Recently I met Navraj Singh, one of the younger members of the new Southall Committee, and we had a short conversation about translations of the Guru Granth Sahib. We disagreed drastically on the subject but I am very grateful to Navraj Singh as he managed to disagree in friendship.
His point, made in haste as he was on his way to a meeting, was that he did not want any translations of the Guru Granth. I did not get the chance to fully find out his motives but there are some obvious ones that are always trotted out. There is no doubt that it is impossible to do a translation that is an exact copy of the original text in whatever language you translate to.
It is easier to stay near to the original when translating from Dutch to German or from Panjabi to Urdu (as these are closely related languages) than from Guru’s word to a western European language. The additional problem is that we are dealing with poetry. I have seen a rhyming translation done by some Hindu baba and it was awful, as he had to use words because they rhymed, not because they were the best translation.
The Guru Granth is God’s word written down by spiritual giants like our Gurus and the Bhagats. God does not speak in any human language; therefore I think that the words written down are a human translation of the Divine Word spoken in God’s language. God gave the meanings for which Guru found the fitting human words.
This is my understanding, which is neither based on Gurbani nor denied by it. But it is what leads me to my thoughts on translations of the Guru Granth. It is of vital importance that the translator loves God, feels God’s love for us and loves our eternal Guru. The translator should stick to the original text as closely as possible, but her/his motivation should be to transmit the meaning behind the words.
The Rehat Maryada tells us that all Sikhs should study the language of the Guru Granth. I agree and it is what I am doing. But if it was not for the existing (not so wonderful) translations I would never found the motivation to learn more. Manmohan Singh was a poor translator, but he was a good Sikh whose love for Guru can be experienced by the reader.
We need more translations, not less. We need translations that are correct linguistically and that also reflect Guru’s love for God and God’s love for us. We need translations that tackle the fact that God is both male and female. We need translations that reflect the beautiful poetic imagery used by Guru.
We need classes in understanding the Guru Granth more than classes on correct pronunciation. We need classes in Guru’s language more than classes in modern Panjabi. Without the Guru Granth you cannot be a Sikh.