W.D.O'Flaherty's Rgveda

Robin Kornman rkornman at pucc.Princeton.EDU
Sun Dec 10 05:25:54 UTC 1995

You know, I have to take Witzel'word that O'Flaherty has made mistakes. I
just don't know Sanskrit very well. But his criticism of the lines below
scares me, because I have and will give translations which vary as much from
the literal text. This is done and must be done to produce a decent read. It
is a time honored custom among translators--- particularly where you know
that somebody else has already done the very literal translation. 

I would suggeest that Witzel survey current translations of Homer if he
wishes to see what is considered in Western classical circles as permissable
interpretiveness in translation. Let's take his examples below:
>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.)
>"Hey! Wife! Sensibly -- Stand still! Terrible one! -- let us now exchange

Witzel's transltion is hard to read and doesn't make a great deal of sense.
Oh, he justifies it by saying that the original is actually five distinct
sentences. But since when has the word "Sensibly" been a sentence anyone
ever uttered or would utter? "Stand still" is a good interpretive
translation. Better perhaps than "Stay here." Even if I do not agree with
all of O'Flaherty's choices, they are legitimate if her job was to produce a
readable translation with some sense of flow. 

Now, the following remark gives the impression that O has missed something
she would have caught if she had read the secondary literature as well as
Witzel.  But, as a matter of fact, Witzel's translation ("Hey") does not
seem to reflect what special thing he knows. I've got the same problem with
almost a hundred Tibetan exclamations which have no precise translations in
English.  Sometimes I translate them as "hey" or "Hey you." But sometimes I
leave them out, because the context won't take a "hey." In this spot "Hey"
sounds terrible. "Hey wife!"  Does that sound convincing?  It doesn't have a
sense of verse rhythms and it doesn't sound like speech either. It just
sounds like a translation:
>(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)
Or look at this one:

>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)

O's translation is as good as Geldner and Hoffman's. She could have known
viira is vocative and still have decided not to translate it into the
vocative. Becuase "You were my man" sounds cool. It sounds like something
somebody might say. And "king of my body" has a lot of punch. If O's
translation were the first in history of this text, then she might have felt
herself forced to prove she knew viira was vocative.  But she made an
acceptable talk here. 

or this one:

>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

Witzel telling us that the word "sobbing" does not literally occur in the
original does not shock me out of my shoes. I assume that O interpreted this
line as being a description of a person sobbing and therefore used the word.
It scans well in the line. ON the other hand, the expression "when he
discerns" communicates nothing to me. Think about it. What is this line
trying to say? Is it trying to say that the person who will cry has not yet
developed proper discernment, but when he does, then he will cry indeed?  I
don't think so. 
    The word "discern" in English is reserved for situations where some
other kind of cognition has been going on and now a sharper, more precise,
more acurate one has occured. One was in a general state of failing to make
an important distinction and now has changed to a state of discernment. In
other words, if I were to take Witzel's translation seriously, it would give
the line a very odd meaning. But there is little danger of my doing that,
because the strange style of translaterese tells me, nay warns me that I am
in the midst of a dense, scholarly translation.  Everybody will speak with
the same voice. Everybody will sound like a Sanskrit professor. 

Now, the next critique is a mixed bag. When O says "do not vanish" I do not
understand what that could mean.  How do people vanish?  Witzel says that it
should be something like "don't kill yourself." Okay, that sounds like a
good criticism.  But his long explanation of why "there are no friendships
with women" does not make sense, because even if what he says is true, how
would it change the translation?  Would the correct translation be,
"Remember, women may not be members of a male sodality?" Or maybe the right
translation is "There are no women in a brotherhood?" O has decided that the
remark, whatever it meant, was a sexist remark. Witzel is disturbed by this
interpretation. Me, too.  But if she is wrong, the correct critique is to
argue that that kind of sexism is not the case in this text. The linguistic
argument Witzel uses doesn't prove to me that O did not know what she was
doing when she made her choices.

>(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...

Witzel concludes by saying that he found 43 errors in one 18 stanza hymn.
Well, if he counts every non-literal translation as an error, then of course
he'll come up with a high figure like that. 

Now, if he knew epic Tibetan as well as I do, he could find as many mistakes
in any epic song I translated. And if I knew that Witzel were going to judge
my translation by such standards, I could certainly translate it so that he
would find no errors. But I would be tied hand and feet by my fear of such
readers. I would have to produce a translation  that made the Veda sound as
if it were written by a college professor. Everybody would sound the same.

It is so hard to translate the voice of a text, particularly if there is a
shifting voice. You have to identify the voice and style of a passage and
then evoke that voice by using suitable language from a range of voices
available in contemporary English. You must know when a line is
conversational, when it is uttered in a grandiloquent style, when it is
simple and ordinary language, when the meter is important, when the wordplay
is important. When you should ignore those factors and just get the literal
meaning right. 

Now,when the meaning of a text is seriously in question, then I think we
should begin with a literal translation and wait for the next generation to
do the good translation. But in this day of electronic texts, I think it
would be even better to produce for the benefit of academic scholars a
literal translation that could sit on some www page. That text would have
the footnotes which explain each translation decision one made.  Then one
could go and publish the good stuff for the larger readership.   

In any case, I personally am not ready to say with Witzel that O's
translation is simply "unreliable and idiosyncratic." For then most of the
really useful modern translations of Tibetan texts must be called the same. 

Robin Kornman

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list