I look at our Sikh community around the world and particularly where I live, in North America, and two imperatives emerge, particularly when Sikhs engage with the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib

One is the obvious matter of translation.  After all, Guru Granth is mystical, revealed poetry.  The languages are many; I have read of there being as many as six to ten of them, including Semitic languages such as Arabic and Persian, and unquestionably also Sanskrit, and Braj from the tree of Indo-European languages.  And don’t forget that India really was a country of nation states that were for much of history semi- autonomous.  India as a unified nation is of recent vintage, dating only from the mid twentieth century.  Also add on to the mélange the fact that, as most languages do, every Indian language shows many regional and dialectical variations.  I point to English, French and Spanish as examples that are chockfull of such structural intricacies as well.

Inner-Sanctum-The-Case-for-Transliteration-of-Gurbani-1Then there is the fact that Guru Granth is poetry, teeming with allegories, metaphors and analogies as all good poetry is.  And forget not the intricate complexity of a poet’s mind in the cause of poesy.

When I add to this potent mix the fact that the poetry of Gurbani is cast in the 300 to 500 years old languages and cultures of India and often reflects the context of the complicated Indian mythology, the enormity of the task of translating Guru Granth into modern English or any other language becomes obvious.  Translation is indeed a daunting task.

Leaving these caveats aside, I meet Sikhs every day – both young and old – who cannot even read the text of the Guru Granth much less comprehend it.

Why?  Because there are many who do not read the Gurmukhi script in which the Guru Granth is written.  Guru Angad (the Second Guru of the Sikhs) codified the script that came to be known as Gurmukhi, literally from the mouth of the Guru.  That it is but it inseparably girds and showcases the Punjabi language that is the lingua franca of all the people of Punjab – be they Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, even Buddhists, Christians or agnostics and atheists, for that matter.  But Gurmukhi script, largely in the minds of non-Sikh Punjabis, is a Sikh invention and not for non-Sikhs.

Sikhs are and have been a minority no matter where they lived, even in India, so Punjabi in Gurmukhi script has effectively been reduced to a minority language that is not commonly studied.  For non-Sikh Punjabis it is mostly, if not only, a spoken language.

And that’s why there is a generation of Sikhs, gray-haired now, who do not know how to comfortably read Gurmukhi.  I concede that that a minimal commitment — an hour or two perhaps — would suffice to enable such a person to read it at a passing level but human inertia being what it is, a generation remains relatively clueless on how to read the Guru Granth.  And many of these are Sikhs by religious label.   They need translations if they encounter the Guru Granth to comprehend it and they need transliterations into Urdu or English to read it.

I have published a longer essay on the trials and tribulations of translations and am not going to touch it any further today.  But translation has an equally troublesome twin beside it and that is transliteration and that’s my focus today. Translation and transliteration are very different from each other and have equally different ends.

Inner-Sanctum-The-Case-for-Transliteration-of-Gurbani-2Of course we need linguists to translate but we really need two different professionals to do things right:  For translations we need linguists who know the two languages intimately, their lexicon, grammar and historical-cultural context and who can seamlessly travel between the two.  But even more critically for transliteration, we need masters of phonetics in the two spoken languages and their cultures that we are talking about. These must be mavens of the phonemes involved in the exchange.

Otherwise the sentence “I adore you” can come out looking like “Eye uh-door u” and that’s absolutely rubbish. (I am sure I would find this example absolutely stunning if I were several decades younger and attached by an umbilical cord to my computer.)   I am also sure this example will remain pointless and devoid of any mirth except to those like me whose humor was significantly formed from Mad magazine.

Many such examples abound but I rest my case on one word from the second line of the last stanza of Japji that starts with the word AHRN(I), meaning an ironsmith’s anvil.  It is usually pronounced as AHRIN in colloquial Punjabi.  But to one with little or no contact with the Punjabi culture or its norma loquendi it could also be pronounced as AHERN(I).  An able linguist could tell us the correct standard enunciation devoid of the baggage of regional and dialectical variations and a phonetics expert could help us record it precisely in Roman or any other script as desired so that a non-native speaker of Punjabi could sound it out accurately, precisely and replicably.

Inner-Sanctum-The-Case-for-Transliteration-of-Gurbani-3A phoneme is defined as the smallest contrasting unit in the sound system of a language that is capable of conveying a distinct meaning.  The American language system recognizes a set of distinctive sound units, 20 to 60 in number – a different number for each language – that is the basic of sound units (phonemes) of the sound system of spoken languages and can be captured in Roman script.

Rules of pronunciation, especially in English, are often based on geography, social class, and, at times, appear arbitrarily derived from the worldwide British presence over two centuries.  Nevertheless there have to be standards of phonetics that guide us and that are both trustworthy and replicable.

A caveat: Phonetics is not always a perfect science or art.  For example some tribal languages have guttural sounds and clicks as distinct parts of their lexicon and there is no way to render them adequately into the Roman alphabet as we know it. In today’s growing global reality perhaps this most commonly used alphabet system could learn to stretch its dimensions.

There are also some sounds in the Gurmukhi alphabet and in Gurbani that are not easily transliterated into Roman script.  I don’t know if anyone has systematically identified how many and which specific phonemes capture the Punjabi language, and if any gaps remain.  I see that in transliterations of Gurbani today there are about as many systems as there are people doing them.

But in this process we do start with a supreme advantage.  Punjabi is a precisely designed phonetic language and to determine the variety of phonemes that capture should not be that complex a task if we can find the right scholar(s) of phonetics to take on the task.  Most if not all Indic languages appear to be equally phonetic.

Inner-Sanctum-The-Case-for-Transliteration-of-Gurbani-4Sometimes minor differences in spellings in the original (Indic) language point to who acted for a purpose or against whom was an action taken, when words differentiate between the singular and the plural case, or between masculine and feminine endings.  A minor diacritical mark may change the whole thrust of the sentence and create a critical difference in meaning. Linguists and grammarians spend a lifetime arguing and parsing such minutiae. So exactly how accurately and by what standards a transliteration is done into the Roman script may spell the difference between war or peace, success or failure.

All languages have blind spots and the inability to distinguish certain sounds.  A simple example: Punjabi speakers, for instance do not distinguish between the sounds of “v” and “w” because the language does not make the distinction, whereas English has no phonemes for the distinctions between the hard “d”, the soft “d” and the phoneme for the combined “dh” that itself occurs in the hard and soft forms.  A phonetics expert can show and teach these distinctions but likely cannot capture them in written form in Roman script

At any one time both the writer and the reader need to be on the same page.  An arbitrary transliteration serves little purpose except to sow discord.  A simple example comes to mind.  Take the expression “Guru Fateh” in its most commonly spelled form in Roman script that I have seen.

Please note that what follows next is not a judgment of what is right and what is not.  It is merely an example where an amateur like me can easily lose his way. I have seen “Guru” spelled “Goroo” and if I was learning to pronounce as in grade school by sounding it out you can imagine that I would be somewhat lost.  Therein is the danger of unclear but alternative spellings.

I have also seen “Fateh” transcribed as “Fatih, Fatah, Phatih or Phatah.”

There may be additional variations on the theme.  Mind you I am not one but I look at how a reasonably sane English educated non-Sikh would sound it out.   Certainly “Guru Fatah” reminds us of the Palestinian organization “Al Fatah,” while the last choice here “Guru Phatah” remains unclear where the emphasis is, on the first “a” or the second.  It also pushes us towards a literal and unattractive rendering in Punjabi where “Phatah” means torn like a piece of cloth, and to say the Guru is torn is not so good a greeting; it sounds almost blasphemous.

Remember that “sounding it out” is how all of us learned the fundamentals of ABC and the beautiful art of reading.

It seems to me that the sole purpose of translation and transliteration is to enhance understanding of the message we want to deliver and share, particularly with those who are on unfamiliar territory when meeting us. And we are talking here of the reasonably educated common man or woman, not one at home with the intricacies of linguistics and phonetics, or the time and energy to pursue such laudable ends.

Inner-Sanctum-The-Case-for-Transliteration-of-Gurbani-5There is no question that we need both a standardized translation and a transliteration of Gurbani and these are not processes that a single scholar, no matter how good, can or should handle alone.  We need linguists as well as experts of phonetics to work in tandem and produce a standardized body of work that will remain a work in progress for a number of years but will put us on the path to progress.

Will it be easy?  Never. Will it be frustratingly maddening?  Guaranteed.  Is it necessary? Like breath to life.

Translation and transliteration are very different species of animal but each demands our full, professional, enduring and clearheaded engagement.  Nothing less will do.

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About I. J Singh

Dr. I. J. Singh has written a thoughtful series of essays on issues and problems confronting Sikhs at the turn of the millennium. He has published five books. I. J. Singh was born in Gujranwala, and educated in India at Simla and Amritsar and in the United States at the University of Oregon Medical School and Columbia University. At present he is Professor Emeritus of Anatomy at New York University.

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  • Roma Kaur Rajpal

    Thank you again for a wonderful article! I really love your writing style. Yes, both translation and transliteration are important to convey the ideas expressed in Gurbani. I find the translation part to be a very challenging task since one needs a vast amount of knowledge – one has to have a solid grasp of the meaning(s) of the various words from different languages used in SGGS, and then be able to investigate the poetry, understanding its context, realizing the correct meaning which needs an in-depth analysis of the poetry, studying the entire Shabad, not just the lines. Also, understanding the cultural and the historical background of the time period of our Gurus are essential for translating Gurbani. One can’t just accept the literal translation – we need to recognize any reference to symbols used. Often we come across a sentence or two in Gurbani, where we know the meaning of each word but are clueless in understanding what those particular lines really are trying to say. For example, “Jo maangay Thakur apnay tay soyi soyi devay” – one knows the meanings of each word, but still needs to study the entire line, the entire Shabad in depth to truly understand what it is saying. Reading the literal meaning only – that we will get whatever we ask of God or want from God, does not make sense. One needs to explore the line more (for example, what does “thakur apne tay” really mean). Another one that comes to mind is “Soche Soch na Hovai, Je Sochi Lakh Var” – some translations say the meaning of Soch is contemplating or thinking while some other translations say it is cleansing or purification. They both work, but which one is it? Or can it be both? Understanding Gurbani is hard work. One has to become a student (Sikh) who puts in a concerted and a dedicated effort to learn Gurbani and the end result will be a deeply satisfying one. This article has inspired me to spend more time learning Gurbani – Thank you I. J. Singh!! And, on Mother’s Day today, a heartfelt thanks to my loving mother who nurtured us constantly reminding us of the beauty that lies in Gurbani, its powerful message, and its relevance in our lives.