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

l.m.fosse at l.m.fosse at
Tue Nov 21 14:20:42 UTC 1995

Max Nihom wrote:

>Now, why is it held that the students need "clear, user friendly English"?
>Why are they doing a "quick and cursory reading and walk away with only the
>vaguest sense of what they have read"? One reason might very well be the
>"clear, user friendly English" which, Mr. Kornman stipulates in the case of
>O'Flaherty's translations, may not be all that accurate. As far as I can
>tell, the point of an introductory survey course is a) to provide accurate
>information and b) to encourage the students to think about the accurate
>information. Whether the information is poured into an entertaining mode is
>utterly secondary. When it is argued that on a university level something
>should be put on a reading list because it is "fun to read", in my opinion a
>snide comment is more than warranted.

It seems to me that a translator sometimes has to choose between "readable"
and user-friendly English (and loose a few nuances in the process), and
strictly correct, but very unwieldy - and sometimes confusing - English. A
large number of translations from Sanskrit seem to belong to the latter
category. Let us remember that there are at least two kinds of inaccuracy:
syntactical and semantical. WD has been criticized for translating certain
words incorrectly. There is no reason to believe that her translations
would have been less readable if she had translated these words correctly.
But: does this mean that her translations should be discarded altogether?
Any serious student will not rely entirely on one single translation, but
have a look at several. Furthermore, if a subject is being lectured in
class, the person teaching should be able to disentagle the translation
errors done by the translator. For academic purposes, an incorrect
translation may not be so misleading, after all. It is only a problem if it
is used by amateurs who are unaware of the possible errors, and who try to
build some kind of argument on an erronous translation. As for the general
reader, errors in detail may not be such a nuisance, although error-free
translations of course are to be preferred. I think that WD's translations
first and foremost make Sanskrit works available to the general reader, and
that this is more beneficial to our line of scholarship than detrimental.
It may, after all, awaken interest in things South Asian.

>There is, moreover, a matter of fundamental principle here. Let us assume
>that subject X is `boring' to the students. If it is so, then it is the
>responsibility of the teacher to make it interesting. It is not permissible
>for the teacher to falsify or to allow X to be falsified on the grounds that
>otherwise the students will not take the course, will not be entertained
>etc. etc. If the purpose of an education is not rigor, then what is left is
>social posturing.

I agree. I cannot see why university studies should be "entertaining". A
university study is a serious endeavour, and students who think that
certain subjects are boring lack the interest or the maturity to study
those subjects. Universities are today - at least in Europe - flooded with
young people who would be out of a job if they were not allowed access to
university studies. This is the politicians' way of "hiding" unemployment.
This also means that university teachers have to deal with a lot of
immature students who perhaps should have been looking for some other kind
of education, or got themselves a job. Many teachers may feel tempted to
"sugar the pill" for those students who feel uncomfortable with difficult
subjects. I think that is the wrong policy. Sound paedagogics is one thing,
selling out cheap is another. Academic life should not make compromises. It
would, in the long run, only hurt the academic process.

Best regards,

Lars Martin Fosse

Lars Martin Fosse
Research Fellow
Department of East European
and Oriental Studies
P. O. Box 1030, Blindern
N-0315 OSLO Norway

Tel: +47 22 85 68 48
Fax: +47 22 85 41 40

E-mail: l.m.fosse at


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