On translating out of order

Last time I expressed my gratitude and praise for Matthew Dasti and Stephen Phillips’s much-needed recent selective translation of the Nyāya Sūtras and commentaries. I stand by all of it – and also noted that the book drives me crazy.

Why? Dasti and Phillips made two decisions that I think are characteristic of an analytic approach to Indian texts. One was to publish selections and excerpts  – probably the right choice, as discussed last time. The second one, however, was to publish those selections entirely out of order.

When I taught Nyāya from Gangopadhyaya’s more difficult translation, I simply had the students read the commentary on the first ten sūtras, sūtras I.i.1-10. These provide a fairly succinct introduction to the Nyāya school in its own terms: the ultimate purpose of Nyāya philosophical reasoning, the way the reasoning leads there, the core idea of pramāṇas (reliable sources of knowledge) and what the pramāṇas are. But in the Dasti-Phillips translation, the first two sūtras – the self-described point of Nyāya – don’t appear until chapter 8, near the end of the book. The commentators’ introductory material from before those sūtras appears in the first Dasti-Phillips chapter, along with the following six sūtras (I.i.3-8), but sūtras I.i.1-2 themselves are excised from this natural continuity even though they appear later in the book. The next sūtra, I.i.9, appears in a different chapter entirely (DP chapter 5), and the one after that, I.i.10, appears in the chapter before it, chapter 4. If I wanted my students to learn just this relatively short part of the text in the order the Naiyāyikas intended, I would need to make them jump around chapter 1, then chapter 8, then chapter 1 again, then chapter 5, and chapter 4.

So I don’t make my students do that, not with this text. Instead I proceed topically, which the book does as well. The problem is that I don’t find Dasti and Phillips’s own organization of topics to work well. It seems to me that the Nyāya discussion of self is based above all on acknowledging a whole that is not reducible to its parts (in rebuttal to the sort of Buddhist position articulated in the Milindapañhā). But the discussion of parts and wholes is itself split between DP chapters 3 and 5 while the self is in DP chapter 4. So when I try to assign a topical discussion of the self, my students now have to muddle through three different ways of organizing the topic: mine, Dasti’s and Phillips’s, and the original. Likewise on logical standards of discussion and debate: the discussion of the fallacy of equivocation in DP chapter 8 belongs naturally with the other fallacies in chapter 9, and DP chapter 9’s discussion of debate spells out the discussion of inference in DP chapter 1.

So this translation, unfortunately, frustrates me and my students. I say that in spite of its many merits as a translation; there are good reasons why I continue to use it, exclusively, as my source on Nyāya, and not Gangopadhyaya or the selections in Radhakrishnan-Moore or Sarma. It is the best introduction to Nyāya that exists in English. I would still love to see a new edition or revision of the book that was in a more coherent order – especially, one that left the sūtras in the order their authors (including the commentators) intended.

Why would I like to see the sūtras in the authors’ intended order? There is a philosophically interesting question here that goes beyond the organization of undergraduate textbooks. It has to do with how, and why, we read the ideas of philosophers from times and places different from our own – and perhaps from our own as well. I said before that Dasti and Phillips are taking an analytical approach, in part because I remember the analytic philosopher who once said to a friend, “if it’s an interesting argument, we don’t care whether it was found in the writings of David Hume or on a piece of pasta.” It seems to me that such a view is implicit in this translation’s organization: we are interested in arguments taken individually, more than in any worldview that they might add up to. The organization suggests adaptation for comparative courses on philosophical topics: we could extract individual arguments about self in isolation from other arguments about parts and wholes, let alone about reliable means of knowledge.

I have not generally found such an approach helpful. I think philosophical worldviews tend to make sense much more as wholes. Such a holism can be greatly overdone, and indeed in religious studies it is overdone all the time. Religionists often treat worldviews as such seamless webs that the distances between them can never be crossed, and so the idea that we ourselves might learn from thinkers of the past is viewed with bemused puzzlement: never the twain shall meet. I find analytic approaches preferable to that. Still, I think it is hard to learn from another tradition’s argument taken in isolation when that argument is directed at people whose assumptions are also very different from ours – as they must be for people from a millennium before us. I think we learn more from them when we understand those very assumptions and unstated premises; overall, I think I learned more from Śāntideva’s assumptions than from his arguments. That is why I want to understand a coherent worldview, and why I want my students to do so as well, to the extent possible. And that makes me more predisposed to a teaching approach that looks to read past authors on the terms they set out themselves (like reading Nyāya Bhāṣya I.i.1-10 in its entirety in order).

I suspect that Dasti and Phillips have a different take on the understanding of distant philosophers and their arguments and assumptions, so I’m not going to hold my breath for a differently ordered translation. But in a venue like this, I think such differences are worth airing.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

4 thoughts on “On translating out of order

  1. Hi Amod.

    Thank you for the kind attention you have given our book in your last two blogposts. In response to your first post, I am gratified that it has worked in the classroom in the way we intended, and I appreciate your kind words. And yes, Hackett was our first choice for many reasons, including their consistent student-friendly prices. We also thought that works like the Nyāyasūtra belong alongside the well-known classic Hackett translation of works in the Western (and increasingly, Chinese) traditions.

    In response to your criticisms or differences of opinion here, I will offer few points of disagreement and then reflect on the question of topical translation.

    I don’t think that Stephen and I started with a particular theoretical approach to ideal translation practices. Your reading some kind of anti-historicism of the high analytic tradition into our methodology is misguided. I think you are bringing a fight you are waging (and with which I’m fairly sympathetic) into an arena where it isn’t warranted.

    Your point about chopping up worldviews is also inapt; our own commentary largely provides historical and conceptual framing to the passages at hand, meant to help students navigate the comprehensive worldview that our original thinkers inhabited. While our translation is select, our concern was to help students see Nyāya’s text as a comprehensive system. This is also why we included an appendix with the entire Nyāyasūtra in outline.

    Our methodology was rather driven by pedagogical and practical motivations, born of years of classroom experience. Excepting a few special cases, students are not going to do a course on the Nyāyasūtra. They are taking courses on philosophy, epistemology, Indian philosophy, Buddhism and Hinduism, World Philosophy, etc., where what ends up happening is that the texts are plugged in thematically. That led our approach here. So, the topical or thematic grouping of sūtras is meant to support what would likely be the smoothest method of integration into the classroom.

    I’d also suggest that the word “entirely” in your claim “entirely out of order” is a bit of a stretch. In almost every case, we’ve translated long, connected clusters of text in order. One can see this by consulting our Appendix B, which provides all of the sūtras translated according to our chapters. The instance of minute splitting and reordering that you cite and object to in your post is by far an exception to the general rule.

    But putting these quibbles aside, it seems to me that once one is committed to a select translation (which I think we’re agreed is often the best case pedagogically), and if the text in question is of the older, meandering sūtra form, then one can’t but confront the fact that sūtras often discuss the same issues in different chapters, picking up relevant threads in multiple places. Sūtra texts track old debates. Some of these debates are relevant for our students. Many are not. But unless one is going to sit and read through all of the sūtras, translating them (the select passages) in chronological order but without topical organization will amount to something that is likely bewildering and repetitive. So a select translation must have some sort of organization, and a topical organization that overrides original chapter boundaries makes the most sense to us. Again, this matches our classroom experience. I have a hunch that this is one reason why the prakaraṇa style of highly organized, topical primers like the Tarkasaṃgraha or the Vedāntaparibhāṣa eventually superseded the sūtras as the texts of instruction for newcomers in India itself.

    So while one may disagree with particular cases, I think that it is harder to justify the idea that the best organization of a select translation is always to follow the ordering of original text, esp. in the sūtra context. Such would likely require even more jumping about by the teacher, as she suggests that a student who wants to understand (e.g.) Nyāya and Buddhist debates on the self move between chapters 1 and 3 of the Nyāyasūtra itself. Or one who wishes to understand debate and rhetoric jump between chapters 1,2,4, and 5 of the original. And since a select translation already breaks up the long dialectical streams that govern traditional chapter groupings, it is not the case that students would simply see the text as a complete whole anyway.

    Beyond this, students in the West are going to be helped by topics that build bridges with their own burgeoning philosophical vocabulary (as long as we are in a position to properly nuance such categories when warranted).

    In any case, again, I appreciate your use of the book and the attention you have given it here.

    • Thanks to everyone for their detailed comments.

      Having read them, I think I screwed up on this post. I’m always looking for how everything fits into the big picture, so I wanted to make this about something bigger than simply a review of a translation. And it wasn’t – well, it was in the sense that pedagogy is a big and important issue, but in this case not one tied to closely to substantive philosophical differences.

      As a result, I’m now more convinced of Malcolm’s position than I was of the position that I took in the post originally. I agree that nobody’s going to be taking a course on the Nyāya Sūtra itself; my course certainly wasn’t and isn’t. I do still think that even for such a course it is better to translate in order. The reason, I think, is that each instructor is likely to have a different sense of what passages belong together: as I noted in the post, I think the passages on parts and wholes belong with those on the self, and teach them together. That means that there are now *three* ways of organizing the text that the students have to deal with – mine, the original, and the translators’ – as opposed to just the two that would have been there if the translation was kept in order.

      But yeah, this is really a matter of pedagogy in either direction. I apologize to Matthew and Stephen (whom I also consider colleagfor unfairly attributing to them a position which is not really theirs.

  2. [Let me preface this with the note that, as you know, I consider Matt and Stephen both friends and colleagues—Stephen was my teacher for many years, and Matt and I were at Austin together. However, I will speak on the basis of my experience with the text.]

    I have been teaching from this book for two years (I test-ran some excerpts pre-publication), in a few different contexts: a first-year common curriculum course covering multiple world traditions, a course on Indian philosophy of language, and a course on debate & reasoning in Nyāya. While I also wish for a version that is “in order” (I’ve said as much to Matt offline) I think that, given the rest of their published work, it’s not fair to say they’re “just” analytic philosophers concerned with any (context-free) arguments, even if on a piece of pasta. They’re clear in the introduction about the reasons for their organization, which are pedagogical, focused on the undergraduate classroom.

    It’s true that if you want to teach a comprehensive introduction to (early) Nyāya from a more historical direction, this text is going to be limited. For instance, in the two courses I have been teaching, in the second, which is more extensively engaged with Nyāya rather than looking at language in multiple traditions, I decided to re-order the re-ordering in order to follow the structure of the original text. I wanted them to think about why Nyāya philosophers put concepts together in a particular way. However, since I wanted my students to engage with both discussion of anumāna and vāda, that still required moving from 1 to 2 to 5 in the NS. So even if I had the “right order” I would have had to skip around. Yet that’s not because I’m extracting arguments in isolation—the text itself makes connections among those sections.

    Do I wish that the text were in the traditional order, and that instead the “modern” categories were in the appendix, instead of the other way around? Absolutely. But I think you are conflating pedagogical strategy and philosophical methodology too much. While they are certainly linked, your last few sentences move from how to teach distant thinkers to how Matt and Stephen understand the arguments and assumptions of distant philosophers. But there are difficult questions here, pedagogically as well as programatically. Is a translation in the order of the NS going to be adopted by as many instructors? Does this approach give an easier entry for instructors who don’t have any background in Indian philosophy who want to expand their curriculum? You may disagree, but I think engaging with those reasons is important.

    Again, I disagree with the choice, but I also disagree with your inference from pedagogical decision to philosophical failing. I’ll just note, finally, that one other historically-oriented way to read what Matt and Stephen are doing is in the commentarial tradition itself, which intervenes in particular contexts for certain specific purposes. While the order of the sūtras is more sacrosanct in that context, as Matt notes, later thinkers do move towards reorganization, and as you know, even in early Nyāya there is much discussion about why the order is what it is—suggesting that even early thinkers sometimes found it unsatisfying.

  3. Although I have not taught from the book, I find the edition quite useful as a researcher. And so I would like to add a perspective that does not come from the pedagogical direction. I agree with Malcom’s comments about the text as well as much of what Matthew says.

    From a research perspective I think the text is a massive improvement over what is available and also has the ability to draw in researchers from other traditions, especially the analytic tradition and the phenomenological traditions. So, I think that the text has merits that are not only tied to what it does for teaching purposes but also for researchers that want something to read. I think that for a long time the community has wanted something out there that can be used by a wider audience.

    Thanks to Stephen and Matthew for their hard work. And thank you Amod, Matthew, and Malcom for your insightful commentary on the text.

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