Be wary of English translations of Hindu Sheena Patel Hindu Voice UK, December 2007
There is an old story about how a computer, programmed to translate from English to Russian and back, rendered the phrase "The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak" into "The Vodka was strong, but the meat was bad.
A similar phenomenon occurred when European scholars made their first translations of Hindu shastras into English in the 19th century. Unfortunately, it is often the translations of such European scholars which form some of the most readily available collections on Hindu scriptures. Examples of such translators include Max Muller, Ralph Griffith, Monier William and H. H. Wilson. Although they played a role in the pursuit of English translations of Sanksrit works, they were relatively new to Sanskrit and without a background in the ideas of the Vedic era, for them to set out to translate the large and complex works of the Vedic age is an exercise bound to fail. It is comparable to a person trying to interpret a physics paper without a grounding in the basic concepts, but just having learnt the language. In addition to the difficulty inherent in trying to interpret early Sanskrit of thousands of years ago by people who had only just discovered the language, some of these scholars (with a handful of honorable exceptions) also projected their own worldview, biases and agenda into their translation. For example, in the 19th century a racialist view of history was in vogue, whereby history was a product of constant invasions and subjugation of one race by another. Therefore, it was automatically assumed that anything sounding vaguely like a conflict in the Vedas was a race war between an invading European-like horde (Aryans) versus darker Dravidians, even if there was no objective evidence that this was the case. Unfortunately, because of the greater prestige attached to European scholarship in the humanities compared with Indian scholarship, these translations have achieved an aura of authority. Unfortunately large sections of English speaking Hindus ended up learning Hinduism through their translations. Better English translations of Hindu scriptures have been written by Hindu yogis and scholars, such as Sri Aurobindo, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Chinmayananda, amongst others. These translations are often difficult to get hold of, and are quite difficult to read due to the style of English used – but are very rewarding and enlightening for the more serious reader who has got what it takes to persevere through the early stages. Recently, the Bhagavad Gita has been extensively translated into English, and a number of excellent translations and commentaries exist – although there are also a few of dubious quality. Other recommended ways of starting learning about Hinduism are the beginners books on Hinduism by David Frawley (“Hinduism: The Eternal Tradition,” available to read online) and Linda Johnson (“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism”), both of which are written by non-Hindus who have embraced Hindu dharma, and have many references for further reading which you may wish to investigate. Hindu Wisdom (formerly known as ‘A Tribute to Hinduism’) is a great site on Hinduism and you may also want to browse through the Culture, Spirituality & Lifestyle archives of Hindu Voice UK, which are filled with articles on a huge range of subjects relating to Hindu spirituality.