The Conundrum of Sanskrit ‘Non-Translatables’

Rajiv Malhotra’s recent book ‘Sanskrit Non-Translatables’ has kindled important discussion on the problem associated with translation, especially in the context of concepts. This book has the stated aim of Sanskritizing English as the author believes that translation of Sanskrit words into English results in loss of authority for Sanskrit. I won’t go into the stated aim and rather focus on the technical aspect of the issue with translation. The choice of word ‘non-translatable’ is bit odd as the standard word used for denoting the problem of translatability in Linguistics is ‘untranslatability’, and the words which can’t be translated are known as ‘untranslatables’. It’s a fairly standard term used in Linguistics with which translators have dealt with for years.

When it comes to Untranslatability, it’s divided into two categories – Linguistic Untranslatability and Cultural Untranslatability. In Linguistic Untranslatability, the difficulty in translation from source language (SL) to target language (TL) is due to morphological or grammatical reasons. For example, Sanskrit verbal roots have their future tense form as well while English verbs don’t have that. There are multiple such examples, but the issue discussed by Rajiv Malhotra is Cultural Untranslatability which arises due to having no equivalent word of any concept/idea/object etc. in the target language. Though Malhotra claims it to be innovative idea, there is nothing innovative about the problem nor the solution.

In the case of Cultural Untranslatability, there are multiple options for a translator to still go ahead with the task, because the primary objective of a translator is to overcome the linguistic barrier by translation. What Malhotra has suggested is known as borrowing. So, if one has to translate Dharma into English, rather than trying to find an equivalent word in English, Dharma will be retained as Dharma. The advantage of this method is that the reader gets his vocabulary enriched, but perhaps with loss in meaning as it’s not expected from a reader of English to know words from Sanskrit without an explanation. This method has other problems as well.

When it comes to translation of the objects such as food or cloth, using the borrowing method is very useful as you don’t have to translate Dhoti in English as ‘unstitched single piece cloth’ but when it’s employed in translation of ideas and concepts, new issues are encountered. The development of any language and its concepts is intimately connected with the cultural sphere in which it originated and became popular – as language is not the fundamental reality – but a device invented by humans to convey the reality. Two languages which belong to radically different cultural spheres will seldom have affinity of ideas and concepts, and if borrowing method is used without applying strict control, the fundamental purpose of translation will be lost.

Take the case of word as simple as ‘विवाह’ (vivaha). The English translation is ‘marriage’ but the meaning of विवाह and marriage are different due to their different cultural and religious significance. For a Hindu, विवाह is one of the sixteen sanskaar-s while in Christianity, marriage is considered to be sacred institution strictly monogamous in nature. So, the translation of विवाह into marriage is prevalent and even accepted because translation doesn’t aim toward near certain accuracy, but an attempt to transmit the meaning. So, when a Hindu hears the word marriage, he doesn’t understand it in the Christian sense but in the Hindu sense because his understanding is on the basis of his own religious and cultural understanding.

Even in the political context, such difficulties are plenty. The popular translation of राजा (raja) is king but when we see the difference in concepts, it’s again incorrect. In the Western political context, a king has divine right of kingship enjoying legal sovereignty while in the Hindu polity, the authority of a राजा is on the basis of social contract regulated by Dharma. If we insist on borrowing, there will be no further communication possible between different groups of people who understand only one common language as each of the languages will insist on sticking with their own terms for the sake of accuracy leading into loss of semantics in the communication.

The approach which I find more sensible is using the nearest possible equivalent word in target language followed by an explanation. In Nyaya Darshan, शब्द (shabd) is one of the valid methods of knowledge and it’s often translated as ‘testimony’ by Hindu philosophers operating in English language, but they follow it with explanation to ensure that the readers in the target language understand the concept, though not necessarily learning another word from the source language. Such method becomes even more critical in translating words such as बुद्धि (buddhi) which has different meaning when used in Nyaya Darshan and Yogachara Darshan of Buddhists. In such cases, it’s imperative to choose the closest equivalent word followed with explanation.

The project started by Rajiv Malhotra is laudable in the sense that it will be quite helpful for translators in understanding the difference of meaning even if they’re using the near equivalent word in English unlike the current scenario in which many translators aren’t even aware about such significant conceptual differences. However, I’m bit skeptical about efficacy of the project if taken too far as it will result in our reduced ability to communicate outside the group, or even within the group since most of the Hindus themselves have very superficial understanding of Sanskrit and other Indian languages.

Published by Satish Verma

Read. Contemplate. Write.

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