Webinar TT23

The Early Text Cultures webinar for Trinity Term 2023 will be on the theme of  Multilingualism/Vernacularism and Translation Practices. The webinar intends to contribute to correcting the asymmetry that still shapes the framing of the premodern cultural relations between South Asia and their ‘local’ appropriation. The webinar intends to elaborate a more precise definition of the dynamics of multilingualism/vernacularization and localization intervening in different cultural contexts. In so doing, we will explore translation practices associated with specific linguistic communities that will allow us to raise questions about transformation and transfer of premodern texts across linguistic, geographical, and social boundaries.

The webinar will be held online via Zoom, on Friday 2 June 2023 from 10:00 - 12:30 (UK Time). To receive the Zoom link, please register here.



Introductory Remarks 

Aleksandra Wenta (University of Florence)


Andrea Acri (École Pratique des Hautes Études, PSL University & École française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris)

“Translation dyads” in the Sanskrit–Old Javanese Śaiva tutur literature from Java and Bali

An extensive body of religious literature, known as tutur and tattva, was composed in Java and Bali in the period from c. the ninth to the sixteenth century, and has been preserved up to the present on palm-leaf manuscripts. It is mainly concerned with the reconfiguration of Indic metaphysics, philosophy, soteriology, and ritual along localized lines, and often built in the form of Sanskrit verses provided with an Old Javanese prose exegesis—each unit forming a “translation dyad”. The Old Javanese prose parts document cases of linguistic and cultural localization that could be regarded as broadly corresponding to the Western categories of translation, paraphrase, and commentary, but which often do not fit neatly into any one category. My talk will discuss “translation dyads” from various published and unpublished sources, whose vernacular portions reflect “cultural translations” that document a creative reuse of Indic material. In so doing, it will highlight the ways in which local agents (re-)interpreted, synthesized, fractured, and restated the messages conveyed by the Sanskrit verses in the light of their contingent contexts, agendas, and prevalent exegetical practices.


Noemie Verdon (University of Lausanne)

Al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb Pātanğal and Kitāb Sānk: Methods and Strategies of Translation

The Perso-Muslim polymath al-Bīrūnī lived in Central Asia between the tenth and the eleventh centuries CE. In his monograph on India, the Taḥqīq mā li-l-Hind (ca. 1030), al-Bīrūnī abundantly quotes two texts related to classical Sāṅkhya and Yoga philosophies which he had also translated from Sanskrit to Arabic. The two texts are respectively titled in Arabic the Kitāb Sānk and the Kitāb Pātanğal. As for the former, extracts of it are scattered in the Taḥqīq mā li-l-Hind; which remains our only source of knowledge of this work. A complete manuscript of the latter exists today and was edited by Hellmut Ritter in 1956. Several established scholars, such as Carl Edward Sachau (1888), Richard Garbe (1894; 1917), Junjiro Takakusu (1904) or Shlomo Pines and Tuvia Gelblum (1966; 1977; 1983; 1989) attempted to identify the Sanskrit sources of these translations. Their efforts however never reached conclusive results.

After an introduction to al-Bīrūnī’s life and intellectual context, the presentation will focus on the methods and strategies he adopted when composing the Kitāb Sānk and the Kitāb Pātanğal. Rather than proposing a literal translation, al-Bīrūnī is offering his own interpretation of Indian philosophical concepts to a Perso-Muslim readership. During this process of cultural translation, the scholar negotiated a great deal with his Sanskrit sources. The presentation connects the context in which al-Bīrūnī studied Sanskrit with his interpretative choices when he translated the two works related to Sāṅkhya and Yoga from Sanskrit to Arabic.


Maciej Karasiñski (Hainan University)

“Our mantras are more powerful” – The Use of Sanskrit and Malayalam in the texts of Kerala Śākta Tantra

In this paper I would like to discuss the problem of bilingual mantras used in the Śākta traditions of Kerala. My study of the ritual manuals of the so-called Śākteya Brahmins of Kerala shows that bilingual mantras (i.e. written in a mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit) were possibly revered even more than those written in Sanskrit. Śākteya Brahmnin families of modern Kerala trace their lineage (guru-paramparā) to the masters of Kashmiri Śaivism who wrote their works in Sanskrit. However, the Brahmins also believe in the magical power of local Malayalam incantations (mantravāda). In addition, the texts of the Śākteya tradition invoke deities of Kashmiri Śaivism, Śrīvidyā and local genii loci. These invocations, which combine Sanskrit mantras with Malayalam eulogies and magical formulas, are therefore considered unique and powerful. Moreover, in the Śākteya groves and temples, local guardian spirits are invoked in addition to the deities known from the Krama Sanskrit texts. In my presentation I will comment on the structure of the mantras in the ritual manuals of the Śākteya families from the Kozhikode region and try to answer questions about their peculiar polyglossia. Are these texts sacred scriptures or shorthand notes of ritual experts? Are the unusual spellings mistakes or are the texts perhaps meant to be deciphered by initiated adepts who know several Indian languages?


Ruixuan Chen (Peking University)

“In Khotanese It Does Not Seem to Be the Dharma” The Quandaries of the Buddha’s Word in the Book of Zambasta

The Book of Zambasta is a voluminous Buddhist poem written in Khotanese, an Eastern Middle Iranian language which was once spoken on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin (present-day Xinjiang, China). The name and floruit of the poet remains unclear, however there is some circumstantial evidence suggesting it to be a work of the 5th century CE. At that time, Gāndhārī and Sanskrit were still jockeying for the prestige of the language of Buddhism in the larger Buddhist world, and many non-Indic-speaking peoples along the Silk Road started developing literacy for their own languages on the basis of Gupta Brāhmī script. Against this historical backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the Book of Zambasta exhibits some remarkable features which, if properly unpacked, may tell intriguing stories about the issue of multilingualism/vernacularism as well as the tensions between Buddhist canonicity and translation from a comparative perspective. In this presentation, attempts will be made to shed light on at least some of these features, in accord with cutting-edge developments in the field of Khotanese philology.


Lubomir Ondracka (Charles University)

Translating Awadhī into Bengali: Yogi khaṇḍa in Jāyasī’s Padumāvat and Ālāol’s Padmābatī

Mālik Mohammad Jāyasī’s epic poem Padumāvat is a masterpiece of Sūfī premākhyān literature. Composed in Avadhī language in 1540, the poem soon became popular and was translated or adapted into other languages. The Bengali version was produced by Ālāol in 1651. By analyzing one section of both works (Yogi khaṇḍa), I will examine what translation strategy Ālāol used in converting Jāyasī’s text into Bengali.


Final Roundtable

Vishal Sharma (University of Oxford), Discussant