become suddenly rent asunder (with sound)

The existence of thought without words but not without form is nevertheless necesary, for example, to all translation work. Every good translator does his utmost, without actually realizing it, to translate his text first into sphota, in order to translate into the second language…
Rene Daumal

When we read this in class I conceptualized sphota as a particular thought that is bounded into a semi-tangible object, something you could maybe name if an appropriate word exists in the language you are using. I imagined sphota to have a shape in the mind. When I think of it, it is something you could hold in your hand.

Later on in the article we read (Why I Am Not a Translator–Take 2), translator Norma Cole refers to sphota as “word-seeds.” I don’t like that term, but it is similar to how I was thinking about the concept. Today though, I spent some time looking it up online, and it seems that in Indian linguistic philosphy, sphota is defined a bit differently. It is closer to the word-end or the sound-end of the spectrum. It is not, as I envisioned, an inarticulated, yet articulate-able thought. It makes a noise. It is what you call a thought as it is articulated (“burst forth” as the Indian philosophers so eloquently express it) in sound, as far as I can tell.

This stuff fascinates me so I’m going to quote a bunch of it:

The term sphoTa is etymologically derived from the root sphuT, which means ‘to burst’, or become suddenly rent asunder (with a sound).

Naagesha BhaTTa defines sphoTa as that, from which the meaning bursts forth, that is, shines forth. In other words, the word that expresses a meaning, or the process of expressing a meaning through a word is called sphoTa.

According to PataNjali, sphoTa is a conceptual entity or generic feature of articulated sounds, either in the form of isolated phonemes or a series of phonemes. It is a permanent element of physical sounds which are transitory in nature, and which vary in length, tempo and pitch of the speaker. It is an actualized replica of euphemeral sounds.

The sphoTa remains in the intellect of both the speaker and the listener with no motion before its manifestation. There is an inter-link between sound and sphoTa, as soon as the speaker produces the sound through the articulatory organs, the sphoTa is revealed. But the listener cannot understand sphoTa immediately.

Each sound unit contributes some thing to the total perception of sphoTa. The listener receives the phonemes in a sequence and grasps the form of a word in his mind, when the last phoneme is heard. The last sound helps the listener to recognize the sphoTa absolutely. This entire process of manifesting sphoTa is compared with the act of painting. Just as an artist reproduces his mental [xxvii] idea of the form of an object on a cloth, similarly the speaker reproduces the mental verbal image of a word through articulated phonemes.


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