Tuesday, September 05, 2006

“let us read” - on translating

My Sanskrit teacher Shastry Garu comments that when he was a boy in high school and eager to learn English, he used to go sometimes to hear Christian missionaries preach, since they were the only native English speakers in the area of Andhra Pradesh, in south India, where he lived. One very charismatic American preacher used to dance, weep and fall to the ground as he preached in English. Now, the missionaries always had a Telugu translator alongside them, and Shastry Garu notes that although he himself could not understand much of what the preacher said, he knew enough to tell that the translator understood even less. But when the American danced and threw his arms in the air as he preached in English, the translator too danced ecstatically as he spoke in Telugu. And when the preacher cried out and fell to the ground, so did the translator. This, Shastry Garu felt, was a valid translation, a translation of emotion. “The translator was not communicating the verbal argument. But the whole content of the speech was conveyed. It was a cogent display of inspiration and emotion,” Shastry Garu noted. “And it worked. It was a working translation.

“Translating each word into another language is not a valid translation. The meaning resides in the whole sentence, whole paragraph, sometimes in the book whole. “So when translating, Shastry Garu said, one should render entire sentences, not words. Translation should go from sentence to sentence. Even then, sometimes going from sentence to sentence is not enough. Sometimes you have to translate paragraph by paragraph to get the meaning into another language properly. Then too sometimes you have to concentrate on translating the emotion of a story. Sometimes that is the content. Changes will be necessitated by that. Then you are translating literature.

“You cannot go from word to word when you are translating. How does a language work? Each one has its own idiom. Idiomatic utterances are what convey meaning. A word alone does not. A word alone is not a valid unit of meaning…Let us read.”

The theory of translation that Shastry Garu is urging is deeply embedded in Sanskritic theories of language and of how meaning is generated. It is also very much at odds with the principles followed by many of the great scholars who translated Sanskrit texts into Tibetan, and of much translation by lesser beings of Tibetan into English. Including, to a far larger degree than Shastry Garu would accept, my own translation of the Sanghatasutra… I have some reflection to do.

1 comment:

HistoryMan said...

You should ask Sastry Garu to give you a copy of the talk he delivered at Madras University many years ago. It is fascinating, and relates to his theories on translation, meaning, and Alankara Sastra in general.