new translations

kellner at kellner at
Wed Nov 29 16:46:29 UTC 1995

I don't have Stephen Phillips' book at hand, but here a few remarks on his
remarks on translating (quotes, unless stated otherwise, from his posting; I
will restrict my following comments to the translation of philosophical texts). 

First of all, I got the impression, during the whole of the preceding
discussion (which focused on Doniger's RV-translations), that Indologists
live in a universe of their own, where they have to invent wheels anew all
the time, without any influx - be that deliberate or not - from other
Aside from tons of reflections on translation in comparative literature
studies, linguistics et al., there is a "discipline" called translational
studies, and voices get louder to regard this as a distinct, but integrated
discipline in its own right (cf. Mary Snell-Hornby's writings, or a number
of, I think, predominantly German scholars, e.g. F. Paepcke, who argue for a
more hermeneutical perspective on translation). The efforts of translational
studies go, as can be expected, into a more practice-oriented direction,
viz. to supply criteria which facilitate teaching how to translate and
judge/evaluate the final product. The translation of philosophical texts,
esp. from "exotic" cultures and traditions, has not yet been dealt with
adequately in the bulk of translational studies' books - at least not to my
meager knowledge -, alas, there's work to be done. I might also call
attention to more linguistically/pragmatically oriented reflections on
translation of Indian Philosophy by Claus Oetke (directed against, amongst
others, and objected by, amongst others, Johannes Bronkhorst), and D.
Seyffort-Ruegg's article "Some Reflections on Translating Buddhist
Philosophical Texts from Sanskrit and Tibetan", Asiatische Studien 46/1
(1992), 367-391, who refers to many works which deal with philosophical
translation in a non-Indological context. 

End of literature-lesson with included statement of amazement. 

The remarks made by Stephen Phillips refer to a specific type of
translation, with a specific intention: (1) make a text accessible to an
audience who is neither familiar with the source-language, nor with its
historical and philosophical background; (2) carry the ideas of the texts
across into an environment of current Western philosophy, or at least use
concepts of Western philosophy as a "delimiting device", a means of
explaining, comparing, assessing the original text. At the same time, the
translator considers both to "mirror Sanskrit syntax" and "convey meaning
clearly and colloquially in English" as desirable. 

Presuppose that the translation is one of Navya-Nyaaya-texts, I find the
first desideratum  difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. How can one
mirror a syntax which is abundant in nominal compounds and abstract nouns in
a language which lacks these possibilities? As to the second desideratum -
how can you be colloquial and clear in English where the original text is
neither? To be precise: The Navya-Naiyyayikas, as much as every other Indian
philosophical author, addressed an audience which was well-informed about
their theories - they did not write for the Dhobi-wallah next door, as much
as modern scholars don't write for their caretakers (I don't mean to sound
elitist - I just refer to sociolects). Hence, what they wrote was clear to
those with the same educational background, and might even be called
"colloquial" in this environment, but, alas, none of this is around anymore.
When Stephen Phillips refers to a "non-specialist" audience, I take it he
means philosophers with no training in Sanskrit (correct me, if this is
wrong). In this case, and especially in the case of Navya-Nyaaya with
English as a target-language, I would not attempt a translation at all - or
if, a translation with as few explanations as possible (mainly to clarify,
to the specialist, how one analyzes the text in detail, or, in case of
philologically problematic texts, to justify the constitution of the text),
and a detailled study or interpretation. 

As for the "need of an editor to fill out or in", which is described as "the
origin of the parenthetic expressions" included in the translation - there
has been a lot of shuffling around round, square or pointed brackets in
translations of Indian Philosophical texts through the ages, and I still
find myself pondering in every case, what is supposed to be in brackets, and
what outside. The meanest piece of advice I got was "whatever is not in the
original text has to be bracketed in the translation" - mean, because it
equates textual surface, i.e. syntax and piecemeal semantics, with the text
itself, and ultimetaly does not get you very far. I still stop at every
"and", "but" or "yet" to scratch my head and pour out my brain-cells over
brackets, while I might put them to better use such as how to understand why
one can infer the absence of taste from the sensation of touch, when one
swallows a lamp (sic). 

The mean advisors thereby sequester pragmatic elements, which may be
textually implicit but which may not have a lexcial representation on the
textual surface, into the dungeon of surplus, of decorative ornaments. To
cut it short: Just because a textual element is not lexically represented on
the textual surface doesn't mean it's not a part of the text. This, again,
has been frequently and quite recently pointed out in yet another
discipline, that of text-linguistics. One of the results of a more refined
concept of what actually constitutes a texts is, in translational studies, a
sound scepticism with reference to or the violent rejection of (depends on
whose books you read) the concept of _equivalence_, and an outright flirt
with ideas such as _adequacy_, _appropriateness_, _functionality_,
_intentionality_ etc. All this does not mean that the enterprise of
translation is left entirely to the moods of a translator, is catapulted
into the realm of ultimate arbitrariness and subjectivity - it only means
that different objectifiable criteria should be considered, too. It also,
just to clarify possible misunderstandings, does not mingle with M. Witzel's
criticism of Doniger's _inaccuracy_, for accuracy of measurements, plant
names etc. is an altogether different question. 

However, I will stop my monologue here in order to wait whether anybody is
interested in these musings in the first place. Next week: Yet another mean
piece of advice - "do not read anything into the text which is not there". 

Birgit Kellner
Institute for Indian Philosophy
University of Hiroshima


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