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Location: New Mexico

Publications: Japji Sahib: The Song of the Soul by Guru Nanak translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Anand Sahib: The Song of Bliss by Guru Amar Das translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Available through www.sikhdharma.org.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

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

Edited from the original post in the SikhNet Discussion Forum
November 6, 2003

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 every day 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 post-modernists. 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 Magrite'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. Helene 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% of the English-speaking population could actually read as 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 post-modernists 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 the scholarship to me. 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 gestault 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 in Chinese 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 loose 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 loose the text. And not only loose the text but loose 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 translates 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 langauge, come from the same culture and share a common understanding of what the subtexts of the images are - still - a line of poetry can 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 GRE's 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 Espanola, New Mexico. 35 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 hippees during the late 1960's and early 70's. 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 counter-culture 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 Espanola 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 post-modernism. I was a post-modernist 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 post-modern 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 view-points, 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 all together 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 sublte virbation 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 this clash of approaches between experience and logic - where the foundation for "proof" and "truth" lies becomes an extraordinary issue in translation.

I finished the translation of Japji and gave it to the Siri Singh Sahib. His response. "It's zircons, but not diamonds." My ego was in it. My intellectual ego. My artistic ego. I was trying to be clever. I was trying to be...something. And he saw right through it. Yes, maybe it was well-written, but the vibration of it was all wrong. Two years worth of work. I threw it away and started over again.

"When the sun is 60 degrees to the earth, you can understand Gurbani perfectly" he told me. " In the Amrit Veyla and the twilight hours. Those are the times of day to translate. When the sun is 30 degrees to the earth, you are half-wise and half-foolish."

I had never translated during the Amrit Veyla, the hours before sunrise. Although Guru Nanak says in Japji in the Fourth Pauree,

Fayr ke agai rakhee-ai jit disai darbaar.
Muhou ke bolan bolee-ai jit sun Dharay pi-aar.
Amrit vaylaa sach naa-o vadi-aa-ee veechaar.
Karmee aavai kaprhaa nadree mokh du-aar.
Naanak ayvai jaanee-ai sabh aapay sachiaar. 4

What can we
Place before You
That will allow us
To see the splendor
Of Your Divine and Noble Court?

What words can we speak
With our own lips
That, upon hearing,
You would touch us
With Your Love?

In the Amrit Veyla,
The still hours before sunrise,
Our True Spirit
Becomes known
As we meditate upon
Your Greatness.

By the consequences
Of our positive past actions,
We have been gifted
This robe of human form.

Grace leads us
To the gate of liberation
Found within it.

In this way know,
All people
Hold the Truth
Within themselves."

It is one of the first instructions the Guru gives a Sikh - to meditate in the Amrit Veyla, in the hours before sunrise. For years, I had done my sadhana, my daily spiritual practice, during that time. So I changed the focus of my sadhana and started working on the translation of Japji during those hours. And this was my experience- which the English language cannot really express and which the main stream English culture will hardly believe.

Gurbani is not just words or just Sound - but a Guiding Living Consciousness. I had to put my thoughts aside, my mind, my prejudices - and just open my own heart. Jap - continually, meditatively reflecting. Sunia - deeply listenting. And in that space of Jap and Sunia - the Sound within my own heart told me what the line meant. It was magic but only because English doesn't have any other word besides magic to describe it. In a wholistic way, the Sounds, themselves, showed me what they meant - in a way that was not bound by concept or words. Then the challenge was to find the words in English to convey the experience of my own heart. And this was profound, transforming, sometimes scary, sometimes confusing. But very very real.

The Siri Guru Granth Sahib is not a collection of scripture. It is something so far beyond scripture that we have neither the words nor the intellect to comprehend it. It is a power that calls the Human Spirit to awaken. It is a Guiding Consciousness that can teach us in a very direct and clear way...providing we do the practice. Amrit Veyla. Jap. Sunia. Mania - trusting what we hear when that Sound speaks directly to our own hearts.

The second translation of Japji took only a few weeks during the Amrit Veyla and that experience is, perhaps, another story for another day. But it showed me that the Siri Guru Granth Sahib is truly something new on the earth. I understand how two Sikhs, fighting back to back, could defeat a hundred men. I understand why there was a time when there was a price offered for the head of every Sikh. It was because this Guru gives humans access to our Spirit in a direct and powerful way. The practice of the Sound Current is a spiritual discipline that leads to the human potential completely unfolding in all its dignity, grace and beauty. It is that fully-realized human that the society of those times found so threatening. And it is because the Shabad has been misunderstood that many Sikhs have lost their connection with Its Pure Power.

Text, subtext and spiritual experience. In this translation of Japji, these three forces play together. Not to define what Guru Nanak Dev ji wrote, but to simply reflect what the Shabad whispered to me during the Amrit Veyla. And just as poetry will take on different meanings for different people, the Shabad will speak to each person's heart in Its own way. There is no need for any final definitions of Gurbani - just as there is no need for evolution to cease. Always new experiences are unfolding before us and the Shabad has the power to guide us through and open us to previously unknown worlds.

What is true is not definition. What is true is the power of Sound and the effect is has when we practice the way the Guru teaches.

The Siri Singh Sahib hasn't spoken to me about this second translation of Japji. But in my heart, I know the answer. In nature, diamonds come from extraordinary pressure - they crystallize into something beautiful and clear. But flawless diamonds are rare. The pressure creates flaws in almost all of them.

So let us say that yes - this translation is diamonds, created through the pressure of spiritual experience. But it is not flawless - it is not perfect. And whatever light and beauty is here is only the palest reflection of the Pure Light and Infinite Beauty of Gurbani.

May you be blessed unto Infinity and may the Light of the Divine within your own heart make itself known to you and guide your way on.

All love in the Divine.

Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh.


Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa
Espanola, NM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sat Shri Akal

I enjoyed reading about your experience of translating Japji Sahib. I have read it and I feel it is the "right" English translation. For some time now I have been trying to find the "right" English translation. For me it is something that doesn't make my mind have the experience but the soul. For example translating Sat Naam would be His name is truth. But "his" and "is" are extra that makes the mind kind of do the reading instead of the heart. Or if it was translated to Truth Name but that doesn't make sense. Unfortunately I do not understand Punjabi that well and so sometimes I feel the need to read the English translation. In future I hope Waheguru may bless you to continue doing these translations.

10:51 AM  
Blogger narinder pal singh said...

i was going through this translation so i thought i must share my views with you people:
i just wanna share one line and you people can start scraching your head again to understand it better. to translate any bani from Guru Granth sahib it is very important to learn the basic philosphy of religion,anyway?
Ämrit vela sach nao vadiyayee vichar"
the maening as per my understanding is"any time during which you meditate and discuss God's virtues or do the things truthfully keeping God in mind or keeping your mind free from sins
( KAM,KRODH, LOBH, MOH,AHANKAR) that time is AMRIT VELA. It is nothing to do with the time before SUNRISE. Just think and decide The time before SUNRISE is the best for theives they use this time for stealing/theft etc because most of the people are deep asleep.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Ek Ong Kaar Kaur said...

Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh.

Dear Gurinder Paul ji.

Many blessings to you.

The translation of Amrit Veyla as the hours before sunrise is something that came from Yogi Bhajan and is rooted in the village wisdom from Punjab from almost a century ago. If you read the Sikh sakhis, there are stories of the Gurus talking about the necessity to meditate before the sun rise in the morning. Sometimes when the meaning of the practical aspect of a word gets lost through time and through dis-use, the word become more metaphorical. As in your view of it simply meaning any time you discuss God's virtue. But there is something deeper there -hidden in the past - that points to an actual action that people used to do.

The hours before the sunrise are the time when your breathing is the most shallow and you have the most exhaustive dreams. The sages in the East discovered long ago that it is better to be awake at that time, chant, sing, meditate and consciously engage the subconscious cleansing that happens during those hours. Those who wake up at that time and do the work find tremendous healing and transformation in their lives.

In the West, we do understand this a little bit as well. "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealth and wise."It's a perfect description of the spiritual technology of Amrit Veyla.

Thank you for reading the essay and taking the time to engage in a dialogue about this. I hope this helps explain a bit where the translation of Amrit Veyla originated.

With Divine Light and many blessings,

Ek Ong Kaar Kaur

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vaheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Vaheguru Ji Ki Fateh

I have stumbled across your blog today...almost 12 years since you posted this essay and all I can think is that this is truly a divine intervention. Your translation of the Anand Sahib and your explanations of contextual accuracy resonate with my own limited understanding. I look forward to sourcing and reading your publications.

9:06 PM  

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