old/new translations

Stephen H. Phillips phillips at uts.cc.utexas.edu
Wed Dec 13 14:11:24 UTC 1995

Prof. Witzel and other member of the list,

This may seem like pabulum, but could be worth mentioning anyway.  That is,
grammar constrains a translational effort, but is not quite the constant 
that might be supposed ("Grammatically incorrect is grammatically 
incorrect is grammatically incorrect")  For example, a 
genitive in Sanskrit often is best rendered as the subject of an English 
sentence, and so on.  Grammar, in the source, CONSTRAINS translation, but 
leaves numerous options open, including grammatical options, in the target 

mahati vAyau udbhUta-rUpa-abhAvasya, kusume
saurabhA-abhAvasya, guDe tiktatva-abhAvasya vA na
cakSur-AdinA grahaH, api tu yogya-anupalabdhyA so 'numIyate\ |

Concerning air as a gross element (and not the atoms), there is an absence
of manifest color, but that is not grasped by the visual organ.  Rather, we 
know this through inference based on the fact that color is in no way 
perceived and that we would perceive it if it were present in air.  Similarly 
concerning an absence of a fragrance in a flower and the absence of bitter 
taste in sugar.  (CLASSICAL INDIAN METAPHYSICS, p. 261)

This is a single sentence from GaGgeza (Gangesa), within his treatment of the 
ontological status of inherence (samavAya), a sentence that I translate here 
with three sentences in English, turning a genitive into the subject of an 
English sentence, etc.  Arguably, I may have taken too many liberties here, 
with insufficient effort to mirror the Sanskrit syntax.  Nevertheless, I would 
argue that the translation captures literally GaGgeza's meaning.

Moreover, grammar is not quite so important as some would make out, in 
another way, too: people commonly understand ungrammatical constructions.  
John Searle, the linguistic philosopher, has pointed to conversational 
presuppositions or governing principles (such as, "In conversation, we 
presuppose that a person is trying to say something that is true and makes 
sense"), as why we readily interpret an ungrammatical statement such that it 
makes sense.

Oddly, it is in poetry, where it is a desideratum that particular ambiguities
be preserved, that a translator often has to take extreme liberty.

Since homonyms are rarely preservable in translation (and for other reasons 
as well), ambiguity is difficult to preserve.  In philosophic translations
(where it is okay to try to eliminate ambiguity, to an extent)
I think the hardest thing to get right is the particular degree
of intended suggestiveness of a word or claim.

Stephen Phillips
Professor, Philosophy and Asian Studies
University of Texas at Austin

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list