Untranslatable

The 15th World Sanskrit Conference starts today at New Delhi and will go on till January 10. One of the sessions is a discussion on untranslatable words. Most languages, especially ancient ones, have words and phrases that are “untranslatable”. This basically means that there is no direct single-word/phrase equivalent in the language into which one wants to translate. Perhaps an effective way to counter this is to give the original term as it is and explain it.

While these untranslatable words pose a challenge to a translator, even the readily translatable ones can be tricky. As an example, we will look at a popular verse of the Gita and how it is handled.

karmaṇyevādhikāraste
mā phaleṣu kadācana |
mā karmaphalaheturbhūḥ
mā te saṅgo’stvakarmaṇi
|2.47|


The word in question here is adhikāra. A relatively straight-forward word but with several meanings: right, control, authority, privilege, etc.

Of the 30 versions quoted below, 15 of them translate it as “right”, 3 as “duty”, 2 as “claim”, one each as “province”, “business”, “jurisdiction”, “heart”, “intent”, “focus,” and “mind”. Only 4 translate it as “control” and one just uses adhikāra as is and gives the meaning as “ability and privilege, prerogative, jurisdiction, discretion, right, preference, choice, rightful claim, authority, or control”.

You can read for yourself which makes more sense. Interestingly, the 4 versions that translate it as “control” are perhaps the least known sources: Ram K. Pipriya, Vrinda Nabar & Shanta Tumkur, Swami Tadatmananda and ours.

Swami Tadatmananda’s version is somewhat more popular than the others. He is a student of Swami Dayananda (of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam) who has often said, “only fools can buy the popular ‘right’, ‘duty’ and such treatments for this verse”.

If you have other English versions, please feel free to share; we would like to add them to our collection.

1. Your right to work only, but never to the fruit there of.
Let not the fruit of your action be your object,
nor let your attachment be to inaction,
(Gita Press, Gorakhpur, India)

2. Action alone is thy province, never the fruits thereof;
let not thy motive be the fruit of action,
nor shouldst thou desire to avoid action
(M K Gandhi)

3. Thy business is with the action only,
never with its fruits; so let not the fruit
of action be thy motive, nor be thou to
inaction attached
(Annie Besant)

4. You have the right to work,
but never to the fruit of work.
You should never engage in action for the sake of reward,
nor should you long for inaction
(Eknath Easwaran)

5.You have right to work alone
But never to its fruits,
let not the fruits be your motive
nor set your hearts on doing nothing
(Ann Stanford)

6. You can exercise control over your actions alone,
never on the outcome of your actions.
Do not be anxious about the outcome of your actions.
Do not develop a habit of inaction either
(Ram K. Pipariya)

7. Set thy heart upon thy work,
but never on its reward.
Work not for a reward;
but never cease to do thy work.
(Juan Mascaro)

8. To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits;
let not the fruits of action be thy motive;
neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction,
(S Radhakrishnan)

9. Thy human right is for activity only, never for the resultant fruit
of actions. Do not consider thyself the creator of the fruits of thy
activities; neither allow thyself attachment to inactivity.
(Paramhansa Yogananda)

10. You have the right only to do your karma but not to the fruit of it; the fruit of karma should not be the motivation for you to do your karma; you should not evade your karma too.
(V M Mohanraj)

11. You have a right to perform your prescribed duty,
but you are not entitled to the fruit of action.
Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities,
and never be attached to not doing your duty.
(A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)

12. Your right is in action only, never to the fruits;
let not the fruit of action be your motive
nor let your attachment be to inaction.
(A Parthasarathy)

13. For action alone is thy right
but never to the fruits thereof
nor for the fruits do thou fight
inclination for inaction- let it be off.
(Swami Ramanujananda, Ramakrishna Math, Thrissur)

14. Be intent on action,
not on the fruits of action;
avoid attraction to the fruits
and attachment to inaction!
(Barbara Stoler Miller)

15. You have right to performance of action alone,
its fruits are never within your control.
Do not perform action with an eye to its fruits,
nor let there be in you any attachment
to the non-performance of action.
(Vrinda Nabar and Shanta Tumkur)

16. Focus your mind on action alone,
but never on the fruits of your actions.
Your goal should never be the fruits of your actions,
nor should you be attached to inaction.
(George Thompson)

17. Thy jurisidiction is in action alone;
never in its fruits at any time.
Never should the fruits of action be thy motive;
never let there be attachment in thee to inaction.
(Winthrop Sargeant)

18. Your duty (is) in the "prescribed Karma" only; not ever in the fruit of karma.
Do not be the one who has 'motive' in the fruit of karma.
Do not let your attachment be in 'not performing the prescribed karma'.
(Ratnakar Narale)

19. Work hard in the world, Arjuna,
but for work's sake only.
You have every right to work
but you should not crave the fruits of it.
Although no one may deny you
the outcomes of your efforts, you can,
through determination, refuse to be attached to
or affected by the results,
whatever favorable or unfavorable.
(Jack Hawley)

20. You have right to your actions,
but never to your action's fruits.
Act for the action's sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.
(Stephen Mitchell)

21. It is in action alone
that you have a claim,
never at any time to
the fruits of such action.
Never let the fruits of action
be your motive;
never let your attachment
be to inaction.
(Graham Schweig)

22. Your duty is to work, not to reap the fruits of work.
Do not seek rewards, but do not love laziness either.
(P Lal)

23. Thy right is to work only; but never to its fruits;
let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor let
they attachment be to inaction.
(Swami Chinmayananda)

24. No matter what conditions you encounter in life,
your right is only to the works-not to the fruits thereof.
You should not be impelled to act for selfish reasons,
nor should you be attached to inaction.
(Swami Jyotirmayananda)

25. Actions alone you can control,
but their results, you cannot choose.
be not the author of the fruits,
yet to inaction, be not drawn.
(Swami Tadatmananda)

26. Seek to perform your duty;
but lay not claim to its fruits.
Be you not the producer of the fruits of karma;
neither should you lean towards inaction.
(Swami Chibhavananda)

27. You have a right in respect of action (work) alone never in respect of its fruits.
Let not the fruit of action be your
motive and let there be no attachment to inaction either.
(Sri Puthige Math, Suguna Samstha)

28. You have adhikaara over your respective duty only,
but no control or claim over the results.
The fruits of work should not be your motive.
You should never be inactive.
[The word adhikaara means ability and privilege, prerogative, jurisdiction, discretion, right, preference, choice, rightful claim, authority, control.]
(Ramananda Prasad)

29. You have right over action only and not the fruit of action.
Your action should not be motivated by desire for fruit,
nor should you be attached to inaction.
(Saroja Ramanujam)

30. You certainly have rightful claim to your action,
but never claim to the results of your action.
You should never be motivated by the results of your activities
and should never be inactive.
(Sri Sivadasa Bharathi Swami)

Our (Koti Sreekrishna and Hari Ravikumar) version:
You have control only over your actions
but never over their results.
The expected results should not be
the motivation for action.
Also, don’t shirk away from your work.
One is never in complete control over the outcome of an action 
(see BG 18:13-16, as noted below). 
It is pointless to worry about something that one cannot control.
Focus on work without fear of failure or greed for success.
At the same time, don’t be lazy.

18.13The scriptures proclaim that
five factors govern
the outcome of all actions:
18.14the situation,
the individual,
the tools he has,
how he uses the tools,
and unknown forces.
‘Tools’ can refer to knowledge, skills, or resources.

18.15Whatever one does
with his body, speech, or mind,
with good or bad intention,
the same five factors
determine the outcome.

The moral is “do the best you can, with what you have and where you are”. After all, is there anything more a person can do?

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