Monday, May 11, 2009

The Upanisads, translated and introduced by V.J.Roebuck, reviewed by Moinak Dutta

The Upanisads, translated and introduced by Valerie J. Roebuck, is indeed a unique publication by Penguin India as a part of its Penguin India Classics project. It is not that for the first time The Upanisads are translated from Sanskrit. The author herself has made quite a few references of earlier efforts like that of Patrick Olivelle. So where does Ms Roebuck score over other similar efforts? Well, principally in her empathetic vision towards the Sanskrit texts-the thirteen texts which form the basis of the Hindu Religion.

Her own experience as a teacher of Indian Religious traditions came in handy as the translator. She never lost her sight of the basic idea of her job as a translator. She always stuck to the originality, ambiguity, perplexity and dichotomy of Sanskrit words and phrases. She even declared with sufficient candidness that certain words like ‘upasana’ are ‘untranslatable…combining the ideas of meditation, worship and contemplation’ (page xx, introduction). She is always aware of the inadequacy or limitations of any translation work. She is also conscious of the fact that while explaining certain ideas presented in the Upanisads, she should avoid the temptation of ‘explaining away’, which many translators, knowingly or unknowingly do.

Many translators tend to interpolate the translation with their own convictions or ideas. In case of this book, one will find an austere practice of restricting oneself to the base i.e.; the Sanskrit text. Yet the readers will be amused by the flexibility, erudition and simplicity of the whole approach. Ms Roebuck has showed her ingenuity and brilliance in presenting before readers, unfamiliar with Sanskrit texts, a complete, accurate and readable version of a kind of vedic literature which distinctly belongs to the tradition of ‘Sruti’. The tradition of ‘Sruti’ of the Upanisads, is never violated. So we come across several uses of ‘This’ and ‘That’ in the work, indicating directions much like that is done in any kind of ‘oral’ literature (a classic example of that could be found in page11 of ‘Brhadaranyaka Upanisad’ where Death was divided into three). She has effectively rendered a translation of the religious text preserving all of its originality-specially the conversational quality.

Another important aspect of the book is the author’s eagerness to represent the flavour of rhyme and rhythm. She keeps 3x8 syllable form while translating the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ to preserve the rhyme and symbolism attached to it. She has included the invocations that begin and end each Upanisad in traditional recitation so as to keep the spirit of the original texts alive.

‘The Introduction’ chapter not only lays down the basic aims and objectives of the book, it also serves as a good indicator of the translator’s free and frank nature to explain complex ideas into easily comprehensible forms. She has discussed quite a few ambiguities in ‘The Introduction’, like those concerning ‘brahman’ and ‘Brahma’; ‘atman’ and the ‘self’; ‘purusa’ and the ‘body’; etc;

She has provided copious notes and footnotes to each and every word, phrase or idea presented in the book so that the readers, unfamiliar with the basic tenets of hindu philosophy or religion or for that matter vedic literature, will find no hassles in understanding ‘The Upanisads’. The bibliography provided at the end of the book can also serve as a good reference and resource material to anyone interested in the ‘Upanisads’-one of the most revered and profound woks of literature of human civilization.

Discover more about The Upanisads here.

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