Vanity thought #968. Mistranslation

Every now and then a scary thought goes through my head – what if Śrila Prabhupāda indeed mistranslated some of the verses, what if our understanding of Vedic literature is totally wrong?

It’s a silly thought, of course, one that can easily be chased away, but it’s persistent. We can say that Śrila Prabhupāda is in agreement with our previous ācāryas and that this is the proof that his translations are good, but this can bring a string of objections of its own.

Vedic world is very big, it accommodates all sorts of views and everybody is convinced in his own interpretations of the truth. There are yogīs, there are māyāvādīs, there are worshipers of Śiva, and even among the vaiṣṇavas there is a great variety of views. What if we are wrong and they are right?

This thought doesn’t come on its own but is usually triggered by seeing something in translations that looks like it could be interpreted in a different way. There are people who specialize in finding faults in Prabhupāda’s translations, they can point great many “mistakes” very easily. I won’t repeat their exact allegations here but generally they have something to do with introducing “Supreme Personality of Godhead”, or “devotional service”, or “devotees” in verses that do not have such terms directly.

If sometimes I see a verse that talks about loving relationship between the Lord and His devotees but none of these words are actually in the verse I might have a moment of doubt. It’s not coming from my head but is a reaction to something I see (or don’t see) in Prabhupāda’s translation. This makes it look as if I am blaming him and not myself for my apparent lack of faith but actually I’m just pointing out the trigger of the problem, and it’s not Prabhupāda, it’s my assumptions of what would construe a correct translation. If these expectations are not met, I might have a reaction.

So the answer to this problem is to adjust my attitude, not for BBT to re-edit the books even further.

The attitude, the undue expectations, come from misunderstanding of what our books actually are. Everybody says they are translations of Bhagavad Gītā or Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, everybody calls them translations including ourselves and various scholars whose quotes we put on the jackets.

This is wrong. Prabhupāda’s books are not translations, not in the common sense of the word.

When ordinary people talk about translations they assume that there’s a source, which is perfect, and there’s the translation of that source in another language which is NOT the original and cannot maintain one hundred percent fidelity even in theory.

Next assumption is that by studying different translations and critically comparing them one can understand the source in full, exactly as it was intended. According to this logic the more different translations you read, the better you understand, the close you come to the original. You also get to see weaknesses and strengths of each and every translation which by then clearly become inferior to the source AND to your own understanding.

When we use words like “transparent medium” we are not helping here because the purpose of such critical study is to find imperfections and see how each medium is less than transparent – we practically invite criticism, and no medium can’t be fully transparent even in theory. Transparency itself is achieved through numbers – the more mediums you have, the more imperfections you can isolate and remove from your understanding, the clearer it becomes.

Another aspect of this approach is that translator is presumed to be a mere helper, the actual truth and knowledge lie only at the source, you need to understand the source and after that translation becomes unnecessary and even distracting.

For this reason people assume that reading Sanksrit eliminates the need for translation, one can access the source directly and then interpret it for anyone who is interested. I’ve never seen an excess of modesty in such interpreters, they are always accompanied by a thick fog of superiority and unquestionable confidence in their abilities. They are not meant to be challenged, they have read the originals, they know the truth.

All this is completely natural and logical, that’s how our western knowledge acquisition works and actually it’s pretty uniform across the whole materialistic world.

From the Vedic POV, however, it should be already clear that these assumptions about the role of translators are wrong and should be avoided.

In a sense one should always be on the lookout for translating errors but our default mode should be complete and unquestionable trust in the words of our guru.

Yes, there’s a corpus of Vedic literature that our guru draws upon but, spiritually speaking, for us it does not exist. Our guru is our only eye and our only ear to perceive Vedic wisdom. He is not the translator and he is not the interpreter, he speaks the truth directly.

He is not a medium to understand something else – there’s nothing there for us to understand but the words of our guru. When we say that guru is a transparent medium it doesn’t mean it’s a medium for us to reach the Supreme, it’s a medium for the Supreme to reach to us. It’s not bidirectional in this sense.

We naturally assume that translation approximates the original but the words of our guru are complete and perfect on its own, we do not read translations to understand Bhagavad Gītā, we read them to understand translations themselves. Bhagavad Gītā might mean this or it might mean that, we would never know, we only know how our guru presents it and HIS presentation is true while our own understanding is false.

We assume that if we could read Sanskrit we wouldn’t have a need for translations anymore but no one can approach the Supreme directly – Bhagavad Gītā is non-different from the Lord, just as Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is Lord’s manifestation, too – we cannot read and try to comprehend them on our own, without a guru. It will always lead to a wrong understanding as a matter of principle.

Scriptures must be heard from a guru. If he uses language other than Sanskrit then technically we can call it a translation but spiritually it isn’t. Spiritual potency of our books does not depend on external language they are presented in. There’s no such thing as translation of spirit, it never changes, it cannot be transformed and it does not depend on the material medium.

So, when we say “translation” we must remember that it appears as such only on a material platform while the spiritual potency and spiritual transmission of knowledge is completely independent from external appearance and external separation of the “original” and the “translation”.

Moreover, transmission of spiritual potency does not depend on the accuracy of translation but on purity of our guru and our devotion. Śrila Prabhupāda might write completely outrageous things in his translations but accepting his words as that of the Supreme would give us spiritual knowledge while sticking to dictionaries and ordinary correctness will give us nothing of spiritual value.

Not to mention that this idea of “I need a guru only until I learn to read Sanskrit myself” is decidedly māyāvādīan. We should shut our ears and scream Kṛṣṇa’s names to drown out such an evil voice in our heads.

That’s why these doubts are so scary – giving in to them might lead to a spiritual suicide. So far the best way I see to deal with them is to understand where they come from and how they are fundamentally wrong. We should not treat Prabhupāda’s books as ordinary translations, they work in a completely different way

One comment on “Vanity thought #968. Mistranslation

  1. Pingback: Vanity thought #969. As it never was | back2krishna

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