is not about sex or pornography.
Refreshing look at Kamasutra
is what Vatsayana wrote 1700 years ago
how Richard Burton translated in 1883
must have favoured the bold in bed these few generations if they’d been
looking to the Kama Sutra for inspiration. They could have been doing it
all wrong if they'd been looking at the English translation by Richard
Burton in 1883. And that is the translation everyone’s been using.
The mistakes were spotted not in the bedroom but in the classroom. A
question on the Kama Sutra put to Wendy Doniger in a class at the
University of Chicago sent her to the original in Sanskrit. Doniger, who
has translated the Rig Veda, The Laws of Manu and other Sanskrit texts
into English for the Penguin Classics series, found that Burton wasn’t
saying in English what Vatsayana had written in Sanskrit 1700 years ago.
That was four years ago. Doniger has now translated the Kama Sutra in what
its publishers at the Oxford University Press claim is the first ever
accurate translation in English. Burton seems at times to have
part-authored his own Kama Sutra rather than translated Vatsayana’s.
Burton speaks of the male and the female genitals as the lingam and the
yoni. “Those words do not figure in the original at all,” says
Doniger. The text uses only the word “jaghana” to refer to the genital
area of either male or female. The text only speaks suggestively of pelvic
movements. “Vatsayana does not,” she says, “get medical about
sex.” What Burton offers in the name of the Kama Sutra is “highly
Orientalised pseudo-Sanskrit” and something simply not there.
The Burton translation misses a whole section on male homosexuality from a
simple mistake. Burton takes the Sanskrit expression “prtiya prakriti”
meaning literally The Third Nature, to mean eunuchs. It actually means
homosexuality, Doniger says. “If
you take that to mean ‘eunuch’ in those passages, it must mean that
one or more of the males are castrated, and so they are not doing what
they are doing,” Doniger says. Unlike Vatsayana, Doniger does get
medical, and it helps.
When a woman responds to a sexual slap in Sanskrit, Burton speaks of
“a woman unaccustomed to being slapped”, which is not what
Vatsayana says. Faced with an unfaithful man, the text advises the woman
to yell at him but not to use black magic. In his translation Burton makes
no mention of black magic, and translates to say “the woman should not
yell at the man,” quite the opposite of what Doniger says Vatsayana
A fault line that runs through the Burton translation is his failure to
separate the prose text from the shlokas that appear at the end of every
chapter, says Doniger. The two are very different in tone and content. In
a section on adultery, the prose passage gives all sorts of how-to tips.
The shlokas coming after, which seem to offer the conventional wisdom of
the day, say no one should commit adultery. “The two are dramatically
different, but Burton puts all this into prose, so you can’t tell there
are really two voices here,” says Doniger. You get just one text
speaking confusingly against itself.
Burton could not perhaps help being the Victorian Englishman. That must
explain partly why Burton gets “the tone all wrong” through the
translation, Doniger says. So when the woman shouts in the Sanskrit
original “Let Go!”, Burton says “she is expressing a desire for
liberation.” When she says “Enough!” in Sanskrit, Burton says she
has made “an expression of sufficiency.” When the Sanskrit original
speaks of infidelity, Burton refers to it as “something
to disclose”. The original “which is so vivid and direct becomes muted
and padded in that translation,” says Doniger.
Burton leaves the names of many potent plants untranslated, in Sanskrit,
or he translates them into Latin. We could be missing some interesting
herbs here. Those he does name cannot be trusted, warns Doniger. Burton
speaks, for instance, of potatoes, which were unknown in ancient India and
only brought by the British.
The Kama Sutra in the original is “much more interesting and relevant
than people seem to think,” Doniger says. “Most people don’t read
it, and think it’s all about positions,” she says. “But positions is
like just two pages. It’s a great book about eroticism, not something
silly. It’s about how to arouse a partner, how to notice responses, how
to seduce, what works with who, what does not, the power relations between
man and woman, how to get rid of an unwanted lover...the whole range of
intimacy between man and woman.” Or, if you are not reading the Burton
translation, between man and man.