Ernst Trumpp (1828-1885) and the translation of the Guru Granth Sahibs in colonial context


Areshpreet Wedech

  • Supervision: Martin Gaenszle

In the year 1849 the British Empire annexed the Sikh Empire and therefore the British Administration had to discuss new issues: How should the Sikhs, who were both known and foreign at the same time, be integrated in the British Empire? At that time several historians had already collected information about the Sikhs, mainly because they were interested in their martial nature, but more detailed information was needed about the Sikhs and their religion. Not only the British Administration, but also the Christian Missionaries, who wanted to proselytize the Sikhs, were interested in them. The unintentional alliance of these two resulted in the translation project (1857-1877) of Guru Granth Sahib (Adi Granth) and Dasam Granth, which was conducted by the linguist and philologist Ernst Trumpp – a scholar who is regarded as one of the founders of the Modern South Asian Studies, but whose research has hardly been studied to date.

As a result, the first translation of the Guru Granth Sahib “The Ādi Granth: Or, the Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs”, with a preface and detailed introduction, was published in 1877. Ernst Trumpp didn’t cooperate with the Sikhs, because he did not deem them capable of truly understanding their own Granth. The publication was strongly criticised shortly after it was published and the criticism has not died away until the present day. Although Ernst Trumpp’s translation was a pioneer work, his real merit is the triggering of a discourse, of reactions and even a new translation “The Sikh Religion”, which the Singh Sahba initiated and which was written by Max Arthur Macauliffe.

The research question is: Why has the translation of Guru Granth Sahib, written by Ernst Trumpp in 1877, met with such strong criticism? Up to what extent is this rejection based on the translation itself, and how much of it is attributed to the person Ernst Trumpp, who was never accepted by the Sikh scholars?

Except one publication the secondary sources do not see the translation itself as the reason of its rejection. They criticise Trumpp’s preface and the introduction, in which he openly expresses his negative opinion on Sikhism, the Guru, and the Granth.

In this master thesis the two translations by Trumpp and Macauliffe are subjected to a philological analysis and compared with one another. It is assumed that both, Trumpp’s person as well as his translation, are responsible for the critical reactions. Furthermore, the aim of this master thesis is to provide a more detailed account of the person and life of Ernst Trumpp by combining study of the available literature and field research.