Long derided as unimaginative exponents of the sexual arts, Anglo-Saxon men will now be able to claim an excuse for their poor performance.
The English version of the Kamasutra, the oldest and most influential of all erotic manuals, was mistranslated at the first attempt on 1883 – and the mistakes were never corrected.
The errors have left generations holding the wrong end of the stick, and much else besides, according to Professor Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago, who has just completed a new, updated version of the classic text.
The first English Kamasutra by the 19th-century explorer and scholar Sir Richard Burton completely ignored crucial aspects of female sexuality, she says, including the existence of the zone later identified as the G-spot. Meanwhile, in Britain, censors played their part by progressively removing "the dirty bits" of the third-century original.
Next March, Professor Doniger publishes the first major revision of the Kamasutra since Burton's version, claiming it should help us improve our understanding, if not our performance.
"There are a lot of mistakes," she said last week. "Burton's text is padded out and makes a lot of assumptions. He often fudges elements of the original. Things were added to make it easier to understand, but sometimes they were wrong." In fact she believes that much of Burton's work was not strictly the Kamasutra at all, but a translation of a commentary by Yashodhara written 1,000 years later.
"The text knows all about the G-spot. It was always there in the Sanskrit, but a combination of misunderstanding from Yashodhara's 13th-century commentary and Burton himself means that his translation gets further and further away from it," said Professor Doniger, who co-wrote the new edition with Professor Sudhir Kakar of Harvard University. "Not until the 1980s did modern science agree upon the G-Spot, but the Kamasutra wrote about it almost 2,000 years ago."
Burton's greatest failing, she argues, was to downgrade the role of women: "Women have all sorts of privileges in the original that have been eroded from the Burton translation. Burton muted the importance of women's pleasure, he blurred it, chipped away at it. He changed the colour of the text – but the truth is a lot sexier."
She claims he also failed to translate accurately the ingredients for what appears to be a primitive form of Viagra. According to her version, the juices of "a ground cherry, sweet potato, water leech, fruits of the nightshade, fresh buffalo butter, 'elephant's ear' (teak tree leaves) and heliotrope" are supposed to induce an "enlargement" which will last for a month.
The Kamasutra, which, roughly translated, means "the book of desire", was written in the 3rd century AD by a scholar known as Vatsyayana Mallanaga.
In the new translation, which will be published by Oxford University press in March, Professor Doniger argues that the book's accuracy also suffered from its illegal status under the Obscene Publications Act for nearly 80 years. "Although Burton first published his translation in 1883 it only became legal in London and New York in 1962.
"For over 80 years, people just kept reprinting it, making changes and cleaning up the dirty bits."Reuse content