On translating the titles of Sanskrit works

I gave some more thoughts to the topic of whether we should translate the titles of Sanskrit works.
As you might remember, braodly speaking, many of our US colleagues started translating them and most of our Japanese, Indian and European colleagues just leave the Sanskrit titles as they are.

I basically have two problems with the translations:

  1. the English titles might be too vague (“Commentary”) or misleading (“Maxims”, suggesting the enunciation of a moral truth, not to speak of “Mirrors”, “Amulets”, “Rising Moons” and the like)
  2. there is no standardised translation (I know that here some colleagues might suggest to just follow Sheldon Pollock’s one, but even they will have to agree that sūtra is more often translated as “Aphorisms” than as “Maxims”), so that readers of article a, b and c might think that their authors are talking about different texts.

Thus, I see no point in translating titles in case of articles of books targeted at Sanskritists. For a Sanskritist like me, a title like “Versed Commentary” just forces me to wonder what is meant, whether Ślokavārttika immediately rings a bell. Nor do we want to have our PhD students learn English titles instead of Sanskrit ones, I believe, since if they did so they would have more troubles reading actual Sanskrit texts.

However, I also understand the advantage of translating Sanskrit titles in English in articles or books aiming at non-Sanskritists, which at least give some idea (though vague or misleading) and might be more easily memorised by lay readers. Hence, what about the following:

  • we use a translation which is slightly more specific, e.g. (Pūrva) Mīmāṃsā Sūtra = “Maxims (or Aphorisms) on Vedic Exegesis” or “Exegetic Maxims (or Aphorisms)”.
  • we explain in the first footnote about the texts whose titles should be translated, e.g., PMS and ŚBh, something like “The title Mīmāṃsāsūtra has been differently translated. In general, it states that the text is about Mīmāṃsā, i.e., about an investigation on Vedic texts, and that it is composed in short, syntetic and terse sentences, called sūtras. These are often hardly understandable without an extended commentary, and bhāṣya means indeed ‘extended commentary’. For pragmatic reasons, in the following we will refer to these texts with an English translation, i.e., as “Exegetic Maxims” and “Commentary on the Exegetic Maxims” respectively.”

What do you think?

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

19 thoughts on “On translating the titles of Sanskrit works

  1. In Russian the titles of the Sanskrit philosophical works are mostly transcribed: the Russian translation is given usually in the brackets or in the beginning at the first introduction of the text. Of course some scholars try to translate very closely, but in fact it looks often as a literar translation. It’s presumed that this texts will be read by the people who are specialists more or less in Indian philosophy and Sanskrit.

  2. Elisa, this is a great post. I’ve had long conversations about this issue, and the general issue of what to do with translation choices that have a certain cache in your target language already. If I may make one tangential point, I think that when working on texts that are at least meant to be available to nonspecialists, we should be conservative in terms of sticking to conventions already in place unless we find them problematic. Having a somewhat stable set of terms for text names and important categories is very important for nonspecialist readers, and introducing our own favorite terms as a rule would make it very hard for them to navigate various translations effectively.

    • thank you, Matthew. I agree with you. Even great new ideas can be disturbing if they clash against a well-known convention, so that one should introduce only a few and only when one is ready to argue about them at length. Amod’s example of the Visuddhimagga is an interesting case (one might suggest a different example in an article completely dedicated to the understanding of visuddhi in Pāli, I would say).

  3. Great post, Elisa. I am mostly inclined to agree with you. I think there are a few texts out there whose translated title has become more or less standardized – the Visuddhimagga is pretty widely known now as The Path of Purification. (Well, that’s Pali, not Sanskrit as such, but I feel like there have got to be at least a couple Sanskrit texts with similar status.) In such cases I think it’s worth using the standard title unless the translator has a strong objection to it (“augh, everybody gets it wrong, visuddhi TOTALLY doesn’t mean ‘purification’ in this case!!”) But they are relatively few, as evidenced by the difficulty I’m having in coming up with other examples.

    But because most titles aren’t standardized, I think it’s often best to stick with the untranslated titles. I certainly agree that that’s the best approach in translations aimed at scholars, but it can even be the best approach in translations that aren’t. There are now a significant number of texts that are known by their untranslated titles: the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad Gītā. Trying to translate those titles would be a really stupid idea that would confuse way more than it helps.

    The issue is more for nonspecialist translations of those texts that aren’t yet widely known to a nonspecialist audience under any title. There, I am inclined to say: translate the title if you can make it something relatively snappy, in the hopes that that title will become standard. But if you have to use a wordy circumlocution, you’re probably better off with the original since it’s recognizable to scholars. So specifically, I think Charles Goodman was right to render Śāntideva’s Śikṣāsamuccaya as the crisp and succinct “Training Anthology”; but on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, we’re probably better off with Crosby and Skilton leaving the title untranslated than with Wallace and Wallace’s meandering “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”.

    • Many thanks, Amod, for these interesting points. You are right, it would be pointless to translate “Bhagavadgītā” and perhaps even “Manusmṛti” or “Ṛgveda”, since they are already known as such and it would be only confusing to try to establish a new convention. I know that some ambitious colleagues would say that we *can* establish a new convention (as was in part essayed in the Clay Sanskrit Series), but I am not ambitious enough to believe that I can do it and I am inclined to think that Sanskrit scholars are generally too individualist to stick to a single norm (which would be needed to enforce a convention).
      However, once we accept that Bhagavadgītā remains untranslated, translating other terms might look asymmetrical, so that considerations of the target audience are needed.
      As for your examples, interestingly, I have different intuitions about them, since “Training Anthology” (and similar titles) seems to me to be potentially misleading (is it about fitness?), whereas “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s way of life” is verbose, but clear. What do other readers think?

      • Counter-argument: probably the most famous translations of the Bhagavadgītā in history are titled “The Song of the Lord,” from E. J. Thomas to Alan Watts and beyond. Edwin Arnold called it “The Song Celestial” (1885, six editions by 1893, and still in print today) and we shouldn’t forget that Arnold’s many translations from Sanskrit – that always had English titles – dominated the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth.
        Note that I am here talking about books that are actually *read* by thousands or tens of thousands of people. Audience is crucial.

        • I see. However, I wonder whether things are changing. I recently listened to a talk by Barth Ehrman on the historical Jesus and someone from the audience asked him about the Bhagavadgītā and he replied using the same term (btw: he replied that he was not interested).
          If things *are* really changing, I wonder whether they will keep on changing also in the case of other titles (so much that it might be worthwhile using them untranslated). Think of the Mahābhārata after Peter Brook (any translation would be now less recognisable than the original).

        • I must admit I have a hard time believing that translations I’ve barely heard of are “probably the most famous in history”. Wikipedia cites Davis’s “biography” of the text on the point that the most widely distributed translation is ISKCON’s Bhagavadgita As It Is, which seems about right to me. If we are talking about wide popular audience, the fact that the Wikipedia entry on the BhG doesn’t even mention Thomas or Watts seems germane. Larson’s article on English translations of the Gītā mentions Thomas and Arnold only in passing, and Watts not at all.

          Even if somehow we were to establish that these are indeed the most famous, it’s very relevant that they disagree amongst themselves whether it is “of the Lord” or “Celestial”. That in itself should be enough to demonstrate the point that there isn’t a standard translation of the name.

  4. My goal lately has been to write in a way that’s somewhat accessible to people with a little background in Indian philosophy but who are not Sanskritists or experts in Indian philosophy (maybe this is a very American thing to do?). So in writing about Nāgārjuna, for instance, I’ll write “Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way; hereafter: MMK).” Then I simply refer to it as “MMK” afterwards, which is the standard way to refer to this text, anyway. I might include an explanatory footnote of the type Elisa mentions, too. This gives the Sanskrit name, a translation, and the abbreviation, which will save space as well as reduce the “Sanskrit anxiety” that may be experienced by non-Sanskritists upon seeing too many long titles that are meaningless to them.

    One question I have, though, is why our field should be so different than, say, ancient Greek philosophy, where translations of titles are relatively common. At least in English-language scholarship in philosophy, almost nobody refers to Plato’s Politeia. It is widely known simply as Plato’s Republic. Why could we not do the same with Sanskrit texts? Is it because Sanskrit titles tend to be longer and more ambiguous?

    Even with Greek texts, though, there are some exceptions: Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism is typically referred to with an abbreviation of its Greek title: PH for Pyrrhōneioi Hypotypōseis. Maybe colleagues in Greek and Hellenistic philosophy don’t have a standard solution to this problem, either.

    • Many thanks, Ethan. I think that the case of Greek texts is radically different, seems most English titles are just the English rendering of the Latin titles which became standard already in the Middle Age (Politeia–»De re publica–»Republic). It is accordinly no wonder that there is no standard English translation for Greek texts which have been discovered only recently. We do not share any such background with our readers, unfortunately. Nor do we share with them a general metaphorical world about mirrors and moons as metaphors for texts…

      I completely agree with you that abbreviations such as MMK are less frightening than a difficult title. What do other readers think about it?

      • Thanks for your reply, Elisa, and for the original post, of course!

        As you point out, Greek texts have complicated histories with translation. I always explain to students, for example, that Plato’s Apology is not an apology in the sense of the English word, but the title has stuck for contingent historical reasons.

        Indian texts don’t have that same history (at least not in the West – the case of Buddhist texts transmitted to East Asia might be instructive). We’re making decisions now about how these things will play out. I still don’t see it as radically different except that we’re at an earlier stage. I’m personally more amenable to translating titles for the sake of reaching a larger (non-Sanskritist) audience, although of course no translation will ever capture every nuance of the original.

        It may also depend on the text. A literal translation of Ślokavārttika, as you point out, is a bit boring. But translation can be fun. I translate Śrī Harṣa’s Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya somewhat creatively as “Buffet of Destruction” rather than “Sweetmeats of Refutation” (Phillips) or “Amassed Morsels of Refutation” (Ganeri).

  5. On the other site, Elisa, you said:
    Many thanks for these interesting remarks, Dominik. I completely agree that we have the luxury of being able to offer reliable (i.e., unambiguous) transliteration of Sanskrit text, a luxury our colleagues working on Arabic or Chinese texts don’t share and this influences our willingness to offer translations of texts. Yet, I also think that there are further two problems here:
    1. We and our readers don’t share the same intuitions about “mirror”, “raising moon”, “light” and about the other metaphorical images constantly used in the titles of Sanskrit texts. This makes literal translations of titles obscure.
    2. Sanskrit titles are often not very informative. Is it really an advantage, if we let our readers know that a text is called “Versed commentary”? I mean, are the advantages more than the risks (of thinking that it is a poetical work and that it is “just” an unambitious commentary)? In other words, it seems to me that titles might have a different function than they now have gained in Europe and in the Anglophone world.

    Which leads me to a risky point: Should we perhaps partly *invent* titles? Should we call the ŚV a “Versed commentary on Vedic exegesis”, for instance?

    I reply here:

    In a way, both your points above are about “foreignness” in translation. And Venuti – again – argues that for many communities of readers, foreignness is a strong desideratum. German readers, for example, feel that they want to “taste” the Sanskrit through the German translation, and that if the translation is too smooth and native, then they feel a sense of deception. For English readers, it’s the opposite.

    If I may use a personal example: In my book Roots of Ayurveda, I introduced the English title “The Heart of Medicine” for अष्टाङ्गहृदयसंहिता . I have noticed that a number of people – students and also historians of medicine mainly – now refer to Vāgbhaṭa’s book, when they never referred to it before.

  6. Great idea, Elisa. How about conducting a worldwide online survey using the Indology listserv, H-Buddhism, and similar venues? Folks will be asked to submit their preferred title translations for a subset of representative works, data will be collated, and, assuming there is overwhelming consensus on any given work, the preferred English title adopted. In the case of titles where a clear winner has not emerged, a second poll will ask participants to rank their preferences from among, say, the top five choices, and the highest ranked translation wins.

    Then it is just a matter of drafting a “translation norms” for titles of Sanskrit works document, have it widely publicized, and the problem is solved (at least until the next generation comes along and finds the whole thing ludicrous or English looses its lingua franca status or said Sanskrit works become so widely known outside specialist circles as to make the translating of their titles unnecessary).

    I would most certainly participate in such a poll and, I assume, so would most of our colleagues.

    • Great idea, Christian. But first we would need a pool of titles and possible translations. Perhaps each of us could start thinking of a set of titles for their various fields?

  7. I share a similar view to Ethan Mills. Within a text, I will often write my translation of a text title or chapter title in creative English and then have the Sanskrit in parentheses following it.

    One of my favorite translations of the Gheranda Samhita is titled as “Pure Yoga”. You would have a hard time locating this work if you were looking to read the Gheranda Samhita, unless you were referred directly from another discussion. Google is changing this some, but in 1992 when it was published, it would have been lost to those who care. With that in mind, I believe that book titles (and their searchable mentions) need to make sure that the text itself is findable and known by its traditional name, as well as a way for non-Sanskrit audiences to also know and find the text. If the goal was to aim for a standard, I would say either Sanskrit plus a creative English title or a creative English title plus the nature of the work done with the Sanskrit:
    Mīmāṃsā Sūtra: Aphorisms on Vedic Exegesis
    Aphorisms on Vedic Exegesis: An Introduction to the Mīmāṃsā Sūtra

    • Thank you, Freedom, this is an important point. If I translate “Mīmāṃsā Sūtra” as, say, “Foundations of Hermeneutics”, people might google the English title and get at least misled. Perhaps a footnote explaining that this is a tentative translation or an interpretation of the title would be suitable in these cases.

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