Scholars of Sanskrit (as well as ancient Greek, classical Tamil, Chinese…) are familiar with translations oscillating between the following two extremes:
- A translation which closely follows the original and is chiefly meant as an aid to understand the Sanskrit text (as in Kataoka 2011)
- A translation which smooths the text, so that it sounds as if it had been originally written in the target language
It seems that the choice of approaching more the one than the other partly depends also on one’s target language and on the cultural expectations linked to a certain literary civilisation, since readers of, e.g., English or German appear to have very different expectations concerning what counts as a good translation, with the former being much more positively impressed by texts which sound as if they had been composed in their own language, whereas the latter tend to expect from the translation that it transmits part of the flair of the original language, as if it could be partly transparent and let one glimpse the original through it (see Venuti 1995). The other element of the choice is the reader one has in mind. The first model presupposes a reader who knows Sanskrit fairly well and uses the translation only as an auxiliary, the second one assumes the reverse.
A third element worth considering regards the translator themselves. They need an extremely good command of English in order to translate in the second way (which is not my case). Moreover, they need to think of the duration of one’s translation. Each language rapidly evolves so that translating in a very idiomatic way runs the risk of rendering the text less understandable for non-native speakers or speakers who will live in a not so distant future. As a non-native speaker of English, I have, for instance, had problems deciphering the English idioms used in a translation by Anand Venkatkrishnan (in Venkatkrishnan 2015, see the discussion here: http://wp.me/p3YaBu-jz) and many readers of mine had asked me what “ones” in Edgerton 1929 or “ain’t” in other authors could mean. In other words, a strongly idiomatic translation is restricted —in at least some aspects— to native speakers of the present
and immediately following decade.
My translation of the SM aims at being close enough to the text to make it conceptually understandable to a public of Sanskritists as well as to scholars of the history of philosophy and theology. It does not reproduce the complexity of Vedānta Deśika’s prose, nor does it attempt at capturing the beauty of his verses. I tried to make the translation readable also to non-Sanskritists, while being at the same time extremely cautious in not over translating the Sanskrit text. As a rule of thumb, I used the concept of functional equivalence, which was used, e.g., by Raimon Panikkar in discussing comparative theology. Accordingly, I changed passive forms (which are the rule in scholarly Sanskrit) into active ones, since the latter are the rule in scholarly English. I also made pronouns and copulae explicit and avoided causative clauses when possible, since this is the rule in scholarly English. I also broke long sentences into shorter ones, since the length of an acceptable sentence varies massively between scholarly Sanskrit and scholarly English. Nonetheless, the resulting text will not be smooth, because the source text is extremely complex and causes real head-aches to its readers. Smoothing it completely would have meant unpacking all the points it presupposes and hints at.
Whichever type of translation one favours, translating a Sanskrit text always remains a difficult task. In my opinion, this is due especially to the fact that contemporary readers lack almost completely the background assumptions which are required in order to understand each instance of communication, including philosophical texts. While reading a text by Plato, a contemporary reader educated in Europe will automatically be able to identify most of the trees, places (e.g., the Piraeus, at the beginning of the Republic), social institutions (e.g., the role of theater, the names of gods and goddesses, the presence of slaves) and the other realia he mentions. Readers will not be scared by reading geographic or ethnic names (e.g., hoi Thrâkes, in Republic A 327), nor by proper names (e.g. Socrates or Glaucon, ibid.). This familiarity is also reflected in the fact that there are English (as well as French, German, Italian, Spanish…) versions of these terms. Even more, readers will likely be at least slightly familiar with many of Plato’s ideas, such as the maieutic method or the realm of ideas.
The situation is completely different in the case of Sanskrit texts, where Euro-American readers often need to deal with unfamiliar terms, contexts and ideas. Let me call the lack of familiarity with names, works, contexts, customs, etc., circumstantial unfamiliarity and the lack of familiarity with philosophical ideas philosophical unfamiliarity. The unfamiliarity with ideas might be something readers are willing to live with —after all, they started reading a book about an unfamiliar philosopher. What they are probably not prepared to have to overcome, is the additional effort required to just overcome the circumstantial unfamiliarity.
For this reason, one might decide to strongly alter the text, in order to substitute the background assumptions with ones more familiar to the contemporary reader. This substitution may regard minor details, e.g., the substitution of “Devadatta” with “John Smith” as the placeholder for whoever a person, or the inclusion of pronouns, copulae, punctuation and other elements which can be deduced out of the context or of the literary usage of scholastic Sanskrit. I have been generous in making implicit linguistic units explicit, but I did not dare translating proper names and terms referring to realia and to culturally specific elements into more familiar ones. This is because I want to create a reliable translation of the SM that is readable for at least some decades —also given the fact that I do not foresee new translations
of the SM being prepared in the short- and mid-term. Furthermore, I did not want to limit my assumed readership to European readers, and I am not sure that “John Smith” will remain the standard way of expressing the same thing as the Sanskrit Devadatta for all future and remote readers.
Coming to philosophical unfamiliarity, there are again two kinds of it. On the one hand, there is the unfamiliarity of the main thesis one is reading about, in the present case, the idea of aikaśāstrya. On the other hand, there is the unfamiliarity of other philosophical ideas being mentioned only in passing. In the former case I believe I can expect the reader to be patient enough to tolerate some Sanskrit words and some translations sounding alien,
and give themselves enough time to understand what is being discussed. In the latter case, by contrast, I would like to provide the reader with enough information to go forward with the text without having to engage deeply with each of the ideas and theories being mentioned in it without extensive explanations. This means, that in a chapter focusing on the instrument of knowledge called śabda, I might expect the reader to bear with my complicated translation of it as
linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge', whereas I will not hesitate to translate anumāna just asinference’ and adding a word of caution in, e.g., a footnote only. Vice versa, I would translate śabda just as `testimony’ (with a word of caution in, e.g., a footnote) while translating the chapter on anumāna by a thinker of the Nyāya school.
If this principle is followed, a reader will receive a lot information about some key terms and only minimal information about less relevant ones. How can one organise this information so that a reader can find all the information they need to go forward with the main thesis while understanding enough of the other philosophical ideas mentioned?
For this purpose, one needs more than just a reader-friendly translation. One might decide among at least three options:
- Adding extensive comments in footnotes or endnotes (as it has been done in Preisendanz 1994)
- Adding the same comments within the text in separate paragraphs, perhaps in smaller font size (as it has been done in Taber 2005)
- Adding the same comments in an extended introduction (as it has been done in Bilimoria 1988)
The choice partly depends on one’s target readers. Philologists are more likely to appreciate the first solution, whereas the latter two are more likely to appeal to a public of more general readers, who might be more interested in the philosophical content than in the text itself. In this book, I adopt the third model (as I did already in Freschi 2012), although I will recur to the first one whenever the text demands a punctual explanation of a specific point having little bearing with its major concerns.
A specific paragraph needs to be dedicated to the use of parentheses and brackets. I used parentheses:
- to indicate which Sanskrit word I am translating in specific cases (i.e., while introducing for the first time the translation of a technical term, or whenever a term has to be understood in an unexpected way).
- to insert short explanations which are needed to understand a specific point of the text and cannot therefore be postponed in an explanatory footnote nor advanced in an introductory study.
As for square-brackets, I used them to insert words which were not present in the Sanskrit original and which could not be directly inferred on its basis. In other words, I would not put
I'' inI am going” within brackets if this translated gacchāmi, since the first-person subject is obviously present in the verb form. I also did not put within brackets obvious complements, such as “sacrifice” while translating sacrifice’s names such as darśapūrṇamāsau or citrā as
the full- and new-moon sacrifices' andthe citrā sacrifice’. By contrast, I used brackets to highlight for the reader that a certain concept is not actually found in the text, so as to make them aware of the fact that I am suggesting an interpretation of it. For instance, God’s attribute vimuktipriya (within the opening verses of the SĀṬ) literally means
who is fond of liberation'. I rendered it asHe who wants [people to achieve] liberation’.
I also use brackets to introduce identifications of speakers.
Comments from fellow translators and/or readers of philosophical texts from afar welcome!