Translation Issue or Theoretical Dispute: electron, dharma

In our daily life, we hardly pause to reflect upon many problematic things that we routinely assume as self-evident. Such an attitude is useful since it allows us to focus on other things that occupy us at that moment. One such attitude is not to bestow too much care on how we use language: we routinely speak of similarity in meaning, identical concepts, exact and accurate translations and so on. As long as issues like meaning etc. are not at dispute, talking like this causes no harm. However, in the current case, we are talking about the meaning of ‘meaning’ (in a manner of speaking). Consequently, we have to be careful about how we use language to convey what we want to say, and be clear about what thesis we intend to argue for.

1. Responding to my explanation about the ‘indeterminacy in meaning’ when it comes to translating across two languages, you say: “If that is true, I would think it is easily extendable to one language itself, it is impossible to know if two words are synonyms in the same language.

1.1. I would very much like to see this extension that you speak of. Kindly keep in mind, when you do so, that we have a native speaker of the language in mind.

1.2. I never said or implied (nor does Quine) that it is “impossible” to know if two words are synonyms in the same language. If I want to know the synonym for a particular word in the English language, I look up a dictionary and my problem is solved. So much about the alleged impossibility; do you really think that Quine does not know this?

1.3. Of course, there is another kind of puzzle involved here. It involves the concept of meaning, and the problem of synonyms merely highlights it. What kind of an entity or thing is “meaning” that it can have (a) shades (like in “shades of meaning”); (b) allow for the logical relation of identity (like in “identical meaning”); (c) allow for some kind of measurement (as in “exact” or “inexact” translation) and so on. To answer this question, we need a theory of meaning that tells us what meaning is so that it is capable of all these things. In our state of knowledge, unfortunately, we have no satisfactory theory.

1.4. Further, we are puzzled about meaning of words and sentences in natural languages (like English, Kannada, and so on) and not in artificial languages (logic, mathematics, and so on). In the latter, we define some symbols either implicitly (through axioms) or explicitly (by using other symbols) or operationally (by specifying some actions like measurement) etc. There is no problem in calling such definitions as the meaning of some symbols (whether or not they are words from some or another natural language or newly coined for a purpose) in analogy with natural languages. Given this, your example of electron simply fails in illustrating the kind of problems that we confront in translating across two languages. The theory about electrons (say, a theory in physics) is not translated into Hindi and Gujarati (even though a text book in physics could be translated from English to German). One could retain the word ‘electron’ as a technical word, or use a Hindi word, or use ‘pif-paf’ in Kannada. It makes no difference because the meaning of this symbol is exactly and univocally defined in that scientific theory. One merely carries this definition into Hindi or Marathi and this definition of the symbol exhausts the meaning of the same. We do not have an analogous theory either about natural languages, or about meaning, or about the meaning of words in some or another natural language.

2. You say: “The issue is not of finding an equivalent word in English; the issue is of finding an equivalent concept.”

This is where some stringency is required in the use of words. If we use the word ‘concept’ as a synonym for the word ‘meaning’, what are you saying? That we need an “equivalent concept” in English, or that we need some word that “means” the same as another word in English, or something else?

Now comes your example about electron, which I have already spoken of before. “To take a trivial example, “electron” has a very specific experimental and mathematical physics meaning. If you learn physics and I don’t care what your first, second, third, etc., languages are, the “electron” is the same thing, and any human within a reasonably wide range of mental capabilities can identify it as such without any ambiguity. (So much for Quine, at best his argument can be that there exist some words which cannot be disambiguated). Otherwise, we’re rendering the enterprise of physics meaningless.”

Please keep in mind that “electron” is defined very precisely in a theory and that this definition also exhausts what that word means in that theory. This theory is the same (because the terms occurring in that theory are defined in that theory) irrespective of the natural language we use in teaching that theory. Please do not confuse this with an entirely different problem of translating across two natural languages.

Quine never said that symbols cannot be defined in a very precise way: he has made original contributions to set theory and mathematical logic, for heaven’s sake! I can also define any word in any natural language with any degree of precision. But it will merely tell you how I am using that word. (Consider this ‘precise’ definition of ‘dharma’: dharma= square root of the natural number four. So? Perhaps, you have forgotten the entire eighth chapter of ‘The heathen…’ where I have talked about definitions.) What Quine said is that when we translate across two natural languages, there is always indeterminacy with respect to the meaning of the translated words. It is foolish to ask for “precise and exact” translations of words from one natural language into another natural language because we do not know what it would mean to comply with that demand.

4. You say, while disagreeing with me completely that: “then it is appropriate to coin a new word in English or borrow Dharma into English. I do not have to find another English word that suits better than religion, any more than a 18th century translator into Hindi of a 20th century physics textbook that transported back in time, has to find a suitable word in Hindi; the translator has to recognize that this is something entirely foreign to the Hindi world of the 18th century.”

I again have difficulty in following the drift of your argument. The first part of your first sentence says: “If Dharma is a missing English concept, like “electron” in 18th century Hindi…” Meaning exactly what? (I do not know what it means to speak of English, French, German and Kannada concepts. I can understand you if you say that there is no English word to translate the Sanskrit word Dharma because the concept of Dharma cannot be expressed in the English language. This is how I will read you.) How are you going to discover that “Dharma” is a missing English concept?

You compound confusions by talking about electron on the one hand (which, I repeat, is a symbol defined precisely in a theory) and about translating a text book of physics into Hindi on the other. The problems of the Hindi translator are of two different kinds: (a) does the world of physics know of the concept of electron in the eighteenth century? (b) Which word (should it be a Hindi word, or the word electron itself, or call it pif-paf) should be used when translating the text book into Hindi? He is not translating the theory in question into another language; if he was doing it, he will give a definition of, say, “paramanu” which is different from the definition of “electron” and not look for a different word or use another symbol. That is to say, he will retain what does the defining (which specifies the meaning of the word) but merely uses another word or symbol for that which is being defined. That is why, both ‘pif-paf’ and ‘electron’ can be identical in meaning because they can be defined in exactly the same way by some theory.

You say: “We easily note that “Dharma” cannot be equal “religion” because e.g., a “non-religious” government makes sense, and is a good we all seek, while an adharmic” government requires removal as soon as possible. We don’t need any significant philosophy for this.”

Ah, the virtues of philosophy! Here is where you demonstrate its need. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that a natural language dictionary (Sanskrit-Sanskrit) identifies ten different meanings (or even ten different uses) of the word ‘Dharma’. One such use occurs in the context of your example. Now, as an English translator, while translating Manusmruti, I come across the word Dharma. The context in which this word occurs tells us that Dhrama is used here in such a way that that it corresponds (let us say) to the third meaning of that word (as defined by this Sanskrit-Sanskrit dictionary). I also know (both as a native speaker of English and after consulting the Oxford English dictionary) that the word ‘religion’ expresses this third meaning. Could I now translate ‘Dharma’ as ‘religion’ or not? Or, are you demanding that I need to find a word in English that has all the ten meanings of Dharma that the Sanskrit dictionary gives to Dharma?

Let us go one step further. Let us suppose that I do have a word in English that also has all these ten meanings, say, ‘pif-paf’. I use this word to translate ‘Dharma’ and, I suppose, this translation is now exact and accurate. A decade later, someone discovers a series of manuscripts in Sanskrit and the upshot of this discovery is that Dharma now gets ten more additional meanings. What happens now? Does my translation suddenly become misleading and inaccurate? Or is the Sanskrit-Sanskrit dictionary itself wrong? Or what?

In other words, I do not see what you mean when you say “dharma” is not ‘equal’ to “religion”. What exactly does your statement imply when it comes to translations?

5. You say: “The book that lends its title to this egroup suggests that really no one knew what they were talking about when they talked about religion, otherwise, why would they ascribe religion to all cultures? (and the “they” is mostly Europeans and Americans, is it not, with Indians following their lead?) So this is not a felicitous example.”

I am afraid I have to disagree with you. I claim I know what religion is because I have a theory about religion. It is a very good example because that is what I am driving at: the problem is not one of translation, but one of theory. Our problems with the Wendy Donigers of this world do not reside in their ‘inaccurate’ translation of Sanskrit words. We can only show that ‘religion’ cannot translate ‘Dharma’ not by looking up dictionaries and consulting our common-sense but by building a theory about both. We need a scientific theory not only about religion but also about Dharma. I do not see many candidates but apparently you do, if I go by your next paragraph.

6. You say: “Dharma is a technical term, defined and expounded upon in many Indic texts, and we don’t have to take anyone’s word for it, any more than we have to take anyone’s word for what “electron” means.”

If this is indeed the case, the problem is easily settled. All you have to do is tell me the “technical” (i.e. the univocal and precise) meaning of the word “Dharma”. You are able to give a precise definition of “electron” and you accord the same status to the result of the labor embodied in the many Indic texts. In that case, you should be able to give that definition of Dharma. Once you do this (and I look forward to this), and show that Manu also accepted this definition of Dharma, I will write to Wendy Doniger myself to accuse her of (even) deliberately misleading her readers by translating ‘dharma’ as ‘religion’. Do you think you can do that?

7. You say: “Yes, there are technical theories of dharma – more than one, that one will find in the Buddhist, Hindu, Jaina, etc., literature. If it ambiguous it is probably because it is overused…”

Oh? What does this mean? Are there several theories of electron accordingly as we travel across the globe in the world of physics? Or is it the case that each of these tracts in these Indian traditions merely stipulates the meaning of the word? In that case, there is no theory of Dharma but merely a plethora of definitions in the Indian traditions. Such an exercise is totally uninteresting and trivial.

One thought on “Translation Issue or Theoretical Dispute: electron, dharma

  1. English to Kannada dictionary

    What’s ever it is..I do not agree with the difference between Dharma And The religion (For the indian Subcontinent ).