A few days ago I was sitting in a Wal-Mart, waiting to get a tire replaced on my car. I had my Kindle Fire with me so I’d have something to read. Recently I posted here about The Gospel of Thomas. Since I had the ebook version of The Gnostic Bible on my Fire, I decided to open it up and reread The Gospel of Thomas. I got to the first page and stopped. I remembered that I’d started to read this particular translation before, and stopped; and I remembered why I’d stopped. The introduction to Thomas says,
The translation gives the Semitic forms of Semitic names, in order to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus and his students and the Jewish context of the life of the historical Jesus. For example, the name Yeshua is used for Jesus; the other names are identified in the notes.
Thus, the first line of the translation reads, “These are the hidden sayings that the living Yeshua spoke and Yehuda Toma the twin recorded.” “Yehuda Toma” is the Aramaic for Judas Thomas–the disciple known as “Thomas”, literally “twin”, in the canonical gospels, and referred to also as Judas or Judah here and in other non-canonical sources. This irritates the crap out of me, and the rest of this post will unpack the whys of this irritation.
If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”. You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”. “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated). Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means. True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence. Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.
What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”. The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, are more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism. Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit. The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language. Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.
Lau was an expert in Classical Chinese and translated many Confucian and Taoist works for the Penguin Classics series. He also helped develop London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies into a world-renowned center for studies of Chinese culture and philosophy. His translation of the Tao Te Ching, originally made in 1963 and revised periodically (I think he did a revision in the 1980’s taking into account the Mawangdui manuscripts) is still in print, and can be read online here. I have to say upfront that this is not actually my favorite translation. The literary style isn’t bad, but Lau can be a bit stilted at times, and he is definitely less poetic in style than many translators. Why, then, is his my go-to translation? The answer in brief is that I trust him more; but that will require some unpacking.
Thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is thrown by the study of language. This study shows that the forms of a person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is-unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language–shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in a language–in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese.1 And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness.
–Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality; courtesy of Wikiquote
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data that the agreement decrees. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.
–Benjamin Lee Whorf (1940) “Science and linguistics” in: MIT Technology Review Vol 42. p.229-31; courtesy of Wikiquote