grammaticality (was old/new translations)

kellner at kellner at
Wed Dec 13 16:32:30 UTC 1995

At he risk of unduly repeating myself - 

No doubt that a translation of a vocative with "you are my man", or
something along these lines, is wrong. This was quoted as one instance of
grammatically incorrect translation, by M. Witzel, who, throughout his
recent "let's come back to the initial discussion"-posting, stresses
grammatical correctness as a primary goal or prerequisite for translations. 

I would agree with Stephen Phillips that grammar is "not quite the constant 
that might be supposed". But to explain better what I already tried to
explain many times before, consider his example: 

>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)
>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.

The problems I see in that translation: 

-       translating "there is an absence of manifest colour, but that..."
misplaces the emphasis. The main statement of the original text is "the
absence of manifest colour is not grasped by the visual organ". There is no
initial statement propounding the EXISTENCE (or occurrence or whatever you
choose to say) of manifest colour in air. Consequently, the rather
artificial introduction "concerning..." becomes superfluous - "the absence air, when it is a gross element (and not when it has atomic form).."
does the job. Also, the "concerning..." obliterates the fact that the
original enumerates three cases with precisely the same syntactic form. 

-       Ignorant of the immediate context, it is hard to say whether the
three cases (absence of manifest colour in air, fragrance in a flower and
bitter taste in sugar) are located at the same level, or whether the first
is in focus and the two other ones are only added as examples (the position
of the "vA" would support the latter interpretation). If the latter
possibility holds, the quoted translation obliterates the fact that the
examples are interspersed in the main statement. "The absence of manifest
colour...- just like the absence of fragrance... -" seems better to me, for
it captures the rhetorical flow (yes!) of the argument. At any rate, I find
it neither necessary, nor helpful, to move out the two other cases from the
middle of the statements to its very end. This "moving" also results in an
obvious violation of the original: AdinA (cakSurAdinA) is left untranslated,
because "Adi" refers to smell and taste, which have, at this point, not yet
been introduced in the translation. 

-       "based on the fact that color is in no way perceived and that we
would perceive it if it were present in air" is a nonsensical translation
for "yogyanupalabdhyA". Obviously, the translator tried to clarify the
concept "yogyAnupalabdhi" by inserting its presuppositions in the
translation, but then, that's not a translation, but a clear-cut
explanation/interpretation. Moreover, "yogyanupalabdhi" is a technical term,
and this technicality should be preserved in the translation - explain the
rest in foot-notes, if necessary. 

The problem of this translation, thus, is not that it insufficiently
"mirrors" the syntax, as Stephen Phillips feared, but that it does not
capture the progress of the argument and, in general, represents a
commentarial re-phrasing rather than a genuine translation. 

In view of this example, I would consider "correct grammar" to be a matter
of the respective function of linguistic items rather than a simply formal
requirement. If a genitive fulfills the function of the logical subject of a
sentence, it is legitimate to translate it as whatever is deemed appropriate
to express the logical subject in the target-language. If a certain tense
expresses the function of "has happened a long time ago" in the
source-language, it is legitimate to add corresponding adverbs in the
target-language, if the latter lacks a tense with a corresponding function.
Again, what Witzel terms "correct grammar" could be rephrased as
"appropriateness in pragmatic preconditions". 

>Moreover, grammar is not quite so important as some would make out, in 
>another way, too: people commonly understand ungrammatical constructions.  

This is an altogether different understanding of "correct grammar" than the
one M. Witzel applied: He referred to a "relational grammaticality", viz.,
that the grammar of the translation shall not violate the grammar of the
original. Searle et al., however, refer to grammaticality as a property of
one, and only one language, not in relation to another - the sentence "you
are my man" is grammatical in English, but not grammatically correct as a
translation of the Vedic vocative _viira_. 

As for further discussions, it would probably be useful to specify
text-types - Navya-Nyaaya-translation is just not as susceptible to the same
translation-problems as Vedic Hymns...

Birgit Kellner
Institute for Indian Philosophy
University of Hiroshima


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