You are here

Text, Subtext and Spiritual Experience in the Translation of Guru Nanak’s Japji Sahib into English

By Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa (The following essay is from Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa’s blog, Random Calligraphy: Personal Reflections from an Imperfect Pen.)

Please don’t look for too scholarly an essay here. My background is that I love books and life both and have never really preferred one over the other. I take what I read and try to find practical applications for it in everyday life. I take my life experiences and try to write them down in ways that remind me that we, as humans, do NOT know everything. There are plenty of human experiences that still defy the categorization of words. I love words. I know their power. And their limits. I also love life. And when it comes to choosing one over the other – I tend to put my energy behind life, and if there are no words to describe or explain what is happening, keep myself in the (sometimes uncomfortable) state of confused enjoyment. If something is happening that doesn’t make sense – that’s OK. It’s happening anyway. Enjoy it.

Eighteen years ago, I had the blessing to begin my undergraduate work at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I had no idea what I wanted to “be” or “do” and, over the years, found myself enrolling in a lot of English literature courses and also a lot of courses related to the field of Asian Studies. I studied Chinese language, Chinese history, Asian art, Buddhist philosophy, and also English literature and English literary theory – especially the postmodernists. It’s all a blur now. I can tell you that one of my very favorite books was the one written by Michel Foucault on Magritte’s famous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Through that I learned about the “signifier and the signified.” I also recall Jacques Derrida, who struck me as almost Buddhist with his approach to deconstructing identity – but then, the prose was a little difficult to penetrate. Hélène Cixous opened my eyes to the difference between how men and women experience, and therefore write, about life. And other authors brought me into an awareness of “text and subtext” – how, with every word that is spoken, culture encodes layers of meaning that are unspoken. And then there was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which forced me to ask (though not very loudly): why do we consider a novel that less than 1 percent of the English-speaking population could actually read to be one of the greatest pieces of literature ever?

Back in undergraduate school, I had a difficult time keeping authors and ideas matched properly. Once I absorbed a concept, I could never really remember where it came from, although I knew it came from somewhere. English literary theory and Asian studies really didn’t have anything in common. But towards the end of my undergraduate days, a niggling question started at the back of my mind. If language, as the postmodernists suggested, both constructed and conscripted identity, and if different languages were constructing different cultural identities, then how the heck does one translate something into English? I mean really – how does translation actually work? Especially between languages as radically different as Chinese and English?

The question intrigued me so much I applied for a summer scholarship to study in China and, as luck would have it, they actually gave me the scholarship. What started as a summer program turned into a 13-month stay where I was faced, for the first time, with the reality that, “Wow – not everyone thinks like us” and the realization that no one culture has command over the entire range of human experience. There are phrases and expressions in Chinese that have no equivalent in English at all. But once I learned those phrases and expressions, it broadened my ability to experience life. It opened me to facets of existence that my own culture could have never opened for me.

The conclusion from that time studying in China was that there were problems when it comes to translating foreign texts into English – especially from Asian languages and particularly with poetry. Poetry is a form of linguistic expression where the power of the “text” – the actual written words – completely relies on the “subtext” – the unspoken meanings that are based on the myths, stories, and gestalt of a culture.

For instance, the phrase for “white flower” in Chinese is Bai Hua. It is possible to find this phrase in a piece of Chinese poetry. And in that image, there are a lot of feelings that might be evoked. White, in China, is the color of mourning, of death, of grief. So Bai Hua could be indicative of something beautiful that is gone, something impermanent, death, or grieving.

The word “white” in English does not connote death or grieving. It is associated with innocence, marriage, purity, virginity, chastity. It has a totally different subtext.

This presents a very basic problem in translation. The word “white” in English and Bai in Chinese refer to the same external physical reality: a color. But the subtext in the two cultures is completely different.

If we translate Bai Hua as “white flower,” we preserve the text but lose the subtext.

If we translate Bai Hua as “black flower” (black being the English equivalent of death, mourning, and grieving), we’re attempting to preserve the subtext but we lose the text. And we lose not only the text but also the reference to anything that actually exists in the physical world. Black flowers are not commonly found or would necessarily be considered real.

So to translate Bai Hua into English in a line of poetry, we would have to do something to preserve the text and make the subtext visible to the English reader. Based on the context, we might translate it as:

“A flower cloaked in grieving white.”

What this gives us is a way to translate the total meaning of the line, the spirit of the line, text and subtext together, so that the English phrase may come close to evoking the same emotional experience for an English-speaking person that the original line of Chinese evokes for a Chinese-speaking person.

Of course, this becomes a very subjective process. Even when two people speak the same language, come from the same culture, and share a common understanding of what the subtexts of the images are, a line of poetry can still mean something completely different to those two people. Poetry reminds us that language comes from and accesses something inside of ourselves that is beyond words. Spirit, psyche, what to call it? But poetry shows us there is something in our hearts that moves in ways that are deeply meaningful and not limited to linguistic expression.

By the time I came back from China, I had one semester left before graduating and having to find a job. In that last semester, I started to study Tibetan and toyed with the idea of going to graduate school in order to study Buddhist philosophy with an eye towards translating Tibetan texts. If the issues of translating Chinese poetry into English were intriguing, the whole question became that much more exciting when looking at spiritual texts. But even though my GREs were sound enough to gain entrance into a good graduate school, I couldn’t see myself going into $80,000-100,000 worth of debt just to have very few job prospects at the end of the process. So , I put aside the graduate school applications, gracefully took my diploma, and started my post- college life as a part-time babysitter, part-time investigative journalist.

It’s funny how life has its own synchronicity. In 1998, through a series of events, I found myself moving to Española, New Mexico. Thirty-five years ago, a Sikh man and Kundalini Yoga Master now known by the name of Siri Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji came to the United States. He began teaching Kundalini Yoga to hippies during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For many of these young people, Kundalini Yoga gave them a chance to get off drugs and create a life for themselves that was based on the positive values of the counterculture revolution. A subset of these Kundalini Yoga students, drawn by the turban, the beard, and the stories that Yogi Bhajan told about the Sikh

Gurus, decided to become Sikhs. There is a lot to tell in the history of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere. And it is not in the scope of this essay to tell it. However, it is through my experience with this community and with Yogi Bhajan in particular that this translation of Japji happened.

In 1998, I drove from the Hill Country of Austin, Texas, to the magnificent Jemez Mountains of New Mexico in my little red Toyota Tercel with my dog, Macey, and a car packed with everything I owned. Shall we call it a spiritual journey? Yes. Let’s. There’s so much to tell, but since this is an essay about translating Guru Nanak’s Japji, I’ll just focus on that.

One day, after living in Española for a couple of years, in the heart of a Western Sikh community 300-plus members strong, the Siri Singh Sahib looked at me and said, “Japji cannot be translated unless it’s understood perfectly.” Several months before, Dr. Balkar Singh, who used to head the Siri Guru Granth Sahib Department at Punjabi University in Patiala, had moved to our community. Every time I saw him, there was a little voice inside of me that said, “You really should go talk to him about Gurmukhi.” But the fires that had burned during my undergraduate days had been reduced to barely a flicker and, honestly, I was a little afraid to go back to that passion. After all – I was busy with work. I was in the middle of a difficult marriage. I didn’t have the time. I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t want to be bothered.

But the Siri Singh Sahib has a way of penetrating past the excuses of the mind and speaking directly to the soul. “Japji cannot be translated unless it’s understood perfectly.” As if it was already a foregone conclusion that I would do a translation. As if he was just reminding me of something I had agreed to do before I was born and was pushing me to begin.

Well, I thought, it can’t hurt to at least start learning Gurmukhi. So Dr. Balkar Singh and I began to work together. Every Sunday for 15 months we sat for an hour or two and went through Japji, line by line, word by word and discussed every single syllable of it – text, subtext, and meaning. He was a Gurmukhi scholar with a proclivity towards postmodernism. I was a postmodernist who wanted to understand Gurmukhi. Slowly, we began to build a bridge – a common vocabulary – a shared understanding. We both knew that meanings are not in dictionaries because the dictionaries are confined to text only. Not subtext. And poetry and spirituality are not easily understood even in one’s own language and culture. So much more the difficulty in translating spirituality from one culture to another. I studied with him for 15 months and after those 15 months, in the evenings, on the weekends, in the middle of dealing with a divorce and a hectic work schedule, the translation of Japji slowly took form.

In January of 2003, I was close to finishing the translation when the Siri Singh Sahib called me in to see him. He told me that he wanted me to translate the entire Siri Guru Granth Sahib by next year. (Next year??) He told me he wanted me to understand the cosmology of it and be able to communicate that cosmology in English. And he said that he would work with me on it. Whatever I needed, he would give me.

It was an amazing gift. And an extraordinary challenge. When Westerners first came to Tibet to understand Tibetan Buddhism and translate Tibetan texts, the Lamas wisely refused to let the translations take place until these young Western students had done the spiritual practices and developed the experience that would allow them to understand the texts accurately. Because of this, Buddhism has successfully taken root in Western culture. The Tibetan Lamas and teachers understood that these texts were talking about spiritual experiences of which the Western mind and language had little concept, understanding, or language.

The postmodern literary theorists have given us tools to deconstruct language. Every word is a “signifier” – it is a symbol that points to some reality or experience. External realities like trees and birds are easy to see from multiple viewpoints, multiple languages, and culture. But internal realities like love and fear are harder to map. And the most subtle, sophisticated reality of all – the reality of the Spirit, it almost impossible to map because there are so many political and social power structures based on religion and God. To penetrate to the truth of the Divine requires that we move past culture and language altogether, and this journey challenges societal power structures that have a vested interest in the status quo.

When Guru Gobind Singh gave the Sikhs the Siri Guru Granth Sahib as the Living Guru – the signifier, the written symbols, were uninterrupted sound. There were no spaces to indicate words. There was only sound. And for the devout Sikh, this sound was Divine Sound – meditating upon which the Spirit would awaken.

Yes, linguistic meaning was encoded into the signifier of Gurbani. But the fact that there were no spaces between the words signified that this was no typical text, with definable meaning, but rather a spiritual practice based on Sound - which English has no experience of or language for.

What is the Sound Current? Where is it? How do you prove it exists? The Sound Current is the subtle vibration of the Divine that creates the creation. It is in everything. The proof of its existence is in your own experience through the practice of Gurbani as instructed by the Shabad Guru. These statements are true to the heart of a Sikh who has a sovereign relationship with the Guru. But they are illogical and unprovable in English. And in this clash of approaches between experience and logic, where the foundation for “proof” and “truth” lies becomes an extraordinary issue in translation.