Translation – illusion.

Can you recommend a good translation of the (Ṛg)veda to me?

It honours me that I have been asked this question several times, by friends who know me as Indra’s devotee and an avid reader, and I would like to answer it here in case others are wondering the same.

(I’ll preface this by writing, again, that I don’t know Vedic Sanskrit, aside from a few words; I can’t read Veda in the original language. My only qualification is a bachelor’s degree in linguistic anthropology, aided by a keen sense of observation.)

So, the short answer about a good English translation: There isn’t one, and I believe there never will be.

The long answer is beneath the cut, and I’ve given several examples to make my pessimism more understandable.

Putting aside the question of Sanskrit’s divine revelation and perfection, there are many differences between Sanskrit and English that interfere when trying to translate the former into the latter.

First of all, Sanskrit is an inflected language. In English, we show who does what to whom by arranging words in a certain order. That’s how “the boy chases the dog” expresses a different idea than “the dog chases the boy.” But in an inflected language, a word’s place in a sentence doesn’t matter; the word itself changes, to indicate its significance. To give a quick example: depending on what role the Deva plays in a hymn – whether he is the subject, direct object, indirect object, etc. in a sentence – Indra may appear as indro, indrena, indrasya, indre, or several other forms based on the root indra. The average English speaker needs to memorise a lot of prefixes and suffixes, and adopt a whole new way of thinking, in order to become fluent in an inflected language. Furthermore, given the different expressions possible when word-order is flexible, and the many poetic metres in Vedic Sanskrit that don’t exist in English, an English translation of Veda has already lost much of the rhythm and variation in the original.

English is a reductionist, “efficient” tongue, a relatively young language whose main evolution occurred in Europe alongside the development of modern industry and rationalism. It is pretty well suited to scientific purposes, but in matters of art, religion, and other subjective topics, English often provides only one word to cover a large range of complex situations. Think about the English word “love,” and how this one word is expected to suffice for strong feelings of a) romantic entanglement with a significant other, b) deep loyalty and affectionate ties to family or friends, c) reverence for a deity or religious figure, or d) preference for an object or situation (“I love chocolate” or “I love this movie theatre”). The word has less strength because it is so commonplace and widely-applicable. English words also carry great potential for confusion; declaring love for a friend can be mistaken for a romantic confession, for instance.

Sanskrit words also have a wide range of meanings, but possess an innate richness and depth which English is hard-pressed to duplicate. Many Sanskrit terms simply can’t be explained with a single English word, or even an English phrase; they require entire paragraphs of exposition. Some Sanskrit words, even after decades of research and argument, still have no universally-agreed-upon English translation at all.

Next, the tradition of Veda is oral; the writings came later, and to gather a thorough understanding of Veda, one should ideally hear it chanted. But Vedic Sanskrit has many sounds that don’t exist in English, subtle sounds that can change the meaning of an entire word, and tonal differences besides (the length of time which one holds a syllable, and the rise or fall in vocal pitch, are both crucial to proper pronunciation).
If the English word “history” is pronounced by someone with a heavy accent as “hees-taw-ree,” it sounds peculiar but is still comprehensible. But small variations, which would render a Sanskrit word different or meaningless, are difficult for an English speaker to hear because a) we don’t have those sounds, and b) our language, lacking tonal properties, accepts such a wide range of dialects and accents that we don’t need to listen for minor changes. Thus, learning to hear and understand Vedic Sanskrit can be a very frustrating undertaking.

To most non-Indian English-speakers, Veda is the ancient scripture of a different religion, so there is the need to understand a foreign culture as well as a different language. And Vedic culture specifically is difficult to grasp because the known facts about it are few and far-between. The situation is a catch-22: without a clear, comprehensive understanding of Veda, we can’t hope to approach Vedic culture. Yet it is precisely Vedic culture that gives us the background we really need in order to get a better understanding of Veda! Many passages of Ṛgveda refer to stories and a shared cultural history which hearers would already recognise and know; without this background, we’re forced to make guesses – and those guesses usually reveal a lot more about us than Veda, illuminating just where our biases lie.

Speaking of biases, a universal problem with translation is that we all carry prejudices and certain stubborn ways of thinking, based upon our upbringings, origins, and yes, even shaped by the language(s) in which we think. Many people are offended by this idea, since they strive to be open-minded and tolerant, and think that the word “prejudice” describes a deliberate choice. It’s important to realise that I’m not only speaking of malicious bigotry; I also refer to deeply-held beliefs, life-experiences, and other facets of personal development which are so seamlessly integrated into our characters, we don’t even think to filter them out.

A good case for a lot of the points I’ve raised, is made in these often-quoted lines, Ṛgveda VIII.48.3:

“We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.
Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?”

The word Soma refers to not only a beverage, but to the Moon and its power, to the God Soma, to the essence of the Devas and Indra in particular, to the bliss, ecstasy, divine communion and wonder that carries part of the divine essence, to a mystical concept that cannot be summarised verbally, but was directly experiential for the ṛṣis who originally received the Vedic knowledge. There is no one English word that can summarise Soma, so this Sanskrit term is left untranslated.
Leaving the emotional and spiritual connotations aside, even the physical Soma is a mystery to us. All we know is that the original plant is now either extinct or its identity lost, such that that particular part of Vedic culture is now inaccessible to us.
Without having the personal knowledge of Soma-drinking, then, the reader will judge the word Soma – and thus interpret the entire verse – based upon experience and belief. A Vedic devotee will revere Soma and understand its consumption as a sacrament. An atheist may well read this verse as a poetic description of drunkenness and decide that Soma was an ancient intoxicant. Someone who knows neither religion nor alcohol might decide that Soma was some sort of magical potion or even an imaginary elixir.
If three translators with such different beliefs tackled that same hymn, they would no doubt select very different English phrasing. My thought is that the religious person would be best-equipped to produce a skilled translation – having a direct understanding of the hymns’ devotion and spiritual concepts – but a Western translator is more likely to approach Veda as a student of history or language, not as a devotee.

That’s not counting the effect of the times, in which the prevailing culture and style of English will affect how a translator renders the words – particularly if s/he is hoping to sell books. Contrast a florid Victorian translation of ṚV VI.21.5-6 with the modern product of a university linguist:

“Yea, here were they who, born of old, have served thee, thy friends of ancient time, thou active Worker.
Bethink thee now of these, Invoked of many! the midmost and the recent, and the youngest.
Inquiring after him, thy later servants, Indra, have gained thy former old traditions.
Hero, to whom the prayer is brought, we praise thee as great for that wherein we know thee mighty.”

“For at this moment there are belonging to you, O indefatigable one, those born aforetime, ancient friends, you who does much;
Those who are from the middle past, and those now existing, and, O much invoked, observe the most recent one.
Invoking him, the more recent ones have reached out to your former ancient deeds of fame, Indra.
Just in as much as we understand, so do we praise you, hero brought by prayer, mighty one.”

By my reading, the first hymn indicates a master-servant relationship, as if the singer helplessly pleads to remote heights. In the second, the poet expresses humility before an awesome presence, but also a certainty that the Deva does not overlook the worshipper. Even single phrases express vital differences, and take the verses in divergent directions. The first hymn petitions the Deva to witness those who “have served thee,” but the second declares to Indra the love of those “belonging to you.” In short, there are distinct differences of tone – hierarchical versus egalitarian, formal versus affectionate – that are likely related to the era, as well as the individual.

There is also the simple matter of personal preference! I like the second translation of the verse I just gave, the more intimate and familiar, but another person may prefer the stark majesty of the first.

Yes, I’ve thought for a long time about this question of translation. Obviously, I read Ṛgveda in translation often; it’s very unlikely I would have discovered, and cultivated, a devotion to Indra without knowing this text at all. But given everything I’ve discussed above, how do I find, and recommend, a “good” English translation to anyone?

I think the best thing I can do is offer some reviews of the works I’ve read, and let others decide as they will. Those suggestions will be the subject of my next post.

© Arjunī and ridiculously reverent. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Arjunī and ridiculously reverent with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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2 thoughts on “Translation – illusion.

  1. Satya 17 March 2012 at 21:10 Reply

    you write so well.
    may i suggest that the root word is indra – it is an akArAnta pullinga s’abda.
    Of course that does not take way from the theme of your post.

    • Kāmya 17 March 2012 at 23:25 Reply

      You may definitely ‘suggest’; I always need the proofreading! Fixed in the entry, and thank you for the compliment to my writing. :)

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