Love Should Never Get Lost in Translation.

Via Catherine Ghosh
on Mar 29, 2012
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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.


About Catherine Ghosh

Catherine Ghosh is an artist, writer, mother of two sons and editor of Journey of the Heart: An Anthology of Spiritual Poetry by Women (Balboa Press, 2014). As a practitioner of bhakti yoga since 1986, she is co-founder of The Secret Yoga Institute with author and teacher Graham M. Schweig, Ph.D., her life partner. Catherine has been a contributing editor for Integral Yoga Magazine, and is a regular columnist for Mantra, Yoga + Health Magazine. Together with Braja Sorensen, she created the Yoga In The Gita series. Catherine is passionate about inspiring women to share their spiritual insights and honor their valuable voices on her Women's Spiritual Poetry site Journey of The Heart .. You may connect with her on FaceBook, or email her at [email protected] A lover of nature, she divides her time between her two homes in Northern Florida and Southern Virginia.


20 Responses to “Love Should Never Get Lost in Translation.”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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  3. Subhadra Hemphill says:

    This is an incredible description of language and communication that explains things in a way that I feel more capable of being further fully conscious in my life. But, I think it's safe to say that I cannot find the words to express my full appreciation for this article. I felt like I was "eating" your words up, although I am sure there is a better description of it in another language. I am inspired to delve into the Graham translation of the Gita, with full receptivity. Thanks for this wonderful look at such an important aspect of our daily life…communication.

  4. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
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  5. Thaddeus1 says:

    This is a simply wonderful explanation regarding the relevance and importance of the translations we choose to read of critical yogic texts. Thank you for this offering.

    Posting Elephant Bhakti. Be sure to Like Elephant Bhakti on Facebook.

  6. For a long time is wasn't clear to me why translators of the Gita found it necessary to disparage all other Gita translations in presenting their own.

    Then I suddenly realized, how else could you get the energy to painstakingly produce a new translation if you really believed that another that came before you was good?

    Not surprisingly, when the the next Sanskrit scholar, Georg Feuerstein, came out with his new translation of the Gita, he was equally critical of those that came before him. Most he considers as being way too biased toward one movement or another, in the case of Schwieg, toward Bhakti Yoga, for example.

    I have read both Schweig's version and Stephen Mitchell's version, which Catherine summarily dismisses above, many times over, and I love them both. I don't feel the need to choose one over the other.

    Mitchell doesn't need any defense from me. He anticipates the criticism and writes a detailed and persuasive defense of his background and methods in his own translation notes.

    I've actually had this debate several times as part of Gita Talk. I should probably pull together the best of all those debates and write a detailed rebuttal to Catherine's article.

    Her position would be a lot easier to defend if all the great Sanskrit scholars agreed on everything, which they of course don't. Far from it.

    But for now, let me say I'll buy Catherine's translator-as-lover analogy. But you have to take it to its logical conclusion and ask "How objective is a lover about his beloved?"

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
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    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  7. I strongly disagree with your opinion that ALL translators of the Gita "find it necessary" to disparage ALL other Gita translations. In fact, this is simply not the case. Of course, when seeking out a publisher, most agents will compare and contrast Gita presentations, as a matter of highlighting what UNIQUE elements the new presentation will deliver. Which, I feel, is very different than being critical of the work of others, in a negative sense.

    I also don't resonate with your view that the main fuel motivating new translators of the Gita is their belief that no translations presented preciously were any good! In fact, I personally, would be weary of any translator of the Gita who thinks that way.

    My article apparently misrepresented my position, Bob, in relation to new presentations of the Gita. I am quite fond of many versions of the Gita that preceded Grahams. And, incidentally, so is he! There's Zaehner, Van Buitenen, Muscaro, Patton, Tripurari, B. P. Tirtha Maharaja, B.V Narayan, etc. And yes, (unlike Graham) I even appreciate Mitchell's presentation as a "rendition", not as a "translation". (I try to make the distinction in my article, obviously unsuccessfully).

    I don't believe one has to be an expert Sanskrit scholar to offer a worthwhile perspective on the Gita. Otherwise I should stop writing my Gita Talk blogs!

    In this article I was simply trying to convey the unique role being intimate with a language (and its culture of origin) plays in translating a text. BUT, because texts like the Gita speak in a universal language, I don't feel it is CRITICAL to know Sanskrit, to offer a valuable rendition, as Mitchell's has proven itself to be to many readers.

    And, although it is true that Sanskrit scholars do not agree on everything, the simple points presented in my article are hardly any of the controversial ones debated about by renowned sanskritists. I simply felt that illuminating some of the unique characteristics of the Sanskrit language itself might be interesting to the readers here.

    I apologize if you felt the tone of my article was one of trying to promote Graham's translation over that of others. I was just trying to make a distinction between a translation and a rendition, or "version: as you say. In retrospect I see I did a poor job of that. It is interesting you feel the need to defend Mitchell, and experienced me as dismissing his version, when I wasn't.
    I hope, in doing so, you were not importing reactions from your past dealings with Graham, or even your own past with Catholicism. This is my voice and it is independent from all that. I hope you can reread it in that fresh context. Thank you so much for sharing you views.

  8. I am happy you appreciated it, Thaddeus. It is important to discern between translations and renditions. However, even renditions have something valuable to offer, as the Gita communicates to souls in this world in a language that transcends all others, including Sanskrit! I think i failed to make that point clear in my article! Thank you for sharing.

  9. Thank you Valerie.

  10. Yes, communication is indeed important and I feel my article failed to communicate the fact that even renditions of the Gita offered by people who do NOT study Sanskrit can be valuable, even as valuable as translations! Thank you for sharing Subhadra, and I am happy my article spoke to you.

  11. To make myself and my stance more clear, I added this at the end of the article (along with a few corrections thought the piece): ~"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."

  12. Hi, Catherine.

    You points are all well-taken, and so I will take them all to heart.

    It's true that there is a history on the issue of Mitchell that I'm bringing into this discussion, perhaps inappropriately.

    But even declaring Mitchell's translation a "rendition" is a pretty strong statement to make. By my standards, and as he describes with great clarity in his "About the Translation", it is most definitely a translation, not a rendition. But we can agree to disagree on that.

    I actually don't care about the labels. Having read long passages of Mitchell's and Schweig's versions side-by-side, to me they both convey the same meaning, whatever you want to call them.

    You know how much I love your writing. And I actually love this article, too, once I stop being defensive about Mitchell.

    Thank you for your thoughts.


  13. Catherine and I had a long e-mail exchange in which I apologized for being overly aggressive in my initial knee-jerk response above.

    It was Graham's Gita that I first fell in love with, that made perfect sense to me, after trying several others that just didn't hit the mark.

    I am deeply indebted to him for initiating my long love affair with the Bhagavad Gita.


  14. I greatly appreciate your willingness and ability to reconsider the tone and content of your initial comment and express yourself in a way that more accurately reflect your views of my writings, and specifically, of this article.

    I certainly did not think my article would put the head editor on the defensive, but that is a risk everyone who publishes takes: the reactions of the readers are always going to be beyond our control, and will sometimes be unpleasant.

    Ironically, my article is about trying to enter into the world of the other via a shared language. Your reactive comment has proven to me that even when two people speak the same language, they can still totally miss each other's points. I think this further peaks to my point about love. If we do not communicate with each other from a loving place in our hearts, we compromise the communications with all kind of imported baggage from our past, and then we get lost in the interpretation phase of things!

    Clear communications are those that require no translation, for the two people sharing the exchange are entering into it with love and compassion, and that love and compassion is a language of its own, which I feel the whole world needs to become more fluent in. :))

    Thank you for sharing, Bob, and for doing it from your heart, the second time around.

  15. Posted to Elephant Main Facebook Page, my Facebook page, Twitter, LinkedIn.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher

  16. […] Love Should Never Get Lost in Translation. […]

  17. […] a Gita translation that mirrors the words in the original Sanskrit text is the best way to access the original focal […]

  18. […] Who knew that love was a science, that it has a process, that it is the ultimate goal of life? There are so many cliched sayings about what love is. But the real question is, while we all want love, would we recognize it if we saw it? […]

  19. galenpearl says:

    Thank you for this helpful article! I love the intricacies of languages. I had the privilege of living in several countries and learning how the languages in those countries permeated the culture and world view of the people. I loved learning terms that that no direct translation in English. For example, just as the Sami people have so many words for snow, the Thai people have many more words in Thai for feelings than we do in English. Conducting negotiations across languages and cultures was a life education for me!