Translating vibhaktis

The problem is more complicated and the implications far more massive than either of us can even dream of. In fact, I think we are not even aware of the nature, size and the dimensions of the problem(s) today. We do not even know whether we are dealing with something called the ‘translation’ problem or whole sets of other issues and problems that also redefine what it is to ‘translate’ texts between different cultures.

  1. Consider the sentence: ‘Brahmano na hantavya’. I can think of more than the following defensible translations of this Sanskrit sentence into English:

‘Brahmin is not killable.’ i.e. as an entity or organism, the Brahmin is not of that kind that could be killed. (There are kinds of organisms that can be killed and those that cannot be killed and the Brahmin belongs to the latter. Clearly, the sentence is not talking about biological properties. Which precise property is being talked about then? How about this: Brahmin is one who has realized ‘Brahman’; Brahman cannot be killed; therefore Brahmin is not killable. )

‘It is inappropriate to kill a Brahmin’.  In the sense that while it might be appropriate to kill a Kshatriya, it is not the same regarding a Brahmin.

‘Brahmin does not deserve being killed’ but deserves something else.

‘Brahmin must not be killed’ in the sense one could, say, torture but not kill him.

‘Brahmin should not be killed’. An imperative mood that might express a wish, command or even an instruction.

‘One ought not to kill a Brahmin’. The ‘moral ought’. Etc.

On which translation does your choice rest? Not on the grammar of the sentence (because both indicative and imperative moods are defensible translations), surely. On what else? Because we do not know which answer is the right one in this case, we can answer: ‘on the context’, ‘on your theory’, ‘on your culture’ or pretty much anything else. This is not saying much; it is like saying ‘your translation depends on everything that is relevant to the case’.

Let me draw your attention to just one of the most remarkable results of these differing translations: obviously, whether the translation gives us a sentence with an ‘is’ or an ‘ought’, both are defensible! That is, both an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’ statement are ‘identical’ or are synonymous (in some or another sense of ‘synonymy’) translations of a Sanskrit sentence. The whole of moral thinking since David Hume not only insists that the ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statements are different from each other but that deriving the ‘ought’ from ‘is’ is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. This stricture (which is also a logical truth) collapses in our case. What are we to make of just this single consequence?

To appreciate what is being said, consider the two following sentences: (a) People seek happiness. (b) People ought to seek happiness. (b) is not derivable from (a) without introducing a premise that contains an ‘ought’. Thus, to go from (a) to (b) we need at least one more sentence. Hence, (a) and (b) cannot ‘mean’ the same statement (irrespective what ‘meaning’ means). Yet, this truth becomes the untruth in our case. What gets effected by this result? Our theories of morality? Our theories of meaning? Our theories of language? Our theories of translation? Our theories of ontology? Our theories about human beings? Or all of them and some more?

  1. Consider now the following well-known shloka from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Asato Ma Sat Gamaya; Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya; Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya…

Here are the usual translations of this: Lead Us (me) From the Unreal (ignorance) To Real (truth); Lead Us (me) From Darkness To Light; Lead Us (me) From Death To Immortality…

Let us focus only on grammar in this case and forget what ‘Sat’, ‘asat’, etc. mean. That is to say, let us discuss how to ‘translate’ the Vibhakti’s in this case.

Should we translate the above as ‘From X to Y’ or ‘Through X to Y’? That is, why cannot the shloka be translated as:

Lead Us Through the Unreal To Real,

Lead Us Through Darkness To Light,

Lead Us Through Death To Immortality…?

There are two issues that we need to answer here: (a) Is the second a grammatically defensible translation (given that ‘from’ and ‘through’ are also different vibhakti’s in Sanskrit)? (b) What is involved in this translation issue?

Consider the sentences of the following type: ‘I came from Delhi’; ‘The boon came from Shiva’, etc. Both can also be said to presuppose (or imply, depending upon the precise nature of the question and answer) that I came ‘through’ Delhi or that the boon came ‘through’ Shiva. Coming ‘through’ Delhi could be implied in coming ‘from’ Delhi, if the train passed ‘though’ the city of Delhi; or ‘from’ Delhi could be implied if I was coming from elsewhere other than Delhi. The same applies to the boon ‘from’ Shiva and so on. In other words, how we translate the Vibhakti’s depend upon something else other than the grammatical rules, in the sense that one could translate it either way without violating the rules of grammar. Thus, if grammar is neutral with respect to either of the two translations, why have generations of Sanskritists consistently translated the vibhkati’s only as ‘from’ and not as ‘through’?

In Christian and Western thought, these terms are opposites: real vs unreal; truth vs ignorance and so on. “Even though one walks the valley of death, one does not fear death”, because the Lord is our Shepard, as the Bible puts it. God leads us away from Death towards immortality. God lead us away from Darkness into light. And so on. Is this also the case in Indian culture?

Consider this: it is only through and in Samsara that we can hope to achieve ‘moksha’. If we are not in samsara, we cannot achieve moksha. Each of us, in samsara, is afflicted by avidya and only though avidya (i.e. realizing that we have agyaana is the way to realizing gyaana) can we hope to reach vidya; only through this world, which is asat, can we reach Sat. Therefore there is no break or opposition between these realms; one is needed to reach the other, i.e., only through the one can we reach the other. Therefore, ‘through’ is a better translation of the vibhkati than the ‘from’, even though our English books on Sanskrit grammar tell us the opposite, reserving them for separate vibhkati’s.

Is this a question of grammar? Is this an issue about condition humaine? Is this a problem of translation? All of these and something else besides, like ontology?

There is far more to be said about both than what I have. But what is said is enough to explain why I get irritated with people (like some NRI’s) who go around shouting about ‘untranslatable’ words and of ‘Indic’ concepts. They are worse than the Sanskritists in the West; these silly buggers do not even have a clue of what they are talking about, even though, in some vague sense, they are right.