The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. By GEORGE THOMPSON. New York: NORTH POINT PRESS, 2008.
The past few years have seen a spate of Bhagavadg[i.bar]t[a.bar] translations, most notably by Laurie Patton (2008), Lars Martin Fosse (2007), and Graham Schweig (2010). The Bhagavadg[i.bar]t[a.bar] seems to be an inexhaustible subfield of study, whose hold on readership has not diminished since the earliest translations by Western Sanskritists (Wilkins' 1785 translation being the earliest). The enormous number of translations catering to different perspectives and audiences, however, forces each new translator to struggle to find a niche and to bring his own voice to the text.
George Thompson takes his place alongside earlier translators with a compact and elegant edition targeted especially at undergraduate students. Finding that many students had problems with the standard translations ("awkward, stiff, and sometimes hardly poetic at all" [p. xii]), Thompson set out to create an accurate but approachable translation--a challenge he meets admirably for the most part. In particular, he succeeds in rendering the Bhagavadg[i.bar]t[a.bar] into "colloquial, direct, and fast-paced English" (p. xiii), albeit often at the price of philosophical nuance. I will return to this point later in my review; here I would like to focus on the principles behind Thompson's translation. A consistent feature in his attempt to create a fast-paced translation is his use of pairs or triads of shorter sentences, where other translations opt for a series of subclauses. Thus, he renders 2.2 as "Where does this weakness in you come from, Arjuna, at this time of crisis? It is not fitting in a nobleman. It does not gain you heaven. It does not bring you honor" (p. 8). Contrast this with van Buitenen's translation: "Why has this mood come over you at this bad time, Arjuna, this cowardice unseemly to the noble, not leading to heaven, dishonorable?" Thompson's short staccato sentences keep the action moving forward.
Thompson also employs a number of other strategies in the interests of an accessible translation: notes are kept to a minimum and moved to the end of the book and difficult Sanskrit words are translated with standardized generic English terms (e.g., 'duty' for dharma, occasionally also rendered as 'law'). There is, of course, a price to pay for this straightforward translation of a highly nuanced poem: the term dharma also implies the four purtcs[a.bar]rthas, and has a...