Can the Sikh scriptures be translated?

In September 1983 I gave some lectures in New Delhi. During one of them I expressed the need of Sikhs in the West and students of Sikhism like myself to have available to them a sound version of the Guru Granth Sahib written in fluent modern English. The suggestion provoked considerable debate, as it was intended to.

First, I must acknowledge that my use of the word translation was an unhappy choice. The poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib cannot be translated. It would have been better had I talked about an English version of interpretation. My Sikh friends quickly but politely put me right on this point and I unhesitatingly accept their correction.

Discussion, however, continued on other aspects of the issue. First, it was argued that young Sikhs in Britain, for whom the need for an English version is acute, must solve the problem by learning to read gurmukhi. The argument ran along these lines. Sikhs in India have settled outside the Punjabi-speaking areas of India for a long time ó in Calcutta or Bombay for example, and have retained their mother tongue, learning also Bengali, Hindi, Gujerati, English and other languages. Some accepted my riposte that India and Britain (or the USA) are very different societies, and the Punjab seems near to a Calcutta Sikh ó he can board a train and be in Amritsar within 48 hours at a cost of less than £10 (which I know is not cheap for many Indians). The direct link with Punjab seems real and close, there is obvious value in knowing Punjabi. It is moreover the language which links him with his community and, together with the turban and the 5 Kís, helps him maintain his distinct identity. If the evidence of Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore and Bombay is accepted then it would seem that the non-Punjabi speaking, non-gurmukhi reading Sikh is a rarity.

However, the evidence coming from Britain is different. Teachers may not be aware of it and Sikh leaders may not wish to admit it but the proportion of Sikh young people who can read gurmukhi is low. There are no figures available, so far as I know, but if teachers could sensitively and carefully discover the situation in their secondary schools I am sure they would confirm my assertion. (I would be pleased to hear from them). Although many gurdwaras run Punjabi classes more children seem to evade them than attend them. I find it rare to come across a Sikh teenager who understands what he hears in the gurdwara. When questioned these young men and women have never been to India, they regard it as a remote place, although they are proud of being Sikhs and may keep the turban and uncut hair at least; they give little priority to retaining the language. Indeed some will say that English is their mother tongue. Their spiritual needs must be met in English otherwise, either they will be Sikhs in little more than appearance, or they will have to satisfy the needs of the soul through the English religion, Christianity.

The greatest stumbling block to my request for a sound, fluent, authorised version was one which surprised me initially, given that Guru Nanak spoke in the language of the people rather than using the language of religion, Sanskrit. Presumably it shows how institutionalised Sikhism, like other religions, has become. I was reminded by one scholar, that the Guru Granth Sahib is no ordinary book. It is divine revelation. That revelation would lose not only meaning and impact but sanctity if it were rendered into another language. Opinion was strongly divided on this issue. Some Sikhs declared that if Guru Nanak came to Britain he would preach in English, others clearly reverenced the sacred language of the Sikhs as Muslims regard Arabic, though I refrained from explicit reference to Islam.

The debate is an on-going one. For many Indian Sikhs the prospect of an authorised English version which, one day, might rest alongside the gurmukhi Guru Granth Sahib in the gurdwara, or even take its place, is something they have never before considered. They regard the prospect with horror. Other Sikhs listened with interest to my claim that the 23rd Psalm meant as much to me in English or to an Indian Christian in Punjabi or Hindi as it does to someone who can read it in Hebrew. Some knew the Judaeo-Christian scriptures in English and acknowledged their spiritual impact.

Will an English version of the Guru Granth Sahib be installed in a gurdwara in my lifetime? I donít know (but I have prevented Trumppís incomplete and unacceptable rendering being used for an Akhand Path!). Frankly, I have no wish to press for such a thing or impose my wishes upon a community to which I do not belong, though I hold it in great respect and affection. My concern is that its young people may grow up to be Sikhs in every sense of that word. For the teachers reading this article my hope is that they may understand the Sikh feelings about their scriptures a little bit better and, perhaps, consequently, be able to serve the needs of their Sikh pupils with still more understanding.

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