Photo: Mark Singleton ©Christopher A. Quinn, 2010. Art Direction: The Magazine of Yoga
Translations, Belief Frameworks
and Modern Yoga Practice
The author of Yoga Body takes a break from his new book, a translation of the Vivekamartanda, to talk.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Mark Singleton is one of the most valuable, vocal and articulate advocates for yoga practitioners and yoga scholars to put aside their differences and engage the questions that bear upon their shared interests. His writing and teaching provide a bridge between the concerns of academia and those of practice.
Singleton is a gracious intelligence in conversation, by turns erudite and quietly witty, and as you will find in the course of our extensive interview, a generous and thoughtful scholar.
Susan Maier-Moul Since it’s a core concept for understanding the challenges of translation, could you begin with a working definition of a “belief framework”?
Mark Singleton A belief framework is a set of personal, social or cultural assumptions that a person uses to encounter and to “read” the world. It includes religious belief, but more generally refers to dominant expectations about the way things are.
We all work within belief frameworks, and the way we view the world is conditioned, to a large extent, by them. There is a sense in which the world is composed of signs: each one will have a particular resonance, and a particular meaning, according to the set of belief frameworks that the individual brings to it. We are constantly called upon to interpret these signs, whether we’re reading email, buying lunch or crossing the street.
Belief frameworks make shared understanding possible. They are how we communicate and make sense of each other and the world. But they also limit the extent of our understanding. This becomes particularly clear when we look at inter-cultural prejudice, where one group (usually the economically or socially dominant one) rejects the values and beliefs of the other as irrational, contemptible and so on.
Susan In other words, it’s not just one belief, and not just our ideas about one kind of thing. Our thoughts influence each other even when they’re about different things. A framework is how we put the world together, how from our own perspective we make sense of the world.
Frameworks and translation
Susan How is a framework affected by the act of translation from one language, culture and time to another?
Mark An example of this are early attitudes towards yoga in colonial India. For the colonials, yogis were often taken to be the emblem of everything that was backward and wrong in Indian life. Their practices were scorned, and they themselves were often presented as little more than superstitious idiots. Tantric forms of yoga came in for especially harsh censure, because it was believed that they were idolatrous or even Satanic.
The people holding such views were, generally, British-educated Christians, who brought a very specific set of beliefs to bear on their encounter with India. They had a particular way of reading the world which told them everything they thought they needed to know about yoga and tantra. This gives us an important insight into the way belief frameworks function: they give us a coherent, consistent and internally complete way to “read” the world, which we then assume to be the single correct version of “reality”.
It is very hard to live outside of belief frameworks. One way to glimpse beyond one’s particular world view is to immerse oneself in the language and customs of another culture. But this is also a complex and fraught procedure.
Early Western scholars tended, inevitably, to selectively interpret the textual canon of India according to their prior knowledge and training. That meant seeking out those texts which accorded with the philosophy and religious tastes of the time.
So, for instance, tantric texts were downplayed in favour of works which could be more easily made to conform to predominant ideas about the human soul in relation to God, or to ideas from modern European philosophy.
Political and cultural uses of translation
Susan It sounds like there’s already both tension and stability in the belief framework of the person who is doing the translating. That person’s belief framework is influenced by or reactive to the belief framework that forms the situation of the text in its original language, time and culture. And that situation is also not in isolation, it’s in flux. This is all happening on several levels at once – personal and cultural and historical.
That’s complex! Can you give an example?
Mark Many nineteenth century English translations of Sanskrit texts were not only interpreted through a very particular moral, religious and philosophical lens, they were often explicitly conceived as ways to teach Hindus about the real truths of Christianity and “classical” thought.
High-profile scholars (such as Monier-Williams) were often outspoken about the need to educate Indians on these matters, and translations were commonly slanted to this end. In fact, the first English translation of the Yoga Sutras, by J. R. Ballantyne in 1852, was part of a project of “constructive orientalism”, through which Hindus could be inducted into European traditions of thought by reading their own “philosophical” texts in translation.
I write about this and other early translations of the Yoga Sutras in the book Yoga in the Modern World, edited by myself and Jean Byrne.
Reading these early translations from a twenty-first century perspective, one is struck by their strangeness, and their agendas are often quite clear to see. This is because the language and the system of thought that was habitual for nineteenth-century scholars of religion (whether Westerners or English-speaking Indians) has become foreign to us, so we are easily able to point to those parts that are jarring or (to our eyes) just wrong.
A translation may feel more right yet not be more true
Susan What about our translations today? Are current translations better or any closer to the truth?
Mark An interesting project would be to compare these early translations with the many translations of the Yoga Sutras published in the last ten years, to see how ideas have changed. What is certain is that these later translations will be much more palatable to modern audiences, and will feel more “natural” and “right”.
However, this does not mean that these modern translations are necessarily more correct or accurate. Rather, they accord more closely with our particular belief frameworks, and therefore seem right in a way that those Victorian curios do not.
But seeming right is not necessarily an indicator of truth. Nor do we have to presume some kind of sinister ideological agenda to understand that modern translations bear the same traces of their time as their nineteenth century predecessors.
Susan Are we savvier about being subject to our beliefs and projections? Are our translations less destructive or distorting?
Mark In another 150 years, many of these translations will probably also seem odd and dated. For instance, some of our contemporary translations of the Yoga Sutras are deeply informed by Western psychological understanding of the individual, turning the text into a kind of psychotherapy manual.
Another attempts to read it through the belief frameworks of the modern Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON). Still others understand it as a humanistic project, or as an expression of New Age philosophy, and so on. All of these versions represent particularly modern ways of reading, and are marked departures from pre-modern commentary on the same text.
Yohanan Grinshpon, in his wonderful book Silence Unheard (2002) has identified eight predominant modes of reading the Yoga Sutras in modern times: The Complacent Outsider, the Ultimate Insider, the Romantic Seeker, the Universal Philosopher, the Bodily Practitioner, the Mere Philologist, the Classical Scholar and the Observers’ Observer. We could certainly identify a few more, but the point is that each one represents the way particular belief frameworks alter the meaning of the text in translation.
What about the “actual meaning” or “literal meaning”?
Susan So how can we best get to the actual meaning of the text?
Mark Well, in some respects the “actual meaning” is never directly accessible.
It’s not that texts like the Yoga Sutras are a kind of Rorschach blot that we can read whatever we like into. But the text itself can only be understood through its differing contexts, whether these be the vast orthodox tradition of Hindu commentary, the philological studies of academics, or the popular versions aimed at non-specialist yoga practitioners.
While there is no privileged access to “actual meaning”, prior to the work of interpretation, there are certain ways to assure greater fidelity to the text in translation.
Susan Clearly there’s more to getting a sound and reliable translation than knowing a lot of vocabulary. Is there something about language itself, though, that makes translation a challenge?
Mark In order to read and translate responsibly, there must be a critical reflection of language upon itself. That’s to say, one has to be aware not only of the text, but also the con-text (literally, that which is around the text). There are always explicit and implicit meanings informing and inhabiting a particular translation, or a particular commentary: sensitivity to these is essential to responsible reading and translation.
Susan So whether we like it or not, there’s no such thing as a literal translation?
Mark There is no such thing as “literal translation”.
Every word, in any language and in every text, exists in a dynamic relationship with other words around it. It is not really desirable to isolate key words (like svadhyāya, maitrī, samādhi etc.), look them up in the dictionary and believe one has got to the bottom of their meanings.
As any language learner knows, this is actually the best way to get a translation thoroughly confused and wrong.
Words amplify and change their meaning according to the other words around them. Phrases amplify and change their meaning according to the other phrases around them. And paragraphs change their meaning according to the other paragraphs around them.
A good translation is one that is aware of these contexts within and around the text in question, and self-critical with regard to the particular choices that are available to the translator.
Three distinctions of context
Susan When you and I have talked about translation, you’ve emphasized certain aspects context as distinctively key to really getting into and grappling with meaning.
Could you say more about that? What do you mean when you say “contexts around the text”?
Mark When I say “contexts around the text”, I mean at least three things:
1) the philosophical or religious teachings that inform and subtend the text in question, such as the influence of the samkhya and Buddhism on the Yoga Sutras;
2) the tradition of commentary pertaining to that particular text, such the early commentaries by Vyasa, Vacaspati Mishra, King Bhoja et al on the Yoga Sutras.
3) the political, religious and historical factors that shape the translator/editor’s version of the text, such as Ballantyne’s “constructive orientalist” project, or the reading of the text through the belief framework of a modern sectarian organization like ISKCON.
Not only do we not have direct access to “actual meaning” in word-to-word translation—we are also swayed and guided in our reading by these external contexts. The modern context is particularly important to understand.
Susan Modern context – by that do you mean in spite of “global culture” we shouldn’t think words – especially words that designate concepts – mean the same in different places or in different times?
Mark As readers and practitioners of yoga in the modern world, we are primed to understand certain concepts in particular ways. Often these ways depart very significantly from their “original” or “traditional” sense.
By understanding how we are traversed and constructed by cultural and historical stories about the world, we can open up far richer avenues of meaning within our yoga practice. Especially when we combine this with a study of the other two contexts (the philosophical framework around the text and the traditional commentaries).
The study of texts that are foreign to our belief frameworks is valuable. It helps us to see the differences between our world views and those of different places and different times. In this way it can help knock off the edges of our prejudice and limitations. As well as differences, it can also help us to see the common humanity between ourselves and other cultures.
In what sense are yoga postures translations? Tomorrow, Mark Singleton answers the question, “How does all this relate to practice?” Join Mark and Susan as they talk about yoga postures when our conversation continues.
Mark Singleton teaches at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He is the author of Yoga Body, the Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010), and the co-editor of Yoga in the Modern World, Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge 2008). He is currently translating an early hatha yoga text, the Vivekamartanda.
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