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Sanskrit translation: the truth-seeker, with a beginner’s mind


I study Sanskrit with Rutger Kortenhorst.  His enthusiasm breathes life into the sutras, unravelling both the depth and complexity of translation, and the simplicity of many forms of truth. These ways of considering life were formulated by minds that faced much the same dilemmas that all thinking people face even though they lived hundreds and maybe thousands of years ago. Who does not resonate with the sentiment in the Bhagavad Gita 6:6 “The mind is both a friend and an enemy”?

The texts really are quite cryptic. Maybe Truth needs to be?
People can become very attached to the translation to which they are habituated and hate to see it being pulled about. Take the Yeats translations, assisted by his Sanskrit expert Purohit Swami, beautiful poetic words flow smoothly from the tongue but can stray astonishingly far from the original text. Often one meets the mind of a translator with an accumulated baggage of unconscious bias, rather than the mind of the ancient truth-seeker. And yet, while an accurate translation might be a precise rendition, it would be unreadable English. Here is why: -

·        Most Sanskrit words can have many meanings, maybe thirty. Which to choose? It takes a lifetime of living the language to have a real feel for it. 

·        Most sutras have no verbs, not one, zilch. Even those that do… can have several translations. English cannot manage without them: every sentence must have a verb. ‘This’ verb could lead the truth-seeker along one line of thought where ‘that’ one escorts the mind along quite a different path. ‘Lead’ / ‘escort’, not the same energy at all. See what I mean?   Which to choose?

·        There is no punctuation. Not one comma or full stop: no capital letters to distinguish ‘that’ from ‘That’: all are put in by the mind of the translator. English demands it, we cannot read without it… and it totally changes the meaning. What to choose?

·        However, before entertaining any of these considerations, one must work out the Padāni that is, deconstruct the sūtra into its constituent parts and work out the precise grammar of each word. Some very ancient texts have unique grammar predating the 4,000 rules formulated by Pāṇini. One needs to draw from the wisdom-well of a specialist expert.

·        Then there are compound words, lots of Devanāgarī letters all strung on a ‘washing line’ half a sūtra long. These Samāsas can be seriously tricky compounds and quite a challenge to unpick each word, to see what is there to be translated. In English we speak of a railroad or blackboard, and no longer see that two words have joined together to create a compound or Samāsa to express a new concept.

·        Here is another thing, there is no word order. None. You can juggle with a whole sūtra of words to suit your preferred meaning. There are accepted versions, traditional approaches but no rule: a translator could quite arguably reverse an accepted construct. The only thing that governs the order of the words is the scan of whichever meter of poetry is being applied. Often ‘filler’ syllables such as eva are included simply to reach a required number, serving no other function.

Watching the class discuss the translation of the wisdom texts is absolutely fascinating.
The truth-seeker, with a beginner’s mind keeps, asking questions…

IYA Newsletter article 2022

Bhagavad Gita 6:6

Unfortunately I am unable to paste this in so that it reads the way I would like, formatted and in colour. If you are interested, please contact me and I can send it to you in a Word file or look for it on www.sanskrit.ie under the heading 'sastras' Bhagavad Gita chapter 6 verse 6

बन्धुरात्मात्मनस्तस्य - येनात्मैवात्मना जितः ।
अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे - वर्तेतात्मैव शत्रुवत् ॥
bandhurātmā-ātmanastasya – yena-ātmaiva-ātmanā jitaḥ
anātmanastu śatrutve – varteta-ātmaiva śatruvat. 6.6
- –--
Padāni
bandhuḥ ātmā ātmanaḥ tasya yena ātmā iva ātmanā jitaḥ
1st sing m 1st sing m 6th sing m 6th sing m 3rd sing m 1st sing m ind. 3rd sing m 1st sing m
friend one of mind his by whose mind - by mind conquered

an- ātmanaḥ tu śatrutve varteta ātmā eva śatruvat
6th sing m ind 7th sing m 3rd sing opt 1st sing m ind 1st sing m
of non- mind but in enemy-like should be mind very enemy-like
By whose mind, the mind is conquered is his friend
For one who has conquered his mind, the mind is the best of friends.
But for one who has failed to do so, the very same mind is the greatest enemy.