Originally posted July 21, 2019 as “Watch your language! – Because there’s a lot of b.s. out there.” This second revision contains some much-needed style tweaks and minor additions. I initially wrote this on the fly and its original lack of organization still shows to some extent. But rather than starting again from the top, which would take a lot of time, I have tried to better package what’s already there.

Language, power and appearing valuable and legitimate

Academics in the humanities tend to assume that the acquisition of different languages makes for a better, more valuable scholar. While this may often be the case, it is not always.

The social theorist Pierre Bourdieu notes that language, itself, has become a worldwide commodity. Following up on Michel Foucault’s ideas about discourse and power, Bourdieu observes that certain languages have more clout than others.

For Bourdieu and other thinkers like Max Weber, social institutions tend to legitimize themselves. Western universities, for example, are compelled to justify high tuition fees along with an unavoidable percentage of uninspiring, run of the mill professors with mediocre analytical skills and a limited ability to think creatively.

As accredited and highly competitive sites for knowledge dissemination, universities strive to produce a certain quota of publications.

“Publication is King,” academics often say, along with “publish or perish.”

The funny thing is, the vast majority of these dull and lifeless publications are read by practically nobody except, perhaps, for a few students held captive in an instructor’s class. Citing in your essay a prof’s insipid paper placed on the reading list is usually a good idea. And sometimes students must shell out to buy a professor’s subpar book at a ridiculously inflated price or risk suffering the consequences.

But perhaps the biggest academic sham is that many scholars and the reading public tend to uncritically associate the knowledge of original languages with rational, coherent thought and scholarly legitimacy.

As I will illustrate below, sometimes this is so but other times not.

A leading professor says “real scholars” will read original languages of a text

The Indologist Wendy O’Flaherty, although a leading researcher and writer, in part falls into what we might call the legitimacy trap. In the introduction to her translation of the Hindu Rig Veda O’Flaherty writes:

This is a book for people, not for scholars. Real scholars will read the Sanskrit; would-be scholars, or scholars from other fields, will fight their way through the translations of Geldner (German), Renou (French), Elizarenkova (Russian) and others; they will search the journals for articles on each verse, and on each word; they will pore over the dictionaries and concordances.¹

And in footnote:

See appendix 3 for a bibliography of translations into European languages.²

Su Shi (1037 – 1101)

Here O’Flaherty lists noteworthy Asian commentators and Asian translators who render the Veda into European languages but interestingly enough, no mention is made of translations into contemporary Asian languages like Japanese, Korean or Mandarin.

O’Flaherty says the European translations are intended to encourage the “would-be scholar to make a better guess” than her own “educated guess on several problematic points” arrived at “by using the available scholarship.”³

Does O’Flaherty contradict herself by elevating the ability of so-called “real scholars” while conceding that knowledge of an original language does not guarantee correct understanding?

Does knowledge of original languages produce a “real scholar”? 

If knowledge of original languages did guarantee correct understanding, the meanings of specific words and phrases in translated texts would not be continually debated and re-translated, as they almost always are.

Would not a “real scholar” just get it right, end of story?

Of course not. Meaning is incredibly complicated and situation dependent.

And that is the point.

What would Newton say?

Consider Sir Isacc Newton. There is no need to try to figure out what Newton was trying to present with his three laws of motion, because we all get it.4 Ancient words and phrases, however, are continually reinterpreted by presumed experts on the basis of new archeological findings, socio-historical developments, and shifting academic emphases and approaches.

With the exception of O’Flaherty and a handful of others, most translators go to great lengths hoping to justify their particular rendering of problematic terms. Their introductions try to convince the reader that their ability to discern original meanings is as strong or stronger than other so-called authorities.

Spurious theories appearing sensible by citing original languages

Also, in vigorously advancing narrow-minded or, for that matter, far-fetched claims, many writers try to prop up their ideas with their idiosyncratic spin on translated texts. For me, a good example of this type of thinker is Barbara Thiering.

In short, linguists and translators can disagree quite dramatically. These conflicting meanings may arise from incompetence, ignorance, ambition, and opinionated or wishful thinking.

Translation is prone to human prejudice and even concerted and informed attempts to offer accurate translations cannot eradicate bias.

If we had a time machine and translators could travel back to be physically present when a given text was written, the central obstacle to a precise and exact understanding of certain terms would remain unchanged: The translators themselves did not write the original text.

We can never fully understand another person’s manner of thinking and intended meaning. And oftentimes authors themselves do not fully understand what they are saying.

Ambiguity is everywhere, even within our mother tongue

To complicate things, consider contemporary English literature. English Lit. critics write endless commentaries squabbling among themselves about the actual or intended meanings of certain English words, phrases, and literary images. And these intense debates occur within the same language of original texts.

What was Joyce trying to say when he mixed up grammar and syntax in Ulysses?

And what did T. S. Eliot mean by “Not with a bang but a whimper”?

We could spend the rest of our lives trying to definitively answer these two questions.

At this point, a student of religion may argue that religious texts differ from fiction. Religious scripture refers to allegedly fixed, unalterable spiritual truths, whereas fiction by definition is open to interpretation.

But this claim is confounded by the plain fact that the meaning of some religious terms do change over time—such as angel and asura.

Does revealed or infused knowledge require familiarity with original languages?

To look at the problem another way, a religious believer could say they have an advantage over worldly, rigid scholars. The believer could claim to possess a higher mode of perception enabling them to fully understand a term or phrase’s true meaning.

In theological terms, they could say the actual meaning is revealed or infused by God.

And here’s the thing: They could receive this revealed or infused meaning even when reading a translated text.

Let’s not forget we are talking about religion. So the idea of revealed or infused knowledge is not weird or foreign in this context. It is usually an integral part of a religious belief system.

The scholar questions absolute truth claims

From the scholar’s perspective, she or he cannot really prove or disprove a believer’s claim to perfectly understand a religious text through some kind of mystical gift. But scholars do point out that many apparently revealed truths among believers seem to contradict one another.

He said, “The Holy Spirit told me to do it!”

She said, “Yeah yeah, The Holy Spirit told someone else to do the opposite…”

Postmodern challenges and elitism

Postmodernism adds another wrinkle to the discussion.

Several postmodern writers intentionally write open-ended and ambiguous texts. This creates, they say, a living dialogue between writer and reader instead of a dead monologue from writer to reader. The result, they seem to believe, is a ‘literary’ novel of higher value than say, ‘trashy’ pulp fiction.

This may appeal to some but these arbitrary distinctions of value are just that—arbitrary. And worse, they may become ingrained among literary circles and loaded with elitist connotations.

Why I gave up being a literary snob | Financial Times

The literary snob asks on a first date, “Are you literate?”

Hmm. If I were in a situation like that I would quickly pay my bill and run the other way!

Kidding aside, another point to consider has already been touched on above.

Writers, themselves, may not be fully aware of their own intended meanings. This is the underlying premise for psychoanalytic and psycho-historical approaches to literature. And to go a step further, many believe the only person who fully understands us is God, a view which I myself tend to subscribe to.

Good books may rely on translation

With all this linguistic uncertainty, it does seem clear that researchers may produce insightful works without knowledge of original languages.

A good example is John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (1993). Kerr openly admits to drawing on the work of several translators. Perhaps this is better than merely relying on one’s own biased translation of original texts.

A Dangerous Method (film adaptation of book)
A Dangerous Method (film adaptation of the book)

Are all scholars with language skills playing fair and working within the law?

Relying on the many may be stronger than relying on the one. In fairness, though, we do need a body of scholars able to translate texts in the first place. Google Translate no doubt will get there but for the moment, it is not quite up to speed.

In the meantime, arrogant linguists would do well to remember that waving around their credentials does not guarantee immunity to error or, as with some operators, violent and unlawful professional activities.

Sadly, it has become clear that corruption, criminality and hostile actors in academia is a pressing 21st-century concern that threatens to debase and cheapen everything good about university life.

¹ Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda, London: Penguin, 1981, p. 11.

² Ibid.

³ Ibid., 12.

4 Note that clearly understanding what Newton was saying is not the same thing as challenging what he was saying. Please see this: https://epages.wordpress.com/2019/07/28/newton-was-wrong-scientists-dismiss-newtons-theory-of-gravity-and-warn-einstein-is-next-opinion/

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