INDOLOGY FAQ. Re. Varanasi

george thompson gthomgt at COMCAST.NET
Mon Feb 15 21:45:33 UTC 2010

Dear List,

I have avoided this discussion of mispronunciations until now, because I 
find that such discussions of student bloopers and the ignorant masses 
who can't pronounce Sanskrit words properly are generally unkind and 
gratuitous, and in deed, as Matthew Kapstein rightly suggests, "a bit 
too precious." 

But it is good to see that the discussion has moved in a more productive 
direction with the recents posts on southern pronunciations, etc.

I have a different point to make, related to Dipak Bhattacharya's 
comments about misspellings and our having to surrender to book agents 
about using "Panini" instead of "Pāṇini." 

I don't think that we should surrender to our book agents.  When working 
with my editors at Farrar Straus & Giroux about my recent Gita 
translation, I insisted on using standard scholarly diacritics 
throughout.  I had to fight very hard to persuade them that the 
diacritics would be helpful rather than intimidating, and I did succeed 
in persuading them that this was so.  Of course, I had to write a note 
about the pronunciation of Sanskrit for that book, but it persuaded this 
commercial, non-scholarly, publisher to use standard diacritics in my 
book.  A small victory for diacritics, I suppose..

Obviously, non-Sanskritists like Richard Hayes's well-meaning  but 
clueless Fransiscan brother need our help. I have offered him and others 
like him [e.g., yoga teachers in the US] some help in my Gita 
translation.  At a very minimum we need to help these people to 
distinguish between long and short vowels in Sanskrit:  'Mahaabhaarata' 
vs the utterly confusing 'Mahabharata,'  which makes no distinction 
between long and short vowels at all, even though this is not a very 
difficult distinction to make, even for quite illiterate American 
students. After that point, we can just refer to the character Apu in 
the "Simpsons" TV series, who uses retroflexes to pronounce numerous 
American words.   If we can make these simple distinctions, then the 
pronunciation of Sanskrit will not be so difficult for the unwashed 
masses of those who don't know Sanskrit.

Really, it doesn't take a lot of effort to teach non-Sanskritists how to 
pronounce Sanskrit reasonably well.  I've been doing it for years.  It 
has put food on the plates of my children, and they are now 
self-sustaining adults, for the most part.

I would also like to complain about a decision that was made by the 
editors of the Clay Sanskrit Library.  This is a great and valuable 
collection of translations, but I think that they made a bad decision 
when they chose to ignore diacritic marks in their translatons. 

I agree with their decision to resolve & simpify sandhi issues, so that 
word-boundaries would be easily recognizable for the beginning student, 
but to completely abandon accurate diacritical marks in their 
translations, I think, has been a big mistake.

What this leads to in the intended audience is a general uncertainty 
about how to pronounce anything in Sanskrit. 

Not a good move from our Sanskrit elite.  At least in my view.

George Thompson

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