Witzel's previous posts : was Re: Indian History & Sangh Parivar (Was: Medieval India)

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at cco.caltech.edu
Sun Dec 10 05:58:04 UTC 1995

Sorry for the huge delay. I got tied up with other work. Seeing the  
recent posts on translations, I know you must be very interested in  
reading his original criticisms agains O'F, so here they are:



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Date: Tue,  7 Nov 1995 14:44:33 GMT
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From: witzel at HUSC3.HARVARD.EDU
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Subject: W.D.O'Flaherty's Rgveda

Since I had been put on the spot, I had promised some examples from


To be (relatively) quick: one section each from the Rgveda, Jaiminiya 
Brahmana and Manu in this and the next 2 messages:

1. The Rig Veda. An anthology, Penguin 1981

RV 10.95 (O'Flaherty p.253):

VS.1. O's rendering of even the first two paadas is more of a  
paraphrase than a translation:

Haye' jaa'ye ma'nasaa ti'STha ghore
va'caaMsi mizraa' kRNavaavahai nu'

"My wife turn your heart and mind to me. Stay here, dangerous  
woman, and let us exchange words."

This is rather a stream of unconnected George-Bush-like anacoluths,  
five sentences in the first line, which reflect the state of mind  
of Pururavas (love-sick, wandering around stammering, as ZB says).  
-- O. missed this altogether. (Of course, the discussion of this  
hymn by K. Hoffmann, Der Injunktiv im Veda, Wiesbaden 1967, p. 199  
might have helped.)

Thus: "Hey! Wife! Sensibly -- Stand still! Terrible one! -- let us  
now exchange words!"

(haye seems to be the more polite version of: hai, usually  
addressed to female demons, in AV etc. -- In the RV, Hoffmann  
thinks, haye means something like "oh, poor me", German: ach)

VS 5. raa'ja me viira tanv`as ta'd aasiiH

O.: "you were my man, king of my body".
The Vedic accent  (viira, no accent, is vocative) has not been

"Then, o man, you were lord of my body."
(Geldner and Hoffmann correctly)

12. ca'kran naa'zru vartayad vijaana'n

O.: "He will shed tears, sobbing, when he learns"

There  is no sobbing here, and  cakran na (usual Vedic sandhi) is, at 
best, zleSa (krand "cry"/cakra "wheel")-- but transl.?; and  
vartayad is Injunctive Present (Hoffm. p. 205). Thus:

"(the new born son), he lets roll (down) the tear like a wheel,  
when he discerns."

(The same in Vs 13: no sobbing!)

VS15. maa' pra' papto ... na' va'i stra'iNaani sakhyaa'ni santi.

O: "do not vanish... There are no friendships with women."

In 14 and 15 pra pat refers to killing oneself by jumping down (a  
cliff), = suicide. Cf. S'B (Hoffm. p. 207 n. 193). *That*  
is how the wolves would find him...

O. denies the possibility of male/female friendship -- perhaps a  
current local cultural bias -- but certainly not a Rgvedic one. For:
Sakhya- is completely misunderstood, as is usual in such cases with 
Indologists not very conversant with Vedic; it is understood on the  
basis of Epic/Classical sakhi "friend" and thus the whole point of  
the apparent saying is missed.

A Vedic sakhi is not just any friend (and a woman could be that!)  
but a socius, the -- by necessity -- MALE member of a sodality such  
a the
vraatya "brotherhood" (therefore Hoffmann: "Gefolgschaftstreue"; on 
Vraatyas see now H. Falk, Bruderschaft, Freiburg 1986). There simply 
*are* no female sakhya-. The (common) women of the vraatyas live with 
them for a while just like Urvazii...

---  etc. etc. In this hymn (of 18 stanzas) alone I have counted 43 
instances which are wrong or where others would easily disagree.

In short:  UNRELIABLE and idiosyncratic.


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Date: Tue,  7 Nov 1995 14:08:13 GMT
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Subject: W.D.O'Flaherty's Jaiminiya Brahmana

Since I had been put on the spot, etc.: here is NO. 2:

2. Jaiminiya Brahmana

(W.D. O'Flaherty, Tales of Sex and Violence. Folklore, Sacrifice, and 
Danger in the Jaiminiya Brahmana. U. of Chicago Press 1985)

There are many points I would take issue with in this book  
(starting from the title and the time limit she gives to JB, 900 BC,  
without any justification, etc. etc., -- for the moment, see H.  
Bodewitz, in his introd. to vol. II of his JB translation).

And of course, the translation, again is a *re*-translation, for  
all of O.'s selections had been translated by Hans Oertel  and  
Willem Caland into English/German long before; see her own  
bibliography. O. merely added a fashionable(?) Freudian coating.

I select for commentary: "The rejuvenation of Cyavana"  (JB  
3.120-29), O. p. 64 sqq.;

The trouble again is that O. did  not follow up the secondary  
literature well, not even with the help of the students she  

* if, -- she would have noticed that the  19th century "western  
scorn for the brahmanas" has long been overcome, see K. Hoffmann,  
Aufsaetze zur Indo-Iranistik,vol. III, ed. S Glauch et al.,  
Wiesbaden 1992, p. 709,  -- a 1959 piece, following up Oldenberg and  
St. Schayer -- and Hoffmann's school at Erlangen, among which my  
lamented friend, A.Benke, MA thesis Erlangen 1976, and M. Witzel:   
On Magical Thought in the Veda. Leiden: Universitaire Pers, 1979  
(where the literature is given; incidentally, all provided by the  
editor to B.K. Smith for his article in Indo-Iranian Journal: "The  
unity of ritual: The place of the domestic sacrifice in Vedic  
ritualism", IIJ 29,(1986) 79-96, and only partially used in his book  
"Reflections on resemblance, ritual, and religion." New York-Oxford  
1989.-- which again lambasts our predecessors without making clear  
that their attitudes had long been overcome.)

* And,  -- if the sec. lit. had been used  -- the translation would  
have turned out much better.

In JB 3.120 sqq. (p. 64 sqq.) there are several cases where this  
would have helped:  p. 64 (JB 3.120): O's "the thrice returning  
departure" versus W. Rau, MSS 39, p. 159, 161 n. 1 tells us that  
this is part of the trekking procedure of the Vedic Indo-Aryans: Two  
days travel, one day rest (yoga-kSema). Thus: 3 times a period of  
double marching days (trih punahprayaaNam). -- NB. see already his  
book: Staat und Gesellschaft im alten Indien nach den  
Brahmana-Texten dargestellt, Wiesbaden  1957, again largely unread  
west of the Atlantic...).

Further, the graama, which treks with wild west style wagons,  is  
not a "clan" as O. translates repeatedly but a group of people under  
graamanii "trek leader": including brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas and  
others -- for example the dumb carpenter of O. p.107, JB 2.272).

The old Cyavana (3.120, p. 65) is not "on his last legs" but a  
niSThaava, a "spitter" due to loss of front teeth, see again W. Rau,  
MSS 39, 160-161

I also leave aside her predilection for street language  
colloquialisms "balls of cowshit, balls of shit" (or: the balls of  
Indra) or: hanta "hell!" (p. 65, 3.121), normal meaning: "let's do  
(something)" --  all all cases where Vedic slang is not seen in the  
Sanskrit but the standard expressions, and I also leave aside the  
many gaps in the translations where words or whole sentences have  
been forgotten  (e.g.: p. 64 As he was left behind :vaastau;  p. 64  
His sons have left him: nuunam; etc . etc. -- the last section, JB  
3.125, only receives a short paraphrase, not a translation -- but O.  
does not tell us).

I rather move to more serious grammatical business: O. does not  
know the function of the "future" imperative in -taad (Delbrueck,  
Altindische Syntax, 1888 (!) p. 263 sqq.  Thus in par. 123-124,  
where a serious of commands is given, they should be tranlated by:  
do this, AND THEN do that -- the normal meaning of -taad in the  

O. always calls the members of Zaaryaata's wagon train (graama)
"Zaryaati", misunderstanding the 'first-year Sanskrit' Vrddhi  
formation  in the text which has zaaryaatya- .

Difficult sentences, such as: saa yadiitiiyaayayaditi (p. 65, 3.121  
end) are simply left out without telling us so.

And p. 66  (JB 3.124) abibhede (MSS: abhibede/Talavakara Brahmana
parallel: abhipede!!) is not (with Caland) "she could tell them  
apart" (from bhid???) but a typical JB mistake for *abhipede "she  
touched him by the arm, baahau)", see K. Hoffmann, MSS 23 (1968!),  
p., 41-43 = Aufsaetze p. 504-5.

Simple question: if *that* much is wrong in just one story (and  
this is a small selection only!) -- what about the rest of this book  
and her other translations?

Facit: It might have been better to have used the old translations  
and to have added her Freudian interpretation to them...

In sum: The "translation" simply is UNREALIABLE.


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Date: Tue,  7 Nov 1995 15:04:41 GMT
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From: witzel at HUSC3.HARVARD.EDU
To: Members of the list <indology at liverpool.ac.uk>
Subject: W. Doniger's Manu

Since I have been put on the spot, etc. : here is translation no.3:

3. The Laws of Manu (Wendy Doniger, with B.K. Smith) Penguin  1991.

Leaving aside the introduction which stresses the novelty of the
translation ... and various well-known problems encountered in
translation, which, in my opinion at least, have not been solved
admirably (cf. the forthc. volume on Translations from Indian  
languages, HOS, based on the 1994 conference at Harvard, organized  
by E. Garzilli),

I give just one example which shows both wrong (rather, lack of)
philological method and lack of simple common sense.

Manu 8.134-135, on weights:

O. : 8.134:
"Six (white) 'mustard seeds' equal one medium-sized 'barley-corn',  
and three 'barley-corns' make one 'berry'; five 'berries' make a  
'bean', sixteen 'beans' a 'gold-piece'. 135. Four 'gold-pieces'  
equal a 'straw'....

footnote:  The 'straw' (pala) thus weighed about 1.33 ounces or 37.76 
grams ....  might be measurements of gold, silver or copper.     <<of 
course, tola, etc. and ratti, see note 134, still are in use!>>

-- First logic or common sense: Take 3x5x16x4 (960) barley corns and 
weigh them... and see whether they eqyal any blade of straw. Even  
if you believe, with Herodotos, in gold digging ants and other  
wonders in India, I haven't seen Indian (rice/barley) straw of that  

-- But we forget simple philology, the hand-maiden of any  
translation that is supposedly better than Buehler's  in Victorian  
English and the recent partial one by Derrett, etc. :

The last straw is : If you check pala in the Petersburg dictionary  
(PW) , or even in its copy, Monier Williams' dict., you see that  
pala 'straw' is attested only with some lexicographer, who turns out  

to be Hemacandra (according to the PW, in his AbhidhaanacintaamaNi
1182), that is, and theword apparently is attested only once).

If you check the surrounding words, you find palaala in Manu, Mbh.
(and Atharvaveda: palaalii) which mean 'straw'; and palada' (AV) of 
similar meaning.  It is clear that Hemacandra got his truncated   
(hapax!) word pala from from the well known word for RstrawS   
palaala/ii / palaada' (cf.TURNER 7958) -- while pala (Turner 7952!)  
always meant 'a certain weight/measure' and also 'meat'.--
Mayrhofer suggests an Indo-European (see: palaava "chaff,grass"),  
and a Dravidian (Tamil: pul etc.) etymology.

Common sense apart, to establish pala 'straw', D. should at least  
have searched in texts of similar nature and time level before  
accepting the meaning of 'straw' in Manu.

--  And a little less hype would also do: "a landmark translation,  
the first authoritative translation in this century" (cover); "to  
offer to more specialized scholars new interpretations of many  
difficult verses." (p. lxi)   ---  I doubt it.

NB: the translation is based on 2 apparently  uncritical editions  
with 7-9 commentaries (not available at Harvard). While commentators  
occasionally provide some variant readings found at their time and  
in their location, we do not know, of course, how these variants are  
represented in the *UN*critical editions: their very form may be  
influenced by the choice of the editor... see this Summer's  
(unfinished) discussion on criticla editions. I have seen such  
procedures  with Kashmiri misreadings in a text edited in N. India).  

In the present case, of course, we have the 19th century style  
half-way critical edition with many variaant readings by J. Jolly,  
representing the Vulgate, and not Bharuci's earlier text. But these  
two have *not* been used as the base text.

Also, D. does not take real issue with BharuciUs variants. This
is the only OLDER  commentary we have; incidentally, at the instance 
where I once had to check Bharuci against the oldest Manu MS (  
written under Govindracandra of Kanauj,c.1150 AD), the MS already  
followed the Vulgate and not Bharuci. Good reason thus to take Bh.  
seriously -- and his text is easily available, even in translation.

In view of all of this, I wonder indeed whether D's translation would 
have been accepted in the Harvard Oriental Series rather than in  
Penguin (p. lxviii).

Finally, note that all 3  translations are RE-translations. Mistakes 
of the type mentioned above could easily have been avoided if the  
work of our 19th century predecessors (and contemporaries!) had been  
consulted more carefully -- instead of following the current  
fashion of lambasting them for various / supposed  
prejudices/attitudes of their times (what about <<end-of->> 20th  
century attitudes? The critics have 5 years to go before they are in  
for equally severe criticism of their 20th century  

Last point: Looking at the various new translations that have  
appeared in the past decade or so:

Why always to RE-translate something done *several* times over  
already --- and why not to take up one of the zillion UN-translated  
Skt. texts?

Much more difficult of course...

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