With Respect for the Reader, the Translator and the Text

by Zoë Slatoff

I find myself troubled lately by how frequently verses are quoted on-line without proper citation. Often I read - “The Bhagavad Gītā says,” or “[quote] the Yoga Sūtras.” But the truth is, if it's in English, none of these ancient texts “said” it. It is someone else's translation and interpretation. That being the case, it is important to acknowledge that person, both for their credit and also for the reader to understand the subjectivity involved in what they are reading. Sometimes, a verse is quoted with no citation at all, just a verse and translation.

Ironically, in an attempt to share these verses, the texts and those who have spent considerable time contemplating them are not given the respect they deserve. If a verse is not attributed, it appears that either the text was written in English or that the person sharing it did the translation. And perhaps most importantly, without proper citation, the verse is completely without context, floating in space, which can easily lead to misinterpretation.

It is also important to cite not only the text, but also the chapter and verse or sūtra number, as with any other book. This allows the reader the opportunity to engage with the verse and to find and explore the rest of the text themselves, if they choose. It may inspire readers to look further, to study Sanskrit and try to read the texts themselves.           

Translations can vary so greatly, even among scholars. This is why there are so many for important texts. Although the differences may appear subtle, each translator makes their choices for a reason. A translator grapples with every word, in order to try to discover the best representation of the original. Some translations are more literal than others, some more poetic. The beauty of translation is the many subtleties involved and the various shades of possibility. An understanding of Sanskrit, even on a basic level, can help you to appreciate these choices.