The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps, with the exception of the Lao Tzu , one of the most translated Eastern scriptures in history. For good reason; it compellingly, concisely, and succinctly crystallizes Vedanta philosophy, in beautiful verse. There are, on the other hand, literally hundreds of translations of this beautiful work. For this reason, it is surprising that recently, in the last year and a half, there have been new translations released by well-known Vedic scholars, Georg Feuerstein and Gavin Flood. Each of these releases deserve a place in the corpus of literature concerning the Gita.
In 2011, Feuerstein released his translation of the Gita. It is an attempt to deliver an academic translation, a piece of scholarship, and still remain true to the letter and spirit of the Gita. The translation begins with a seventy-page introduction, summarizing the factual background of the BG, dating the BG, and discussing other topics. Feuerstein is especially troubled by the "militaristic" nature of the Gita, an issue for which he arrives at no conclusion. It contains the Sanskrit text, roman transliteration, footnotes, detailed index, word-for-word translation, and, of course, a translation which strives to faithful to the letter and spirit of the original text.
In one of his introductory essays, Feuerstein comments on the difficulties in translating the Gita. Feuerstein explains that there are some Sanskrit words for which an exact English translation does not exist. Some words in the text have no exact English correlate and others have meanings which are difficult to render in English. This might account for the great diversity in the available translations, because the latitude for artistic license is so great. So in his translation, Feuerstein employs many translation methods:
1. Instead of choosing an English word for which he believes is inaccurate, Feuerstein will translate the text with the best English word he believes is appropriate and leave the Sanskrit word in parenthesis;
2. In some portions of his version he has translated the Sanskrit word with the most literal English word translation which exists and include the Sanskrit word such as bhava ("non-existence"), brahma ("world-ground"), div ("sky"), gunatitas ("qualifies"), prakriti ("cosmos, world"), purusa ("soul, spirit"), sama-darshana ("the same");
3. Other times, he simply uses the Sanskrit word without a translation for Sanskrit words which are common enough for English that non-Sanskrit reading readers will know the meaning, such as "yogin;"
4. At other times Feuerstein combines Sanskrit and English words. For example, he will use "tamas-nature", for tamasic, "sattva-nature", for sattvastic, and "rajas-nature", for rajastic;
5. And yet other times he will form a new word, for example, "wisdom-faculty" for "buddhi." 2.41, and "dharma-field" 1.1, or "primary qualities" for "gunas," 2.45;
6. Other times he will simply use the original Sanskrit word, for example, "buddhi-yoga," in 2.49, and Buddhi in 2.51. For the same Sanskrit word he later reverts to his manufactured word for buddhi, "wisdom-faculty." 2.53.
7. Yet other times he will borrow a word which is neither English nor Sanskrit. For example in 2.54 onwards he translated -- used -- the word "gnosis" for "prajna," explaining that the nearest English equivalent, wisdom, would be easily confused with Buddhi.
8. He will finally translate English words, verbatim, from Sanskrit, to correspond to a single Sanskrit word. For example, he will translate "guna" as "primary-quality" or "adhyatma" as "basis-of-self."
Thus, Feuerstein's translating style is highly eclectic. This is an approach which is really quite innovative and unique and succeeds in remaining true to the original and conveying the full letter and spirit of the Gita.
In 2012 Gavin Flood, with the assistance of Charles Martin, released their translation of the Gita. While there is an introductory essay preceding the translation, what they present is a simple, elegant, beautiful rendition of the poem. The translation is decidedly not academic, there is no pretense of educating an uninformed reader; the intent is simply to render a translation of the Gita as literature.
To present a comparison of the differences of translation styles, one could look no farther than the opening verse. In Feuerstein's translation, BG 1.1 reads:
"On the dharma field, the Kuru field, my [men] and the [five] sons-of-Pandu were assembled, eager to fight. What did they do, Samjaya?"
Flood's translation of BG 1.1 reads:
"Having gathered, battle-hungry, on virtue's field, the field of Kuru, what did they do then, Sanjaya, my sons and the sons of Pandu?"
One translation is no better than the other. In Feuerstein's rendition, the reader is able to look at the English and Sanskrit and obtain a full meaning of the thought conveyed. It is therefore the best book to start for the reader unfamiliar with the Gita, or a familiar reader who wants to learn more about it and its background. Flood's translation can be enjoyed as a beautiful piece of literature. Both translations are deserving of the reader's attention.