I finished the Preface to the first volume of my translation of the Hymns to the Maruts with the following words: 'The second volume, which I am now preparing for Press, will contain the remaining hymns addressed to the Maruts. The notes will necessarily have to be reduced to smaller dimensions, but they always constitute the more important part in a translation or, more truly, in a deciphering of Vedic hymns'.
This was written more than twenty years ago, but though since that time Vedic scholarship has advanced with giant steps, I still hold exactly the same opinion which I held then with regard to the principles that ought to be followed by the first translators of the Veda. I hold that they ought to be decipherers, and that they are bound to justify every word of their of their translation in exactly the manner in which the decipherers of hieroglyphic or cuneiform inscriptions justify every step they take. I therefore called my translation the first traduction raisonnee. I took as an example which I tried to follow, though well aware of my inability to reach its excellence, the Commentaire sur le Yasna by my friend and teacher, Eugene Burnouf. Burnouf considered a commentary of 940 pages quarto as by no means excessive for a thorough interpretation of the first, chapter of the Zoroastrian Veda, and only those unacquainted with the real difficulties of the Rig-veda would venture to say that its ancient words and thoughts required a less painstaking elucidation than those of the Avesta. In spite of all that has been said and written to the contrary, and with every wish to learn from those who think that the difficulties of a translation of Vedic hymns have been unduly exaggerated by me, I cannot in the least modify what I said twenty, or rather forty years ago, that a mere translation of the Veda, however accurate, intelligible, poetical, and even beautiful, is of absolutely no value for the advancement of Vedic scholarship, unless it is followed by pieces justificatives, that is, unless the translator gives his reasons why he has translated every word about which there can be any doubt, in his own way, and not in any other.
It is well known that Professor von Roth, one of our most eminent Vedic scholars, holds the very opposite opinion. He declares that a metrical translation is the best commentary, and that if he could ever think of a translation of the Rig-veda, he would throw the chief weight, not on the notes, but on the translation of the text. 'A translation', he writes, 'must speak for itself. As a rule, it only requires a commentary where it is not directly convincing, and where the translator does not feel secure.
Between opinions so diametrically opposed, no compromise seems possible, and yet I feel convinced that when we come to discuss any controverted passage, Professor von Roth will have to adopt exactly the same principles of translation which I have followed.
On one point, however, I am quite willing to agree with my adversaries, namely, that a metrical rendering would convey a truer idea of the hymns of the Vedic Rishis than a prose rendering. When I had to translate Vedic hymns into German, I have generally, if not always, endeavoured to clothe them in a metrical form. In English I feel unable to do so, but I have no doubt that future scholars will find it possible to add rhythm and even rhyme, after the true meaning of the ancient verses has once been determined. But even with regard to my German metrical translations, I feel in honesty bound to confess that a metrical translation is often an excuse only for an inaccurate translation. If we could make sure of a translator like Ruckert, even the impossible might become possible. But as there are few, if any, who, like him, are great alike as scholars and poets, the scholar seems to me to be doing his duty better when he produces a correct translation, though in prose, than if he has to make any concessions, however small, on the side of faithfulness in favour of rhythm and rhyme.
If a metrical, an intelligible, and, generally speaking, a beautiful translation were all we wanted, why should so many scholars clamour for a new translation, when they have that by Grassmann? It rests on Bohtlingk and Roth's Dictionary, or represents, as we are told, even a more advanced stage of Vedic scholarship. Yet after the well-known contributors of certain critical Journals had repeated ever so many times all that could possibly be said in praise of Grassmann's and in dispraise of Ludwig's translation, what is the result? Grassmann's metrical translation, the merits of which, considering the time when it was published, I have never been loth to acknowledge, is hardly ever appealed to, while Ludwig's prose rendering, with all its drawbacks, is universally considered as the only scholarlike translation of the Rig-veda now in existence. Time tries the troth in everything.
There is another point also on which I am quite willing to admit that my adversaries are right. 'No one who knows anything about the Veda,' they say, 'would think of attempting a translation of it at present. A translation of the Rig-veda is a task for the next century'. No one feels this more strongly than I do; no one has been more unwilling to make even a beginning in this arduous undertaking. Yet a beginning has to be made. We have to advance step, nay, inch by inch, if we ever hope to make a breach in that apparently impregnable fortress. If by translation we mean a complete, satisfactory, and final translation of the whole of the Rig-veda, I should feel inclined to go even further than Professor von Roth. Not only shall we have to wait till the next century for such a work, but I doubt whether we shall ever obtain it. In some cases the text is so corrupt that no conjectural criticism will restore, no power of divination interpret it. In other cases, verses and phrases seem to have been jumbled together by later writers in the most thoughtless manner. My principle therefore has always been, Let Us translate what we can, and thus reduce the untranslateable portion to narrower limits. But in doing this we ought not to be too proud to take our friends, and even our adversaries, into our confidence. A translation on the sic volo sic jubeo principle does far more harm than good. It may be true that a judge, if he is wise, will deliver his judgment, but never propound his reasons. But a scholar is a pleader rather than a judge, and he is in duty bound to propound his reasons.
In preparing this volume, which contains the greater part of the Agni hymns of the Rig-veda, namely, those of the Mandalas I-V, the translator enjoyed the high advantage of Professor Max Muller's assistance, in the way stated in the Introduction to the first volume of Vedic Hymns, Sacred Books of the East, vol. xxxii, P. xxvii.
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