Challenges of Producing Lucid English Translations of Ancient Indian Scriptures


There is much unrest in today’s world and perhaps the wisdom of our ancients will guide us in these times. Not everyone can read Sanskrit so one has to rely on English translations. We have seen many translations of Sanskrit texts and having been familiar with the original, we have found that the translations often lack—to various degrees—accuracy and simplicity. Some translators present literal translations of the original text that makes no sense in the translated language. Others give their own interpretations in the place of a translation. Both these tendencies complicate and mis-represent the original text. The translator should comprehend the original and present the text trying to preserve sensitivities across languages. When dealing with two very different languages such as Sanskrit and English, this is a big challenge.

We recently attempted to overcome pitfalls in existing translations of the Gita in our book entitled The New Bhagavad-Gita: Timeless wisdom in the language of our times (Mason: W.I.S.E. Words Inc., 2011). Being familiar with the original, we translated the text using a re-creation approach with our sole objective being to share the wisdom of the text in simple English. We stayed away from “interpretation” because that is not the job of the translator. We added additional notes, put the translated text through readability tests (Flesch–Kincaid, SMOG, etc.) and got it reviewed by people from different cultures, age-groups and backgrounds. An unrelated but important aspect to the translation was our overall presentation of the book with an aesthetic design, illustrations to go with the text and a readable typeface.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a basic text when it comes to the Indian spiritual canon. If we want to take ancient Indian literature to the world then we have to make it readable and clear. Readability is improved by using simple language of the common man and clarity is improved by giving explanations wherever necessary and starting off with the assumption that the reader is a total stranger to Indian culture and heritage. Peer-review as well as review by common folk from different parts of the world, focus on the presentation and design, and having multiple ways of dissemination (book, e-book, audio book, etc.) all add to the impact of the translated work.

(This paper was presented at the third international conference on Translation, Technology and Globalization in the Multilingual Context, 23-26 June 2012, New Delhi jointly organized by Indian Translators Association and LinguaIndia.)

1. Introduction

In the past century, while we have reached a zenith in human achievements and development, we have also encountered a nadir in terms of humanness and peace. Today the world is in a state of unrest like never before. We know that we ought to be leading better lives, but how many of us know how? At this critical juncture in human history, we might consider consulting the quiet wisdom of the ancient people who have pondered over many of the same basic questions which baffle us today.

Hindu scriptures are all written in Sanskrit, a language that most people are not familiar with today. Typically, one has to rely on English translations, especially if one is not conversant with the regional languages of India.

Ever since Sir Charles Wilkins’s English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was published in 1785, several works of ancient India have been translated into English and other foreign languages. In addition, over several hundred years, great scholars, saints, and religious leaders have interpreted the texts, often writing extensive commentaries on them, which are mostly in Sanskrit, and English translations of these works have also been produced. We have seen many translations of Sanskrit texts and having been familiar with the original, we have found that the translations often lack—to various degrees—accuracy and simplicity.

We recently attempted to overcome pitfalls in existing translations of the Bhagavad-Gita in our book entitled The New Bhagavad-Gita: Timeless wisdom in the language of our times (Mason: W.I.S.E. Words Inc., 2011) and we shall use examples from the translations of the Gita to illustrate our ideas.

(Note: All translations of Gita verses are from The New Bhagavad-Gita.)

2. Objectives of this paper

1. To present the typical problems observed in existing English language translations of Sanskrit texts, to discuss the possible solutions to these problems and how we overcame them in our translation of the Gita

2. To present the salient features of the re-creation method of translating Sanskrit texts into English

3. To present additional factors that enhance the quality and readability of the translations

4. To provide an overall guide for translators seeking to produce readable English translations of ancient Indian texts.

3. Translation problems and possible solutions

The task of a translator is one fraught with many dangers: in trying to be very accurate, s/he may lose sight of simplicity and by trying to be easily understood, s/he might compromise the contents of the original; in trying to be concise, s/he might sacrifice clarity and by trying to make things very clear, s/he might end up being verbose and lose out on beauty. The translator’s troubles are magnified when dealing with two very different languages such as Sanskrit and English.

Considering English translations of ancient Sanskrit texts, we find these recurrent problems:

  1. Translators give the literal translations of the original text that makes little sense in the translated language and, at any rate, makes it difficult to understand.
  2. Translators give their personal interpretations (or the interpretation of their preferred school of philosophy) instead of translations.
  3. Translators give extremely simplified translations that don’t have the flavor of the original and are often inaccurate.

While the first two problems complicate the translation, all three problems misrepresent the original, thus defeating the very purpose of translation. The ideal for a translator is to comprehend the original and present the text by preserving sensitivities across languages. A possible reason why this doesn’t happen is that many translators, though they are great scholars in their chosen areas, fail to look from the reader’s perspective and often lack a universal vision. This universal vision is essential if the translation has to appeal to different people from diverse backgrounds, for the wisdom professed in the ancient texts is universal.

We present examples for the three aforesaid problems, and for comparison, our translation.

1. An example of literal translation

“O Mighty-armed (Arjuna), learn of Me, these five factors, for the accomplishment of all actions, as stated in the Samkhya doctrine. The seat of action and likewise the agent, the instruments of various sorts, the many kinds of efforts and providence being the fifth.”
(Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Bhagavadgita. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1948)

The same verses (18.14-15) from The New Bhagavad-Gita:

“The scriptures proclaim that
five factors govern the outcome of all actions:
the situation, the individual,
the tools he has, how he uses the tools,
and unknown forces.”
(Note: ‘Tools’ can refer to knowledge, skills, or resources.)

2. An example of interpretation

“Work done as a sacrifice for Visnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.”
(Prabhupada, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983)

The same verse (3.9) from The New Bhagavad-Gita:

“Humans are bound by their actions
except when they are performed for the sake of yajna.
Thus, Arjuna, do you work, free from attachments,
in the spirit of yajna.”
(Note: Here, yajna means ‘an act of self-dedication’ or ‘service above self’. It is also an act of worship; so the message is ‘do your work as worship’.)

3. An example of a simplistic translation

“When he can discriminate the actions of nature’s qualities and think, “The qualities depend on other qualities,” he is detached.”
(Miller, Barbara Stoler. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam Dell, 1986)

The same verse (3.28) from The New Bhagavad-Gita:

“One who has true insight into
the interplay of guna and karma,
and how they are influenced by
the collective nature of society,
does not get entangled.”
(Note: Guna refers to the inherent traits of a person. Karma refers to the different spheres of action. The world is always in motion and thus, always changing. Most of us are a part of society and are influenced by it. Our customs, mannerisms, and practices adjust themselves to our surroundings if we let them follow a natural course. But if we are perturbed by changing times and cling on to practices that are not applicable today, then we are bound to be confused.)

4. Translation by the method of re-creation

As translators our primary aim was to share the wisdom of the original text in simple English. It would be almost impossible to achieve this goal by means of a literal translation, by interpretation, or by oversimplification. Thus, we resorted to the method of re-creation, where we present the spirit of the original without sacrificing too much of the letter.

As an example, let us consider verse 2.46:

यावानर्थ उदपाने
सर्वतः सम्प्लुतोदके ।
तावान् सर्वेषु वेदेषु
ब्राह्मणस्य विजानतः ॥

Here are the meanings of the individual words:
यावान् / yavan : as much
अर्थ / artha : use, meaning, value, aim
उदपाने / udapane : in a well or reservoir of water
सर्वतः / sarvatah : everywhere, surrounded, on all sides
सम्प्लुत / sampluta : overflowing, flooding
उदके / udake : with water
तावान् / tavan : so much
सर्वेषु / sarveshu : in all
वेदेषु / vedeshu : in the Vedas
(सर्वेषु वेदेषु sarveshu vedeshu : in all the Vedas)
ब्राह्मणस्य / brahmanasya : of the brahman, of the ultimate truth
विजानतः / vijanatah : who knows, knowing, realized

Given this, the literal translation of this verse would yield:
“As much use there is for a well when water is overflowing everywhere that much use there is in all the Vedas for a person who knows the brahman.”

This is not a typical method of constructing a sentence in English though it works elegantly in Sanskrit. Therefore, we have to re-create this idea, using simple and powerful words in English, so that the meaning is conveyed effectively.

Here is the same verse (2.46) from The New Bhagavad-Gita:

“What is the use of a well
when there is a flood and
water is flowing freely everywhere?
What is the use of all the Vedas
when one has realized
the ultimate truth?”

By means of this illustration, one can comprehend the fundamental idea behind the method of re-creation. Here are some further aspects of the re-creation method, with examples:

1. The re-creation approach calls for understanding the original word or idea and finding the right expressions in the translated language.

For example, consider verse 12.19 – तुल्यनिन्दास्तुतिर्मौनी सन्तुष्टो येन केनचित् | अनिकेतः स्थिरमतिर्भक्तिमान् मे प्रियो नरः (Praise and criticism are the same to him, he is contemplative and contented, he does not care for a home, he is steady-minded, and he is full of devotion. He is dear to me!) Many translate the word अनिकेतः / aniketah as ‘homeless’, ‘unsheltered’, ‘without a home’, ‘whose home is not in this world’, ‘who owns no home’, etc. Indeed, the literal meaning of the word aniketah is ‘without a fixed place of residence’ but it makes it seem that god is particularly fond of vagabonds. In this context, it must be understood as one who is not particularly attached to any place as his home while at the same time, he feels at home everywhere.

2. Most languages, especially ancient ones, have words and phrases that are “untranslatable.” This basically means that there is no direct single-word/phrase equivalent in the language into which one wants to translate. An effective way to counter this is to give the original term as it is and explain it.

For example, consider words like dharma, yoga, karma, yajna, etc. These words have different meanings in different contexts and so it would be prudent to retain the original word and explain it in the notes.

3. While “untranslatable” words pose a challenge to a translator, even the readily translatable ones can be tricky because a given word in Sanskrit may have several meanings in English. One has to choose the meaning that makes most sense in the given verse. At the same time, one has to be aware of the larger message of the text and check whether the given translation reflects that idea. It is a balance between focus on the given verse and observance of the larger philosophy of the text.

For example, consider the famous verse 2.47 – कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन | मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || (You have control only over your actions but never over their results. The expected results should not be the motivation for action. Also, don’t shirk away from your work.) The word अधिकार / adhikara is a simple word that readily translates into “right,” “control,” “authority,” “privilege,” etc. Most translators use “right” for adhikara, which gives a wholly different meaning to the verse: “You have right only to your actions but never to the results.” This translation defies some of the basic ideas put forth in other chapters of the Gita. We preferred to use “control” instead because it links well with 18.14-15 that explains that one can only control his actions and cannot predict the results. (BG 18.14-25: The scriptures proclaim that five factors govern the outcome of all actions: the situation, the individual, the tools he has, how he uses the tools, and unknown forces.)

4. The ancient people, as can be observed in several literary and philosophical works of the past, used a lot of metaphor and allegory to explain an idea. One has to be aware of the metaphors used in a text and should not translate it without them. One can choose to explain both the literal sense and the metaphor but it is incorrect to altogether leave out the metaphor while translating.

For example, consider verses 8.24-25 (The yogi who dies during uttarayana, the symbol of dazzling white daylight goes forth to reach brahman. The yogi who dies during dakshinayana, the symbol of hazy dark night attains the lunar light and is born again.) Here, the terms uttarayana (the period of six months following winter solstice) and dakshinayana (the period of six months following summer solstice) are metaphorical rather than literal, and should be explored from that view-point. So when Krishna says that some yogis attain liberation and some others are born again, we can surmise the following: “This suggests that only some of the realized people get liberated. The rest of them are among us, guiding us towards liberation.”

5. Other factors to be considered

In addition to re-creating the original and producing a readable translation, there are other factors that one has to consider to make the translation more accessible and reader-friendly:

a. Additional notes

The translator’s task is to translate and not to interpret. But in places where the meaning is unclear, some interpretation creeps in. Thus every translation is stained by the translator’s understanding and worldview. While being aware of this truth, one has to seek to clearly explain a given idea, resulting in the translator providing additional notes to a given verse. This not only helps explain a certain idea better but also assists those that are neophytes to the cultural heritage.

b. Readability tests

Readability tests basically employ a certain formula to evaluate the “readability” of a given piece of writing. While this is not an infallible estimation, it gives a general idea of how readable one’s writing is. Some of the more popular of these tests include the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the Gunning-Fog Score and the SMOG Index. There are excellent resources on the web that can immediately calculate the readability index of a written work (for example, see

c. Review by experts and laity

It is important to get a translated work reviewed by three kinds of people:

  1. experts who are familiar with the text and the original language
  2. language experts (including an editor) in the translated language
  3. common people (potential readers)

Experts who are familiar with the original indicate to the translator where he has swerved from the original text. Language experts and editors polish the language of work. Review from the laity gives a different perspective, helping the translator to freshly view his work and improve it in terms of simplicity and clarity.

d. Design and dissemination of the book

  1. The aspects of book design and typography might seem out of the scope of this paper (and even inconsequential to some) but it is important nevertheless. A well-designed book can enhance the reading experience and hence must be taken seriously.
  2. Good illustrations supplement the text and bring out some of those intuitive facets that cannot be successfully explained in words.
  3. When the translated work available in different forms: physical book, e-book, audio book, etc., that increases the accessibility of the book.

6. Conclusion

In spite of the many failings of prevalent translations, the great works from ancient India have widely inspired and enriched people from all over the world. It is only a matter of elementary deduction as to what can happen if these marvelous works are freed of the drawbacks and presented in its pristine state. Upon reading the text in an unpolluted form, the reader may choose to understand, interpret and implement it as best suited to him/her.

It is hoped that this paper outlines a few important guidelines for producing readable English translations of ancient Sanskrit texts in order that more people from around the world can have access to the great wisdom of India.



Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.


Dr. Koti Sreekrishna is a senior scientist in the Global Biotechnology division at the Procter & Gamble Company. His interests include philosophy, inter-religious dialogue, and studying the Hindu scriptures. He has previously co-authored three books and several articles on the Bhagavad-Gita. He currently serves as the Religious Counselor in the Hindu Society of Greater Cincinnati (HSGC).

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