Sunday, July 6, 2008

The First English Translation of the Gita

In this blog I will refer primarily to Charles Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagavad-gita, published in 1785 and titled The Bhagvat-Geeta. His was the first English translation, and he is said to have been the first English speaking person to master the Sanskrit language. According to Wikipedia, Wilkins studied Sanskrit at Varanasi under a Brahmin pandit named Kalinatha. Perhaps Kalinatha is the pandit whom Wilkins, writing in his introduction, states he consulted in translating Bhagvat-Geeta.

Also in his introduction, Wilkins requests the reader to “have the liberality to excuse the obscurity of many passages, and the confusion of sentiments which runs through the whole, in its present form.” Wilkins’s translation overall is actually very good. For the work of one pioneering the translation of Sanskrit into English it is remarkably well conceived and communicated. Of course, as he acknowledges, he did consult others. The final result is his, though, and he renders it as a work of meaning, rather than as an academic exercise.

This is not to say, however, that there are no areas where his struggle to make meaning comes up short. There are some. To give a simple example that is readily at hand, Wilkins translates verse 22 in chapter 5 as: “The enjoyments which proceed from the feelings are as the wombs of future pain. The wise man, who is acquainted with the beginning and the end of things, delighteth not in these.” The Sanskrit includes words for “beginning” and “end,” and, as in all translation, the translator has to decide how to fit the words together in the new language. Wilkins presents the beginning and the end as subjects of knowledge of the wise man. Several later translations I have consulted all agree that the words refer not to the person’s knowledge, but to the temporality of enjoyments, which have a beginning and an end. The overall meaning is not much changed by this variance, however, as the message remains that one who is wise does not delight in sensuous enjoyments.

There are other passages that, in fact, are much more obscure, and I may have occasion in the future to locate and refer to them. Still, Wilkins’s translation stands as a solid presentation that has inspired many thinkers from the late 18th century well into the 19th century and beyond. As Henry David Thoreau, who took a copy of Wilkins’s translation of Bhagvat-Geeta with him to Walden Pond, wrote (in A Week on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers): “The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a higher, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagvat-Geeta.” Of course Thoreau was referring to the content of Krishna’s words, but it was through the medium of Wilkins’s translation that he received them.

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