The Lumber Room

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On Translation: Exhibit 1

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Translating Sanskrit poetry into English presents unique difficulties. To be sure, translation is always tricky. Passing to a different language invariably loses some nuances and overtones. What can be naturally expressed in one language may require more effort in another.

With Sanskrit, though, even essential features are often untranslatable to a native English audience.

[Disclaimer: Before going further, I must point out that I am an amateur. Everything below is probably wrong, they are banal and pointless observations, anyway, and I amaze myself by my ability to take something interesting and make it boring. I thought I had something to say, but it took writing it out to realise I didn’t.]

Firstly, there are the little matters about language and style considered acceptable. Take the minor point of “elegant variation”.1 This is considered distracting in English (and it is), but good style in Sanskrit and a few other languages including French. Thus in the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, it is perfectly natural that Arjuna is addressed variously as Pārtha, Kaunteya, Dhanañjaya, Parantapa, and several other names, but translations that use “O son of Pritha”, “O son of Kunti”, “O conqueror of wealth”, “O subduer of enemies” draw too much attention away from the main point, while using the Sanskrit names would be confusing to those unfamiliar with them.

The reason elegant variation is possible at all is because of compounds. Sanskrit has endless possibilities for creating compounds (samāsa), and a lot can be expressed in one word without sounding odd — in some “difficult” works, words spanning multiple lines are commonplace.2 This is not possible in English, and translating a compound into a phrase of several of words makes it clunky. (German famously has some facility for long compounds, and — to make a silly, wild connection — the enthusiasm of Germans like Goethe3 for Sanskrit may not have been a coincidence.)

The compounds give Sanskrit a large vocabulary (potentially infinite, in theory), and this allows picking words for their sound in addition to the meaning. [A story is told about a dying poet (some versions have Bāṇabhaṭṭa) who summoned his two sons to decide who would complete his unfinished work. He pointed to a dry tree in front of them and asked them to describe the fact, and one said, harshly, “शुष्को वृक्षस्तिष्ठत्यग्रे” (śuṣko vṛkṣastiṣṭhatyagre), while the other said, sweetly, “नीरस-तरुरिह निवसति पुरतः” (nīrasa-taruriha nivasati purataḥ).m The latter got the job, but for a different goal, it might as well have been the former.] Barbara Stoler Miller laments in her preface to her translation of Bhartṛhari4 that it is impossible to reproduce in English the effect of phrases like karṇe kokila-kāminī-kala-ravaḥ.

The “sound” of the poem depends on, besides its individual syllables, its metre. Picking an apt metre is done to some extent in all languages, (or was done until recent centuries, when “free verse” became fashionable) but Sanskrit has a substantially richer repertoire of metre than in any other language. Thus for instance, the Meghadūta would not be what it is if it weren’t in the distinctive mandākrāntā metre, which some say was invented by Kālidāsa for that purpose (and was used by later sandeśa kāvyas5). The metre is usually strictly adhered to, unlike English where occasional deviation — e.g. in an iambic metre, trochaic inversions, pyrrhic substitutions — is considered desirable to break the monotony. In English poetry, the meaning dictates how the poem is to be recited, with a little help from the metre. In Sanskrit, it is the other way around. This gives poems a musical quality, and they can be said to be not so much recited as chanted or sung.

Further, Sanskrit poets evolved a rich set of highly stylised conventions: specific seasons, plants and birds evoked distinct associations. See this series of posts (starting with this one) by Venetia Ansell at her Sanskrit Literature blog. As Andrew Schelling says in his essay on translating Sanskrit poetry:6

The mere hint of fragrance off a nearby forested hill told not only in what calendrical moment of what season the poem was located, but also evoked a constellation of human relationships, a precise mood, and vivid moments echoed in other poems.

There is a “deep, ancient regard shown for the natural world”, and the poets are “minutely familiar with nature”, but unlike English or Chinese poetry, they are not written by recluses, but by urbane and cosmopolitan city-dwellers (often courtiers or courtesans): the approach to nature is not as if it were wild — “there are few brooding mountain escarpments, few unvisited gorges along thundering rivers” — but rather:

the human and nonhuman orders seem linked in unsensational daily intimacy. Local villages with birds in flowering trees. The whiff of odors from a nearby forest grove. Farmland crops or native grasses in fertile alluvial soil. Sweet-smelling blossoms along a village path. To put it another way: what flowering creeper shares the details of your life because you walk past it every day to fetch water? What pliant reed did you collect one spring night to weave a mat for your lover?

Thus many poems were refined and sophisticated (some would say indulgent), written for a similarly sophisticated audience, one which no longer exists. (This does not necessarily mean we cannot enjoy them today…)

One important difference between some Sanskrit poetry (kāvya, as opposed to the epics etc.) and much English poetry is that Sanskrit verses are generally free-standing and intended to be read alone. There may occasionally be continuity between verses (at least in theme), but none of them depends on others for its enjoyment. Thus the effect produced from savouring each verse individually is different from, say, reading a ballad. This is actually not so much a difficulty with translation, as a requirement to instruct readers “how to” read.

Perhaps the best way to summarise all of this would be to say that Sanskrit kāvya possesses a high degree of “artificiality”, not in a negative sense but in that they are constructed, cultivated, refined, polished. Each verse stands alone, a finely crafted gem to be examined in all lights before proceeding. Figures of speech and other embellishments (alaṅkāra, lit. ornaments/decoration) are highly prized, and Kālidāsa is so highly revered in part for his upamā, similes. Readers of English poetry, where poets strive to conceal their artifice, may consider some of these to be excesses, but there is no such notion in Sanskrit.

In light of all this, it is no exaggeration to say that Sanskrit poetry is one of the hardest to successfully translate into English. Even when the effort succeeds in producing something beautiful — as, most recently, in Andrew Schelling’s translation of the Amaru Shataka,7 the result is something rather far from the Sanskrit original. Indeed, some Frenchman once said: “Translations are like women: if they are beautiful they are not faithful, and if they are faithful they are not beautiful”. Jakobson went so far as to say that poetry by definition is untranslatable, and the Italians say “Traduttore traditore”: “translator, traitor”.

The one notable feature of all Sanskrit translations into English is how bad they are.

Despite all this, I love translations.

For one thing, I enjoy them. There is something unique about the experience of reading the thoughts of one language expressed in another — Sanskrit sentiments expressed in English, so to speak. (Mention R K Narayan here.) Moreover (and perhaps I say this more as a lover of the English verse form than one of Sanskrit poetry), comparing them is great fun. It is instructive — well, at least interesting — to see what choices translators have made, of metre and rhyme, and what inevitable changes in meaning have been forced upon them.

[Note: Translations in prose, or ones that are meant to accompany the Sanskrit originals, do not count, as they are not required to be beautiful, and rarely are. Free verse can be beautiful occasionally, but since it does not operate under the constraints of metre, it has no excuse for a bad translation: If you’re not even following the rules, you’d better be bloody good.]

More importantly, I think translations are highly valuable. While it would be nice to read Sanskrit poetry in the original, our time is limited, and very few people have the interest to do so. Sanskrit is not dead, but is quite probably dying, if ongoing attempts at its resuscitation do not prove sufficiently successful. To make matters worse, the few “scholars” who take interest in Sanskit are often not the sort to appreciate poetry. To quote from Schelling again:

Few Sanskrit scholars appear to like the poetry. The standard reference books—British scholars compiled them during colonial times—treat it with dismay or a sneer. […] If the professionals don’t like it, readers will be indifferent. Predictably, the books get harder to find. […] many volumes are hopelessly scarce: they went out of print in Bombay or Poona a hundred years ago.

As AND Haksar argues,8 English is the new Sanskrit. For better or for worse, its role parallels that of Sanskrit 800–1000 years ago: a near-universal link language of the educated (“educated elite”), the standard language for technical works, and a way of ensuring the widest possible audience for a work.9 More Indians know English than ever knew Sanskrit, and translation is the only way of bringing this rich literature to them. For this to succeed, though, the translations have to be gripping and readable on their own.

Enough nonsense. Here is an example, from Bhartṛhari’s Nīti-śataka. It’s not an especially fine example, but it’s a simple one. (It even occurs in some editions of the Panchatantra.) Here it is:

   आरम्भगुर्वी क्षयिणी क्रमेण
   लघ्वी पुरा वृद्धिमती च पश्चात्
   दिनस्य पुर्वार्धपरार्धभिन्ना
   छायेव मैत्री खलसज्जनानाम्

   ārambha-gurvī kṣayiṇī krameṇa
   laghvī purā vṛddhimatī ca paścāt
   dinasya purvārdha-parārdha-bhinnā
   chāyeva maitrī khalasajjanānām

My literal translation:

   Initially long/strong and diminishing subsequently,
   Or small at first and growing thereafter:
   As in the day's first and second halves the shadow [progresses differently],
   Thus [does] the friendship of bad and good men.

The point of the verse is clear enough — an ingenious analogy is being made, between friendships and shadows, their growth or decline. I do not know if you find such analogies delightful — it is an acquired taste. And in our postmodern world, even making such statements about bad and good men is unfashionable in some circles, but nevermind that. (And what does it say about us and our lost friendships?)

Focusing on the trivial, I think one of the aspects that makes this verse successful, at least on a first reading, is the pleasure of recognition on figuring out the analogy. You read the first three lines, without knowing what they are about, and then in the last line, in consecutive words, you discover almost simultaneously that it’s referring to shadows and to friendships. The joy is similar to that of hearing a good pun, or working out a simple puzzle.

Note that the translation must suffer from vagueness: while in Sanskrit the terms gurvī and laghvī (heavy and light, among other meanings) are applied to both shadows and friendships, the parallel does not easily work in English: we speak of long and short shadows, but strong and weak friendships. And the literal translation of “day’s first and second halves” was a mistake: even though sometimes “midday” can mean noon, we do not nowadays think of the day’s first half as the period before noon.

The translation must also lose the sound. The verse is in a kind of upajāti metre (शाला, says the Sanskrit metre recognizer), and can be musical. (If you are not familiar with the metre, letting the verse play on your lips for a few hours should do the trick.)

Look at what compromises translators have chosen.

First, included just because it’s the most recent, even though it’s not in metre, Greg Bailey’s translation from the Clay Sanskrit Library version:

   Heavy to begin with, weakening steadily;
   Slight at first, then later expansive;
   Different as the first half and the second half of the day,
   The friendship of rogues and that of good men and
       are like shadows. [sic]

Next, the verse from Barbara Stoler Miller’s acclaimed 1967 translation:

   One bursts forth expansive, dwindling the course,
   The other, scant in prelude, finally grows great.
   As shadows of afternoon differ from those of morning,
   So differs the friendship of evil and good men.

These put the analogy first and the things being compared in the last line. Three old rhyming translations (1877, 1899, 1930s) take the opposite approach:


   The kindness of the bad at first
       Is great, and then doth wane;
   The good man's love, at th' outset small,
       Slowly doth bulk attain;
   Such difference between these two
       In nature doth abide,
   As 'twixt the shadow of the morn
       And that of eventide.

Too antiquated even for 1877, perhaps, but we can live with it. The wane/attain rhyme is ok, but this was the first I‘d seen ’eventide’.

Paul Elmer More

   Like as the shadows of the twilight hour
   Differ from those at morn,
   So doth a good man's friendship in its power
   From that of evil born : —
   One small at first still stronger, deeper grows,
   One shortens to the close.


Arthur W. Ryder:

   The friendship of the rogue or saint,
   Like shade at dawn or shade at noon,
   Starts large and slowly grows more faint,
   Or starting faint, grows larger soon.

Simple and sweet.

Again, I’m ignoring prose translations and commentaries, though, just for fun, this:

  1. Initio magna, sed paullatim sese dissolvens; brevis antea, sed postea crescens, similis umbrae diei antemeridianae et post meridiem, est amicitia cum malis bonisque hominibus.

  1. Elegant variation is the excessive use of synonyms to avoid repeating the same word. Fowler coined it, and gave examples like the use of “the emperor”, “His Majesty”, and “the monarch” in the same paragraph. He says

    “When the choice lies between monotonous repetition on the one hand and clumsy variation on the other, it may fairly be laid down that of two undesirable alternatives the natural is to be preferred to the artificial.”

  2. See What is the longest word of Sanskrit?, posted today on the Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος blog: it has an example of a “word” spanning 428 letters in Roman transliteration, which is one of 28 adjectives qualifying the sentence “On the way, he passed through the Tuṇḍīra country”, which is also a chapter — and takes 130 lines of English translation.

  3. Goethe on Shakuntala:

      Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,
      Willst du, was reizt and entzückt, willst du was sättigt and nährt,
      Willst du den Himmel, die Erde, mit Einem Namen begreifen;
      Nenn’ ich, Sakuntala, Dich, and so ist Alles gesagt.

    Translated by a certain Eastwick:

      Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline
      And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
      Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
      I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said.

  4. Barbara Stoler Miller, Bhartṛhari: Poems (1967), Columbia University Press

  5. A sandeśa kāvya or “messenger poem” is the genre of poetry originated by the Meghadūta. See e.g. Wikipedia on Hamsa-Sandesha.

  6. Andrew Schelling, Manuscript Fragments and Eco-Guardians: Translating Sanskrit Poetry, Manoa 11.2 (1999) 106–115.

  7. Andrew Schelling, Erotic love poems from India: a translation of the Amarushataka (2004). See some sample poems here, but the Google Books preview reveals more. The common translation of śṛṅgāra as “erotic” is unfortunate, but more on that some other time.

  8. An interview with AND Haksar

  9. In the best days of Sanskrit, this was surprisingly large in extent — including, for example, Sri Lanka, parts of Central and Western Asia (incl. China), and the far reaches of Southeast Asia. See e.g. Sheldon Pollock’s discussion of The Sanskrit Cosmopolis, in his work of that name and in Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India.

  10. There’s more to this; see comments below.


Written by S

Fri, 2010-03-12 at 21:42:30

22 Responses

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  1. Cool post!

    “one said, harshly, “शुष्को वृक्षस्तिष्तत्यग्रे” (śuṣko vṛkṣastiṣtatyagre), while the other said, sweetly, “नीरस-तरुरिह निवसति पुरतः” (nīrasa-taruriha nivasati purataḥ). ”

    Translate, please.


    Sat, 2010-03-13 at 12:56:41

    • Thanks! (Also fixed typo I noticed because of your comment.)
      They mean roughly the same thing, the latter slightly less prosaic: शुष्क ≈ dry, वृक्ष ≈ tree, तिष्ठति ≈ stands, अग्रे ≈ ahead, and नीरस ≈ devoid of water, parched, तरु ≈ tree, निवसति ≈ resides, पुरतः ≈ in front. (Not literal translations, just words that came to mind.) When said aloud, they sound very different. :-)


      Sat, 2010-03-13 at 13:27:19

      • and तरुरिह is same as तरु?


        Sat, 2010-03-13 at 14:48:06

        • Oh, I missed “इह”. It’s just a filler word, but it means “here”. (There are various occurrences of “sandhi” being formed here… the words, separated, are “शुष्कः वृक्षः तिष्ठति अग्रे” and नीरस-तरुः इह निवसति पुरतः” etc.) (I think.)


          Sat, 2010-03-13 at 16:45:32

          • An even better (I feel) version is नीरसतरुरिह विलसति पुरतः. विलसति is hard to translate, in Tamil we say விளங்குகிறது, but in English, you have to say something absurd like ‘shines’. The निवसति is in the second half of the shloka. Apparently, there was a wicked snake on the tree as well, and the first guy said शुष्को वृक्षस्तिष्ठत्यग्रे | तस्मिंस्तिष्ठति कृष्णस्सर्पः || The second went: नीरसतरुरिह विलसति पुरतः | तस्मिन्निवसति कालभुजङ्गः ||

            S P Suresh

            Sat, 2010-03-13 at 22:20:54

            • Ah, thanks! Definitely better. I was quoting from memory and clearly got things mixed up (and I hadn’t heard the second half).

              [To complete the “translation”: तस्मिन् ≈ in it, कृष्ण/काल ≈ black, सर्प/भुजङ्ग ≈ snake. Of course, they mean the same thing so translation cannot capture the difference between them. :-)]


              Sun, 2010-03-14 at 09:20:00

  2. shreevatsa! wow, brilliant! i am impressed, as ever!

    S P Suresh

    Sat, 2010-03-13 at 14:44:17

    • Well, then the post wasn’t entirely futile after all. :-) (You said previously that there was nothing to comment on — I was hoping you’d have a lot of things to disagree with here. :p)


      Sat, 2010-03-13 at 16:48:54

  3. The verse was beautiful. A lovely essay.

    [In school, I used to enjoy unravelling samāsas. Neelakantah is beautiful, whereas “The one with a blue neck” is most certainly not. I think I attempted to read a couple of very bad translations when I was younger and from then on, I preferred to read amar chitra kathas to know my mythology :P]


    Sat, 2010-03-13 at 22:21:03

    • Thanks, glad you liked it. :-) (Good point about what’s beautiful and not–we have different expectations from different languages, it seems.)
      And a wise choice, if I may say so. (I got most of my mythology from amar chitra kathas too :p)


      Sun, 2010-03-14 at 09:23:42

  4. This was quite fascinating.


    Sun, 2010-03-14 at 01:12:02

    • Thanks. (I know very little and can only write/quote based on the snatches I know from here and there, which makes it mysterious and fascinating :p)


      Sun, 2010-03-14 at 09:39:07

  5. I cannot get myself to understand how you have the patience to painstakingly collect and organize so many references! Unbelievably amazing!

    1. Elegant variation – Some people say that the variation is not merely to avoid sounding repetitive, but also to add another layer of meaning. For example, consider the very first verse Krishna speaks in the Gita, 2.2: “Kutastvaa kashmalamidam … akeertikaram arjuna ?” “What’s with this filth .. (of cowardice).. O Arjuna?”. ‘Arjuna’ literally means ‘white’ or ‘clear’, so there’s certainly an internal consistency there.

    Consider another dynamite line, 11.33, ‘Nimittamaatram bhava savyasaachin’. “You are merely a cause, Arjuna!”. Savyasaachin is literally one who can wield the bow with both hands. Nimittam here is ‘a (non-fundamental) cause’, but the primary meaning of Nimitta is ‘target’. Ambidextrous archery and targets – :-)

    The rebuttal to such claims of course is that nearly every other verse becomes like a Rorschach blot. Who is to know if an ‘internal consistency’ is intended or not? Whatever that is though, it doesn’t make it less beautiful, and gives commentators to give something to talk about :-)

    2. Teutonic love for Sanskrit – Considering the fact ‘education’ then meant familiarity with Greek and Latin classics, it is not at all surprising that European classicists took to Sanskrit so quickly. It would not have taken them a month to get up and running with Sanskrit , given the similarity in everything from grammar to metre!

    On a lighter note, Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German language” might very quickly be made to be about the Awful Sanskrit language :-)

    3. Excellent story about the dying poet. I didn’t know this before!

    4. Metre: Mandakranta has a very interesting slow-fast-fast-slow cadence, almost as if the singer is out of breath and eager to speak. I don’t know if this is just my imagination, though. As an aside, I’ve been trying to read up on ‘natural’ singing rhythms for metres. Some metres ‘go well’ when sung in certain ‘tunes’ (I’m tempted to say ‘raaga’, but that is too nebulous.) I know for sure that the set of these tunes for each metre is finite – oh but more on this when I find out.

    As a further aside, I’m reading D.R.Bendre’s excellent Kannada version of the Meghadutam. It is in a maatra-chandas, something I’ve never seen before. It’s delightful of course, and you should definitely check it out sometime. Reading the Sanskrit and the Kannada gives a very interesting picture on the kind of acrobatics Bendre had to do to get ‘the’ meaning right, and still manage the metre.

    dhuumajyotiH salilamarutaaM saMnipaataH kva meghaH
    saMdeshaarthaaH kva paTukaraNaiH praaNibhiH praapaNiiyaaH |
    ityautsukyaadaparigaNayan.h guhyakastaM yayaache
    kaamaartaa hi prakR^itikR^ipaNaashchetanaachetaneshhu

    gaaLi-neeru-ugi-benkigoodi aagiruva mEghavetta,
    etta maatugaLu? mOda jeevave? eno etto chitta!
    bhEdaveNisadeye kanda mOdavane bEdikonda taanu
    jadavo chetanavo bayake maruLarige yaava vastuvenu?

    5. Regard for the natural word – I actually get a bit irritated when this goes on for too long. As you’ve written, it’s for a sophisticated audience, almost like a code! I don’t really dig comparisons to some esoteric flower which I then have to look up, and I truly despise footnotes that detail the botanical names and history of some sodding fruit to which the heroine’s bosom is being compared. Dude!

    6. English verse – I’m very happy that you write that you love English verse; I’d be much obliged if you wrote a blog talking about some of your favorite poems. I ask this because I generally despise English poems, and have rarely found anything enjoyable other than well-written satire. The so called ‘free verse’ poems are the absolute worst – I don’t get head or tail of what they say, and they aren’t even fun to read aloud :-)

    7. Longest word in Sanskrit – wow, that’s a fantastic find. I’m a bit skeptical though – the word looked fairly routine to me, and I should expect Bana to have flowerier stuff than that. I’ll try sending this out to somebody who might be able to add something, let’s see.


    Sun, 2010-03-14 at 11:21:12

    • Heh. As I said, it is even harder to not include the links and references. :-) (FWIW, I didn’t go searching for most of them; I just remembered where I had read things.) (Also, having it as footnotes instead of links makes it seem more impressive than it is; but the footnotes were automatically generated by Pandoc.)

      1. Indeed — because the variation is possible and will not seem unnatural, it is possible to pick the most appropriate word to go in the slot, one which will add meaning or sound, or beauty in some other way. :-) (Very nice examples!)

      2. [I remain sceptical of the claim: do you think, with your knowledge of Sanskrit, you could get up and running with German in a month? If so, please try it and let me know; that would be wonderful :-)]
      Hilarious essay. Mark Twain’s genius was really in essays of this sort. (Recall Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.) “would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”, LOL. So this is where the “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.” quote is from…

      The verb-at-the-end situation (SOV is also the most common order in Sanskrit, although grammatically the word order is free, but I haven’t seen anyone complain) reminds me of Sherlock Holmes’s “It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs” and a casual sentence by Hofstadter from GEB (which I haven’t read yet): “The proverbial German phenomenon of the “verb-at-the-end”, about which droll tales of absentminded professors who would begin a sentence, ramble on for an entire lecture, and then finish up by rattling off a string of verbs by which their audience, for whom the stack had long since lost its coherence, would be totally nonplussed, are told, is an excellent example of linguistic pushing and popping.”

      4. I know neither enough Sanskrit nor Kannada to follow them properly, but it does sound very pleasant, and I can only imagine how hard translation into a difficult metre must be…

      5. Heh. One can only imagine (or hope) that there was an audience that really was familiar with all these flowers and in what seasons they bloomed and what they looked and smelled like. (I do wonder about the all-purpose lotus, though.) If so, you cannot blame the poets for picking a comparison when one so very apt was available, and (one hopes) familiar. (See this project — some of the flowers are really perfect.)

      6. Ah. Mine is a simple appreciation for the rhythm and melody of poetry read aloud (note I said “the English verse form“); not anything “deep”, for I have little patience with elusive meaning. :-) I think you’ll despise them if you go by what idiots say (the modern approach is to write tons of bullshit about simple things; they have ruined Shakespeare for everyone) rather than what sounds good to you. (If daffodils and Greek urns are entirely meaningless to us, we don’t have to bother.) What can you really find wrong with the usual schoolboy stuff like “If—”, “Charge of the Light Brigade”, “We are Seven”, “The Raven“, etc.? (Not my favourite poems, just the famous ones that come to mind and I can see nothing despicable about. My favourite poem is “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, so you know how much to trust me. :P) About free verse — “shredded prose palmed off as poetry” — I agree; it has to try harder, and usually fails.

      I recommend Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled (whose long first chapter is on metre). He is dismissive of the way teachers ask people to “respond” to poetry or “just express yourself” without the proper training that enables one to create and appreciate, and compares it to setting someone down in front of a piano and saying “just express yourself”. :-) The audiobook is much slower going than reading it, but I can listen to Fry’s voice for hours. :p (And since Indian languages are more-or-less syllable-timed, we don’t have a good ear for the stress-timed rhythm of English anyway, so it helps.)

      7. Well, it’s not the most flowery, but probably even the most “inventive” writer has a limit of length beyond which he decides it’s ridiculous. Let’s see. :-)


      Sun, 2010-03-14 at 18:49:01

      • Pandoc – I should check that out!

        1. Glad you liked them :-) There are tons more in the Gita, and it was my uncle’s pastime to find stuff like this. It’s essentially a non-humorous Tom Swifty, though I’ve been unable to find a formal name for this ‘alankaara’.

        2. LOL, I am nowhere close to being even moderately literate in Sanskrit, so no, I don’t think I can pick up German in a month. But if I was _good_ in Sanskrit, Greek or Latin wouldn’t have been very difficult, I still think. Maybe a few decades later, when I’ve learnt enough, we can start this off again :-)

        You really do love that Fenimore Cooper essay, don’t you? :-)

        I remember that line from Hofstadter, I want to learn enough German to be able to hear a lecture like that and be legitimately confused :-)

        4. Here is one rather detailed translation: (it’s the 5th verse of the Purva-megha)
        The Kannada bit follows this very closely!

        5. All-purpose lotus – ROFLMAO :D

        6. That’s precisely what I think too. All I seem to appreciate is the basic schoolboy stuff!

        Thanks for the ref – I’d totally love an audiobook because despite my best efforts, I have been unable to convince my company to charter a bus with a better suspension. That means 2 hours of bumpy riding where I cannot even read my phone’s display correctly – and god save me if I don’t come early enough to grab a non-rear-seat. And a certain attractor has mysteriously disappeared :-(

        7. Here’s one while we wait. In the spirit of this dirty but very clever trick, let’s (recursively) suffix that word with -aakhya-samasta-pada-deerghatamatva-shankaa. lit. ( ” – doubt about named compound word’s longest-ness”). The samasa of the suffix is a plain shashti tatpurusha. So if my ‘longest word’ candidate is ‘dasharatha-nandanda’ , we have ‘dasharatha-nandana-aakhya-samasta-pada-deerghatamatva-shankaa’. The only reason this works is that I can use -aakhya to insert quotes without actually splitting the word, but hey :-)


        Mon, 2010-03-15 at 11:36:20

        • 7: Let’s be clear — this is not about the longest possible word (which we know is unbounded); it is merely about the longest word that actually exists in some (fixed) corpus — say, works composed before 1900. Anyone can string together words of any length, and this was always common knowledge, so no one sane would have bothered “going for the record”. So the question is only how long someone did bother to go, in all seriousness, in something that was actually intended to be read. :-)


          Mon, 2010-03-15 at 15:06:35

  6. […] the previous post, which egregiously violated “Show, don’t tell” — with a whole lot of telling and nothing to […]

    Poems « The Lumber Room

    Thu, 2010-03-18 at 21:48:53

  7. […] example of good vs bad translations from Sanskrit. Previously see here and […]

  8. I don’t even know if this is going to be read by anyone, or if I am writing to a graveyard address: I loved the bits and pieces I managed to read, in between household chores. I picked up a smattering of German, and am trying to learn Sanskrit, and feel so guilty that I think in English despite being born a Kannadiga, and I am just amazed that there are people really conversing cogently about things that I have only vaguely wondered about…


    Mon, 2016-12-26 at 09:59:38

    • I read all comments, at least. :-)

      Thanks, glad to hear you enjoyed the post.

      If you are interested in reading more about Sanskrit literature, my friend Mohan (in the comments above) started writing an excellent series of essays on (mostly) Sanskrit literature, called Sadāsvāda, and you can subscribe to it here or read the first set of ones here. You will enjoy them!

      Good luck with your Sanskrit learning as well! I wrote some speculation about Sanskrit and German here (without knowing any German!) How are you going about learning Sanskrit, BTW? I am a fan of Samskrita Bharati’s approach, e.g. this playlist of just ~1000 minutes goes a long way.

      Please don’t feel guilty for thinking in English… perhaps we can enjoy the opportunity to think in a new way by reading literature in a different, yet intimate language :-)


      Mon, 2016-12-26 at 12:04:28

      • I think I just have to invent an acronym which expresses gratitude, amazement, dhanyataa, amazement again at the serendipity that made me stumble upon this, incredulity that this is even possible with a few random clicks of the mouse, overwhelming sense of inadequacy and doubt over whether I really deserve all this, the somewhere-in-my-youth-or-childhood-I-must-have-done-good syndrome, solace, oh the list goes on….And I am going to be saying this after reading pretty nearly every post.
        Thank you for making this accessible to public, and if the Internet were a person, I’d go and hug it pronto.
        Thanks for the tips on learning Samskrita – I am trying to write the truteeya exam conducted by Surasaraswati Sabha in January next year – I need the rigour and the push that comes from the ‘exam’ mode of being – I still like the schoolgirl version of myself best. I’ll get round to reading your post too – just read one of Mohan’s. The business of earning a livelihood actually prevents one from living, but that’s life, I guess. Toodle-oo for now, stay sane and thrive, chaps, because I need you guys to help me stay sane too.
        The only daunting aspect of this is that I just have no idea who else will be reading this, and I am putting my viscera out there for public consumption …
        Was it some impulse like this that made Brahma first duck and try to retreat into the lotus whence he came?


        Tue, 2016-12-27 at 20:17:46

  9. […] inherent /a/ before hyphens in the transliteration, per shreevatsa’s comment. Check out his post on translating Sanskrit verse—and not just because it links here. 🙂 […]

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