Translating from Sanskrit: Methodological issues

Scholars of Sanskrit philosophy 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 (Dominik Wujastyk’s and Ch. Ram-Prasad’s ones)

It seems that the choice of approaching more the one than the other partly depends also on one’s target language, since readers of, e.g., English or German 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 expect from the translation that it transmits part of the flair of the original language, as if it could be partly transparent. These differences are discussed in Venuti 1995 (I am grateful to Dominik Wujastyk who pointed out the book). 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 vice versa.

A third element worth considering regards the translator themselves. They need an extreme command of English in order to translate in the second way. Moreover, they need to think of the duration of one’s translation. Each language rapidly evolves and translating in a very idiomatic way runs the risk of rendering the text non 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 at stake in a translation by Anand Venkatkrishnan (in Venkatkrishnan 2014, see the discussion here) and many readers of mine had asked me what “ones” in Edgerton 1929 could mean.

Anyway, even if one favours the latter type of translation, translating a Sanskrit text remains always a difficult task. In my opinion, this is due especially to the fact that contemporary readers lack almost completely the background assumptions which are needed in order to understand each instance of communication, including philosophical texts. 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, punctuation and other elements which can be deduced out of the context or of the śāstric usage. But these minor details are not likely to be enough, when it comes to philosophical positions which are not shared, such as the one about siddha and sādhya.

Thus, one needs more than a more reader-friendly translation. One might decide among at least three options:

  1. Adding extensive comments in footnotes or endnotes (as it has been done in Preisendanz 1994)
  2. Adding the same comments within the text in separate paragraphs, perhaps in smaller font size (as it has been done in Taber 2005)
  3. 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 problem than in the text itself.

How do you traslate?
For another post on Sanskrit translations from a methodological point of view, see here.
Matthew Dasti raised a related point in this post, where he asks whether we should masculine pronouns to Sanskrit texts whenever they lack a subject and we are translating them in a language like English, which requires a subject.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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4 thoughts on “Translating from Sanskrit: Methodological issues

  1. I think your point about the reader is important. In fact, I’d say that if one accurately identifies the intended reader, then the other decisions fall into place. The reader determines the style of the translation and the extent of any commentary the translator supplies. It might just be a footnote with the Sanskrit text in Devanāgarī for a Sanskritist, or a whole book explaining the meaning of the text alongside a vernacular translation for a general reader. And everything in between. And it seems to me that the more well defined the reader, the better the translation is likely to be.

    BTW, a John Smith was professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge for many years.

    • Thank you, Jayarava. A good reason to ‘translate’ Devadatta, then!
      May I further ask how you identify your reader, given that Buddhist texts may be interesting to both people who are (pre-eminently) practitioners and people who are (pre-eminently) scholars?

  2. I’m beginning to translate from Sanskrit into Spanish, my mother tongue. I still struggle with grammatical issues but I think my harsh and unfriendly translations not betray the text and preserve the significant potential of the terms and constructions. For now, just try each one of the elements overturned the Spanish have their justification in the original text, so there was not hurt. The Spanish version try to be grammatically and stylistically correct, but I still think that the translated text need not be a text “easier” for the reader; I think the reader of translated Sanskrit texts also seeks a certain level of intellectual challenge to address the text.

    Estoy empezando a traducir del sánscrito al español, mi lengua madre. Aun forcejeo con cuestiones gramaticales pero creo que mis traducciones duras y poco amigables no traicionan el texto y preservan la potencialidad significativa de los términos y las construcciones. Por ahora solo intento que cada uno de los elementos volcados al español tengan su justificativo en el texto original, por lo tanto allí no se pierde nada. La versión española intento que sea gramaticalmente y estilísticamente correcta, pero aun sigo pensando que el texto traducido no necesariamente debe ser un texto “facilitado” para el lector; pienso que también el lector de textos sánscritos traducidos pretende un cierto nivel de desafío intelectual para abordar el texto.

    • Thank you for your comment, Martín, and apologies for answering in English (reading Spanish is easier than writing it). Out of your comment, it seems that Spanish readers are closer to German than to English ones. Now, I wonder whether the topic also matters. For instance, I expect from readers of kāvya that they want to savour poetry in an idiomatic translation, whereas readers of śāstra might be more ready to engage with a more “difficult” translation. What do you think?