Can We Actually Translate Gurbani into Other Languages?

Gurbani points to a Creator that is beyond personality, but we are always referring to a “Him”....

The act of translation contains its own intrinsic impossibility. That is, that every translation is only an approximation of the original. That does not mean that we should not attempt the impossible! In fact, I believe it's actually necessary to do so.

I find it somewhat difficult to translate Gurbani into English because one word in Gurbani could require a whole story or several paragraphs of explanation to understand the whole meaning. Many of the examples used in Gurbani require an understanding of the culture that existed at the time it was written. Gurbani was written over 300 years ago, on the other side of the planet from me. For example, many existing Hindu traditions and Vedic stories are mentioned, but if you are not familiar with those stories and traditions the comparisons lose their meaning.

Did you know that the Chaatrik bird (Pied Cukoo) has a mythological significance in India? It is considered to bring the monsoon. It is a loud bird that is always chirping, and is poetically considered to be calling for the rain because of its thirst. So when Gurbani says, "My mind longs for the Blessed Vision of the Guru's Darshan. It cries out like the thirsty song-bird." then we understand why this bird is crying out and it makes the example less cryptic and closes the cultural gap of 300 years ago. All of the sudden this line doesn't seem outdated. It comes alive.

Did you know that 'khin' isn't just a moment? It is exactly the amount of time it takes to blink an eye. Or, for example the word 'paap' is often translated as 'sin', but sin has a heavy Judeo-Christian cultural connotation. In the Gurbani context we don't believe in evil, the devil, sin, heaven and hell, eternal damnation etc. So perhaps sin isn't the best word to use. Paa-aap = an action against oneself. How about 'misdeed'? How about 'any action that takes you away from awareness of your divine essence'? Simply translating it to 'sin' brings in a whole set of incorrect connotations and seems to take away the deeper universal, transcendental meaning of Gurbani.

But that presents us with another dilemma in translating the Siri Guru Granth Sahib; how can we translate each line accurately without doubling or tripling the amount of text?  I think the translators are always having to 'make due' with the words in the English language. My personal feeling is that there is a way to do it. When translating I find myself simplifying some phrases and expounding on others to convey a more accurate or literal meaning. Overall it has ended up to be about the same amount of text. I don't think a translation has ever been attempted by an experienced poet or a creative "wordsmith". Dr. Sant Singh's English translation is the best one of very few that are available, but still, some things are lost in translation. 

When reading in Gurmukhi the words seem to be deeper, more significant and more powerful. I think one reason is because Gurbani forces your mind to complete the meaning. Let's take this line for example, "Safal darshan pekhat puneet" Dr. Sant Singh translated it as "Blessed is His Darshan; receiving it, one is purified"

safal - successful, fruitful
darshan - vision, blessing
pekhat - seeing
puneet - pure, holy

So if we break this line down in Gurmukhi there is a 2 word subject "safal darshan" - 'fruitful vision', and a 2 word predicate "pekhat puneet" - 'seeing and becoming pure'. I have inserted the word 'becoming' because that's how it makes sense to me. So, already we find that taking it in its purest simple form, the line doesn't make sense in English and we have to start adding words and interpretations. It wouldn't make sense if the line just said, "fruitful vision, seeing pure" even though it's literal to the poetic power and simplicity of the Gurmukhi. There is no “His” “receiving it” “one” “is.” It's pure and esoteric. In Gurmukhi form, this line leads you through a process. It doesn't say everything, but it lets you discover the meaning within the line. Your mind gets to interject who is doing the seeing, and who has the fruitful vision. Your mind decides if the fruitful vision is causing the purity. Based on your perception your mind interprets the experience the Guru is describing. The point is, that the pure Gurmukhi is interactive in it's simplicity. That's the beauty of Gurbani - it is a transcendental conversation with your soul and instruction to your mind.

I have also noticed that translations tend to add tenses that aren't there in Gurmukhi.  “ sleeping mind has been awakened” ( man jageyo) Directly translating, it would be “sleeping mind, awaken(ed/ing)”. We are adding the past tense to make it make sense by saying “has been”. But how do we know that this line is telling us a story in the past? The Gurmukhi doesn't mention “my” singular, nor is it in past tense.  What if we said, “...the sleeping mind is awakened". Or what if this line is a command? "...awaken your sleeping mind." 

There are other lines of Gurbani translated in future tense such as, “The doubts of your mind will be dispelled.” ( ki laahe bharaant) Instead, I think it could be “The doubts of the mind are dispelled”.

This is because the Shabd is trancendental and the Gurbani describes experiences that are actually outside of time and space. Everything is in the moment and everything is happening now - in the moment the word is spoken.

We are always adding in characters to Gurbani like “I” and “Him”. “Those who love Him are very rare” (...bhao laaey jan koe). Instead we could say “there are very few beloveds”. Then you are left to construct in your mind who they are beloveds to. That attempts to create a subtle presence of God that doesn't have a personality.

I have not practiced meditation, self-discipline, self-restraint or righteous living” (jap tap sanjam dharam na kamaeya). We could instead translate that as “The human has not practiced meditation...”. This way we take the “I” out, which isn't in the Gurmukhi anyway, and putting in human which is another interpretation because Gurbani is directed at the human mind. Or it could be "Meditation... [etc] have not been practiced", and the reader can decide who has not practiced it.

Gurbani speaks to the collective human mind (not the singular “I”). The Siri Guru Granth Sahib is our living Guru so it is  ever-present and always true in every moment, so whenever I can, I lean towards using a present continuous tense, and unless absolutely necessary I do not use the past or future tense. Gurbani gives the feeling of the Creator as an All Pervading Presence but we tend to translate it in such a way that it seems like a personality. Even though the Creator is beyond personality, we are always referring to a “Him”. Even using the word “God” is limiting. Instead of saying 'God' we can say 'The Divine' or "The Infinite." To me, that takes God from a noun to an adjective which fits better because everything is God, so to use a word that makes God a personality is misleading, but to make it an attribute that can be applied to any noun (everything) does more justice to the idea.

The word God is probably deserving of an article for itself. In Gurbani the words that we translate to “God” are usually descriptions or aspects of God. The following is a list of examples where the word 'God' is often used in translation thereby losing the essence of the original.

Prabh – beloved one
Brahm – creator of the world
Paarbrahm – beyond brahm; a spirit that is even beyond the capacity to create the world
Gopal – one who sustains the world
Gobind – one who preserves the world
Dayal – merciful one
Kirpal – kind one
Antarjami – Inner knower; knower of the heart/inner feelings
Nirankar - Formless
Patit Udaaran – uplifter of the fallen ones

Many times we find the word 'God' or 'Lord' interjected into a line. “jo kich karna so kar rahiya” - translated as, “Whatever is to be done, the Lord is doing.” The literal translation would be “Whatever is being done, that is sustained” and there is no mention of a Being in this line. I think it would be good to stop using the word 'God' altogether. 'God' brings up thoughts of a Being who has a personality of sorts. This Christian God is a male. He gets angry sometimes. He has a human like form, he is in constant struggle against evil, and he operates with some human limitations. This is a completely different concept than what we understand from Gurbani. I think that culturally we Westerners need to break out of this Man/God concept, and go towards an Ik Ongkar concept. Creator/Sustainer/Destroyer, Ying Yang, Nirgun Sargun. The problem is that we don't have a word to differentiate the two. So in translating Gurbani let's start saying something like 'The Divine' or "The One" for example.

It does seem like I'm getting very nitty-gritty with words here, when words are just symbols. Words just represent ideas, and the current translations do fairly well at conveying the ideas in Gurbani to modern English vernacular. So what's the big deal if we change it from “I” to “one”, if we take it out of past tense “have been saved” to “be saved”?

Well, it is because the Gurus and other writers of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib chose their words very carefully. Bani is sacred sound. Reading Gurbani takes you through a transformation. Gurbani is subtle, powerful, and always evolving as your own concepts evolve. So anything we can do to restore the poetic power, the literal meaning and pure simplicity of it is not only good, but it is necessary. I have found personally that even changing one word in a line of Gurbani can completely change my experience of reading that line. When our entire lifestyle revolves around Bani then making it more powerful and more spiritual is one of the best things we can do. 

Please help with the Gurmukhi to English dictionary project. We want to restore the deeper meanings to the words of the Guru.

This article is not intended to criticize any existing translation of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. I am not a scholar, so this is only an exploration of ideas.

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