Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Translating the Utras

There are supernatural beings in the Mandaean religious tradition called Utras (sometimes transliterated Uthras). The word 'utra has the root meaning of "wealth" but translating it that way might obscure the fact that this is a technical term for spiritual beings, and certainly would not be intelligible without a footnote and commentary.

One of the challenges translators face is illustrated by this example. Leaving the term untranslated and referring to Utras might capture that this is a technical term, but it also leaves the translator feeling as though they have simply failed to translate. But other options - angels, aeons, spirits, powers - seem either too broad, or too specific, or too loaded with specific connotations from other traditions.

Those of us involved in this project will be having ongoing discussions about this and other similar translation issues, and we'd love input from people who work on Aramaic, ancient religious texts, and other related fields. But we'd also love input from those who read translations of ancient texts, about how you feel when a word is simply left untranslated with a footnote, and conversely, when it is translated and a footnote indicates that there isn't a precise correspondence with the English word used.


  1. My *personal preference* would be a transliteration, accompanied with an explanatory paragraph.

    A gloss of "Powers" or "Plenties" (I just made that up) would work for me, but there is no substitute for a precise, technical term.

    Additionally, you may find that it catches on in scholarly literature, and then you would become somewhat more immortal.

  2. I don't work with ancient religious texts, but translating Japanese often poses the same problems. Japanese folklore and religion is full of beings that have no easy translation in English.

  3. sounds like a good candidate for trascription rather than translation

  4. For a text to be intelligible to a layman reader the word ought to be approximated by an english equivalent. In a text for scholars and students using the most specific term available is probably preferrable.

  5. This reminds me a bit of the word "Nephilim."

    As a reader, when a word doesn't have a direct translation, I usually prefer that it be left untranslated...forcing me to do a bit of extra research to find out the background and nuances of meaning.

  6. i am with the leaving it untranslated with a footnote. the word not having a meaning in modern language is important to know. if it is something already known than that would be agreed upon, but a mystery word with many possible meanings allows you to begin to enter into a new realm of thought possibly.

  7. Working mainly on Sanskrit texts, I often have to face similar problems.
    I tend to favour translations in the form of explanations, i.e., I translate "bādha" with "subsequent invalidating cognition". On the other hand, I do not translate termini technici when they are the topic about which the text discusses. In your case, I would use something like "the auspicious spirits" (I am just guessing) unless I were to translate a text which explains what they are/what they do… In the latter case I would leave the original term untranslated, the reader will anyway come to know a lot about them. Moreover, I would leave it untranslated if it is frequently connected with further adjectives, in order to avoid odd clauses such as "the magnanimous, dark-eyes auspicious spirits".
    From a general point of view: to leave too many terms untranslated would make the reader's work too hard, but "wealth" (or "obstacle" for "bādha") is too vague. It needs a further specification (Wealth-spirit, at least). I tend to favour glossaries above footnotes, unless you want to repeat the same footnote over and over again. Last: I would not leave more than, say, 1% of the words untranslated. Would you understand (even with footnotes) a sentence like: "Kumārila's svataḥ prāmāṇya theory consists in the idea that the vyāpāra of a pramāṇa might be falsified by a bādha"?

    (In case you are interested in a Sanskritist's reflections on this topic:

  8. I am indeed interested - thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this!