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Posts Tagged ‘sanskrit translation

Translating metaphor into English: Time and Motion?

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In a book called A History of Kanarese Literature, by Edward Rice (1921), he makes the following comment (p. 106):

The other is that a Kanarese poem defies anything like literal translation into another language. To give any idea of the spirit of the original it would be necessary to paraphrase freely, to expand the terse and frequent metaphors into similes, and to give a double rendering of many stanzas. An example will make this clear. The opening stanza of the Jaimini Bharata is given in Sanderson’s translation as follows:

May the moon-face of Vishnu, of Devapura, always suffused with moonlight smile, full of delightful favour-ambrosial rays—at which the chakora-eye of Lakshmi is enraptured, the lotus-bud heart of the devout expands, and the sea of the world’s pure happiness rises and overflows its bounds—give us joy.

The following is an attempt, by means of a freer rendering, to retain something of the spirit of the original:

When the full moon through heaven rides,
Broad Ocean swells with all its tides ;
The lotus blossom on the stream
Opens to drink the silv’ry beam ;
And far aloft with tranced gaze
The chakor bird feeds on the rays.

So, when great Vishnu’s face is seen,—
Whom men adore at Devapore—
Like to the sea, the devotee
Thrills with a tide of joy ;
Like to the flower, that blissful hour
The heart of the devout expands ;
And Lakshmi Queen, with rapture keen,
Watches with ever-radiant face
For her great Consort’s heavenly grace.
O may that grace be ours !

I’m wondering about this change. Apart from the versification—you know, being an actual poem instead of stilted prose—when it comes to just the idea, is it better? Why? How? Is it more readable? More understandable? Most importantly, does this change better “retain the spirit of the original”?

[Aside: just to be mischievous, we can with the wonders of technology do the following:

moon moonlight rays chakora bird lotus sea
Vishnu's face smile his grace Lakshmi's eye heart of the devout world's happiness

to ruin the poem.]

For one thing, he has changed the metaphor (rūpaka) of the original into simile (upamā).
Probably the reason is that the compressed quality of the original, a prominent characteristic of Sanskrit and other classical Indian literature, is unsuitable for English, whose readers are typically unprepared for it. Is there more to it? Is this a general difference between the two literary cultures?

I’m wondering all this because Daniel Ingalls says something along similar lines in his honestly-written general introduction “Sanskrit poetry and Sanskrit Poetics” (from his translation of the Subhāṣita-ratna-kośa anthology):

As a result, Sanskrit is lacking in what is perhaps the chief force of English poetry: its kinesthetic effect. What I mean can be shown by an old ballad:

Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blow
and shake the green leaves off the tree…

One can feel the leaves shaking, and one shivers in the next line to the “Frost that freezes fell / and blowing snow’s inclemency.” One can find verses that produce this muscular effect in Bengali, and although I cannot speak at first hand of other modern Indian literatures, I imagine that one can find the effect in them as well. But it is only rarely that one finds it in Sanskrit. The powers of Sanskrit are of a different order.
[The following verse] is by Yogeśvara, an excellent poet who is capable of better things. In it he uses a strikingly elaborate metaphor:

Now the great cloud-cat,
darting out his lightning tongue,
licks the creamy moon
from the saucepan of the sky.

The effect here is gained by intellectual, entirely rational means. The metaphor is complete in every detail: cat, tongue, cream, and saucepan—cloud, moon, lightning, and sky. It is almost like an exercise from a manual of logic under the chapter “Analogy.” Compare the verse with a well-known passage of T. S. Eliot which uses several similar ideas, but uses them very differently:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, …

This from one who is often called an intellectual poet. And yet Eliot gets his effect in every line from the irrational, the strong but imprecise memory we have of fog and cats, the childhood associations of certain words and idioms. Consider the line: “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.” It brings to sudden flower certain homely and completely natural phrases: “licks his tongue around the bowl,” or “licks his tongue into the corner of the dish.” The idiom is suddenly transfigured by bringing it into juxtaposition with the last three words, “of the evening.” This transfiguration of language becomes impossible without a natural-language basis.

Is there a general point here that English poetry uses vague, fuzzy, but “kinesthetic” effects where Sanskrit (or classical Indian) poetry uses compressed metaphors that paint a precise and detailed picture? I think there is some merit to the idea that, by and large, Sanskrit poetry is “static”, not “dynamic”. It is not a stream in motion; it hasn’t any “flow”. It is more a pearl in itself, that dazzles as you read. If poetry is imagination and the evocation of something other-worldly, it seems to me that Sanskrit poetry in general / at its best, conjures a world that one can calmly dwell in for a while, not an evocative fleeting idea that escapes as you try to grasp it, one which has appeal more in the chasing. Consider the importance accorded ultimately to stability / sthāyī-bhāva in all Indian arts, from poetry to theatre to dance.

This requires more thought and elaboration, but one may as well quote the final lines of Ingalls’s introduction (emphasis mine):

One may argue today, as the Sanskrit critics argued in the past, the relative importance of the various factors of Sanskrit verse which I have discussed. Vocabulary, grammar, meter: these are all necessary. Figures of speech, both verbal and intellectual, furnish delight. Mood is what is sought, though the grand successes of Sanskrit I would say go beyond mood to a sort of universal revelation, to what James Joyce, drawing on the vocabulary of religion, called an epiphany. To achieve this success impersonality is a prerequisite and suggestion is the chief instrument. If I were to single out for admiration one factor above the others in this complex it would be suggestion, not because it is unknown in other languages but because the Sanskrit poets use it with such brilliance and because it seems to me the most intimately connected of all the factors with the excitement, the sudden rushing of the mind into a delightful, calm expansion, that one occasionally derives from Sanskrit poetry and that brings one who has once known it constantly back for further draughts.

Written by S

Sat, 2012-09-29 at 13:09:01 +05:30


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The story of the ascetic Ṛṣyaśṛṅga (ऋष्य-शृंग, “deer-horned”) occurs in the Puranic literature. His father brought him up in an atmosphere of innocence, and he had never seen a woman. (Later, in the Rāmāyaṇa, he officiates at Daśaratha’s sacrifice for children, and it is thus through his grace that Rāma is born.) Pollock:

The Ṛśyaśṛṅga episode appears also [i.e, besides the Ramayana] at MBh 3.110-13, PadmP, Bengali recension, Pātālakhaṇḍa, 13 (reprinted in Lüders 1897), Bhāratamañjarī 3.758-95, Bhadrakalpāvadāna 33, Avadānakalpalatā 65, Alambusā and Naḷanikā Jātakas, etc. The episode is clearly of great importance to traditional India…

Here is the story from the Vana Parva in the Mahabharata (taken from GRETIL), accompanied by a pleasant translation in simple rhyming verse, by Arthur W. Ryder. (Scroll horizontally to read the English text and/or compare. Or to read just the English text, click here.)
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Written by S

Sun, 2011-10-09 at 12:03:39 +05:30

Posted in literature, sanskrit

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The invitation

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Translated from the शार्ङ्गधर-पद्धति by Octavio Paz:

The invitation

Traveler, hurry your steps, be on your way:
the woods are full of wild animals,
snakes, elephants, tigers, and boars,
the sun’s going down and you’re so young to be going alone.
I can’t let you stay,
for I’m a young girl and no one’s home.

Translated from the गाहा-सत्तसई (= गाथा-सप्तशती) by Andrew Schelling:

sleeps over there
so does the
rest of the household but
    this is my bed
    don’t trip over
    it in the dark

Written by S

Tue, 2011-06-21 at 18:51:21 +05:30

Chewed-over rice

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More from the “everything-that-can-be-said-has-already-been-said” department. Kumārajīva (344–413 CE), who was translating Buddhist philosophical works from Sanskrit to Chinese, writes:

Once Sanskrit is converted into Chinese, the subtle nuances are lost. Though the general meaning gets across, there is no way to bridge the gap in genre and style. It is like feeding another person with chewed-over rice. Not only is the flavour lost, it will cause the other person to vomit.

Written by S

Sun, 2010-11-14 at 12:50:16 +05:30

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  यूयं वयं वयं यूयम्
  इत्यासीन्मतिरावयोः ।
  किञ्जातमधुना येन 
  यूयं यूयं वयं वयम् ॥

yūyaṃ vayaṃ vayaṃ yūyam
ity āsīt matir āvayoḥ |
kiṃ jātam adhunā yena
yūyaṃ yūyaṃ vayaṃ vayam ||

Translated by John Brough (1977):

In former days we’d both agree
That you were me, and I was you.
What has now happened to us two,
That you are you, and I am me?

A simple poem, simply translated, and I was struck both by its simplicity and how popular it seems despite (because of?) it. Here’s the place to mention something trite, like “even the simplest poems can be beautiful”. It’s also an example where word order does matter in Sankrit; rearranging the words wouldn’t give the same meaning.

The poem is attributed to Bhartrhari, which, given the nature of such attributions, may mean we don’t know exactly who wrote it. (It doesn’t appear in all recensions.)

[Ryder, probably translating from the variant reading that has “kiṃ jātam adhunā mitra” (so it’s addressed to a friend specifically), does:


Yes, you were I, and I was you,
So fond the love that linked us two;
Alas, my friend, for friendship’s end!
Now I am I, and you are you.

Unrelated: Regina Spektor, Us

Written by S

Mon, 2010-09-20 at 07:59:21 +05:30

Posted in literature, sanskrit

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Unwilling translators

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Besides the Mahabharata’s translation into Old Javanese (and other Southeast Asian languages) in the 10th/11th century, the first translation into a non-Indian language was into Persian, commissioned by Akbar in 1591.

The translator, Badāyūnī or Badāōnī, relates how it came to be:

The following considerations disposed the emperor to the work. When he had heard the Shāhnāmah, and the story of Āmīr Ḥamzah, in seventeen volumes transcribed in fifteen years, and had spent much gold illuminating it, he also heard the story of Abu Muslim, and the Jāmi’-ul-hikāyat repeated, and it suddenly came into his mind that most of these books were nothing but poetry and fiction; but that, since they were first related in a lucky hour, and when their star was in the act of passing over the sky, they obtained great fame. But now he ordered those Hindu books, which holy and staid sages had written, and which were all clear and convincing proofs and the pivot on which all their religion, and faith, and holiness turned, to be translated from the Indian into the Persian language, and thought to himself, “Why should I not have them done in my name? For they are by no means trite, but quite fresh, and they will produce all kinds of fruits of felicity both temporal and spiritual, and will be the cause of circumstance and pomp, and will ensure an abundance of children and wealth as is written in the preface of these books.”

So apparently, Akbar thought they (Hindu books) were more than mere poetry and fiction, and yet fresh, and he even believed (essentially) the phalashruti told in the books.

But the translator Badāōnī himself, an orthodox Mullā, doesn’t seem to have agreed with his emperor, or liked the job:

The Emperor sent for me and desired me to translate The Mahābhārata, in conjunction with Nāqib Khān. [...] The consequence was that in three or four months I translated two out of eighteen sections, at the puerile absurdities of which the eighteen thousand creations may well be amazed.

<!–(The sections are parvas. The “18000 creations” is a Muslim belief, and unconnected with the recurrence of the number 18 in the Mahābhārata.)–>
Besides finding sections full of “puerile absurdities”, he also found sections objectionable and disturbing to his Muslim sentiments. It led him to complain:

But such is my fate, to be employed on such works. Nevertheless, I console myself with the reflection that what is predestined must come to pass.

Akbar seems to have been merely amused by this reaction:

We thought that [Badāōnī] was an unworldly individual of Ṣūfī tendencies, but he seems to be such a bigoted lawyer that no sword can sever the jugular vein of his bigotry.

The rest of the translation had to be completed by others.

Written by S

Fri, 2010-06-11 at 23:53:55 +05:30

Posted in funny, literature

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How not to translate: an example

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In David Shulman’s beautiful article The Arrow and the Poem (reminded via), he gives an example of the “sheer awfulness” of most Sanskrit translation into English:

Sanskrit may always have attracted just the kind of fussy, pedantic minds that make for the worst possible translators. They produced versions of Sanskrit poetry that were hardly likely to entice: “Shall I set in motion moist breezes by (means of) cool lotus-leaf-fans which-removed languor? Or placing thy feet, brown as the lotus, O round-thighed (maiden), in (my) lap shall I rub them soothingly?” That, believe it or not, is another verse from the play by Kalidasa that I mentioned at the start. The translator, Sir Monier Monier- Williams, held the Boden Chair in Sanskrit at Oxford during the second half of the nineteenth century, and he famously produced one of the major dictionaries for the language, still very much in use. But clearly, like most people, he had no idea how to translate.

(The rest of the article is great too.)
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Written by S

Sat, 2010-05-15 at 16:22:00 +05:30

Posted in sanskrit

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