Lost in Translation
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?