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95% of manuscripts in the country have not been translated, says EAC-PM Bibek Debroy

L to R Bibek Debroy, (EAC-PM)_ Vipul Kocher, National Convenor, Indic Academy

Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister gave a talk on ‘The art and history of translations from Sanskrit’ at IIC, New Delhi

  • NAMAMI, The national mission for manuscripts lists about 3.5 million pothis (manuscripts)
  • It is estimated that there are around 40 million pothis in the country
  • Out of the 40 million, 95% have not been translated
  • About 2/3rd of the 40 million pothis are in Sanskrit language

Speaking on ‘The art and history of translations from Sanskrit’ at India International Center on Saturday at the talk organized by Indic Academy, Mr. Bibek Debroy, only the third person ever to have translated the unabridged version of Mahabharata from Sanskrit to English, told the audience that all translations of Mahabharata in English are the abridged translations that gloss over the details and paint everything in black and white, missing out on the nuances.

“Trained in Sanskrit, a person’s ‘aham’ recedes to the background, and no translation can capture the beauty of the expressions and what they convey in Sanskrit language”, said the Padmashri recipient, author of over a hundred books in the field of Economics, Polity, Indology and Sanskrit. He has also translated the Bhagavad Gita, the Harivamsa, the Vedas and the Valmiki Ramayana.

Stressing on the need to have more Sanskrit speakers and readers Mr. Debroy said that as a nation, we have not only lost Sanskrit but the vernacular languages as well, knowledge of which could make it easier for us to make sense of Sanskrit. He added that the translation of Sanskrit into English, in particular involves unavoidable loss of exact meanings owing to remarkably different approaches the two languages take in how they lay expressions out. “There is no means of estimating what forms of knowledge we have lost, simply because that process of oral transmissions has died out”, Mr. Debroy showed concern.

Giving various examples of Sanskrit verses and their meanings, Mr. Debroy emphasised the need to communicate the beauty of the language, while translating. “Look at the number of texts that have yet not been translated, that we are not even attempting to translate. The onus is on us to translate these texts”, he stated.

Revealing his skepticism at the use of Artificial Intelligence for the work of translating the Sanskrit manuscripts, Shri Debroy remarked, “Proper digitisation would mean ‘keying in afresh’, and we don’t even have people who can read those scripts, and AI, despite its pretentions of being objective, is driven by the subjectivity of the people who are writing the algorithms. We can’t be sure if they will have enough appreciation of the language to even write those algorithms properly.”

Mr. Debroy’s translation of the Mahabharata was published in a series of 10 volumes containing 2.25 million words.

Explaining with very interesting examples from various Sanskrit works, including Bhartrihari’s famous lines, he concluded his stimulating talk making a statement that moved everyone present, “It is a travesty that we know absolutely nothing about the great Sanskrit works and their authors, but such is life that people who were seeped in Sanskrit did not worry about the letter, or word ‘I’”

Also present at the event was author Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, GoI.


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