[INDOLOGY] Accuracy in translations

Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi c.ram-prasad at lancaster.ac.uk
Mon Jun 11 16:49:17 UTC 2018

As someone who has read and enjoyed Heifetz’ translations, I would certainly like to see his thesis made accessible.
Best wishes,

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad
Fellow of the British Academy
Distinguished Professor of Comparative Religion and Philosophy
Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion
Lancaster University
From: George Hart via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info>
Sent: Monday, June 11, 2018 5:30 pm
Subject: Re: [INDOLOGY] Accuracy in translations
To: Indology List <indology at list.indology.info>

Many years ago, Hank Heifetz, a poet and novelist with whom I worked and published several books as a coauthor, wrote for his PhD thesis a tract on translating from classical Indian languages (Sanskrit and Tamil). Many in this forum may be aware of his fine translation of the Kumārasaṃbhava (The Origin of the Young God), published by Penguin. He called the language of the Victorian and stilted translations from Sanskrit that abound Indologese, and he suggested that anyone who wishes to translate from Sanskrit or other South Asian language take the time to read modern English poetry and writing and learn to avoid the stiffness and infelicity that we often see. He showed examples of what he felt were poor and awkward translations and suggested what the problems with them are. It would be wonderful if his thesis were published — some on this forum might find it useful, even if they disagree with some of Hank’s judgments. See


Unfortunately, a pdf of the work is not available, but if there is interest I could see what could be done to make it more accessible. George

On Jun 10, 2018, at 8:12 PM, Dominik Wujastyk via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info<mailto:indology at list.indology.info>> wrote:

I am concerned that the conversation seems to have turned to the idea of a universal right way to translate.  Isn't this a mistake?  Several people in this conversation have noted the point about translating differently for different audiences.  And of course, we're all individuals ("I'm not!" :-)  So there can't possibly be uniformity across translations of the same text.  Nor should we seek it, any more than we would require that a room full of painters should produce the same painting of a bowl of fruit.

There is such a thing as error, and sometimes that accounts for very different translations.  But setting that trivial case aside, there can still be many good yet different translations that are appropriate to different audiences and that are done by translators with different backgrounds and propensities.


Professor Dominik Wujastyk<http://ualberta.academia.edu/DominikWujastyk>

Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Society and Polity

Department of History and Classics<http://historyandclassics.ualberta.ca/>
University of Alberta, Canada

South Asia at the U of A:


On Sat, 9 Jun 2018 at 15:34, David and Nancy Reigle via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info<mailto:indology at list.indology.info>> wrote:
Dear Camillo,

I think you have provided the only possible answer in our time: for a unified and unifying terminology use the Sanskrit terminology. It was long ago possible to have standardized translation terminology adopted in Tibetan by royal decree; this is not possible today in our highly individualistic age. Today we may use Sanskrit terms directly, as you suggest, or we may place them in parentheses after the translation term of our choice. It is even possible to put them in comprehensive glossaries. One way or the other, the Sanskrit terms themselves provide the only realistic option for a unifying terminology.

Best regards,

David Reigle
Colorado, U.S.A.

On Sat, Jun 9, 2018 at 3:37 AM, Camillo Formigatti <camillo.formigatti at bodleian.ox.ac.uk<mailto:camillo.formigatti at bodleian.ox.ac.uk>> wrote:
Dear all,

This was an utterly fascinating discussion to read, I’ve learned a lot, thank you!

If I may, I’d like to add my mustard to the discussion, pardon my two cents, even if the discussion seems to have run out of steam. If I remember correctly, no question was raised about the need to always try and translate for instance Sanskrit philosophical terms, which seems to be a given for all of us. The example from Chinese translations provided by David Reigle is very interesting in this respect, because it is a much needed call for a unified and unifying terminology. I believe that to a certain extent we already have a unifying terminology, the Sanskrit terminology.

Again, if I remember correctly from my times in high school and as an undergraduate, no scholar of Classics or Theology has problems using the term logos, for instance, to distinguish it from mythos, or physis to distinguish from nomos, or even to use doxa. If we think of more recent philosophical terms, the Cartesian res cogitans is even included in the Merriam Webster dictionary—pretty much as Dharma. Why shouldn’t we then use Sanskrit terms directly, and obviously provide them with explanations either in the introduction or in notes? Sometimes I think we all suffer from a strange syndrome, namely that we always have to justify our choices, alas sometimes even our right to research, by trying to match specific expectations that other colleagues in similar fields actually disregard. If we always stay on the defensive, I fear that we will lose authority even in our own field.

Best wishes,


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