Sunday, December 20, 2009

Irritated by Sanskrit Translators/Beginning to see Thomson's Point

A while back, I wrote about Karen Thomson's quest to rescue Vedic Sanskrit from the Indologists. This week, I got hold of the lyrics to Rasa's "Prabhupada-padam." It turns out they are from a poem in Sanskrit. Not knowing much in the way of Sanskrit, I next needed a translation.

I still don't know enough to speak to Thomson's thoughts on the Penguin translation of the Rig Veda, etc. But if what I've found for "Prabhupada-padam" is indicative, I think I see her point.

As I mentioned, I don't know that much Sanskrit myself. But here's the line that ends all four verses of the song (and all 11 verses of the poem):

pranamami sada prabhupada-padam

At this site, this line is translated:
I eternally offer my respects unto that charming effulgence that shines from the radiant lotus toe-tips of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada.
The line is not again translated until the final verse.

Now, let's have a look at this site. Here, it is given a different translation each time! The first three are:
I make my obeisance unto the lotus feet of that illustrious great soul, worshippable by one and all - perpetually do I make my obeisance unto the radiance emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord. (1)

I make my obeisance unto his lotus feet - perpetually do I make my obeisance unto the radiance emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord. (2)

Perpetually do I make my obeisance unto that effulgence emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord. (3)
Call me old school, but when every verse of a poem ends with the same line, the translation ought to come pretty close to doing this - there might be variations in tense, or aspect, or mood or number that the language translated from distinguishes differently, but lexical items should not leap about taking on new forms willy-nilly. While we're at it, did you see how many words it took to translate these four from Sanskrit (comprising about six lexemes from what I can see, by the way)?

If you did this with New Testament Greek... [shudder]

Here's are my suggestions, following notes on the lexical items:

pranamami (I bend myself) sada (always, ever) prabhupada (prabhu=lord; pad=foot - a suffix like "-ship" in English) - padam (foot)

Ever I bow to my lordship's feet.
(most concise)

I always bow before my lordship's feet.
(tottering iambic pentamenter; the third beat is off)

Ever I do bend down before my lordship's feet.
(12 syllables, mimicking the verse form, jagati (term found here), in which it was composed)

I'm not saying you can't go for the elegant choice here and there when translating, or try to unpack some of the meaning that would be lost by a too literal translation. But "effulgence emanating from the toenails of the holy feet of my Lord"? It's not even close to all being in the text. And even if you want to find it there, then it ought not be "radiance" in one verse, "brilliance" in another and "effulgence" in still another. The original author used an ancient verse form and packed in meaning by making use of Classical Sanskrit's love of compound words. And he rounded it off with a repeating refrain, a point to be drummed home. A proper translation ought to reflect this.

Now, I am far from being able to do a full translation of this, and I don't intend to learn enough to get super close anytime soon. But if you follow classic advice for learning a language - find a song you like and get the lyrics and a translation - then if this is the norm in Sanskrit translation I can only wish you the best of luck!


Blogger Kiran Paranjape said...

It is a dilemma faced by every Sanskrit translator. It is always important to preserve the correct intended meaning of the words in the source language than doing a literal word to word translation. It is equally important to preserve the inherent beauty of the language.


6:49 AM  
Anonymous srikanth said...

Well said. This is true, I agree.

1:29 AM  
Blogger gbarto said...

I certainly appreciate the importance of preserving a work's beauty and capturing its meaning. My concern is that these translations fail in this regard. Like a seven year-old girl who slathers on her mother's makeup in an effort to be beautiful, flowery translations of Sanskrit may wind up obscuring rather than revealing beauty.

In English, brevity is not merely the soul of wit; it is a mark of elegance. Our model of composition is Shakespeare, who said a lot with as few words as possible. If you want to do a beautiful rendering of Sanskrit, you must chose your best word and run with it; you can't use as many words as you want because once your lines get appreciably longer than the ten syllables of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, you no longer have a poem rushing forward; you have a piece of overdone pedantry like the comment I have typed here.

7:01 PM  

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