Dec 8, 2012

Lost in translation

Translation of texts from ancient languages is a difficult job, and translation of the texts describing psychological and mystical experience is a twofold difficult task. First of all it happens due to specific features of the described object.For instance when a linguist-researcher wants to translate the word"table" from one language into another he can in terms of communication with the language native speaker point out to the table and find out its denomination in another language. But how do we match the names of emotional, let alone mystical states or other mental patterns.It shall be possible only in case the interpreter himself has mystical or psychological experience that is relevant to the one described, in the way that he has already managed to conceptualize such experience in terms of his native language (which is not an easy task itself). But even in this case there comes the question about the conformity of such mental experience with the one described in ancient sources. For "the plurality of paranormal dictates it" [1].

Let us take,for instance, the word “chitta” that we come across in the second line of Yoga Sutras and that comes as a key word in basic definition of yoga given by Patanjali. According to Russian-Sanskrit dictionary under the editorship of Kalyanov chitta is:
1) Mental2) mentioned 3) cherished, desired, п. 1) mind, intellect 2)intellection, consciousness, 3) feeling, sensation, 4) will, wish 5) heart.

That is almost all possible psychological functions. At the mundane level, as well as for a linguist who is not a psychologist, it does not make any problem.Indeed, there are few people who in their everyday life start to think about the difference between intellection and consciousness, between will and feelings. Not to mention the fact that even in Western science these categories were “splitted” only 200 years ago. For a psychologist it comes to be the question of principle that although discussed in terms of the psychology introductory course still makes one come back to it throughout one’s research or therapeutic practice. For an esoteric this question will be even more actual because it is the answer to the question that the precise choice of practice and its results depend upon. One’s negligence in translation can lead to such obvious absurdities as "[Yoga is] union by stopping mindactivity" (quoting one rather well-known translation of Yoga Sutras). But there are much easier ways to "stop mind activity" like a brick on one’s head or glue sniffing. And does the man lying in coma make the perfect type of yoga? This is absurd, yet it is this very perfect type that comes out of this translation!

Thus, the conformity of the esoteric text translation can be verified only by personal practice of the interpreter who has experienced the states described in the text.

However there is a catch here as well, for one may completely lose touch with the text and start to put one’s own practice into the mouth of the classics. Here is,for instance, the translation of the same verse "Yogah chitta vrtti nirodhah"done by Sri T.K.V Desikachar, "Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions". Sustaining the mind on the object is certainly fine, but there is not a word about it in the text. Let alone the further comment about this object being God that leads the comment to the religious discourse which in this case is quiet improper. (See the “Religious Psycho-practices in theHistory of Culture” for more information about relationships between religion and esotericism).

And so it turns out that translation of even a simple three-words phrase is not an easy job to do. Just because these words have a variety of meanings, while the rest of the Yoga Sutras’ shlokas are even longer and more complicated.

But the actual problem is even more sophisticated: when we translate chitta as consciousness or intellection,or as any other category, we still play cunning. Because the category of"consciousness" nominally appeared in Western European philosophy in the 18th century. The category of "intellection" or "cognitive processes" as it is sometimes translated occurred even later, in the 19th.The category of "will" in its scientific reference appeared afterWundt’s psychology. And so it turns out that we want to translate a category that existed in yoga two thousand years ago by its comparison to the Western terms that we know. This is wrong by definition, for there were no terms of this kind in the public consciousness of that time, say nothing of popular consciousness of India. So no matter what we try to do we will not be able to translate the word "chitta" because Russian, as well as English and other modern languages may simply lack the same category that could in terms of semantics render the corresponding problem. No wonder, generally speaking.Remember the representative of another tradition, Lao Tzu, saying that "The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao”.

However there is a factor that can facilitate the translation or at least improve its credibility – this is the simultaneous reliance upon other sources. The paradox here is that in order to understand one source to we must understand all of them. It is not easy since all sources are heterogeneous. They were written at different times in scope of different cultural contexts and by people with different mystical experiences. Many of these sources were evidently subject to “religionization” and mystification (we will speak about the traps of interpretation in the following sections.) However they enable a better understanding of categories used by Indian yogis to describe their experience.

On the assumption of the afore-written we may see that in order to produce an adequate translation the interpreter should take a walk on thin ice between the linguistic accuracy and his personal mystical experience he should be based upon.

So frankly speaking the adequate translation as well the adequate comment does not exist. It is rather that there is some understanding in scope of one’s mystical experience of the mystical experiences of the man who has written the text. That would be inherently the closest comment. Otherwise it would be a play on words that have no analogues in another language.

In order to avoid all those traps of translation to the maximum I’ve done the following: I have tried to leave the maximum amount of words in their Sanskrit version and tried to give a detailed description of the mystical or psychological experience that stands behind these words. It saves from the need to combine words in order to make clear a phrase in Russian that still would not render the completeness and integrity of the meaning.

There are some other features of the Yoga Sutras that we will consider in terms of giving our comments. The major feature is that the shlokas of Sutras are grouped into semantic blocks that make sense to comment upon because it is the block and not the shloka that makes a notional, semantic unit of the Yoga Sutra. In my comments I have refused from the common yet in effectual from the point of understanding the meaning idea of commenting upon each separate line except for the places where the comment is necessary for the exact understanding of the translation or introduced terms.

[1] (С) RogerZelazny, “Lord of Light”

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