Archive for December 2008

Mistranslation and Related Matters 6

10 December 2008

Professor Victor Mair offers an instructive example of a recent language blooper

The following apology does not exactly exemplify Mistranslation, but it does contain an excellent example of the sort of ‘spin’ frequently deployed by officialdom and individuals in damage control mode over egregious language-based errors.

“Dear Colleagues,
The cover of the most recent German-language edition of MaxPlanckForschung (3/2008) depicts a Chinese text which had been chosen by our editorial office in order to symbolically illustrate the magazine’s focus on “China”. Unfortunately, it has now transpired that this text contains inappropriate content of a suggestive nature.
Prior to publication, the editorial office had consulted a German sinologist for a translation of the relevant text. The sinologist concluded that the text in question depicted classical Chinese characters in a non-controversial context. To our sincere regret, however, it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker.
By publishing this text we did in no way intend to cause any offence or embarrassment to our Chinese readers. The editors of MaxPlanckResearch sincerely regret this unfortunate error and would like to offer an unreserved apology to all of their Chinese readers for any upset or distress they may have caused.
The cover title has already been substituted in the online edition, and the English version of MaxPlanckForschung (MaxPlanckResearch, 4/2008) will be published with a different title.”

This and the whole embarrassing translation mishap is brilliantly reported by Victor Mair at:

Thanks, Victor!
(And with acknowledgements to Ronnie R. for the timely tip.)

FYI, here is how the formidable Language log collective presents its top quality blog:
“Language Log was started in the summer of 2003 by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum. For nearly five years, it ran on the same elderly linux box, with the same 2003-era blogging software, sitting in a dusty corner of a group office at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Other more or less regular contributors include Arnold Zwicky, Benjamin Zimmer, Bill Poser, Heidi Harley, Roger Shuy, Geoff Nunberg, Eric Bakovic, Sally Thomason, Barbara Partee, and John McWhorter. And an additional cast of dozens have blogged here from time to time.
On April 5, 2008, the original server suffered a terminal illness, and was replaced by a new machine in an actual server room with professional support, thanks to Chris Cieri, Chad Jackson and others at the Linguistic Data Consortium. The blog posts between 7/28/2003 and 4/6/2008, in the ugly but beloved old format, can be found here.”

Sathya Sai Baba Discourse Evidence Disappears from Public View. The Latest Case

9 December 2008

Recent blogs by Robert Priddy and Barry Pittard highlight the amazingly unomniscient prediction by Sathya Sai Baba about “No bombs for India” and, within days, the removal by the Sathya Sai Organisation and its satellite websites of the embarrassing remark from the recent Convocation discourse of 22 November 2008. (See the relevant postings at and

The constant disappearance of embarrassing or incorrect utterances by Sathya Sai Baba is a well documented phenomenon, as seasoned observers of the Puttaparthi and Prasanthi Nilayam scenes are aware. Others may be unaware of this highly revealing custom and of its relevance to the Sathya Sai Baba story. Apart from revelations of the heavy editing often applied to SSB’s Telugu discourses before they are printed (of which more below), consider the following major disappearances within the past six years.

The new biographical information revealed in the first volume of the Sai Towers edition of Love is My Form (LIMF – October 2000) produced a barrage of critical comment. Within a year of the first comments on this well researched and illustrated devotee account of the years 1926-1950, the remaining 5 or 6 planned, advertised and partly researched volumes of Love is My Form were cancelled by the Sai Towers Publishing company, unexpectedly and without explanation. A year or two later, the Sathya Sai Organisation officially announced its own biographical project: to continue the series of four well known bestselling volumes written by SSB’s main hagiographer, N. Kasturi (Satyam, Sivam Sundaram). Two of these bland hagiographies have already been published by the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust, as I have recently commented in another article on my SSB web page.

Shortly after this LIMF shock, following further critical observations based on close comparisons between a series of devotee literal translations of SSB’s discourses (into several languages) and the heavily edited official translations, this two year voluntary Internet seva (community service) by a polyglot devotee group called PREMSAI suddenly ceased (in mid-2002) and the precious evidence contained in the two year backlog of 60 literal translations was soon withdrawn from the Internet. Note, 2013: After many temporary Internet homes, copies have recently been made available here, with fresh evidence provided by Eileen Weed, via Robert Priddy’s website

As a reminder of the history of official control over some of the surprising statements and stories in SSB’s discourses, and more especially as a contribution for researchers, I enclose the first few paragraphs of my 2005 ‘Dossier on the Packaging of Sathya Sai Baba’s Discourses’. The full (lengthy) version is available at ‘Packaging’. htm


A critical reading of the first 30 volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks in 1998-1999 turned up a small collection of irregularities in the editing of some of Sathya Sai Baba’s Discourses. After closer study of these anomalies (and others concerning SSB), I included a chapter and an Appendix on ‘packaging’ in the e-book published on this website in November 2001 (Sathya Sai Baba: God or Guru?). My strong hypothesis at that time was that in the examples selected for study, the form of SSB’s original Telugu Discourses seemed to be significantly different from the versions ultimately published by the Sathya Sai Organisation, and read, studied, and widely quoted as ‘Gospel’ by hundreds of thousands of non-Telugu-speaking devotees all over the world. In the intervening two years, a great deal of further direct evidence (for comparison) has not only confirmed the hypothesis but raised questions concerning the perceived public image of SSB. (See the Historical Note at the end of this article.)

For my initial 2001 study of what I came to see as a packaging process, it was not easy to come across printed versions of the original Discourses (in English translation), but there were enough scattered about in the vast literature about SSB (much of which I had read in research for my two previous pro-SSB books in 1994-1998) to form very strong impressions. I was also able to examine a new form of evidence which had begun to trickle in during the late 1990s: preliminary reports of Discourses (in literal translation) posted on the rapidly expanding Internet for avid overseas devotees to access as soon after their delivery as possible (and before the edited printed version was released). (Such is the effort expended by the SSO on its information network since 1999 that the edited form of a Discourse can now be posted on its official websites within a few days of delivery, although eager local devotees in India still occasionally used to offer snatches of welcome literal translations on SSB open chat groups.)

Thanks to immediate feedback at the end of 2001 from two ex-devotees, I was able to gain access to a much better and more extensive source of direct Internet evidence of the literal translations into English (and into several other languages). These translations had begun to be published in two or three languages by devotees anxious to preserve the poetic quality of SSB’s Telugu talks (a reference to his simple spontaneous speaking style) in late 1999. Other language translations (including English) were added in 2000. Their unofficial but highly professional-looking website was named This source (of which I had been completely unaware while laboriously searching the SSB literature for my initial examples) already offered two years of examples (2000 and 2001) to compare with the official versions in the printed Sanathana Sarathi and Sathya Sai Speaks. The Premsai website was a researcher’s treasure trove because it offered clear proof, from devotees, of the extent of the official editing applied to the Telugu “Discourses” before their publication in many languages.

On the basis of comparisons made during the following months I was able to publish more convincing evidence of the packaging procedure. A few other researchers added their own contributions, which caused further public interest in this process. Dramatically and only a few months after these important Internet revelations had focussed the spotlight on SSB’s real speaking style, the flourishing devotee “Premsai” multilingual website totally disappeared from the Internet. This abrupt disappearance of such primary material (in the second half of 2002) provoked the reasonable suspicion that such ‘inside’ evidence of the packaging of the words of ‘God’ was deeply embarrassing to the SSO and harmful to SSB’s divine image. The new insights into the Discourses also raised important questions outside devotee circles about the official image of SSB as projected for so many years by the SSO.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of why an alleged Avatar’s words and style need to be packaged at all, a major result of a comparison of the literal translations (where available) and the final edited form is that they show more clearly than before that SSB’s impromptu public preaching in Telugu is rambling, not very well structured, and sometimes contains unclear or muddled statements, discrepancies and errors. For this reason, evidence of the ‘packaging’ issue is also of particular relevance when considering the claim of omniscience advanced by Sathya Sai Baba and promoted by the Sathya Sai Organisation. (See also my article on ‘Omniscience and Truth’ and articles at two on SSB and atoms (Robert Priddy, 11 and 17 September 2002: ‘The ‘Omniscient’ SSB’s massive ignorance of physics exposed’, I and II, and Jorge Reyesvera,7 May 2003, titled ‘Sai Baba’s ‘magnetism’.)


[The above paragraphs are followed by many pages of intriguing comparisons of selected extracts from the official and PREMSAI versions of SSB’s discourses.]

“Sai Baba” and “the Sai Baba Movement”

1 December 2008

If you Google the name “Sai Baba”, of the (alleged) 2,360,000 references instantly computed, the majority of the first hundred refer to (Sathya) Sai Baba. (A Yahoo search offers the even more mind-boggling total of 6,610,000 items.) If, however, you type the URLs or into your Internet browser, you will be referred to two sites belonging to the Organisation and the devotees of Sai Baba of Shirdi (or Shirdi Sai Baba, or Shirdi Sai). This original bearer of the name “Sai Baba” was a Muslim / Hindu holy man or saint who died in 1918 and has a widespread Indian and international (but mainly ethnic Indian) Organisation. In India his followers are most numerous in the northern half, down to the latitude of Mumbai but he is also well known in the south. His dual Muslim-Hindu characteristics are reflected in his name: ‘Sai’, from a Persian word for ‘saint’ and ‘Baba’, a common respectful Indian term for ‘father’.

The Internet results also reveal interesting differences between the two major Search engines, Yahoo and Google. (Food for thought.)

On Yahoo (1 December 2008) the first item on the search list for ‘Sai Baba’ is – i.e. the Shirdi Sai Baba Organisation (in Chicago).
Number two is, an unofficial and apparently out of date Sathya Sai Baba website.
Number three on the list is (Shirdi Sai Baba).
Fourth is (one of several official Sathya Sai websites).

The Google search offers a different mix:
1. (Sathya Sai, official)
2. the Wikipedia article on Sathya Sai Baba (a controversial and incomplete offering)
3. Sai, in Chicago)
4. (critical of Sathya Sai Baba)

‘Sathya Sai’ (like ‘Sai’) is an alternative devotee name for Sathya Sai Baba, reportedly born in 1926 as Sathya Narayana Raju, in or near the remote southern Indian village of Puttaparthi in the state of Andhra Pradesh. According to his official biography, in 1940 [read: 1943], following a traumatic seizure or illness, Sathya Narayana declared himself to be the reincarnation of [Shirdi] Sai Baba and rapidly became famous locally for his healing, exorcisms, and other miracles. Charismatic Sathya went on to claim full avatarhood and divine powers and, eventually, to become the most famous living Indian guru in the world. In the past quarter of a century the fame of Sathya, vigorously promoted by his transnational charitable Organisation and his millions of devotees, especially those from outside India, has become far better known internationally (though not throughout the whole of India) than the original bearer of the Sai Baba title. This explains why he is identified by most “Westerners” and the Google machines (whose logarithms operate on the rather crude but practical basis of quantity of references or links to a given word or term) as “Sai Baba”. His Organisation and devotees also refer to him simply as ‘Sai’ (which he has always boldly told them means ‘Divine Mother’, despite the obvious etymological inaccuracy).

While the theologically dual nature of Shirdi Sai (Baba) as Muslim fakir and Hindu miracle-making saint has attracted both hagiographical and academic interest, the indisputably charismatic Sathya Sai (Baba) has attracted a massive amount of hagiographical writing and some critical attention but, until very recently, only minor scholarly interest (a lacuna possibly explained by Sathya’s strident and reiterated claims of Divinity, his alleged miracles – and academic Haraldsson’s failure to disprove them – as well as his enigmatic and flamboyant reputation).

A further factor in the story of the two Sai Babas is that, after sixty years of self promotion and unparalleled adoration and worship as God on Earth (or Avatar) by (possibly) millions of followers, the background murmurs of doubt and denial of Sathya Sai’s Divine claims have been growing in volume and geographical extension, particularly since the appearance and wide diffusion of major new Internet postings beginning in 2000 and followed in 2006 by many blogs. Therefore, when media and Internet allegations, analyses, revelations, headlines and emotional controversy are directed at “Sai Baba” rather than “Sathya Sai Baba”, followers of Shirdi Sai Baba have a right to feel aggrieved and although the name Sai Baba is now firmly established in current use by devotees of both of these spiritual icons and by the public, it would surely be a courtesy to Shirdi Sai Baba and his devotees if, as often as possible, people (especially academic writers and journalists) were to refer to the ‘junior Sai Baba’, as Sathya Sai Baba, or Sathya Sai.

Sai Baba Movement

As for the term ‘Sai Baba Movement’, used by academics and a few other writers, it is either ambiguous or misleading, depending on the context in which it is used. The two Sai Baba Organisations, regardless of the prominent worship of Shirdi Sai in Sathya Sai ashrams because of Sathya Sai’s specific reincarnation claims and supposed identity, have always been completely separate, one based in the state of Marathi-speaking Maharashtra, the other further south in Sathya Sai’s Telugu homeland, Andhra Pradesh.

Especially misleading, and easily avoidable, is the use of ‘Sai Baba Movement’ when used as a variant for ‘Sathya Sai Baba Movement’ (sometimes on the same page). As explained above, there are two independent Sai Baba Movements and, for disambiguation purposes, they should therefore be referred to as the Shirdi Sai Baba Movement and the Sathya Sai Baba Movement. (It seems unlikely, after so many years of silence, that the ‘senior’ organisation would ever wish to press its prior claim to the Sai Baba title.)

One of the first to use the term ‘Sai Baba Movement’ seems to have been an academic, Professor Charles S. J. White, in his pioneering 1972 plea for scholars of religion to “consider seriously the nature of Indian sainthood and more particularly the so-called ‘living saints’”.
(See ‘The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints’, Journal of Asian Studies, XXXI, No. 4 (August 1972), 863-878. Reprinted in Ruhela and Robinson (eds.), Sai Baba and His Message, 1976, pp. 40-66.)

Professor White wrote his research study about a group of living saints who had resided in the Poona and Bangalore areas and whom he considered homogeneous enough to be called “The Sāi Bābā Movement” (p. 863). He is referring to (Shirdi) Sai Baba, Upasani Baba, Mata Godavari, and Sathya Sai Baba. Since this spontaneous christening by White, other scholars seem to have simply adopted the abbreviated label without question. (A notable scholarly dissident here is Kevin R. D. Shepherd.)

Much more surprising is that the following misleading assertion accompanied by the flimsiest evidence imaginable has not received critical attention from White’s peers and successors:
“The competence of Sathya Sai Baba to serve as the successor of Shirdi Sai Baba is increasingly recognized in the Sai Baba cult. For instance in one of Shirdi Sai Baba’s shrines in Madras, Sathya Sai Baba’s photograph was prominently displayed and I was told that Sathya Sai Baba had attended the dedication of the temple a few years back”(p. 874).

It is no secret outside Andhra Pradesh that most followers of Shirdi Sai have never accepted Sathya’s incarnation claims and, as a curious bibliographical consequence of this divide, there is a dichotomous Shirdi Sai Baba literature: on the one side, the bulk of the books, written by the majority of his followers and, on the other side, those few written by devotees of Sathya Sai Baba who have also become devotees of Shirdi. In the former, readers will find no trace of the alleged new information about Shirdi Sai occasionally ‘omnisciently’ revealed in Sathya Sai’s discourses (notably in 1990 and, with his trademark discrepancies, in 1992); in the latter category of Shirdi books this questionable ‘new’ information is presented as fact – as is anything that Sathya Sai chooses to say in public.

For further background, see Shirdi Essay.