I have a very personal view on Sikhism, although myself I am not a proper Sikh by religious made standards, I feel we are all students and strongly believe that Sikhism is a path/ journey to enlightenment by many paths, and we were never supposed to be an organized religion rather students to the truth.
Anyways, this was a paper I wrote years back. I left the sources out, because most were from sikhnet and correlated with the readings, so they are not specified accordingly but still hold the same substance.
Holy Book’s Fight for Translation: an inquiry into the validity of translations of the Guru Granth Sahib
Translation of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, from Gurumukhi into English has many ideas and powerful statements left lost in translation. In Islam, a translated Qur’an is not considered the true Qur’an if it is not in its original form of Arabic, however, Sikhs do not have such strict guidelines. The word Sikh means student, much of Sikhism is left open to self interpretation and self enlightenment based on meditation. The first translation of the Guru Granth Sahib was by Bhai Gopal Singh followed by: Manmohan Singh, Gurbachan Singh Talib, Pritam Singh Chahil, most recently the cd translation release by the Khalsa ConsensusCommitteewhich gives credit largely to Dr. Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa. In Sikhism many main topics such as the eating of meat, views on Islam, the concept and relationship of god and views of re-birth and after life are misinterpreted and confused amongst English speaking Sikhs because of mistranslation and other factors effecting translation. Each translation of the Guru Granth Sahib into English has different interpretations by the authors on many critical topics in Sikhism, these translations will be analyzed and discussed in regards to their validity and investigated based on general issues of translation keeping in mind the author of this paper is fluent in reading and writing Gurumukhi and other Indian languages.
Walter Benjamin, an intellectual and translator, makes very strong points in regards to problems associated with translating work from one language into another. He states that many times the only thing transmitted is information and this is considered the hallmark of bad translations. His reasoning follows the logic that if poetry is to be converted, like the writings of much of the Guru Granth Sahib, it must be done by a poet as translation is a mode and has to be translatable fundamentally (Walter, 75-76). Benjamin asserts some basics of translation where problems arise, he claims that the more primitive and basic the language used in the original text is that the more likely it is that only information will be passed onto the translation rather than the essence and contexts in which it is meant to be interpreted. This is of interest as to the original text in question, the Guru Granth Sahib is written in Gurumukhi, a language of higher stature than Punjabi that was adjusted and modified by the 5th Sikh guru Angad Dev Ji during the time of the holy book’s composition (McLeod 12). Gurumukhi is an evolved form of the old Brahmi script like Devanagari and other scripts of the area like Sharda, Takri, Mahajani (Singh T), whereas Punjabi is a very basic language that does not encompass many advance concepts without long winded explanations of what specific words and concepts mean. By this standard of advanced language it is possible to properly translate the Guru Granth Sahib so long as the translator does not simply transfer over words as information, rather understands the poetry and its deeper meaning and rewrites the holy book to convey the same messages. Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/essays-on-sikhism/37124-guru-granth-sahib-converted.html
Another serious problem Benjamin discusses, that can become impossible to overcome in particular situations, is that as time progresses and language evolves and changes. What was meant by certain vocabulary in terms of its strength and context that is attempting to be conveyed could have a completely different meaning or context at the time of composition as to what we understand it as now (Walter, 79-80). This would be a bigger problem when translating ancient religions as centuries have passed since their conception, however, Sikhism is one of the world’s youngest religions; Guru Nanak the first Guru and the founder of Sikhism began writing his verses approximately 500 years ago (McLeod, 9). Although in 500 years language can change substantially, Gurumukhi is generally preserved in time as it is no longer a spoken language thus not open to manipulation and evolution as most other dialects. A problem with Gurumukhi is that it was the language of the gurus, literally translating into ‘from the mouth of the Guru’ (Singh T), and is not well understood by the general public of today. It was made with the purpose for people of all casts to understands as at the time of the Guru’s it was easiest and most common language in their localities, this made it very easy to learn and understand if one so wishes to do so (Singh T). Gurumukhi is written using the Punjabi alphabet and a derivative of Sanskrit as most major Indian languages, making it easy to learn. Generally the inhabitants of Punjab adapted to speaking Punjabi and Gurumukhi was left to the priests. It is most probable that some meanings have changed but in comparison to ancient religions this translation predicament does not impact Sikhism as deeply and is not substantial enough to cause much disparity.
Lastly, there are a few more key issues that create problems when translating the Guru Granth Sahib. One such problem is that many of the older authentic handwritten copies of the holy book are not accessible as they were burnt and destroyed by the Indian army during Operation Blue Star in 1984 when the army laid siege to Sikh’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple. On their quest to kill the Sikh uprising the Indian government went after the voice of the revolution, Sant Singh Bindrawale, who took shelter at the Golden temple (Grewal 48). After days of battle, the government used tanks and shelled its way into the temple and burnt many original scriptures (Grewal 49). If discrepancies are to be checked between copies and the originals, some of the original copies can no longer be accessed. Also, when the holy book was originally being transcribed it was stolen by one of the 6th guru’s sons and returned after 30 years when requested by the 9th guru (McLeod, 17), the extended period can lay some uncertainty and doubt as to the authenticity of the returned book, however Sikhs rectify this claim by reassuring it was edited and fixed by the tenth guru who established it as the last living Guru in 1708 (McLeod, 17) Finally, as observed in the translation by Pritam Singh Chahil, even if the English translation is correct, the way in which English words are pronounced differ in various locations this causes a huge road block for translation as the Guru Granth Sahib is to be read with precision, however, mistakes are tolerated because the reader of the holy book asks for forgiveness if any mistakes are made at the end of reciting the last scripture(McLeod 31). This would mean that multiple editions for each locality would be required so that accommodations for different slights of tongue could be accommodated for if translation is to be near to perfection.
The translation of the Guru Granth Sahib into English went through a roughly linear evolutionary upgrade as each successive translation was transliterated, attempting to rectify and make the appropriate changes to the previous attempts to advance closer to a perfected translation, aside from Mr. Talib’s translation (mentioned later). The first English translation was completed in 1960 by Dr. Gopal Singh and was completed in 1960 but published in 1978. Before he begins his translation he speaks on Sikhism and its philosophies, showing his deep understanding of the religion. However, it is very rough and hard to follow as the grammar is very poor resulting in difficulties to understand the message that is actually attempting to be conveyed. In his translation he made the major mistake of not understanding how to convey the poetry as poetry in English, poetry implies so much more than simply relaying information as what the prose describe, he did not demonstrate an attractive way of purveying religious truths. The titles of the chapters, aside from the introduction on Sikhism, are confusing and very vague and should have been more systematically organized, for example, the first chapter is called The Nature of Reality but it encompasses so many vague and different concepts not really linking back to reality like: mysticism, prayer, history, parables, discussions on evil, and more. Dr. Gopal Singh used detailed footnotes to explain and introduce historical and legendary figures in his translation which helped understand the context and meaning of the Guru’s words more clearly (Gopal).
The second translation of the Guru Granth Sahib was written by Manmohan Singh. Although not a doctor like Dr. Gopal Singh, Manmohan Singh was a very devout Sikh who lost all his material possessions during the partition of India and Pakistan. Sikhism really emphasizes to not be materialistic, the loss of all his material belongings seems to have pushed Manmohan Singh onto a deeper spiritual path as he began to work on what would be his lasting legacy. Translating the holy book took Manmohan Singh nearly 12 years, completing his first fully translated copy just a few months after Dr. Gopal Singh in 1960 (Singh M, IV). The studious effort of cross referencing Gurumukhi not only into English but also Punjabi for almost every single word gives rise to a more reliable source than that of Dr. Gopal’s. Manmohan’s translation was published in 1962, sooner than Gopal’s publication but the compilation was not completed before. The 8 volume set was accepted by many Gurdwara’s worldwide, they considered the translated version to also be as qualified as the original Gurumukhi version, and as the tenth Guru of the Sikh faith had blessed the holy book to be the last Guru for the Sikhs, the English translation by Manmohan was revered in this holy perspective (Singh M, V). Although nearer to perfection there are many typographical errors, also some mini scriptures from the original are not to be found in the translation. The grammar and writing style has much more meaning and seems much more accurate than its predecessor with a lot more deep of an impact. Unlike Dr. Gopal’s direct word for word translation, Manmohan’s writing is very poetic and conveys substance of humility and devotion. It set a standard that was not easily surpassed; this translation became the corner stone of all the translations.
A third translation was requested to be produced by Professor Gurbachan Singh Talib of Panjabi university in 1977 (Talib, I). Grammatically this edition is a disaster, even worse than Dr. Gopal’s grammatically flawed version, it is very hard to follow and the poor grammar and the poor writing style distracts the reader from finding clear meanings and purpose in the writing. He does use footnotes to aid in some of his translations that are useful in understanding what he is trying to convey to the reader rather than understanding the message of the guru himself.
A fourth translation was written in 1990 and later published in 1993 by Pritam Singh Chahil. He gives credit to Manmohan Singh’s translation as inspiration for his further rendering the translations of the Guru Granth Sahib. Chahil’s translation revises Manmohan Singh version of the translation by fine tuning certain minor discrepancies, and as thus it is the most complete translation to date. A major difference is in the format that he uses to convey the message with parallel with the translations; Chahil uses three columns with Gurumukhi on the left, a transliteration in the center of each page and the subsequent English translation on the right. For his transliteration, Chahil writes that he is using a British English transliteration (Chahil, III), this still creates a problem for readers from North America and other English speaking countries of the world that pronounce certain words differently. An example of different pronunciations can be found all over the translations but even in some of the main sub sections of the Guru Granth Sahib, specifically Nit Naam. Nit Naam which is written by Chahil as Nit Nem, the latter pronunciation for English speaking Sikh Canadians can cause problems as we read ‘Nem’ differently when we pronounce it and one of the hallmarks of Sikhism is to pronounce the words correctly. Although Chahil revises much of Manmohan’s translation there are still many set phrases and terms that are copied word for word without required improvement. An added bonus in Chahil’s translation is that it makes Gurumukhi a lot easier to learn and understand because of his tri-column system.
The latest release of the most complete translation of the Guru Granth Sahib is an electronic cd issue by the Khalsa Consensus Committee, lead by Dr. Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa. The Khalsa are baptized Sikhs who devote their lives to living in the path of the Gurus and devoting one’s life to humanity and its betterment (McLeod, 26). Being a very educated man and a very devout Sikh, Dr. Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa has much credibility as a qualified translator. Dr. Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa states that his translation is actually a refined version of all the previous versions of the Guru Granth Sahib translated into English. The primary source is Manmohan Singh’s translation as it was the truest and most complete upon publication. Dr. Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa and the Khalsa Consensus Committee claim to achieve the most accurate translation of the Guru Granth Sahib as they scrutinized and analyzed all other works and attempted to refine the work into English as elegantly and poetically as possible while maintain the influence and effect of the original verses. They removed older styles of writing and updated them so that the people of the 21st century can easily understand meanings, contexts and verses. Also the Khalsa Consensus Committee prides itself on getting the page breaks to align with the original Gurumukhi text with all the right numbers at the ends of all the lines, a problem all the other translations faced.
Many of the main discrepancies and issues discussed in regards to each of the translations can be compared directly verse by verse in English to outline differences and some of the problems of translation. The first verse of Jap Ji Sahib, the first section of verses in the Guru Granth Sahib, is one revered as very sacred, most Sikhs have memorized this stanza in Gurumukhi but as the following translations will show, and English speaking Sikhs may be tragically misunderstanding core concepts. Dr. Gopal’s translation is as follows,
“By the Grace of the One Supreme Being, the Eternal, the All-pervading Purusha, The Creator, Without Fear, Without Hate, the Being Beyond Time, Non-incarnated, Self-existent, The Enlightener. MEDITATIONS: True in the Beginning, True in the Primeval age True He is and True He shall be. Thinking avails not, how so hard one thinks; Nor silence avails, howso ever one shrinks Into oneself. Nor hunger goes with the pleasure loads of the worlds. Of a myriad cleverness, not one works. How then to be True? How rend the Veil of sham, untruth? His Will (forsooth) Inborn in us, ingrained, Thou follow”(Gopal, 1).
Manmohan Singh’s translation of the first verse of Jap Ji Sahib is as follows,
“There is but one God. True is His Name, creative His personality and immortal His form. He is without fear, sans enmity, unborn and self-illumined. By the Guru's grace He is obtained. Embrace His meditation. True in the prime, True in the beginning of ages, True He is even now and True He, verily, shall be, O Guru Nanak! By pondering, man cannot have a conception of God, even though he may ponder over lacs of time. Even though one be silent and remains absorbed constantly he obtains not mind's silence. The hunger of the hungry departs not, even though he may pile up loads of the worlds (valuables).Man may possess thousands and lacs of wits ,but not even one goes with (him) or (avails him in the Lord's court).How can we be true and how can the screen of untruth be rent? By obeying, O Guru Nanak! the pre-ordained order of the Lord of will”(Singh M, 1).
Gurbachan Singh Talib’s translation is as follows,
“He is the Sole Supreme Being; of eternal manifestation; Creator, immanent Reality; Without Fear; Without Rancour; Timeless Form; Unincarnated; Self-Existent; Realized by grace of the holy Preceptor. Japu. In primal Time, in all Time, was the Creator; Nothing is real but the Eternal. Nothing shall last but the Eternal. (1)Ritual purification, though million-fold, may not purify the mind; Nor may absorption in trance still it, however long and continuous. Possessing worlds multiple quenches not the rage of avarice and desire. A thousand million feats of intellect bring not emancipation. How then to become true to the Creator? how demolish the wall of illusion? Through obedience to His Ordinance and Will. Saith Guru Nanak :This blessing too is pre-ordained” (Talib, 2).
Pritam Singh Chahil’s Translation is as follows,
“The Creator of all is One, the only One. Truth is his name. He is the doer of everything. He is without fear and without enmity. His form is immortal. He is unborn and self-illumined. He is realized by Guru's grace. MEDITATE: He was True in the beginning. He was True through all ages. He is True even now. Guru Nanak says, He shall ever be True. By pondering, one cannot have the conception of God even though one may think million times. Even though one be silent and remain constantly absorbed, He cannot be known by this silence. The hunger of the hungry does not appease even though one may collect loads of worldly valuables. One may have millions of skills but none goes with him in the hereafter. How can one become truthful and dispel the veil
of illusion? Guru Nanak says by obeying the pre-ordained order of the Lord and surrendering to His Will”(Chahil, 1).
Finally the Khalsa Consensus Committee translates the first verse of Jap Ji Sahib as such
“One Universal Creator God. The Name is Truth. Creative Being Personified. No Fear. No Hatred. Image Of The Undying, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent, By Guru's Grace, Chant And Meditate: True In The Primal Beginning. True Throughout The Ages. True Here And Now. O Guru Nanak, Forever And Ever True. By thinking, He cannot be reduced to thought, even by thinking hundreds of thousands of times. By remaining silent, inner silence is not obtained, even by remaining lovingly absorbed deep within. The hunger of the hungry is not appeased, even by piling up loads of worldly goods. Hundreds of thousands of clever tricks, but not even one of them will go along with you in the end. So how can one become truthful? And how can the veil of illusion be torn away? O Guru Nanak, He has written that you shall obey the Hukam of His Command, and walk in the Way of His Will” (Khalsa, 1).
Differences in interpretation become obvious; the first line translated is differently interpreted by all translators and varies in each English verse. If one is not to focus on the words but rather semantics they are generally close in context. It is not noticeable in Dr. Gopal’s translation quote that certain parts are forcibly rhymed by changing grammar and sentence structure; it is easier to notice in the book itself. Instead of actually rewriting poetry as a poet would he is using grammar and breaking up the verses to at his discretion to seem more appealing to the audience, for example the stanza ending with thinks and shrinks, this is a very bad translation method. It is not expected that in English the verse should rhyme if it did in Gurumukhi this distracts from the true purpose of the translation which is creating a new work that has the same value as the original. To make things more difficult Dr. Gopal uses words such as howso and forsooth, howso is not a real word and forsooth has archaic decent and is not a common word. Manmohan Singh's translation, although parallels the Gurumukhi text a lot closer over all in the book, the mentioned verse has serious mistakes also. First, he uses the Indian word lacs and subsequently uses a French word sans. This type of cross language references and words only add to confusion and does not make it a true ‘English’ translation. He also uses outdated language in attempts to stay within context to translate certain words myrmidons, mumpers and mammon. Also, his grammar and sentence structure is not in high command, for example he says “...man may possess thousands and lacs of wits...”, wits meaning intelligences but lacs and thousands means the same thing which is unnecessary to ***, also a numerical value of a thousand is not a measure of intelligence as it is arbitrary and has no basis of relativity. Gurbachan Singh Talib diverges on many of the common words agreed by most other translators, for example, the word soch means thought by all translation other than Gurbachan Singh Talib. Even in Punjabi, the closest language to Gurumukhi (Gurumukhi is written in Punjabi) the word soch means thought. Also his translation of the word sach follows the same method as previously noted for soch as Talib’s definition of ‘sach’ is eternal. His grammar is different but still poor and distracts the reader of modern English. Pritam Singh Chahil's translation is the easiest to read and understand of the previous translations but the grammar is still makes it hard to read and is distracting to the flow of the poetry, for example he is missing the word ‘a’ when he writes “...even though one may think a million times...”. The Khalsa Consensus Committee’s translation is best versed in English, hence being the most recognized translation by modern Sikhs. Fillers and extra words are cut out that are not needed or are not in the original but maintained when needed with appropriate word order, for example”...Simaro simar simar sukh paavao...” is properly translated into “Meditate, meditate, meditate in remembrance, and find peace”. Grammar is much easier to follow by the modern English reader; however, some mistakes exist even in this first verse, when The Khalsa Committee writes “One Universal Creator God. The Name is Truth...”(Khalsa, 1) the first sentence should have ended with a colon as the remaining describing lines are all in reference to God in the first part of the verse before stating “Chant And Meditate” (Khalsa, 1) . Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=37124
The Guru Granth Sahib has also been translated into many other languages, Hindi French and Spanish etc, and is not exclusive to Punjabi and English translations (McLeod, 45). These translations, although important, were not considered in this paper as they are difficult to compare. There are some online translations of certain parts of the Guru Granth Sahib by scholars that were not mentioned as they are not significant in the whole translation and bigger picture, for example The Sikh Education Centre has its own interpretation and very different translation online, but as they are not published or accepted digital sources their credibility and significance is not worth mentioning in detail.
In comparison to some other holy books, like the Qur’an, translation is forbidden and the meanings and semantics are said to only be contained in the original text in the original language (Sells 10). Sikhism and the Guru Granth Sahib do not practice such rigid guidelines as the Holy Book itself is more poetry, stories, messages and understanding rather than a dictation of how to live one’s life, however, the last living guru was quoted as saying that to understand the true essence of the holy book one must learn Gurumukhi (McLeod, 3). The task for Punjabi speaking Sikhs, the majority, to learn Gurumukhi is not hard but as previously mentioned it has roadblocks in its understanding as it is not a commonly spoken language. It is obvious that Khalsa Consensus Committee, headed by Dr.Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa, is the closest appropriate translation as it encompasses all major previous translations and is the first translation that is very grammatically sound. Previous translations are good for referencing and comparing, however, the most widely and commonly used translation is the issue composed by the Khalsa ConsensusCommittee. Problems in translation are many, and although the Khalsa ConsensusCommittee have the closest translation to the original it still is not perfect and as the Guru’s state that the compilation of the book is by divine will its true understanding would be to learn and read it in Gurumukhi in its original form. One word or one grammatical mistake can change so much meanings and messages in a Holy Book, people base their lives and beliefs on these words and there is no room for mistake, this is holy book and should be blemish and mistake ridden as it is literally the last Guru in Sikhism. it is the conclusion of this paper that the Guru Granth Sahib cannot properly and perfectly be translated into English and Sikhs should learn Gurumukhi and interpret the meanings for themselves as intended by the Guru’s and being left open to interpretation of the reader not the interpreted translation of another’s interpretation and possible human error.