old/new translations

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at ucl.ac.uk
Wed Dec 13 17:48:54 UTC 1995

witzel at HUSC3.HARVARD.EDU said:

> Nobody would dare to publish a popular math book where pi = 3.41 or 2.9. 
> Why is this (GI) procedure possible in Indology?

I don't want to make too much of this, but choosing the value of pi is a
particularly good counter-analogy to the point of view that measurable
precision is achievable in the act of translation.  Pi is, after all,
one of the few special numbers that cannot actually be written down, or
given a precise value, except symbolically.  It is irrational (sensu
stricto), a realization that was a major blow to Platonic philosophy and
-- along with the discovery of the irrational relation between the side
and the diameter of a square -- rocked ancient Greek thinking to its

As with translation, it is much more important to know what pi *means*
symbolically that to know its value.  In a certain sense, we actually
cannot know its value: it never comes to a closure.  But we can
certainly know symbolically what pi is: the number of diameters in a

Also on the point of science and precision, lest anyone think that a
"real scientist" would necessarily value precision above all else, I
would refer interested readers to the paper
        "Humanism and technical precision: a study of personal
by the great historian of astronomy, Willy Hartner.  It is published as
the fist paper in volume two of his collected papers,
        _Oriens-Occidens_, ed. Y. Maeyama (Hildesheim, Zuerich, N. York:
        Georg Olms Verlag, 1984).
Written just after the second world war, I believe, it grapples
intelligently with very difficult issues of moral responsibility in the
field of academic and humanistic work, and in particular with the
profoundly negative possibilities that may exist in an over-zealous
concern for scientific precision.  Hartner was perfectly capable of
appreciating scientific precision: many of his articles are on the
history of mathematics and astronomy.  In fact, it is *because* of his
appreciation of the possibilities and implications of precision that he
is able to argue cogently that there is a time when personal creativity
and freedom is more important that precision, even scientific precision.
It's worth reading.

[I've just deleted a citation I thought I would type from page [16] of
this article; one really has to read the whole article to get the
flavour of it.]

Dominik Wujastyk


More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list