Devanagari alphabet

In translation again

There’s a lot of interesting research into the effects of language acquisition on the brain, but at the risk of misrepresenting a whole field of study, what we have experienced, what we are able to say and what we are able to think are all quite closely related. Anyone fluent in more than one language knows that there are concepts that don’t easily translate from one language to another. And the history of many oppressed peoples has included restricting access to language, from punishing children for speaking their first language to restricting the learning of languages to certain classes of people.

The languages of many colonised people were repressed in this way, as well as many sign language systems for Deaf people. Access to elite knowledge in many countries was restricted by a lack of literacy in specific elite languages in which that knowledge was preserved. British English, for example, is a hybrid of many languages, but we can trace the influence of class politics in its vocabulary, grammar and accents. English still bears the scars of Saxon oppression by Norman lords – whether you used a Norman or a Saxon word for bovines depended on whether you were eating it (beef) or raising it (cow). The translation of the Bible from Latin to vernacular English was a revolutionary act as contentious as the later widespread printing of the same. In both cases, working class people could directly access and thus debate this religious text that shaped their culture, laws, ethics and social norms for the first time.

The not-so-hidden restrictive context of yoga is of course in the use of Sanskrit. Some traditionalists will tell you that learning at least little Sanskrit will make your practice more authentic. Some go further and say that not doing so is an act of appropriation. There are a few issues with this idea.

Firstly, learning Sanskrit has never been a democratic pursuit. It was restricted to the highest classes and the most priestly of castes for most of its history. As a result, a study of South Asian religious culture that confines itself to Sanskrit sources is likely to represent only the male, Brahminical minority. No researcher would deny the primacy of Sanskrit for understanding yoga, but there are other sources for yoga practice and thought in Pali, in Hindi, in Persian, and more, and each of them are adding its own flavour to the rich picture that philologists are constructing of pre-modern yoga in South Asia.

Secondly, a little Sanskrit does not, in fact, go a long way. Learning how to correctly pronounce sounds of Sanskrit doesn’t give you much insight into this complex, intricate language, and the vast historical context in which it was situated. Nothing in translation is ever simple, neutral or easy.

Any translation is an act of transformation. It has long been fashionable for prominent yoga thinkers and gurus to write a ‘translation’ of Patanjali’s sutras or the Bhagavad Gita. Many of those writers were not fluent in Sanskrit themselves. All of them made deliberate and specific choices to update not just the terms used, but the principles behind them. Thus hardly anyone translates ‘brahmacharya’ as celibacy any more. It is reinterpreted as moderation of life force or sexual responsibility, or even chastity, depending on one’s ideals of sexual morality. Non-attachment sometimes gets transformed into awareness of abundance or self-possession, depending on your view of the ethics of personal possessions. What used to be translated as surrender to ‘the Lord’ (itself a problematic translation of the original Sanskrit) becomes dedication to the divine, or even simply commitment, depending on your personal ontology or beliefs.

Some of these re-interpretations will really annoy linguistic scholars of Sanskrit. But rightly or wrongly these transformations from the Sanskrit enable contemporary practitioners to situate themselves in alignment with something ancient, while affording them the space to become something new. And that has always been an implicit factor in any translation, in any historical context different from the one in which the sutras were written.

But language knowledge shapes modern yoga in other ways too. Most notably, your access to the modern teachings of yoga – whether it be new scientific theories about the nervous system, or newly published historical research – is warped by your proximity to global English.

Put simply, what you know about yoga culture today is shaped by whether or not you or your teachers can read English, not Sanskrit. And whether your own writings and teachings on yoga have an impact on global culture is also dependent on whether you write or have been translated into English. This is true if your first language is South Asian, or South American, or Eastern European or East Asian.

More disturbingly, there are numerous disgraced charismatic yoga teachers who have been able to continue teaching by simply moving to non-English speaking countries, and other oppressive yoga groups who have chapters in multiple non-English speaking settings, knowing that few people will notice that their ethical transgressions form part of a systemic and deliberate pattern. Students have been abused in contexts where they didn’t speak the local language and thus failed to get help or redress. Other students who don’t speak English have watched charismatic local teachers gain success in global contexts without being able to speak of their early abusive behaviour.

It\’s so much easier to reinvent yourself when the people who know about your shady dealings don’t speak the same language or have the same cultural context as the country where you’re heading.

All this is to say that translation is as important as it is difficult. It is painstaking work, and often undervalued and misunderstood. Paying attention to the detail of translation choices can reveal the hidden intentions behind the latest copy of the Gita on your bookshelf. Noticing who has access to knowledge and who doesn’t by way of language demonstrates the historical and contemporary structuring of power through discourse. Translating yoga texts and yoga news from one context to another might not save the world, but it might help us all be a little better informed. Understanding who gets to be part of a debate and who gets left out, is always political.

I have had the pleasure of being approached a couple of times by someone willing to translate my work, most recently in Spanish. So let me say here: if you are willing to do the labour of translating my work into another language, I will always do what I can to get you the permission to do so. I probably can’t get you paid because it’s hard enough getting paid as the original author, but anything we can do to democratise our discourse needs to be supported. I’m sure most writers will agree. And for those of you joining courses and reading books and attending lectures in English as a second or third language, I salute you. I know how hard that is. And may we all remember, as Hélène Cixous wrote:

Fais que ta langue te reste étrangère.

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