The historical records suggest that the Kamasutra was a well-known and popular text in Indian history, states Wendy Doniger. This popularity through the Mughal Empire era is confirmed by its regional translations. The Mughals, states Doniger, had "commissioned lavishly illustrated Persian and Sanskrit Kamasutra manuscripts".
The first English translation of the Kama Sutra was privately printed in 1883 by the Orientalist Sir Richard Francis Burton. He did not translate it, but did edit it to suit the Victorian British attitudes. The unedited translation was produced by the Indian scholar Bhagwan Lal Indraji with the assistance of a student Shivaram Parshuram Bhide, under the guidance of Burton's friend, the Indian civil servant Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot. According to Wendy Doniger, the Burton version is a "flawed English translation" but influential as modern translators and abridged versions of Kamasutra even in the Indian languages such as Hindi are re-translations of the Burton version, rather than the original Sanskrit manuscript.
The Burton version of the Kamasutra was produced in an environment where Victorian mindset and Protestant proselytizers were busy finding faults and attacking Hinduism and its culture, rejecting as "filthy paganism" anything sensuous and sexual in Hindu arts and literature. The "Hindus were cowering under their scorn", states Doniger, and the open discussion of sex in the Kamasutra scandalized the 19th-century Europeans. The Burton edition of the Kamasutra was illegal to publish in England and the United States till 1962. Yet, states Doniger, it became soon after its publication in 1883, "one of the most pirated books in the English language", widely copied, reprinted and republished sometimes without Richard Burton's name.
Burton made two important contributions to the Kamasutra. First, he had the courage to publish it in the colonial era against the political and cultural mores of the British elite. He creatively found a way to subvert the then prevalent censorship laws of Britain under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Burton created a fake publishing house named The Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares (Benares = Varanasi), with the declaration that it is "for private circulation only". The second major contribution was to edit it in a major way, by changing words and rewriting sections to make it more acceptable to the general British public. For example, the original Sanskrit Kamasutra does not use the words lingam or yoni for sexual organs, and almost always uses other terms. Burton adroitly avoided being viewed as obscene to the Victorian mindset by avoiding the use of words such as penis, vulva, vagina and other direct or indirect sexual terms in the Sanskrit text to discuss sex, sexual relationships and human sexual positions. Burton used the terms lingam and yoni instead throughout the translation. This conscious and incorrect word substitution, states Doniger, thus served as an Orientalist means to "anthropologize sex, distance it, make it safe for English readers by assuring them, or pretending to assure them, that the text was not about real sexual organs, their sexual organs, but merely about the appendages of weird, dark people far away." Though Burton used the terms lingam and yoni for human sexual organs, terms that actually mean a lot more in Sanskrit texts and its meaning depends on the context. However, Burton's Kamasutra gave a unique, specific meaning to these words in the western imagination.
The problems with Burton mistranslation are many, states Doniger. First, the text "simply does not say what Burton says it says". Second, it "robs women of their voices, turning direct quotes into indirect quotes, thus losing the force of the dialogue that animates the work and erasing the vivid presence of the many women who speak in the Kamasutra". Third, it changes the force of words in the original text. For example, when a woman says "Stop!" or "Let me go!" in the original text of Vatsyayana, Burton changed it to "She continually utters words expressive of prohibition, sufficiency, or desire of liberation", states Doniger, and thus misconstrues the context and intent of the original text. Similarly, while the original Kamasutra acknowledges that "women have strong privileges", Burton erased these passages and thus eroded women's agency in ancient India in the typical Orientialist manner that dehumanized the Indian culture. David Shulman, a professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion, agrees with Doniger that the Burton translation is misguided and flawed. The Burton version was written with a different mindset, one that treated "sexual matters with Victorian squeamishness and a pornographic delight in the indirect", according to Shulman. It has led to a misunderstanding of the text and created the wrong impression of it being ancient "Hindu pornography".
In 1961, S. C. Upadhyaya published his translation as the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana: Complete Translation from the Original. According to Jyoti Puri, it is considered among the best-known scholarly English-language translations of the Kamasutra in post-independent India.
Other translations include those by Alain Daniélou (The Complete Kama Sutra in 1994) This translation, originally into French, and thence into English, featured the original text attributed to Vatsyayana, along with a medieval and a modern commentary. Unlike the 1883 version, Daniélou's new translation preserves the numbered verse divisions of the original, and does not incorporate notes in the text. He includes English translations of two important commentaries, one by Jayamangala commentary, and a more modern commentary by Devadatta Shastri, as endnotes. Wendy Doniger questions the accuracy of Daniélou's translation, stating that he has freely reinterpreted the Kamasutra while disregarding the gender that is implicit in the Sanskrit words. He, at times, reverses the object and subject, making the woman the subject and man the object when the Kamasutra is explicitly stating the reverse. According to Doniger, "even this cryptic text [Kamasutra] is not infinitely elastic" and such creative reinterpretations do not reflect the text.
A translation by Indra Sinha was published in 1980. In the early 1990s, its chapter on sexual positions began circulating on the internet as an independent text and today is often assumed to be the whole of the Kama Sutra.
Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar published another translation in 2002, as a part of the Oxford World's Classics series. Along with the translation, Doniger has published numerous articles and book chapters relating to the Kamasutra. The Doniger translation and Kamasutra-related literature has both been praised and criticized. According to David Shulman, the Doniger translation "will change peoples' understanding of this book and of ancient India. Previous translations are hopelessly outdated, inadequate and misguided". Narasingha Sil calls the Doniger's work as "another signature work of translation and exegesis of the much misunderstood and abused Hindu erotology". Her translation has the folksy, "twinkle prose", engaging style, and an original translation of the Sanskrit text. However, adds Sil, Doniger's work mixes her postmodern translation and interpretation of the text with her own "political and polemical" views. She makes sweeping generalizations and flippant insertions that are neither supported by the original text nor the weight of evidence in other related ancient and later Indian literature such as from the Bengal Renaissance movement – one of the scholarly specialty of Narasingha Sil. Doniger's presentation style titillates, yet some details misinform and parts of her interpretations are dubious, states Sil.