Translating Commentaries

Translated commentaries can sound very clunky. While I work often with Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava texts, I’ve read enough Yoga, Nyāya, Mīmāṃsā, etc. to know that there are some basic techniques that commentators use when commenting on root texts (sūtra, śruti, smṛti, etc.), and that these techniques don’t always facilitate translation into English, German, etc. (for more discussion, see Tubb and Bose’s Scholastic Sanskrit). In commentating, commentators often do:

  1. the glossing of words in the root text (e.g. providing definitions and various meanings of a Sanskrit word with other Sanskrit words),
  2. the elaboration or expansion on a passage by inserting entire paragraphs, sentences or phrases in between words, verses, sūtras, etc. from a root text,
  3. the quotation of other relevant verses, sūtras, etc. within the commentary on a particular passage to show to illuminate meaning, continuity, etc.,
  4. the quotation of a previous commentator, either to agree or disagree with him.

In a few of my publications I’ve started to develop a technique for making translations less clunky, and my best shot at it is this. When translating, you change the typeface to reflect what the commentator is doing with a particular word/phrase/sentence:

Bold-italics – quotes from śruti, smṛti, sūtra, mūla, etc.

Italics – quotes from commentary or independent texts

Bold – words that are glossed from śruti, smṛti, sūtra, mūla, etc.

Italics-underlinecomments on commentary

I’ve tried to use these various forms of typeface to indicate to the reader of a translation what a commentators is doing. It allows the reader to see when a commentator is elaborating on the meaning of the root text, on a scriptural passage, a previous commentators, and it does so simply by changing the typeface.

What do you think of this technique?

About Jonathan Edelmann

Assistant Professor of Hinduism University of Florida

8 thoughts on “Translating Commentaries

  1. Hi Jonathan. Sounds like a good idea! In both of my books I’ve also used bold face for the translation of a word which is repeated from the root text before being glossed. For quotations of other things (= other than the verse under comment) I haven’t found it necessary to change the typeface; I just put the translation of the quotation in inverted commas (if it’s a short quotation), or as its own indented paragraph (if it’s a longer quotation) – and in either case insert a footnote with the source of the verse or ‘source unknown’.

  2. I like the approach. I think the key with doing something like this is making the legend (ie the explanation you’ve described above) very easy to find: nothing is more frustrating to the reader than seeing these different typefaces and not being able to figure out what each means. If I were taking this approach, I would probably want to put a legend in at least two places – perhaps explain it and the reasons for it in detail in my introduction, but also give a concise version of it in large print on the first page of the translation or the page immediately preceding the translation.

  3. A colleague and I are working on a translation of select, multiple commentaries on a single root sutra text and we are doing something similar to Alex’s strategy, using bold only for the sutra or when the sutra or key terms from the it are repeated in the commentaries. Using bold for this alone really makes clear the points of intersection with the core text which may be lost given the voluminous commentaries and subcommentaries.

    Besides this, we are using names when earlier commentators are quoted even if they are not named directly in the original. In our introduction, we explain who the major commentators are, what their chronology is, and what the direction of influence is.

    We haven’t felt the need to provide a more sophisticated apparatus, but I understand why one would use one for certain projects.

    I am not personally a fan of complication or extra structure when it can be avoided. This is mostly personal preference, but I think that for undergraduates or nonspecialist readers, we have to hit the right, “virtuous” mean between lack of direction and cumbersome metatextual interfaces. They are already going to be somewhat intimidated.

  4. I think this is a good system, although depending on the ratio of grammatical/exegetical commentary in the strict sense and actual explication, these kinds of translations run the risk of becoming tedious and even less accessible to a reader than the Sanskrit text (because many of the conventions of commentary-writing depend on Sanskrit’s idiosyncratic features of composition, nominal derivation, etc.). I certainly understand the need to typographically distinguish pratīkas, and indeed most editions of Sanskrit texts do this by setting the pratīkas in bold face.

  5. Hi Jonathan (and Alex),
    thanks for raising the issue. The main point, as I see it, is that we want to make the life of a reader easier. Boldface, italics, etc. can help, but an excessive use of conventions can end up being disturbing, I am inclined to think, since it attracts too much attention and, more importantly, since too many conventions may be difficult to bear in mind. Thus, it is also important to stick at established conventions, so that the reader does not need to learn a new code at each new author.
    Among the ones you mention, the use of boldface for words of the mūla texts repeated and then glossed in the commentary (so-called pratīkas) is well-established, so I would certainly recommend it (I personally use it, too). As for other quotes, until now I have done as Alex explains, namely I highlighted them in the same way I highlight quotations of secondary literature. I am open to adjust to a new convention, but I need a strong reason for doing it. Could you please explain why you think your code works better?
    Last, I could not access the article you link to. Could you please explain again how you use the italics underlined typeface?

  6. Thank you everyone. This is helpful. My Take-Away Conclusion: use typeface tech (let reader know what you’re doing), but don’t overuse it, and be aware of the context into which you hope your translation will be placed.

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