Saturday, February 17, 2007

Japji case study

So I've picked out a passage from Japji to compare the different translations I have at hand.

Note that in the original Gurbani, each couplet is a rhyming match, an essential poetic quality to the original that none of the following translations can replicate. This is why I am told that to truly appreciate the power of japji one must recite it in its original language. Whatever I gain from these translations is but a fraction of the poetic and philosophical depth of Japji. But let's see what I can dinf out.

3rd stanza (excerpt)

translated by Arvind Mandair and Christopher Shackle:

Some sing of His power, for they have the power,
Some sing of His bounty, for they know its signs.
Some sing of His virtues, greatness and acts,
Some sing of His knowledge, so hard to imagine.
Some sing of His making, the body, then dust.
Some sing of His taking, and giving back life.
Some sing that He seems and appears far away,
Some sing that He sees all, present and here.

Rajinder Singh Vidyarthi:

Many sing His might, who have a capacity to sing that?
Many recite His bounties taking them as His signs.
Many sing His excellence and the virtues,
Others, His knowledge so hard to conceive.
Many sing His power of creation and destruction,
That, 'He takes away life and recreates.'
Many sing 'He is near at hand' others think afar.
Many sing 'He beholds us and is ever Omnipresent.'

Gurbachan Singh:

Who has the strength to sing and appreciate Supreme power?
Who can know and sing the marking rewards of the Lord?
Who can sing the greatness and excellences of God?
Who can sing His wisdom and know the knowledge of the Lord
Who can sing that creations are created and vanished by Him?
Who can sing that life is taken away and again it is restored?
Who can sing that He seems to be far away?
Who can sing that He seems to be present just face to face?

Harbans Singh:

Who has the power to sing and define God's Power?
Who can sing and describe the boons (the marks of grace) of God?
Who can sing the virtues and excellences of God?
Who can sing and describe the most difficult knowledge of God?
Who can sing God, who forms the body, and then reduces it to dust?
Who can sing God, who takes away life and again infuses it?
Who can sing god, who seems to be far away?
Who can sing God, who sees all just face to face?

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh:

Filled with might, they sing praise of the Might,
Seeing the signs, they sing praise of the Bounty,
Perceiving the virtues, they sing praise of the Glory.
Some sing praise through high philosophy,
Some sing praise of the power that creates and destroys,
Some sing in awe of the giving and taking of life.
Some sing of the thereness, the utter transcendence,
Some sing of the hereness, the close watch over all.

- Note that two of the translations phrase each line as a question. Harbans Singh includes an annotation: "The above verses have also been translated by substituting "Some" for "who" and omitting signs of interrogation." I guess the original is phrased in such a way that can be taken as either a question or a statement. The questioning quality adds to a sense of wonderment at the human capacity or lack thereof to describe and praise God's glory sufficiently.
- In the original, each line begins with the word "Gavai" which is translated as either "some sing" or "who can sing?" Most of these translations mirror the repetitive, rhythmic quality of the start of each line throughout this passage.
- God's name and gender: note that the first four translations refer to "God" in the masculine, as it is written in the original. Neither Harbans or Nikky-Guninder ascribe a gender to the almighty being described. Furthermore, it's worth noting that only Gurbachan and Harbans use the word God to address that being described -- the others, especially Nikky-Guninder, refer to it or Him in a more abstract manner. The term "God" is problematic with mainline Sikhism because it implies a deistic faith, where Sikhism is not necessarily deistic -- "God" - commonly refered to Waheguru in Sikhism - is both being and non-being, nameable and nameless. It is this very approach to understanding metaphysical reality that gives Japji its poetic power.
- Line six -- note the nuances in interpreting this idea of God taking and giving life. The translations by Mandiar/Shackle, Gurbachan and Harbans could be read as implying God's power of resurrection. Vidyarthi is a bit more vague, while Nikky-Guninder avoids such a reading by reversing the sequence to read "giving and taking of life".
- In the last line, the use of the term "face to face" in two of the translations while no mention of faces is used in the rest, makes me wonder if there was an idiom employed in the translation -- does Waheguru have a face?

I don't think I will continue using all of these Japji as I work through the rest of the 38 stanzas - by comparing all of them at once I will gravitate towards some that strike me as either more accurate or precise in their translations or more philosophically moving or poetically expressed. Still, it's been fascinating comparing all of them and seeing just how varied the translations can be.

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