s 'Niti Satakam' and 'Vairagya Satakam', Mr. C.H. Tawney says, "I am sensible that in the present attempt I have retained much local colouring. For instance, the ideas of worshipping the feet of a god of great men, though it frequently occurs in Indian literature, will undoubtedly move the laughter of Englishmen unacquainted with Sanskrit, especially if they happen to belong to that class of readers who revel their attention on the accidental and remain blind to the essential. But a certain measure of fidelity to the original even at the risk of making oneself ridiculous, is better than the studied dishonesty which characterises so many translations of oriental poets."

We fully subscribe to the above although, it must be observed, the censure conveyed to the class of translators last indicated is rather undeserved, there being nothing like a ’studied dishonesty' in their efforts which proceed only from a mistaken view of their duties and as such betray only an error of the head but not of the heart.

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