Lost in Trans­la­tion

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Pu­rushot­tam Agrawal Pu­rushot­tam Agrawal is a scholar of early ver­nac­u­lar moder­nity in In­dia, Hin­duism and Bhakti po­etry. His lat­est book Pad­ma­vat: An Epic Love Story has been pub­lished by Rupa

Rama has been dragged into yet an­other con­tro­versy. This time by Amer­i­can scholar Au­drey Tr­uschke, who in a tweet claimed that in the Ra­mayana of Valmiki, Sita de­scribes Rama as a “misog­y­nist pig”. This refers to Sita’s first meet­ing with Rama af­ter her res­cue from Ra­vana’s cap­tiv­ity; the con­text for her an­guish is set by the unimag­in­ably harsh words spo­ken by Rama. Sita is dis­mayed and con­trasts such ‘prakrita’ con­duct and speech to what is ex­pected of a ‘veer’ (noble hero) that her hus­band is (Valmiki Ra­mayana, VI, 116.5).

Tr­uschke, in an in­flam­ma­tory tweet, chose to trans­late ‘prakrita’ as ‘misog­y­nist pig’; re­ac­tions on Twit­ter were ex­pect­edly sharp. There were threats and abuses too, which, it must be said, are un­con­scionable and to­tally out of line. But Tr­uschke found the at­tacks on her ‘misog­y­nis­tic’ and ‘anti-Semitic’. It’s in­ter­est­ing that while be­ing at log­ger­heads, both she and her de­trac­tors claim vic­tim­hood, in­vok­ing their re­spec­tive so­cial iden­ti­ties.

In this dis­tract­ing bat­tle, larger is­sues have been side­lined. Tr­uschke ar­gues that schol­ars are not meant to re­vere the texts they study, re­li­gious or oth­er­wise. True. But surely they can rea­son­ably be ex­pected to show in­tegrity in ad­her­ing to aca­demic method? Schol­ars shouldn’t have to pre-empt ‘hurt sentiments’, but are they not ex­pected to be sen­si­tive to the in­trin­sic and ex­trin­sic con­text of the text? Is it right, even in purely schol­arly terms, to re­duce a rich and lay­ered (be­sides be­ing revered by mil­lions) char­ac­ter like Rama to a car­i­ca­ture in a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can comic strip?

Such ques­tions are cru­cially im­por­tant in an en­vi­ron­ment where the space for samyak (bal­anced) di­a­logue is shrink­ing rapidly. The samyak tra­di­tion, em­pha­sised by the Bud­dha, does not en­tail com­pro­mis­ing your philo­soph­i­cal or moral po­si­tion. It is quite dif­fer­ent from ev­ery­day prag­ma­tism. It im­plies re­spect for your op­po­nent and com­mit­ment to shared norms of civilised di­a­logue. It im­plies hold­ing fast to your po­si­tion, yet be­ing open to chang­ing it, if pre­sented with ten­able rea­son­ing and evidence.

Schol­ars are sup­posed to pro­voke so­ci­ety into re­think­ing its preva­lent com­mon­sense. It is pre­cisely this cru­cial—and fraught—role that makes it in­cum­bent upon a scholar to be metic­u­lous in method, sen­si­tive to nu­ances of lan­guage and con­text in which the ar­gu­ment is made and aware (not ‘rev­er­ent’) of the work of those who came be­fore him/ her. In trans­la­tion, the onus is pos­si­bly even greater.

‘Prakrita’, the word in ques­tion, is not even a rare word that is be­ing trans­lated for the first time. It’s a com­mon word, which es­sen­tially means ‘or­di­nary’ or ‘un­civilised’, or ‘raw’ as op­posed to re­fined. In a par­tic­u­lar con­text, it could even mean ‘vul­gar’, though in ren­der­ing that mean­ing, it would lose some of the in­trin­sic re­fine­ment of the orig­i­nal San­skrit. Tul­si­das makes Saraswati re­gret the fact that most po­ets are us­ing their tal­ent to praise ‘or­di­nary’ char­ac­ters in­stead of fo­cus­ing on some­one like Rama (Kinhe prakrita jan gun gana, sir dhuni gira la­gat pach­hi­tana).

A.K. Ra­manu­jan, a widely re­spected scholar and trans­la­tor, de­scribed the trans­la­tor as an “artist on oath”. The idea is to main­tain dual fi­delity: to the na­ture of the tar­get lan­guage and (even more im­por­tantly) to the spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics of the source lan­guage and its cul­ture. San­skrit has no dearth of words of in­sult, and had Valmiki so de­sired, he could have made his Sita use one of them. But, to him, the in­tegrity of the char­ac­ter and the per­sonal and so­cio-cul­tural dy­nam­ics of Sita’s re­la­tion­ship with her ‘veer’ (noble) hus­band were of supreme im­por­tance. He makes Rama ut­ter many harsh words, but then, a few verses later, we see Rama ‘ad­ho­mukha’ (crest­fallen), ‘vash­pavyakul lochanah’ (eyes full of tears)… But, then, Valmiki was a great poet with pa­tience, not a Twit­ter-age trans­la­tor in a hurry.

To trans­late ‘prakrita’ as ‘misog­y­nist pig’ is to to­tally ig­nore con­text. It vi­o­lates the scholar’s un­writ­ten code, the trans­la­tor’s ‘oath’ and makes vul­ner­a­ble the al­ready frag­ile space of aca­demic au­ton­omy and civilised di­a­logue—the samyak.

Is it right to re­duce a lay­ered (be­sides be­ing revered) char­ac­ter like Rama to a car­i­ca­ture in a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can comic strip?

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