January 3, 2011

The Mind of a Loving Translator: Graham Schweig ~ Andrew Deitrick

I’m please to welcome Andrew Deitrick to Elephant for this guest article about Graham Schweig, whom many of you will recognize for his own highly successful guest appearances on Elephant as part of Gita Talk:
Graham Schweig’s Rapturous Vision of the Gita, and
Gita Talk #8: Special Guest Graham Schweig, which remains one of the five most commented blogs ever on Elephant Journal.

The Mind of a Loving Translator: Graham Schweig
by Andrew Deitrick

Waking from a lucid dream, Dr. Graham Schweig suddenly springs from his bed in a revelatory state. He quickly heads towards his study and rifles through the same pile of Sanskrit manuscripts that had just appeared in his dream. It was finally all so clear to the Sanskrit translator.

Still hours from sunrise, notably the most powerful time of day for the yogi, Schweig sits down and begins to put his dream into words. It was no time for sleep. Schweig had spent several months up to this point puzzled over the translation of the opening verse to the Dance of Divine Love, an ancient Sanskrit text found in India’s sacred Bhagavata Purana, but Schweig finally had a breakthrough to what he describes as the one of the richest pieces of text in all of history. Feeling quite euphoric, Schweig eventually chiseled out a flowing verse.

Even the beloved Lord,
seeing those nights
in autumn filled with
blooming jasmine flowers,
Turned his mind toward
love’s delight
fully taking refuge in
Yogamaya’s illusive powers.

While Schweig had previously written an acceptable translation of this Sanskrit verse, he wasn’t quite satisfied with the feeling of his English translation. His previous verse wasn’t covering the inherent meanings that he intuitively felt, or at least until he had this revelatory dream. It takes a conditioned expert to truly get to the bottom of these Sanskrit verses.

“The translations of the texts themselves,” Schweig says, “have embedded in them powerful resonances and nuanced meanings that often do not transfer into a simple english rendering.”

While scholars may be able to convey a basic understanding of the Sanskrit, the subtle philosophical and literary power may literally get lost in translation when read in english. While this isn’t always necessarily a drastic thing, it often does limit the emotions that come behind such a profound and powerful subject. After all, when dealing with sacred texts, especially Eastern religions, it is the feeling behind the text that matters, not the rationality of the words.

At age 13, Schweig began his journey with Indic studies.

“I don’t quite know how it all came together.” Schweig says, “all I know is that when I first heard about sacred sanskrit text, something kind of hit me. Why? I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve been developing a relationship ever since.” One of only a handful of fluent sanskrit scholars in America, Schweig takes particular interest in yoga philosophy.

Heading the Indic Studies department at Christopher Newport University, Schweig unlike many of his peers, and even students, doesn’t have a high-school degree. He doesn’t sweat this minor detail as Schweig holds three masters degrees to compliment his Harvard doctorate.

Schweig studied Interdisciplinary Studies at American University, later focusing on Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. While attending Chicago and Harvard, Schweig further pursued ancient Sanskrit.

After graduating, Schweig spent several years in India. With new experience in Indian culture and tradition, Schweig was drawn to publish translations of ancient Indic texts, the Bhagavad Gita and Dance of Divine Love. He is currently working on a translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. All of these works are filled with certain philosophies of Classical Yoga.

Schweig and other scholars have published dozens of individual translations and commentary of these texts into english, causing Western readers a bit of a problem when trying to pick out a translation. These translations are often comparable, but rarely do they really say the same things.

This type of misunderstanding is in part to blame for the wide and often misleading ranges of interpretations of yoga. The sacred subject is often even withered down to appear as if it is just a type of exercise, rather than a deep seeded philosophy. Fortunately, as often happens when things of this sort are watered-down, things eventually take root, grow and bloom.

Schweig travels to yoga conventions across the world, giving lectures on yoga philosophy. He has been witness to a change in consciousness in terms of western yoga, and believes its only a matter of time before more people catch on to the yoga philosophies. Schweig is aware however that this may take time, and notes it is a revelatory process in every sense. His publications are driven at bringing people to his understanding and feeling of the yoga philosophy.

“I don’t expect others to translate the way I do, because I don’t think they have the combination of things I do. Translation is more than just finding a word for that word. It is about recreating the ethos. It is translation of culture and ways of being. Translation is a very big issue, its about understanding.”

This translation of deep understanding, more so than the actual language, is the aim of Schweig’s work.

Schweig describes his contribution as, “Mining the jewels of subtle philosophical and literary power.” In other words, Schweig is looking to reveal the hidden bursts of emotions behind the poetic Sanskrit verses.

Having not finished his version of the Sutras of Patanjali, Schweig opts to use Edwin Bryant’s version of the text while teaching his Yoga Philosophy class at CNU. He respects Bryant’s work, especially his commentary on the subject, but Schweig feels the literal translations could be better.

“The habit of Western translators is to just kinda convey the basic information of these texts, when these text themselves are meditations,” Schweig says. I sat down with Schweig to discuss the differences in translations, and how one comes to a specific meaning. Let us look at the second text of the opening sutra, where the original sanskrit reads, yogas citta-vrtti-nirodha.

Bryant translates this in his version of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as, “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.” A simple understanding of the verse, Bryant then has several hundred words expanding on how he arrived at this translation.

Schweig translates the same text in a much different way and leaves out commentary. It is his intention to let the subject present itself to the reader, rather than the other way around. He describes the following clip as the fundamental text for understanding the concept of yoga. Schweig then walked me  through his interpretation, and how he arrived at such a conclusion.

Yogas citta-vrtti-nirodha is the second text of the first chapter in Patanjali’s Sutras. Schweig’s verse follows:

Yoga is the turning of consciousness
as it is uprooted [from its conditioned state] and as it is expanding deeply [within its pure state]. [1.2]

From left to right, yogas is a cognate meaning yoga. Next, citta is typically translated as mind (as Bryant’s text shows), but Schweig suggests citta relates more so to consciousness, or a pure state of being. He says the more appropriate word for mind, which is also a cognate, would be manas. So citta, when placed after the word vrtti, which means “to turn,” is translated as “the turning of consciousness.” Nirodha, the last word of the text, essentially means “uprooted.”

As the last word, nirodha acts upon the previous words, yogas citta-vrtti. In other words, yoga, which is the turning consciousness (citta-vrtti), is being uprooted. While a logistical definition would stop here, Schweig continues with another line, because he interprets nirodha with a “double meaning.”

“Yoga is not just an uprooting process,” Scwheig says, “it is about growing.” He translates this in the final line of the text, “as it is expanding deeply [within its pure state].”

“This is where my translation gets radical,” Schweig says. “No one understands that second meaning in that text…but yoga goes beyond the stilling mind.”

If this text were in a sense the definition of yoga, Schweig feels it shouldn’t stop with uprooting or stillness, because yoga is about going beyond the stillness.

“There are nuances of meaning that are just symphonic, and you have to get it all in there,” Schweig says. “A good translator is like someone conducting an orchestra. You have to get all the instruments playing just right.”

Alexander Woods, a student in Schweig’s Yoga Philosophy class, has explored the sutras and a variety of India’s sacred texts. He defines yoga as “the paradoxical practice of union with Divine, Ultimate, and Absolute Reality.” Woods was drawn to yoga after familiarizing himself with “quantum gravity”. For Woods, Yoga is about expanding individual consciousness.

I had a chance to discuss the different sutra translations with Woods. We started by taking the first and second texts in the third sutra, where I had Woods read Bryant’s texts first:

Concentration is the fixing of the mind in one place [3.1].

Meditation is the onepointedness of the mind on one image[3.2].

As someone who has a deep understanding and appreciation for both literature, and yoga, Alex couldn’t help but to smile after reading the verse. “I like it,” he said. “I like it a lot.”

I then handed him a copy of Schweig’s translation for the same texts. It reads:

A specific place or point,
and the binding of thought to it—-
this is [known as] “concentration,” or Dharana. [3.1]

From there, that state in which
the ebb-and-flow [of thought] becomes
a continuous movement toward one object only—-
this is [known as] “meditation,” or Dhyåna. [3.2]

In a much more serene and reflective state this time, Woods said, “I like this too.” He refused to call one better than the other, as he insisted simply that the translations were just “different.”

“Schweig’s translations,” he mentioned, “takes me on a deeper journey than the other, which is good. But it doesn’t make it better than the other, because I think someone may understand it better from Bryant’s work. And after all, its more than what you think about it, its how you feel about it.”

Woods explained how one who was unfamiliar with the extensive depths of the subject would benefit first by reading Bryant’s work, as if a prerequisite for Schweig’s translation.

After looking back over the two verses, Woods laughed, shouting in revelation, “they actually work better when they are together.” I couldn’t help to agree with him, after he read Bryant’s translation and followed it with Schweig’s.

“Concentration is the fixing of mind in one place. A specific place or point, and the binding of thought to it. This is Dharana.” It seemed to make sense. Moving on, Woods read the different 3.2 texts order, “Meditation is the one-pointedness of the mind on one image. From there, that state in which the ebb-and-flow of mind becomes a continuous movement towards one object only. This is Dhyana.”

After reading this, Woods couldn’t help but insist that this type of union and feeling is what yoga is all about.” He turned the page to the next text, the text describing Samadhi, or the ultimate stage of yoga.

He read the two together again. “Samadhi is when that same Dhyana shines forth as the object alone and is devoid of its own nature,” switching to Schweig’s Woods continued. “On only that particular object and its appearance does the Yogi meditate, when the essential nature of the Yogi is utterly empty. This is known as the state of total absorption in the very object of meditation, or Samadhi.”

Still unable to choose one translation over the other, Woods again prefers them as together as one. “The feeling is best to me, when they come together,” Woods said, “and that is what matters.”

So from here, maybe it is best to find our own translations for the yoga philosophies while we wait for Schweig’s next publication to come out. After all, its all supposed to be inherently within each of us to begin with. It just takes time, and with that, special consideration for the subject at hand. So if you’re struggling to find a definition of yoga, or the appropriate translation for your text, look no further than what is inside yourself.

Schweig says, “We do yoga, but actually, yoga is kind of doing something to us. As we become more aware of that, we allow yoga to act on us, and we recognize the greater purpose.”

Andrew Deitrick is new to the blogging world and writes about yoga, philosophy and mindfulness at morethanastretch.com. He is interested in digital media and connecting with other similar-minded people, as well as writing, pilgrimage and breathing deeply. Come spring-time, Andrew will hold bachelor’s degrees in both Journalism and Religious Studies, and will be pursuing graduate work in Advaita Vedanta.

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