In the late 1990s, a BBT conference handling questions from translators sparked a renewed interest in the history of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
To give satisfactory answers, BBT staff found they often had to go back to early manuscripts, Prabhupada’s dictated tapes, or original Sanskrit or Bengali texts.
This wasn’t new to Govinda Madhava Dasa, who’d served with the BBT since 1980 and as North European production manager had overseen book production in forty languages.
He decided it was worth further investigation. “When I began investigating and documenting the history of Prabhupada’s books in 2003, it seemed more important than ever,” he says.
“The BBT was increasingly under fire from within ISKCON for their editorial changes, defending themselves from criticisms which had little or nothing to do with reality.”
By 2004, Govinda Madhava’s project had found its home. The Editorial Audit Trail’s website—accessible to BBT translators and editors as a tool for their work—will house original manuscripts, various stages of production, and careful comparisons between the earliest and latest editions of all Prabhupada’s major works.
“It will also include resources such as handwritten corrections and references that Prabhupada used, such as Sridhara Swami’s Srimad-Bhagavatam commentaries and Dr. Radhakrishnan’s Gita,” Govinda Madhava says.
“Devotees working on Srila Prabhupada’s books will be able to compare everything and understand how the editions we have now developed over the years.”
With the help of Ekanatha Dasa and Ranjit Dasa at the Bhaktivedanta Archives, Govinda Madhava has already put Bhagavad-gita As It Is and the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam online, with further cantos and Caitanya-Caritamrita on their way.
“These are accompanied by infor mation on how to understand editorial changes—who made them, when they were made, and how accurate or inaccurate they were,” Govinda Madhava says.
There are many examples of early 1960s editions containing ill-advised editing which had to be corrected later. In Chapter Forty of the old edition of the Krishna book, “Krishna enters Mathura,” Polish translator Dhyanakunda Dasi found this sentence: “There were gorgeous orchards and gardens all around, and the whole city was encircled by cannons so that no enemy could enter very easily.”
When this didn’t make sense to her, she asked Govinda Madhava to check the passage on Prabhupada’s dictated tapes.
Sure enough, Srila Prabhupada hadn’t said “cannons,” but rather “canals.” Other errors were even wackier: When transcribing Bhagavad-gita 10.29, a typist misheard “planet of the pitris” (ancestors) and typed in the considerably more sci-fi “planet of the trees” instead.
Few of these early editors and typists were trained in Sanskrit, and they often guessed according to what little philosophy they knew or what made sense to them.
Years on, with far more experience and knowledge, the BBT is clarifying many of these unclear passages by tracing their origins back to different stages of production.
“Despite the recent attacks on the editors for making changes,” Govinda Madhava says, “it’s a fact that the BBT’s highest priority is always to bring the books closer to what Prabhupada originally meant.”
“A lot is hidden behind the printed sentence,” says Govinda Madhava, who worked as a translator himself. “And often, without background history and information to help you understand what Prabhupada wanted to say, it’s hard to reflect the mood intended in a different language.
A translator shouldn’t have to guess. If he doesn’t understand it, that means the reader has no chance.”
For now, the Audit Trail is available only to BBT staff, including editors and particularly translators.
According to BBT director Jayadvaita Swami, access to the Audit Trail may also be granted to “qualified researchers—”that is, researchers who need it for an academic or other such project, who have the necessary background or skills to know what to make of it, and who have the discretion to use it wisely.
His Holiness Tamal Krishna Goswami, for example, was given access to the complete manuscripts of Bhagavad-gita As It Is for work on his Ph. D. thesis.
For you and me, a selection of comparisons between old and new editions of the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, with revisions explained, is currently available at www. bbt. info/information/bookrevisions.
The Editorial Audit Trail is an important project for us and for the generations after us, Govinda Madhava says.
“Prabhupada’s works have such value for ISKCON and the BBT, and are already the topic of major heated discussions,” he explains. “Those who remember how they were put together won’t be here for much longer—some, like Hayagriva, have already left us. And that’s why this project must be done immediately.
If we wait too long, future generations will not be able to understand from this material what we can understand now.”