March 29, 2012

Love Should Never Get Lost in Translation.

The accident was sudden.

I watched the bodies fly out of the overcrowded auto-rickshaw, as I gripped my two-year old son to my chest. While the passengers in our Ambassador were virtually unharmed, the others lay crying and moaning, in dusty piles of blood and pain, under the hot, Indian sun.

The elderly woman approached me the minute I exited the vehicle. Her finger nearly severed from her hand, she looked to me for guidance. 

I used hand gestures to communicate, as I did not speak Oriya. Obviously in shock, she did not respond. Her eyes were full of panic. I was worried she might be suffering from a head injury as she wobbled, and I struggled to get through to her. Nothing seemed to work. Intent on getting her to sit, I tried Bengali: bosho, bosho.

 Instantly, her eyes glimmered with recognition and relief.

She nodded, she took my hand, she sat, and she let me wrap a ripped strip of cotton from my slip around her wound. Even in her state of trauma, I was able to reach and help another human in need, through a familiar sound, a shared language.

That simple word she knew became the bridge through which we connected. 

There are approximately 5000 different languages spoken around the world today.

Each language is a reflection of the culture that speaks it, illuminating values and lifestyles. My parents, who were multi-lingual language lovers, raised me to see language as that which played the most essential role in fostering world peace and greater understandings between peoples.

If we can enter into a person’s language we can enter into their world.

The Sami people of the Arctic have hundreds of words to describe snow, as snow creates much of their experience of the world. Their communications with each other about snow needed to be very specific for them to thrive.

Whatever a particular culture regards as most important for their existence will appear in some form or another in the language they speak.

Imagine if you would, a world where understanding love is as important to the inhabitants, as understanding snow is to the Simi tribe. Perhaps no other language in the world has as many specific words categorizing love, and intensities of loving, and different types of love, and even flavors of love, as the ancient Sanskrit language does, the original language of yoga.

Far surpassing the Greek’s vocabulary for love, which derives over one hundred words from the root word phil, Sanskrit engages four main verbal roots that essentially mean “to love”, (pri, bhaj, kam and ram) and expands them multifold!

 As a child I was taught the importance of experiencing musical and/or poetic compositions in the original language they were written in, since translations, if not done with the utmost sensitivity, can leave much to be desired. Unlike my sister, however, I never learned as many languages as my parents did. So, like many of you, I often rely on translators. But I am picky.

How does one even begin to translate words that have no equal counterpart in the target language, without losing the feeling and mood of the original? 

My mother, who holds a French literature degree from Vassar, insists that to really connect with the essence of an author’s work one must read them in their original language: Baudelaire must only be read in French, Kant in German, Neruda in Spanish, and so on. And don’t even dream of translating operas!

As I listened to my mother sing in Italian, and French, English and Spanish, I appreciated the distinct sounds of each idiom, and how those sounds interpreted the emotions in the music. Like my mother’s favorite songs, Sanskrit is a very melodic, poetic language dripping with emotion.

Consistent with today’s discoveries in quantum physics -which tells us that the whole universe is sonically vibrating at sub- atomic levels-, Vedic literature describes the Sanskrit language as the translation of universal sound frequencies (shabdha) into the experiential reality they signify (artha).

In Sanskrit, consciousness plays a big part of communication. The more conscious we are of what we are experiencing, and the many levels we are experiencing it on it, the more we’ll be able to communicate it. 

The sounds in the Sanskrit language are believed to reflect a deep level of experience, which was then synthesized into written form by poetic sages of the past.

Sanskrit emerged from a time in which humans were more attuned to their natural surroundings, and the cosmic energies permeating all of existence.

Consequently, the pulsations and rhythms in the natural world around us, from the beating of our own heart to the ebb and flow of the ocean waves, are reflected in the deliberate rhythmic repetition and sequential arrangement of words that appear in Sanskrit verse.

The authors of ancient Sanskrit texts engaged the natural soothing effects of repetition as a powerful means to induce a meditative-like state in their readers.  

This was believed to increase the reader’s capacity to completely focus their attention on the subject matter being expounded upon.

Because receptivity was regarded as critical for grasping the essence of any text, Sanskrit words were carefully chosen and repeated to transmit very specific meanings in the most absorbable manner.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we could take all the original literary and poetic qualities of a Sanskrit text, complete with it’s meditative repetitive rhythms, the subtleties of its phrasing and cadence, the feeling and mood in the original, and translate it into a target language like English in a way that most faithfully duplicated its original meaning?

For three years I had the honor and privilege of working closely with a Sanskrit scholar and yogi in a grueling yet exhilarating attempt to do just that! The scholar and yogi was Graham M. Schweig, the chosen text was the Bhagavad Gita, and the means to translate the text so it most closely mirrored the essence in the original Sanskrit was locked into a secretly embedded hermeneutic.

As my parents often reminded me, interpreting and translating one written language to another is not an easy task, yet, the more accurately it’s executed, the more it will serve to enhance clear, peaceful communications between peoples of all traditions, faiths, and cultures.

At the heart of all effective communication is love.

This is the secret hermeneutic through which we gaze into a Sanskrit text.

Every successful translator develops their own special, loving relationship with the language they seek to translate. The more intimate the relationship, the more the translation will resonate with the original.

Translations do this on various levels. When one can successfully peek into the culture from which the language sprung, a translator’s ability to communicate its essence increases exponentially.

Translators are like linguistic ambassadors that move between worlds communicating messages. 

Therefore, the depth of a translator’s understanding of each world (the world of the language or origin, and the world of target language) is critical to the communications between the two.

Perhaps now more than ever, people all around the world are eager to delve into the world of yoga that Sanskrit texts illuminate, and are turning to translations of Sanskrit works to do so.

A sensitive translator will seek to express the mood and feeling of the original text to preserve its authenticity.

 Modern practitioners of yoga may not realize that several, popular “translations” of Sanskrit texts were produced by people who don’t even know Sanskrit!

These are actually not translations but renditions. A rendition draws from previous translation and rendition work for its production. This is, however, not to say that renditions cannot offer a valuable perspective of the work.

In the ancient Hebrew tradition, which considers the translation of sacred texts to contain a critical, mystical element to it, they liken the rendition of a text from a language you don’t even know, to making love via an interpreter! 

The intimacy, and thus, the whole experience itself, is greatly compromised. Inevitably, so is the presentation of the text.

Yet another mystical element of presenting a yoga text, occurs when one can dive into the essence of that text and present it to a specific audience at a specific time. This ability draws from the universal language in the yoga text itself, which any of us has the ability to tune into.

 An authentic translator is expert at penetrating the text and delivering to the readers a rich look into its contents.

A most interesting characteristic of ancient Sanskrit texts is that they have within them guidelines into how they would like to be interpreted. A sensitive and skilled translator will know how to find them. As Graham Schweig says: “Ask the text how it wants to be interpreted.”

Because the culture from which the Sanskrit language sprung had a very broad and sophisticated relationship with time, they anticipated future cultures trying to understand their teachings, and inserted reading guides, if you will, into the texts themselves. Those who simply produce renditions of Sanskrit texts will not be privy to the guidance a translator will be.

 The Bhagavad Gita’s “reading guide”, or internally generated hermeneutic is one of love, and it is clearly reflected in the verses. Graham Schweig speaks more about this in his own translation of The Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song.

 Within mystical love traditions, such as Sufism and Vaishnavism, only those within the tradition are seen as capable of presenting a faithful delivery of the original manuscript, for they are closest to the world it originated from.

This intimacy is what is believed to preserve the life of a text’s message and language.

For, just like the yoga they elucidate, Sanskrit texts themselves have a most dynamic quality. Faithful translators aim to communicate this quality in their presentations of yoga texts like the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutra. To be able to offer readers a textual rendition that most mirrors the original is a rare feat indeed, lest the tone begin to stagnate.

Yoga is all about dynamic, life-enhancing energy, just as the meditative process of Sanskrit translation becomes to a yogi. 

As yoga continues in popularity and Sanskrit inevitably begins to resurge, more and more yogis desire to experience yoga as presented in the original Sanskrit texts, and are therefore seeking out authentic translations.

Just as the wounded woman who sought out my help after the accident was looking for an immediate connection, today’s yoga community has an urgent need to connect with the secrets of yoga reveled in original Sanskrit texts.

 If you wish to learn more how to identify an authentic translation of a Sanskrit text, and become sensitive to the way the beauty and rhythm of the original Sanskrit poetry energizes your yoga practice, we’d be delighted if you joined us for one of Graham M. Schweig’s Sanskrit For Yoga classes.

Graham uncovers the secrets to Sanskrit text translation, and engages participants in sounding, pronouncing and reciting key verses and mantras.

The next Sanskrit For Yoga class will be offered at the Upcoming Yoga Journal Conference in New York this April 15th. Please click here for more information.

~Although this article is geared around appreciating the Sanskrit language yoga texts are written in, the yoga philosophy in the texts themselves tell us that the best way to enter into any yoga text is through connecting with the translation or version of that text which speaks to you most.

So ask yourself, which version of the Gita am I most inspired by? Only you have that answer. Whatever resonates with your own heart, that is your yoga.

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