Dr Michael Zammit, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Malta, has just translated the Bhagavad Gita into Maltese. He speaks to Venetia Ansell about the power of sound, working across different languages and his own philosophical poem.
25th March 2009
Why did you decide to translate the Bhagavad Gita into Maltese?
Way back in my youth, when I was 16, I met a scholar who was reading English and Sanskrit at Harvard. He was on holiday here in Malta. He read some Gita verses to me in Sanskrit and the language had an effect, a strange effect, despite the fact I didn’t even know what it meant. It was then that I discovered the power of sound, and the power of sound especially when controlled by grammar, language, poetry. I grew interested not only in Sanskrit but in how poetry functions.
I started to study the Gita and the philosophies it contains. In time I made a game for myself where after reading the Sanskrit I would try to put it into the poetic language of Malta.
So is this a poetic rendering of the Gita?
Indeed – it is a poetical re-writing of the Sanskrit, not a translation as such. I would spend time with each verse. I would take each one and repeat over and over again until I had absorbed the sounds and recognised the meaning. I would then translate each word and allow my mind to poetically transform it into a Maltese verse. I couldn’t use the Sanskrit metre, Maltese just wouldn’t fit, so I allowed the Maltese to give me its own metre. And in fact I began to truly appreciate the music of Maltese. I am a firm believer in the idea and the practice of poetry as something to be experienced orally – to be read out loud and heard – rather than visually. This is why I was so keen that the translated poem be recorded. [Dr Zammit’s translation is being webcast on the University of Malta’s website: http://campusfm.um.edu.mt/pages/webcastspages/epika.htm.]
Is this the first translation of the Gita into Maltese?
Yes, this is the first ever translation. There is a strong movement at the moment to translate the classics into Maltese, the Latin and Greek canons and so on. Maltese was an oral language until 200 years ago. When the British ruled Malta, the languages of culture were English and Italian – Maltese was a mother tongue used for everyday communication only. So there is a need for such translations at the moment.
My publishers were very pleased when they saw that in creating the glossary for the Gita I had invented new words for several terms such as sattva, rajas, tamas, yoga and so on. English is able to assimilate foreign words very easily – I think you can even have ‘sattvic’ in English. It is one of the many features that makes English so interesting.
I also came up with a neologism for ‘mantra’ in Maltese – a word that means something like ‘thoughts circling in your mind’ or ‘churning mills in your mind’.
Is there much awareness of the Gita and other such texts in Malta? I notice the podcast is named ‘The Indo-European epic’.
Yes the title was not my choosing – I wanted to call it the Bhagavad Gita, but this is a university website and they wanted a title that gave people an idea of what it was. Sanskrit and its texts are not well known in Malta. I am the one introducing this literature into the University of Malta. Two years ago I was given a free hand to create some new courses and I instituted a philosophy of Sanskrit grammar course, another one on the Gita and a third on Shankara. I also started a class on Sanskrit grammar, reading, chanting and so on in which we also look at the concepts behind Sanskrit grammar – the Panini system – and how the language works in comparison to other languages. Maltese isn’t an Indo-European language but a Semitic language, like Hebrew or Aramaic – it functions in a totally different way to Sanskrit.
The courses and class are becoming increasingly popular and are attended by students from several faculties, not just the philosophy department.
You have written a philosophical poem yourself, do you think that philosophy is best presented through the medium of poetry?
It was while I was working on the Gita that I found my mind started to produce its own Maltese poetry and it led to the creation of another poem, a mantra-like poem in Maltese. I realised that poetry is a way of coming to terms with the unknown, it is as if you are standing right on the edge of human understanding.
Many say that Plato wanted to banish poets, but in fact I think that he had the same idea. He didn’t want to banish them but rather send them to the edge of civilization in order to reach out to the unknown. He wanted to send them to το περάς (‘end, extremity’), just as Socrates in The Republic goes to the edge of his known world.
Poetry is a means of reaching out beyond what we know, not necessarily understanding it but at least coming to terms with the things that we don’t understand.
To listen to podcasts of Dr Zammit’s translation, click here: http://campusfm.um.edu.mt/pages/webcastspages/epika.htm
The book version is published by PIN Publications, Herbert Ganado Street, Pieta, PTA 1450, Malta
For his mantra poem in its Italian translation, click here: http://www.editoriaespettacolo.it/collane.aspx?codice=5