Lost And Failed In Translation: Audrey Truschke
Audrey Truschke’s attempts to mislead and distort could have well been deliberate, with the objective of provoking her ideological opponents.
(With a poetics’ perspective by Shankar Rajaraman)
Audrey Truschke, assistant professor of South Asian History (and not Sanskrit) at Rutgers University-Newark, recently made, by her own admission, some “controversial comments” on Twitter. Callously and haphazardly tweeting what she initially claimed was a “loose translation” and later called a “failed translation”, she wrote:
in Valmiki's telling (I'm loosely translating here): During the agnipariksha, Sita basically tells Rama he’s a misogynist pig and uncouth.
When pressed for the source, Truschke pointed to the verses 5, 7, and 14 in the sarga (canto) 6.104, along with providing the complete translations (not by her but by Goldman, Goldman, and van Nooten) for the verses 5 to 16 in the sarga. In this article, I explain the verses with their context in some detail, in the process showing that what Truschke stated was not a loose or failed translation but a misleading distortion. I present Shankar Rajaraman’s insights from the perspective of poetics which further contradict the possibility of what Truschke claimed. Finally, I show how Truschke’s Sanskrit scholarship was conspicuous by its absence in the whole episode.
I. Verse 6.104.5
“O brave one! Why do you make me hear such improper words, harsh and hard on the ears, as an ordinary man [does] to an ordinary woman?”
The words ‘prākṛta’ and ‘prākṛtā’, whose inflected forms are used in the verse, literally mean “ordinary man” and “ordinary woman” as Goldman et al. note. The word ‘prākṛta’ can refer to both a low or inferior person and an ordinary human. Whichever sense one takes, what is clear is that Sītā questions why Rāma is speaking words which a ‘prākṛta’ man would speak to a ‘prākṛtā’ woman. Three Sanskrit commentators point out, as Goldman et al. note, that the purport of the verse is that the words are both improper for Rāma to speak and for Sītā to hear. The contention that Sītā calls Rāma ‘uncouth’ ignores this context and even the fact that the simile used by Sītā involves both a ‘prākṛta’ man and a ‘prākṛtā’ woman. The verse has a comparison which is intended to criticise an action, very different from an ad hominem criticism or attack which Truschke’s loose translation makes it to be.
II. Verse 6.104.7
“On account of the behaviour of ordinary (=low) women, you are [now] doubting womankind. Abandon this doubt if I am seen (known) well by you.”
Sanskrit commentaries provide additional insights. As per the ‘Bhūṣaṇa’, Sītā says this to suggest that she is not to be seen as just an ordinary woman.
The ‘Tilaka’ says that the word for womankind (‘jāti’) here means “even an extraordinary woman”. Both the ‘Tilaka’ and ‘Śiromani’ say that the essence of Sītā’s words is that the doubt is not proper. Satyatīrtha interprets the word for ordinary women (‘pṛthakstrīṇām’) as “of wanton or unrestrained women”. In addition, Satyatīrtha interprets future tense in the second half of the verse, explaining it as “If I were to be tested by you, then you will abandon this doubt”. Goldman et al. note that their translation follows the suggestion of ‘Bhūṣaṇa’ and Satyatīrtha’s commentary. It is worth pointing out that the second half of the translation by Goldman et al. (“if you really knew me, you would abandon your suspicion”) mixes the interpretation of ‘Bhūṣaṇa’, which interprets ‘parīkṣitā’ as the present perfect passive and ‘parityaja’ as the imperative (‘tyaja’), and the interpretation of Satyatīrtha, who interprets ‘parīkṣitā’ as the potential mood (‘parīkṣitā syām’) and ‘parityaja’ as the future tense (‘tyakṣasi’).
Doubt And Generalisation, Not Hatred/Contempt And Misogyny
Neither in the original verse, nor in the Sanskrit commentaries, is there any reference to hatred or contempt for women. The verbal form ‘ pariśaṅkase’ and the word ‘śaṅkāṃ’ come from the root ‘śaki’ (√‘śaṅk’), which per as the ‘Dhātupātha’ is used the meaning of ‘śaṅkā’. As per the ‘Vācaspatya’, ‘śaṅkā’ means “a fear or anxiety” (‘trāsa’), “a conjecture” (‘vitarka’), or “a doubt” (‘saṃśaya’). The common factor among these meanings is a sense of not being sure. The Hindi dictionary ‘Śabdasāgara’ states that ‘śaṅkā’ is a doubt whether something is true or not. The ‘Upasargārthacandrikā’ does not list the combination of the prefix ‘pari’ and the root ‘śaṅk’, suggesting that the prefix ‘pari’ does not modify the meaning of ‘śaṅk’ in a major way.
While √‘śaṅk’ refers to the act of having a neutral doubt regarding something being true or false, the word ‘suspicion’ is not as neutral. One of the meanings of ‘suspicion’ is “a feeling or belief that someone has committed a crime or done something wrong”. ‘Suspicion’ has negative connotations which ‘śaṅk’ does not. With this nuance in mind, the translation by Goldman et al., viz. “you harbor suspicion against all women …” (italics mine) is not very exact and has the potential of misleading naïve readers.
The verse has the sense of a generalisation: a doubt about women in general on account of the conduct of some, and not hatred or contempt, feelings associated with misogyny. A neutral doubt is different from a suspicion of wrongdoing and is very different from hatred or contempt.
The ‘lakāra’ in the word ‘pariśaṅkase’ is ‘laṭ lakāra’, used in Sanskrit for both an action happening right now (present continuous) and an action that happens regularly, occasionally, or always (present indefinite). The statement ‘sā rāmāyaṇam adhīte’ can mean both “she is [right now] studying the Rāmāyaṇa” and “she [occasionally or regularly] studies the Rāmāyaṇa.” Similarly, ‘suryāḥ prācyām udeti’ can mean both “the sun is [right now] rising in the east” or “the sun [always] rises in the east”.
Which of these, then, is the sense in the word ‘pariśaṅkase’? The very fact that Sītā talks about abandoning the doubt in the second half shows that the usage is in present continuous. In other words, Sītā’s words imply that Rāma’s doubts are not permanent or eternal, but only temporary. This rules out ‘ingrained prejudice against women’ (another definition of misogyny) too, for something that is ingrained is not temporary.
III. Verse 6.104.14
“But O the best among men! Following only anger, you have thought about only [my] womanhood, like an inferior man.”
The translation by Goldman et al. can be misleading. They write “you have given way to anger like a lesser man, taking into account only that I am a woman.” The translation seems to suggest that the consideration that Sītā is a woman has led to Rāma giving way to anger. The original Sanskrit verse implies the opposite, i.e. following anger has led Rāma to think only about Sītā being a woman (or an ordinary woman, as we will see below). The reason is that the words ‘krodham eva anuvartatā’ (“by [he who is] following anger alone”) qualify the subject ‘tvayā’ (“by you”), while the words ‘strītvameva puraskṛtam’ (“have thought only about womanhood”) denote the object and the action. As per Sanskrit grammar, the subject or agent (‘kartṛ’) is independent of the object and action.
In other words, the subject is not dependent on the action. As the subject here is qualified by the phrase “by [he who is] following anger alone”, the implication is that Rāma following anger is not dependent on or a consequence of thinking about womanhood.
The Sanskrit commentaries ‘Tilaka’ and ‘Śiromani’ explain the word ‘strītvam’ (“womanhood”) in the verse as “the class of low and ordinary women” and “the quality of a low/ordinary woman”, respectively. Like in the verse 6.104.5, here too Sītā compares the action of Rāma to that of an ordinary man and implies that she is no ordinary woman. There is no ad hominem attack on Rāma calling him “uncouth”. The verse does not imply that the anger of Rāma comes from Rāma considering Sītā as just a woman, which Goldman et al’s translation seems to suggest. Therefore, here also there is no misogyny meant or implied.
IV. A Poetics’ Perspective By Shankar Rajaraman
Dr Shankar Rajaraman, a Sanskrit poet extraordinaire and a performer of the rare art of ‘avadhāna’, offers a brilliant analysis on why Sītā cannot call Rāma a ‘misogynist pig’ from a poetics’ perspective. This section is an edited version of his analysis. (I am thankful to him for his kind permission to include it in this article.)
Sītā is visibly in sorrow (śoka) and, to some extent, anger (krodha), when she is speaking to Rāma in the verses 6.104.5 to 6.104.16. Her sorrow is well-established through phrases such as “sullied by tears” and “with words that were indistinct”. Her anger can be inferred from words through which she points out to something negative at that moment in Rāma, for example “by you, who are following the dictates of anger”. Do we not point out others’ faults when we are angry?
Having established that Sītā is going through sorrow and anger, we can further establish that both these emotions occur within the context of her love for Rāma. In other words, though Sītā is sorrowful and angry, she still loves Rāma. She does not allow sorrow and anger to distort her love. It is her love for Rāma that reigns supreme even at this moment.
Unlike some people in modern times who would allow a single instance of anger or sorrow to take precedence over their “love”, often non-existent, and demand for a divorce at the drop of a hat, Sītā regards safeguarding her love for Rāma as a sacred duty. Throughout her speech, she keeps endearingly addressing Rāma as “O brave hero” (‘vīra’), “O one with strong arms” (‘mahābāho’), “O master” (‘prabho’), “O the best among men” (‘naraśārdūla’), “O one who bestows honour” (‘mānada’), etc. Furthermore, she explicitly states that her heart is fixed in Rāma alone. What more proof does one need to establish that Sītā still loves Rāma and Rāma alone?
Now, according to the tenets of Sanskrit poetics, both sorrow and anger can occur as transitory emotions within the larger, and more sustained, emotion of love. Sorrow and anger can come and go within the larger ambit of love but love, on its part, remains stable and never ceases to be.
We now come to why Sītā cannot call Rāma a “misogynist pig”. If Sītā were to tell Rāma that he is a “misogynist pig” (or something similar to that effect), let us ponder on the emotion that would lead her to say such a thing. A pig, being an animal that is known for its uncleanliness, is an object of disgust (jugupsā).
An expression like “misogynist pig” evokes similar abhorrence or disgust. For Sītā to say something like this, she must have experienced disgust at the sight of Rāma. But where there is disgust, there is no love according to Sanskrit poetics. Since we have already established above that Sītā is still deeply in love with Rāma, she could not have experienced disgust at his sight and therefore never called him “a misogynist pig” or anything similar to that effect.
In all the three verses, the words by Sītā are disapproving of Rāma’s actions and compare them to actions of an inferior or ordinary person, but are not vulgar ad hominem attacks as in Truschke’s translations. Sītā does not pass judgements on Rāma, but only condemns his actions with the use of similes. As Rajaraman points out, from the perspective of poetics too there is no possibility of Sītā, angry but still very much in love with Rāma, saying something that expresses the emotion of disgust.
Truschke’s Misleading And Distorted Translations
With her loose translation “uncouth” without offering the full context, Truschke tried to mislead. With her loose and failed translation “misogynist pig”, Truschke tried to distort the criticism of actions in the original Sanskrit verses into an ad hominem attack using anachronistic, utterly vulgar, and wildly inappropriate words (as Goldman described them). Truschke’s attempts to mislead and distort could have well been deliberate, with the objective of provoking her ideological opponents. Apparently, they ended up outraging a large section of people, not limited to her ideological opponents (this probably explains why she was in a damage-control mode).
Goldman Et Al’s Own Anachronistic Reading
Goldman in his email says “our translation … nowhere uses … an anachronistic term like ‘misogynistic’”. However, Goldman et al. do use the equally anachronistic term ‘misogyny’ in their introduction when they claim that Sītā criticises Rāma for “harboring feelings of misogyny”. This is an example of Goldman et al., to borrow from Goldman’s own words, giving their own jaundiced reading of the passage in their own language. Valmiki’s words do not imply misogyny (hatred, contempt, or ingrained prejudice against women), rather it is Goldman et al’s own interpretation.
Goldman is not surprised
Goldman wrote in his email that he found it “extremely disturbing but perhaps not unexpected” to learn that Truschke “has used such inappropriate language and passed it off as coming from Valmiki”. Why would Goldman say the “extremely disturbing” translation by Truschke is “perhaps not unexpected”? I can only guess. Perhaps Goldman, like many, privately believes that Truschke’s work is more sensationalist and provocative than scholarly.
Truschke’s Veiled Counter-attack?
In her article, Truschke cites the translation “pimp” of the Sanskrit word “śailuṣa” [sic] (the correct word is “śailūṣa”, with the long vowel ‘ū’). By equivocating about whether she agrees or not with Goldman’s translation in this case, Truschke tries to steer clear. I suspect Truschke, who has faced quite some heat over her translation, mentioned this specific example so that some heat comes Goldman’s way too.
Missing In Action: The Sanskrit Scholarship Of Truschke
Whatever be the motive of Truschke bringing up the translation of “śailūṣa” by Goldman and then equivocating about it, I expected Truschke (who has studied Sanskrit for 15 years and taught it at three universities) to offer some expert comment on the derivation, attested meanings, connotations, usages, and possible translations of the word. There were none.
Similarly, when her “misogynist pig” translation was questioned, all she could cite in her defence was Goldman’s translation: no original discussion or thoughts from herself about the words, their shades of meanings, the grammar, the context, or the ‘rasa’. Truschke offered no original ‘yukti’-s to defend her translation apart from parroting that she used a colloquialism. I wonder why the Sanskrit scholarship of Truschke, which she is not afraid to flaunt, was conspicuous by its absence all throughout this controversy?
VI. Challenge Reiterated
Calling her interpretation, a “complete distortion” instead of a “loose translation”, I challenged Truschke for a public debate in Sanskrit on her translation. I am still waiting for her response. I reiterate my challenge through this article for a public debate in Sanskrit. To circumvent the problem of logistics, I am ready for a written debate also. I am also willing to translate both her and my Sanskrit arguments into English for everybody’s convenience. The question is: will she accept?
A full version of the article with footnotes and references is available below.
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