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Every few days or so, I receive an unsolicited email with a short passage from gurbani -- in original Gurmukhi -- accompanied by an English translation. No citation is included. Nor is there any commentary or additional text of any kind.

Earlier this month, I received the following passage and accompanying translation -- I reproduce both of them here verbatim.

Normally, I do not have the time to look at such emails. This one I stumbled into and paused for a minute to read it.

ਕਬੀਰ ਸੰਤ ਮੂਏ ਕਿਆ ਰੋਈਐ ਜੋ ਅਪੁਨੇ ਗ੍ਰਿਹਿ ਜਾਇ ॥
ਰੋਵਹੁ ਸਾਕਤ ਬਾਪੁਰੇ ਜੁ ਹਾਟੈ ਹਾਟ ਬਿਕਾਇ ॥੧੬॥

Kabeer says why do you cry about a saint you idiot he is so ordinary that he goes home after all that happens.
Please cry about the wretched snake; idiot. He is being sold from store to store.

Before I comment on the above, let me first explain where I’m coming from.

*   *   *   *   *

The act of translation is central to the practice of Sikhi today, to the point that it is no longer a luxury or a pastime; it is now, for many of us, integral to our understanding of, and living up to the ideals of our faith.

For ours is no ordinary path whereby one’s religious obligations can be fulfilled through ritual and superstition, or by proxy and delegation. We are married to The Word. Even more so, we’re symbiotically joined to it.

Which involves a relationship based on language and literature, music and poetry. Which in turn urges us to seek meaning and inspiration from the letter and spirit of words so as to enable us to go beyond rote and babble and live in the world of deed and action.

For many reasons -- some good, some bad -- we as a community find ourselves at a juncture where Punjabi and Gurmukhi which, though still central and crucial to our faith, have through sheer necessity become subservient to other tongues in our daily lives.

Blame it on migration and immigration, a world shrunk by mass and instant communication, free cross-border mobility, an intermingling of the races, or the Tower of Bable … or ascribe it to a collective lack of foresight on our part. Whatever. 

But the fact remains that many of us now rely on other languages to filter our thoughts and to formulate our view of the world, both introspective and extroverted. Time is now long past for us to be able to rely on wishful thinking, expecting our children to magically swim in Punjabi and Gurmukhi while we have beached ourselves dry.

We are now reaching the point of a disconnect between the language of our Guru and our ability to comprehend the message.

All is not lost. The answer in the meantime, while we scurry hyperactively (I hope) to correct our collective omissions, is to turn to the art and science of translation.

Which is easier said than done.

Even if we are sold on the idea -- which many of us still aren’t -- one can’t just churn out translations. Especially of Gurbani.

The translated text has to be just right if it is to touch us, inspire us, inform us, transform us … and goad us into action, mental, physical and spiritual.

Therefore, either a translation works, or it doesn’t. There is no happy middle ground.

There are, thus, many, many complete translations into English of the Guru Granth Sahib available to us today. None of them are satisfactory. They lack in poetry and accuracy, in inspiration and imagination. Some are worse, falling short even in language skills -- vocabulary, idiom, punctuation, composition, grammar, you name it.

But at least we are finally trying. When there is sincere and committed effort involved, quantity ultimately begets quality. Hopefully, if enough of us keep at it, someday an equivalent of the King James’s Version will emerge.

We haven’t done as badly with the basic baanis, though.

My favourite by far is, of course, Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh’s collection, published under the title, “The Name of My Beloved”.

I also occasionally turn to Khushwant Singh’s translations, and those published once by an excellent editorial team under the banner of UNESCO. Those by Max Macauliffe and Hew McLeod are also a rich source for me.

As for the translations of the full 1430 pages, I do benefit greatly from the guidance of S. Manmohan Singh ji’s version. And half a dozen others. 

But still, none get my soul singing the way the original does.

Then, why do I need a translation?

First of all, my Punjabi and Gurmukhi skills are limited. Moreover, I think and dream, imbibe and interpret the world through the lens of the English language. For better or worse, I live fully immersed in an English-speaking world.

Therefore, I need to connect with things that are meaningful to me in the language I’m most comfortable with. Which is English.

I’m not the only one. I suspect most of us in the diaspora are in the same boat, even though some of us are not willing or able to recognize this fact. More and more of our brothers and sisters in Punjab are also in the same predicament, though there unfortunately under siege by Hindi as well.

It is therefore imperative, I believe, that we hone our tools … and get on with the task. At the moment, though a number of promising projects are underway, the end of the tunnel remains elusive.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. If the Christians could do it with their Bible, taking the original versions (Old Testament - Hebrew; New Testament - Greek), and producing pure poetry out of it in English, surely we can too.

Of the valiant attempts initiated through the years, some have faltered, others are going ahead, albeit in fits and starts. I wish them all Godspeed.

Nevertheless, I worry that we have still not assembled all the necessary elements for a winning team.

If we want an impeccable English translation, we need expertise in the English language. There can be no ifs and buts about it. Not Indian English, not just decent English, but perfect English. Someone with a literary flair and a wealth of vocabulary, well versed in the western idiom (as opposed to Punjabi), and free of Indianisms.

We need poets. Deft in English poesy -- if the end product is to be in English.

We need expertise in Punjabi and Gurmukhi and the language of the Guru Granth Sahib. Not a smattering of it, but a trained scholar’s variety. A la Christopher Shackle.

We need a deep and wide knowledge of Sikhi, but it must not be just bookish. We need those who are steeped in Sikhi in their daily lives. In the thick of it, not on its periphery, and not distracted by whims and eccentricities and personal agendas. A la the late Maskeen ji. Or Prof Darshan Singh.

We need those who see this as a labour of love, and are free -- or made free -- of economic distractions. 

We need those who are ready, willing and able to dedicate their lives to this project which may well go beyond their own life-spans.

I’m sure there are other ingredients you may wish to add to the list. Some would say, the ability to do team-work, to have a dialogue, to be articulate, to be courageous, to be open-minded. Maybe have knowledge of the world religions too.

And so on and so forth.

No, each member of the team doesn’t have to have all of these elements. Ergo, a team! 

In the meantime, while we wait for the miracle, the great confluence of all these forces of nature and artifice, a cottage industry has sprung around our inherent hunger to understand the baani we enjoy so much, being regaled in it everyday by our magnificent raagis. In the absence of a definitive resource, we -- separately and individually -- strive to find succour in our home-grown translations of pithy passages we come across and wish to explore in greater depth.

I too have dabbled in translating a line here, a line there, but merely for my personal edification. In the process, I’ve learnt of the list of things one needs to make a good translation … and the fact that I sadly lack them.

But I also understand that so many amongst us go through this exercise almost daily. Some even feel the very human urge to share their handiwork -- in the form of the equivalent of “A Thought For The Day” -- and through piety or the desire to inspire others, circulate them freely and widely.

Which brings me to the verse and translation I showed you at the beginning of this essay. Here they are again:

*   *   *   *   *

ਕਬੀਰ ਸੰਤ ਮੂਏ ਕਿਆ ਰੋਈਐ ਜੋ ਅਪੁਨੇ ਗ੍ਰਿਹਿ ਜਾਇ ॥
ਰੋਵਹੁ ਸਾਕਤ ਬਾਪੁਰੇ ਜੁ ਹਾਟੈ ਹਾਟ ਬਿਕਾਇ ॥੧੬॥

Kabeer says why do you cry about a saint you idiot he is so ordinary that he goes home after all that happens.
Please cry about the wretched snake; idiot. He is being sold from store to store.

I am fortunate that I can read the original and also that I understand it on the first read.

When I read the translation, however, it took but an instant to realize that the translator had missed the mark -- quite badly.

I wouldn’t think much of it -- my own translations too are often struggles and misfires -- but what bothers me is that something so off the track is being distributed so freely with an air of implied authority.

It not only does not inspire, but I’m sorry to say it is a total turn-off. If I didn’t know better, I would think there isn’t much in gurbani worth writing home about.

It explains why a Sikh acquaintance of mine who, now in middle age, finally tried to read a bit of gurbani in translation (he knows no Punjabi), and bitterly complained to me that he found nothing of value in it, page after page.

I now understand why, as I look at the translation I’ve put before you.

The level of language skill it uses is the equivalent of the fortune-cookie ’Confucius Say’ parodies that one bandies about when one wants to trivialize something.

To begin with, it conveys no meaning. No context. 

Therefore, it doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t touch you or move you or stir any thought or emotion in you.

It is devoid of poetry.

Some of the words it unabashedly mistranslates. Other words have been inserted willy nilly, out of the blue.

I do wish the person sending this around would’ve first looked at it objectively and asked himself: why do I think others should read this verse? What do I want to convey to them by choosing this verse and sharing it with them?

Here’s what bothers me the most. It is truly a beautiful verse and when I read it in the original it does inspire me. I can see why the person who translated it chose it and went to the extraordinary trouble of translating it and then mass-emailing it.

But good intentions, I’m afraid, are not good enough. Why the hurry to disseminate without first making sure that the translation is correct?

Here’s another translation, verbatim as I found it in Manmohan Singh’s version. It is not perfect. But it will do, because it does capture and convey the meaning.

Kabir, why wail at the death of a saint?
He is merely going to his own Home.

Weep thou for the wretched mammon-worshipper,
who is sold from shop to shop.

Here again, is the version that offends me … please compare the two.

Kabeer says why do you cry about a saint you idiot he is so ordinary that he goes home after all that happens.
Please cry about the wretched snake; idiot. He is being sold from store to store.

*   *   *   *   *

The point of this essay is not to be unnecessarily nitpicking or pernickety, but to remind ourselves that:

a)  Translations are of utmost importance, but it is equally important that they be done right.

b)  The pitfalls in translating are many. None should be taken lightly.
c)  Let’s be careful with what we disseminate as the end product, so that we indeed achieve what we set out to do.

Finally, my apologies to the first un-named translator. My intention is not to belittle him. I recognize his piety and his desire to share his joy, and despite all of the above, honour his passion.

June 26, 2014     

Conversation about this article

1: G Singh (United Kingdom), June 26, 2014, 4:55 PM.

Maskeen ji and Prof Darshan Singh are great but in my own opinion Bhai Pinderpal Singh is the most inspiring and knowledgeable speaker on Gurbani. Even when I don't want to, my mind demands that I listen to him and be drawn into Gurbani.

2: Baljit Kaur (San Jose, California, USA), June 26, 2014, 6:03 PM.

I'm with Sher Singh ji all the way. What's the point of having all those wonderful facilities in our gurdwaras now (simultaneous translation screens, "Sikhi To The Max", etc.) if the English translation is totally uninspired and uninspiring? How difficult is it to hire a non-Sikh litterateur -- that is, an objective outsider -- who can take the existing translations and finesse them into proper English? Why do our community workers get stuck in mediocrity, especially when they are dealing with the Guru? Doesn't The Guru Granth Sahib deserve the very best seva from us?

3: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 26, 2014, 6:19 PM.

Sher ji, what a coincidence. Just a minute ago I have inflicted on you a shabad by Bhagat Ravidas ji that appears at GGS:1196.9. This is most beautifully sung by Bhai Harjinder Singh ji. The site: As is my wont, I always read the Daily Fix before I read anything else, and today your 'Translation' is an apt commentary of this shabad. I stand guilty as charged. In mitigation I pray that I do give the exact ang when on occasion I am a party to your unsolicited mails. [EDITOR/T. Sher Singh: I hope you don't think that it is you who is being referred to in the article as translator ... because it isn't. In fact, your translations and 'unsolicited emails' are a delight and always welcome. As are those from all readers!]

4: H. Kaur (Canada), June 26, 2014, 7:55 PM.

The translation emailed to you is nonsensical. The one you reproduced is better. However, it would be good if besides just a translation there was some explanation provided with such emails. How is the 'sakat' sold, to what shops, what is he a slave to, etc. So many times, gurbani was uttered in specific situations and some metaphors and analogies are used more frequently than others. What about the Sikhs of European origin? What kind of translations do they use? I remember listening to a translation by them on youtube or something and the English terminology used was very poetic and very moving. One wonders if that is consistent, etc. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a benefactor like King James willing to spend a lot of wealth for the service of Sikhi too. Alas, we must in the meantime fumble along on our own.

5: Harpal Singh (Sydney, Australia), June 26, 2014, 8:36 PM.

I periodically receive these emails as well. I have actually emailed back to the sender a couple of times, hoping to get a dialogue going in order to wake him up to his (her?) errors, but didn't get a response. I now simply delete these emails, without reading them. I have also blocked the sender on my email system. However, I've notice he/she uses several IDs for sending these emails.

6: Raj Singh (Markham, Ontario, Canada), June 26, 2014, 8:46 PM.

Baljit Kaur ji (#2): I dread it when they roll down these screens in the gurdwara now. Initially, I loved the idea ... but it didn't take long before it drained all the pleasure out of the kirtan for me. I keep on getting distracted by the mauling of the meaning of the shabad in the English translation. What shocks me is that it is our youth who man these gizmos. They're all educated. No excuse there, or a crutch to lean on to escape responsibility! I'm curious: what do they do? Switch off their brains when they take on this seva? The older generation has a valid excuse or two. But the new? What a shame. [Oh, please don't tell me to close my eyes or ignore them, because they are so in-your-face!] Don't get me wrong -- I don't want them out. But I do want them to fix the language. How difficult is that?

7: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), June 27, 2014, 11:06 PM.

We are certainly stuck between a rock and a hard place. We absolutely need translations of gurbani (good translations!) in English and other major languages, or else how will we teach our children and others about the message of the Gurus? However bad translations are worse than having no translations. #2 and #6: I am totally with you on those English translations on the screens in the gurdwaras. I simply cringe when I read them. Some of them are outright hilarious. It is an insult to gurbani and a source of embarrassment for us all. #4: We have the money in the gurdwaras and in the Sikh community. We also have good parcharaks who can simplify and elaborate on the gurubani in Punjabi and we also have educated Sikhs with a good command of the English language to translate the bani in such a fashion that it retains at least some of poetic essence as well as convey the message. We simply have to put our collective energy on utilizing these resources.

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