French scholars translations

Subhanu Saxena Subhanu.Saxena at INTL.PEPSI.COM
Fri Oct 9 02:38:44 CDT 1998

On Oct 8, Guy Werlings wrote:

> reading this an ordinary Frencman will think that a fool has written
> this and than another fool has made the translation : and with his
> cartesian mind, he will say that if you take out the full from the
> full,
> what remains is vacuum or void, but not the full.
I share your sentiments/frustrations regarding the ability/inability of
translators. However, I think we shouldn't be too hard on them, as
translating from one language to another whilst conveying the spirit of
the original is notoriously difficult, and becomes even more difficult
when trying to capture the essence of Sanskrit writings thousands of
years old, where there is a difference of opinion in meaning  amongst
those who are themselves writing in Sanskrit!

I have been victim of the above through my own painful experience of
trying to explain the concepts of advaita in Moscow using the Russian
language (I have failed miserably).  The key difficulty I have seen is
that the language  embodies the culture and values of a nation. Certain
concepts simply do not have a word in that language. For example, in
Russian, there is no easy word I have come across (which may simply be
my lack of knowledge) for "privacy". Conversely, there is a word
"poshlost" used extensively in 19th/early 20th century Russian
literature, which can only proximately be described as "moral
paltriness" and, again, I haven't found an exact English equivalent.

The key to me seems to be whether a translator can SPEAK both languages
with facility, before attempting the translation. This would appear to
give the translator the best chance of getting a feel for a language and
how to convey the meaning. This makes the problem of accurate Sanksrit
translation into any language more acute, as not many scholars actually
speak Sanskrit today. As I look at Sanskrit translations,particularly
from the 19th Century, most of those scholars probably could not speak
Sanskrit themselves, and this is reflected in their translations (noble
efforts though they are).

I myself, I'm afraid, have "copped out" on the above.  Any serious
discussions I have with another scholar, I prefer to speak in Sanskrit,
as I struggle with exact words in English. When I speak in English, I
prefer to use the original Sanskrit word rather than an English/other
language counterpart (eg Atman instead of Self, paramArtha instead of
transcendental-Guy, how do you translate Atman into French?), and
explain in rather a long winded way to the audience what I mean.

To those who are contemplating a study of Sanskrit as a precursor to
studying our great texts in the original, I would offer the suggestion
that they seek out a teacher who teaches both conversation as well as
dry grammar, in line with modern language teaching techniques (and
traditional pATHashAla's), so that Sanskrit has a chance to flow through
your veins. We have certainly found it a powerful tool in teaching
Sanskrit.I have conducted courses in Spoken Sanskrit, having been
inspired by Sri Krishnashastry of Hindu Sewa Pratishtaannam in India
(they have a website accessible through, and have been
amazed at how quickly people learn (the courses run for 10 days!).

I would be interested in other people's experience/suggestions regarding
translating advaita texts into other languages to avoid the traps
highlighted by Guy in his postings.



"bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam"
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