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

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at
Mon Nov 20 16:45:15 UTC 1995

Max Nihom said:

> I see. Instead of an education, the students are to get advanced cocktail 
> party training. 

Oh please!  A good education teaches a student to present cogent
arguments.  Perhaps you could provide some arguments yourself, rather
than mud-slinging?

Questions about the aim of translation, the value of precision, and more
generally the nature of badness in literature, are far from trivial, and
the point of the present thread of discussion about WDO's translations
-- initiated as it was by Srinivasan Pichumani's querying of
unsubstantiated criticisms -- is to try to raise level of debate.  In
his point-by-point exemplification of some errors in three of WDO's
works, Prof. Witzel has raised the discussion to a new level of
interest.  Let's keep it there.

That there are errors in a translation is both regrettable and
unavoidable, as I think everyone agrees.  But several of the
participants in this discussion seem also to agree that the existence of
error is not an absolute matter, and that providing the errors are not
too misleading or pervasive, there are other factors, including chiefly
the aptness of the use of the target language, which may still sway the
balance of of a book of translations into the favourable category
according to valid criteria.

One of the problems in elevating precision to a position of ultimate
criterion of scholarly acceptance is that "precision" is in itself
undefinable.  Translation is an art, not a science.  Sometimes the most
apparently "accurate" translations are very difficult to understand,
perhaps even more so than the text in the source language to a competent
reader.  In such cases, what has been achieved?  Is an incomprehensible
translation better than a comprehsnsible but less "accurate" one?  This
is exemplified in Kielhorn's translation of Nagesabhatta's
Paribhasendusekhara, I think.  It is so grotesquely em-bracketted and
contorted that the bare force of the original is quite lost and the
arguments are sometimes heavily obscured (though sometimes clarified
too, of course).

A related issue is that translations that present themselves as
"philologically literal" can be
a) concealing the translator's inability to understand the text,
b) reflecting his reluctance or inability to do the work necessary to
   make the translation readable and pleasant in the target language, or
c) hiding the fact that the translator lacks the courage to come down on
   one side or another in a matter of interpretation.


I find it telling that the lines of this argument about WDO's
translations are drawn -- as far as I can see -- along language
boundaries.  I think (correct me if I am wrong) that most of those who
think there is pedagogical value in WDO's translations are native
speakers of English, while those who like her translations least are
native speakers of German or other languages. Does this work?  Is it

Nobody has mentioned WDO's "Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism"
(Manchester Univ. Press, 1988) in this discussion.  Again, in my view
a collection of diverse texts from many periods and genres of Indian
literature which is very useful for English-speaking students, and
well-suited for classroom discussion.  Is this book perhaps not very
well known because of being published in England?



Dominik Wujastyk,
Wellcome Institute,
183 Euston Road,
London NW1 2BE.

FAX: +44 171 611 8545
email: d.wujastyk at

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