Elephants, god, and sex: lost in translation

I’ve been learning Sanskrit for a few slow months now. Progress is not as fast as I’d like. But then when is it? But actually I high-fived my rather staid class-mate yesterday — we’d read a page together reasonably fluently during that lesson. OK, it’s really simple stuff: stories my teacher has written with really basic grammatical constructions (strictly present tense!) along with lots of vocab help. But it’s the exception rather than the rule for me to mistake a letter: I can tell my च from my ज now! Most days….

And don’t mistake me, learning a new language is fun. It’s the first time I’ve tried it following school. I find that adult learning is a whole different ballgame, not least because it’s more an active choice. In this particular instance I have some sort of agenda, even if it’s a loose one. I didn’t pick Sanskrit arbitrarily of all languages to learn — I want it to run alongside my yoga in whatever way it will.

what is transaltionI will never be a Sanskritist, just as I’ll never be a particular kind of yoga practitioner — I’ve simply come to them too late. But I can’t help arrogantly flexing my wings (buoyed up by my deep understanding of the present tense of class 1 verbs!!) and I’m already questioning what I have learned of Sanskrit in a yoga context.

As I came straight from Sanskrit class yesterday, my poor yoga teacher copped an earful of my half-formed thoughts about a particular mantra we chant often in class. The ‘translation’ he teaches is what he learned from his teacher. Of course, that’s kind of the deal in yoga. And maybe if I were a good little yogini, I’d just follow likewise. But I’ve never been very good at that. I need either direct experience or intellectual understanding. Trust is not enough.

So I refer to it as a ‘translation’ in inverted commas. Scare quotes. Caveat lector. It seems to me, beginner as I am, that there is a lot of interpretation going on in any yogic text. It’s way beyond translation. Sanskrit words are well-known for having multiple meanings that makes any translation a challenge.


Also as soon as you stray into mantras, sutras, and ślokas the condensed expression in Sanskrit needs a lot of unpacking to communicate the essence of the meaning. My criticism of my teacher’s teacher was based on my linguistic understanding, his defence of her was founded on her aim to bring the feeling and the spirit of the words out in her translation.

As a yogi I can’t argue with that. But I think unless one day I find a Sanskrit teacher who is also a yoga practitioner I’m going to find it a challenge to negotiate the two worlds myself. As always with me there’s a head/heart battle going on. I want to understand but I also want to feel and to trust.

In any case, once I’ve finished turning myself inside out with these questions that are too big for my beginner brain, I count myself very fortunate to have both things in my life, yoga and Sanskrit — and long-suffering teachers of each!

5 thoughts on “Elephants, god, and sex: lost in translation

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  1. My teacher fits the bill exactly!!! Marcia Solomon, who is currently living in Boulder Colorado, is a long-time practitioner in the Astanga lineage (Richard Freeman is her teacher) and she now also teaches Sanskrit in the traditional way: through the study of the sacred texts. And grammar of course!

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