Last updated on July 16, 2018
The objections to Truschke’s tweets were never about interpretation
It is nothing short of poetic justice that the final blow to claims made by Audrey Truschke about Sitaji’s use of the phrase “misogynist pig” in Valmiki’s Ramayana came on Sita Navami, the day the goddess’ appearance is celebrated.
On that day (April 24), Swarajya magazine published an email by American Sanskrit scholar Professor Robert P Goldman, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, The University of California (Berkeley, US), in which he summarily dismissed Truschke’s “loose translation”.
Four days earlier (April 20) Truschke’s claims had surfaced on social media — in another coincidence of sorts, her tweets came close on the heels of poet Allama Iqbal’s death anniversary that is marked on April 21. In a homage to Lord Ram, Iqbal wrote:
Hai Raam ke wajood pe Hindustaan ko naaz
Ahl-e-Nazar samajhte hain us ko Imam-e-Hind
(India is proud of the existence of Ram,
People with vision consider him prelate of India)
That, however, shouldn’t make it a case of reverence — something for which there can’t be any expectation of or demand for. Where Truschke failed is something very basic to scholarly work: honesty while quoting/translating (even if “loosely”) words of your “sources”. (This is very different from the act of interpretation — something she cites as an excuse in her defence).
Professor Goldman’s email clearly repudiated Truschke’s tweet, which had claimed that his translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana contained abusive words used by Sitaji against Lord Ram. It’s not that such claims needed any more refutation than seeing how false they were when verified with Valmiki’s original version. What Professor Goldman’s email, however, did quite clearly is that it exposed Truschke’s act of passing the buck of a blatantly flawed translation of a specific shloka to another scholar.
In many ways, what Truschke did on social media was actually an academic equivalent of spreading fake news (attributing words to Valmiki and Professor Goldman that they never wrote). It went like this. On April 20, Trustchke tweeted this: “There was a time when Dasaratha’s sons could handle criticism from Sita. You should hear what she said to Rama during the agnipariksha, and her unseemly accusations against Lakshmana when he hesitated to go after Rama in the golden deer incident. https://scroll.in/latest/875974/… #Ramayana”
She continued in her next tweet, “For anyone unfamiliar with these episodes, in Valmiki’s telling (I’m loosely translating here): During the agnipariksha, Sita basically tells Rama he’s a misogynist pig and uncouth. During the golden deer incident, Sita accuses Lakshmana of lusting after her and setting up Rama.”
When challenged to provide the exact Sanskrit verses in Valmiki’s Ramayana (because she had cited “Valmiki’s telling”), she didn’t quote the shlokas from the text. Instead she tweeted a reference to “3.43 and 6.103 respectively, of the Sanskrit critical edition” translated by Professor Goldman.
To begin with, the reference was wrongly numbered and later corrected in a subsequent tweet in which she again based her claims on Goldman’s translation along with a hashtag for her critics, #RamayanaGate, “Re #RamayanaGate over here, let me correct the reference for Sita’s agnipariksa to 6.102-106; criticism from Sita in 6.104. Given here in the English translation of Goldman. Note, especially, vv. 5, 7, and 14. pic.twitter.com/ogmONZJaqq”
At that point even if one were to believe that Goldman translated it in the words Truschke attributed to him, it could be easily refuted by going back to actual shlokas in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Many Sanskrit scholars were quick to point it out in a country where Ramayana’s verses are recited daily by millions. The presence of words like “misogynist pig” was also firmly denied with evidence by the translator Truschke cited. In his reply to a request for clarification by an IT professional, Professor Goldman nailed Truschke’s false claims.
A refutation by the source wasn’t merely a disagreement, as Truschke later tried to state in her defence, it was a clear indictment on how dishonest she was in attributing to him words he never wrote. Here is Professor Goldman’s mail published in Swarajya (by “we” he is referring to his co-translator and himself):
“I find it extremely disturbing but perhaps not unexpected to learn that AT (Audrey Trushcke) has used such inappropriate language and passed it off as coming from Valmiki. Neither the great poet nor we (referring to his co-translator and himself) used anything like such a vulgar diction and certainly Sita would never have used such language to her husband even in the midst of emotional distress. Nowhere in our translation of the passage do we use words such as you mention AT as using.
When she refers to the ‘critical edition’ she is referring to the Sanskrit text of the Ramayana as reconstructed by the scholars at the Oriental Institute of Baroda. We have, of course translated the whole text but she is in no way quoting our translation but giving her own reading of the passage in her own highly inappropriate language.
Sita is, or course distressed by Rama’s words when she is first reunited with him after her captivity. But her speech is dignified and moving. We have tried to capture her level of diction in our translation which nowhere uses either an anachronistic term like ‘misogynistic’ or the utterly vulgar and wildly inappropriate term ‘pig’. Quite shocking, really. It seems as if she is superimposing her own feelings on the poetry of the Adikavi. It has nothing to do with our translation.
For your information, I am attaching a copy of our published translation of the relevant passage.”
This mail further refuted Truschke’s claims (as she was relying on Goldman’s translation) what Sanskrit scholars could easily do after reading the relevant shlokas in the Yudh-Kand. The passage expresses the agony of Sitaji and her subsequent criticism of Lord Ram for willing to abandon her. However, in Valmiki’s words, the monologue is dignified and never resorts to abusive words which Truschke somehow imagines in Valmiki’s text.
The objections raised on Truschke’s tweet were never about her “interpretation” — there can be many interpretations and indeed many of them exist. Ramayana and Lord Ram have grown strongly with various ways of being told (including critical ones). Among other things, the scope for multiple ways to tell Ramayana has been provided by the interplay of anthropomorphism and divinity in the epic.
Truschke’s dishonesty pertains to mixing subjective interpretation with “loose translation” of the great poet’s work. This is what economist, Sanskrit scholar and translator Bibek Debroy, whose translation of Valimiki’s Ramayana was published last year (The Valmiki Ramayana, Penguin Random House, 2017), said in a tweet: “There is no question of interpretation here. Is the word pig used? No. The word “know” is used in a certain sense in the Bible. Am I at liberty to replace it with the F-word and say it is my interpretation? I don’t think so.” In her meandering response to criticism about such academic impropriety, Truschke resorted to that overused defence strategy: playing the victimhood card. This rests on the belief that if your voice isn’t important or authentic enough, creating a perception of it being muzzled will make it one.
With a series of obfuscations, Truschke evaded some key questions: how can interpretation be an excuse for what she had claimed in her tweet to be a “loose translation”? What type of translation allows a scholar to add colloquial words to the original text — words that neither existed in Valmiki’s Ramayana or in Goldman’s translation? She neither had any answer to these questions nor did she accept the blunder. Instead she accused the “Hindu Right” of stifling “interpretation” and earlier highlighted abusive trolling on social media. The latter is an ugly (and unfortunate) side of online combats, and must be categorically condemned. However, the former charge doesn’t pass muster.
In a well-argued rebuttal to Truschke’s assertions, Nityanand Misra and Shankar Rajaraman have countered Truschke through various perspectives, including that of Sanskrit poetics. The piece should be read for its clinical demolition of her claims as well as its invitation for a debate in Sanskrit on the issue.
However, even if we leave contextual understanding for subjectivity, Truschke’s primary failure was a grossly flawed translation. Second, she was as clueless as her online defenders in arguing the basis for what she termed as “loosely translated” from Valmiki’s Ramayana.
Ironically, Truschke seems quite keen on applying standards of modern-day feminism to mythological characters and religious texts in Hinduism. Be that as it may, it is her prerogative to do so and she can very well interpret Ramayana as she likes. What, however, isn’t acceptable is that such ideas distort the “translations” she cites and sometimes robs it of the context too.
In the wake of her current distortions, commentators have also seen a reflection of what Edward Said had diagnosed in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Said critiqued the West’s patronising and deeply flawed cultural representation of the East.
Though he was writing this in the context of the Middle East, the parallels aren’t hard to draw. Edward Said wrote, “The acquired foreign language is therefore made part of a subtle assault upon populations, just as the study of a foreign region like the Orient is turned into a program for control by divination”.
The “Ramayana Gate”, then, is not a case of India’s “distrust” of foreign scholarship and interpretations, but a reminder of why foreign scholars need to engage with more curiosity, cultural understanding and honesty. A degree of accuracy while quoting texts would certainly help in the process. Truschke’s claims reminds one of what George Eliot once said, “Blessed is the man who having nothing to say abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.” Such people are in short supply, obviously.
This article has been re-published with the permission of Newslaundry. Read the original article on www.newslaundry.com