kerouac On the Road scroll
Kerouac On the Road scroll by emdot via Flickr

In the academic world it’s often assumed that the acquisition of different languages makes for a better, more valuable scholar. While this often may be the case, it’s not always.

Pierre Bourdieu notes that language, itself, has become a worldwide commodity. And in keeping with Foucault’s idea of discourse, Bourdieu says certain languages have more clout than others.

For Bourdieu and other sociologists like Max Weber, social institutions – like universities – tend to legitimize themselves. Western universities, for example, are compelled to justify high tuition fees coupled with boring, run of the mill professors exhibiting mediocre analytical skills and a limited ability to think creatively.

As socially recognized and highly competitive organs of knowledge dissemination, universities strive to produce a certain quota of publications. Meanwhile, many scholars and the reading public tend to uncritically associate the knowledge of original languages with rational, coherent thought and scholarly legitimacy.

Wendy O’Flaherty, although an exceptional researcher and writer, in part falls into this legitimacy trap. In the Introduction to her translation of the Rig Veda O’Flaherty writes:

This is a book for people, not for scholars. Real scholars will read the Sanskrit; would-be scholars, or scholars from other fields, will fight their way through the translations of Geldner (German), Renou (French), Elizarenkova (Russian) and others; they will search the journals for articles on each verse, and on each word; they will pore over the dictionaries and concordances (Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda, London: Penguin, 1981, p. 11).

And in footnote:

See appendix 3 for a bibliography of translations into European languages (Ibid).

While O’Flaherty lists noteworthy Asian commentators and Asian translators who render the Veda into European languages, interestingly enough, no mention is made of translations into contemporary Asian languages like Japanese, Korean or Mandarin.

She says the European translations are intended to encourage the “would-be scholar to make a better guess” than her own “educated guess on several problematic points” arrived at “by using the available scholarship” (Ibid., p. 12).

Does O’Flaherty contradict herself by elevating the ability of so-called “real scholars” while conceding that knowledge of an original language does not guarantee “correct” understanding?

If knowledge of original languages did guarantee correct understanding, the meanings of specific words and phrases in most ancient texts would not be continually debated and re-translated. By way of example, there’s no need to try to figure out what Sir Isaac Newton was trying to say with his three laws of motion, because we all get it. Ancient words and phrases, however, are continually being reinterpreted by self-proclaimed experts on the basis of new archeological findings, shifting academic approaches and societal changes.

With the exception of O’Flaherty and a handful of others, most translators go to great lengths to try to justify their particular rendering of problematic terms. They attempt to convince the reader that their ability to discern original meanings is as strong or stronger than all the other ‘specialists.’

And not only that. Many scholars push narrow-minded or far-fetched claims to make their translation of certain terms conform to their own point of view. In short, linguists and translators can disagree quite dramatically. These conflicted meanings arguably arise partly from incompetence, ignorance, ambition, and opinionated or wishful thinking.

Translation is clearly subject to human bias. Even with concerted and informed attempts to offer accurate translations, it’s doubtful that these biases may be eradicated. And even if translators could go through a time machine and be present when the ancient texts were actually written, the central obstacle to a precise and exact understanding of certain terms would persist: The translators themselves did not write the original text.

It seems safe to say that one can, in most instances, never fully understand another person’s mode of thinking and intent. To complicate things, consider contemporary English literature about which English-speaking scholars produce seemingly endless commentaries about the actual or “intended” meanings of certain English words and symbols. These intense debates occur within the very same language as that of the original texts.

Here, the student of religion may argue that religious texts differ from fiction because the former refer to fixed, unalterable truths. But this claim is complicated by the fact that the meaning of some religious terms change over time-such as angel and asura.

Moreover, the religious believer could say they have an advantage over regimented scholars because they possess higher forms of perception-that is, the alleged true meaning of a term is revealed or infused by God, even when reading that term in translation.

The scholar of religion cannot really prove or disprove such a claim. But scholars do point out that many apparently ‘revealed truths’ among believers often seem to contradict one another.

Meanwhile, several postmodern writers intentionally write texts with open-ended, ambiguous meanings. This creates, they say, a living dialogue between writer and reader instead of a dead monologue from writer to reader. The result, they seem to believe, is a ‘literary novel’ of higher value than say, ‘trashy pulp fiction.’ But arbitrary distinctions like this can become ingrained among literary circles, and are often loaded with unsavory, elitist connotations.

Another point to consider is that some believe that writers, themselves, may not be fully aware of their own intended meanings. And this is the underlying basis to a psychoanalytic approach to literature.

Clearly, scholars can and do produce insightful works without much knowledge of original languages. A good example would be John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (1993). Kerr openly admits to drawing upon the work of several translators. And perhaps this is a stronger method than merely relying on one’s own particular and possibly idiosyncratic translation of original texts.

Related Posts » Advertising, Anthropology, Aramaic, Burrows (William S.), Derrida (Jacques), Hebrew, Latin, Lévi-Strauss (Claude), Linguistics, McLuhan (Marshall), Mead (George Herbert), Nietzsche (Friedrich), Pali, Representation, Rosetta Stone, Ryle (Gilbert), Sanskrit, Saussure (Ferdinand de), Scholarship, Universalism, Wittgenstein (Ludwig), Zeno


One comment

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