This leads me back to the “dilemma” in my title. To reiterate: when we ask our students to grapple with difficult texts like the Gita, particularly (though not exclusively) when we associate them with non-Western origins, should we foreground their strangeness, or do we build familiarity? In the little story I’ve told here, the Miller translation leans toward familiarity, and the Patton translation toward strangeness. Each has its obvious advantages and disadvantages. The Miller translation is resonant, sonorous, relatively easy to grasp, and intuitively appealing – but, by all accounts, it’s less faithful to the original. The Patton translation is conceptually precise and carefully documented, but it’s also hard to read. It contains many more proper names and untranslated Sanskrit terms, and it often avoids recognizably “spiritual” language. It’s not difficult to recognize in Miller a loosely Protestantized version of Upanishadic mysticism, an emphasis on transcending externals and overcoming temptations for the sake of attaining inner peace – the development of a sort of universal gnosis – and a corresponding deemphasizing of the particularly Indian elements of the text. Patton eschews these tendencies, but at the cost of accessibility and aesthetic power.
Here I'll offer one further illustration of this difference. In a conceptually difficult passage, Miller’s language – though far from simple – sticks close to literary English convention:
A. Eternal and supreme is the infinite spirit; its inner self is called inherent being; its creative force, known as action, is the source of creatures’ existence. (p. 79, 8.3)
Patton, by comparison, is dense and technical. Even the syntax seems contorted.
B. Brahman is the highest imperishable; the highest self is said to be one’s own nature, giving rise to all states of being; action is understood as “sending forth.” (p. 94, 8.3)
Here, again, there is a recognizably “spiritual” quality to Miller’s diction, which I can’t help but think Patton is self-consciously avoiding. “Eternal and supreme” is a recognizably theological way to describe a god; “the highest imperishable” sounds like something you might find among the canned goods in your grandparents’ fallout shelter. The phrase “action is understood as ‘sending forth’,” again, verges on incomprehensibility, whereas “the source of creatures’ existence” is relatively straightforward.
The examples could be multiplied. Miller offers us something that we can grasp with relative ease, something that fits with our own preexisting notions of what a religion – and specifically an Eastern, highly “spiritual” religion – should look like, where Patton challenges us with diction and syntax that make clear the extent of the problem, reminding us of how little we really know about the Gita’s intellectual world.
So what do we make of this? Pedagogically, the obvious “right” choice here is to foreground neither strangeness nor familiarity but rather to create an environment where a dialogic interplay of strangeness and familiarity can form the ground of learning and genuine engagement. On the other hand, though, we had to pick one of these two translations to use. I have to confess that I don’t have a resolution to offer here. It is my hope, at least, that a clearer awareness of these inescapable choices can help inform my own teaching as I return to the Gita in the fall of 2016.
Miller, Barbara Stoler, tr. and ed. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.
Patton, Laurie L., tr. and ed. The Bhagavad Gita. London; New York: Penguin, 2008.