Doniger O'Flaherty's translations (1 of 2)

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at
Fri Nov 10 12:24:15 UTC 1995

Categories of writing
It seems to me that the translations of Prof. Wendy Doniger / O'Flaherty
(henceforth WDO) that Prof. Michael Witzel (henceforth MW) has critiqued
have nevertheless performed a vital function in bringing a knowledge of
Sanskrit literature to thousands of people who would otherwise not have
had this opportunity. The errors in her translations that MW has pointed
out do not seem to me to mean that her RV, Manu, and JB publications
were not worth doing, or that we and others do not benefit from buying
and reading them.  There is -- and should be -- a difference between
scholarly translations and popular ones.  Of course it is a pity if a
popular translation is not always as accurate as it might be, but it is
essential to see this as a matter of degree.  Take the "pala / palaala"
example.  Readers of the translation will indeed be misled by the word
"straw", and may become mildly puzzled if they go so far as to do the
sums in their heads as MW suggests.  But the central fact that some sort
of weight is being discussed will not escape the reader and, after all,
that is the main point.  Someone doing a research paper on Indian
weights could be expected to go beyond a single Penguin Classic for
their information. In the RV cases cited by MW too, to my mind WDO's
representations of the sense of the passages -- while less correct than
they might be -- successfully achieve the aim of making the overall
meaning of texts in question available to a general English reader, and
distinguishing the Sanskrit texts from, say, Beowulf, The Epic of
Gilgamesh, or the Cloud of Unknowing.

The errors in WDO's JB translation sound more serious, and since the
book does seem to try to aim higher in academic terms, perhaps it is
the more culpable.

I think it is unfair to say of WDO's Manu that,
 > 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).
when the very point WDO makes on p.lxviii is that her work is in Penguin
and not in the HOS, which latter is aimed at a quite different audience.

Sometimes the aims of producing good English and accurate translation
are incompatible (even when not irreducibly opposed, these aims are
usually at odds to some greater or lesser degree).  In such cases, the
popular translation is obliged by his or her audience to choose the
"good English" path; the historian and scholar is obliged by a different
audience to choose the "accuracy" path.  It is *very* hard to write
good, enjoyable, clear English.  In my view, while WDO's English prose
is occasionally pedestrian, more often it is excellent.  And compared to
most earlier translations of the same Sanskrit texts, her use of English
language is a huge step forward.  In the kinds of books under
discussion, aimed at mass audiences of non-specialists, this is a vital

It is also a reasonable justification for retranslating materials that
have already been put into European languages.  As MW points out, there
are thousands of fascinating untranslated Sanskrit texts.  But if the
pre-translated texts of major Sanskrit classics are not reaching a wide
English audience because they are not good enough English for a general
reader, then I think it is justifiable to retranslate them.  The
argument can be reduced to a financial one: if a publisher thinks it can
make a profit selling a new translation, that's a reason for doing it.
Bound up in that simple financial fact is a whole nexus of factors to do
with readership, desire, interest, quality, availability, copyright on
earlier translations, and so forth.

The argument about critical editions is also worth thinking about in a
more general context.  I am the first to argue for the vital importance
of critical editions.  But if, as MW says, even a Manu manuscript from
c. AD 1150 shows a post-Bharuci vulgate text, then we know that we are
dealing with a tradition of the text which is about a thousand years
old. That is already worth knowing about, and worth having in English.
The Ur-Manu, if recoverable, will be of great interest for historians,
but I think there is an argument that the text which everyone in India
has actually been *using* for the last millennium is just as
interesting.  Of course, an examination of the manuscripts of the
"vulgate" may show that there are many important variants even in this
text, in which case the text translated by WDO only has the
recommendation that it was the one more-or-less agreed upon by several
commentators.  This approach, however, does need to be made explicit.
The translator needs to say "I am translating a vulgate from the end of
the first millennium AD; if you want Ur-Manu you will have to wait a few
decades for the Penguin reissue, and perhaps forever".

When judging a book, we *have* to take into account what the author was
trying to do.  Why criticise an author's book for failing to achieve
what the author never intended in the first place?  If WDO had claimed
to be providing new scholarship on the basic Sanskrit texts, and if she
then failed to do so, it would be open season.  Admittedly, the jacket
blurb on her Manu promises that "scholars" will find something new in
the book, but we don't know if she actually wrote that. Jacket blurb is
not really a fair target for the reviewer.  But WDO takes great pains to
point out in her introduction that her translation is not aimed at
indologists, but at the general English-language reader of Penguin
Classics.  Given that as the aim, I think the errors in her translations
-- though possibly serious in some cases -- are outweighed by the
accessibility of her prose and the wide availability of the books, and
the volume of material that has been made available.  WDO is also very
explicit about her debt to previous translators; in her RV she lists at
the back of the book each translation she has looked at for every hymn.

[continued ...]


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