Saturday, April 29, 2017

Determining the Universe of Discourse: The Prerequisite of Meaningful Translation

The natural protocol within the scholarly community when it comes to translating key terms of passages (in any source language e.g. Sanskrit, Assamese) is first to associate them with their commonly held meanings and then proceed to replace them with their most appropriate English (or target language) equivalents. And this is how it should be because in no other way can we be assured of the fidelity of the translation. The resulting translation is very faithful and literal.
But if our primary obsession is not with the literal meaning of the words but rather with the meaning that their authors wished them to convey—or, rather, really wished them to convey—then there would be an additional layer of protocol that a translator would need to incorporate. Before associating them with their commonly held meanings, the translator must seek to identify the universe of discourse. He must know which universe to enter. In no other field perhaps this extended protocol applies with so much imperativeness as in the field of Puranic literature. No other field is so cryptic, no other so coded. Unless the translator—and here, we talk about the seeker of meaning rather than the literal translator—succeeds at the outset in determining the sense in which a term (or a set of words) is being used, he will never be able to grasp. Proceeding straightway to associating the terms with their common meanings would not be okay because there is no guarantee that these meanings would be in line with their implied meanings. Even the scholars of former times may have committed the same mistake. Therefore, before a real translation that lays bare the real meaning of words takes place, one must expend time and energy—and from personal experience, I would say that this can be considerable— in trying to determine the universe of discourse. The real translator must be ready to do this; otherwise, the translation may only be literal but bereft of meaning.

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