The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"


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       But to remember her my heart is sad,
       To see her is to know
       Bewildered thoughts, and touching driveth mad —
       How is she dear that worketh only woe?
       (P.E. More, 1899)

       The thought of her is saddening,
         The sight of her is fear,
       The touch of her is maddening—
         Can she be really dear?
       (Ryder, 1910)

These are both translations of Sanskrit poems, and quite obviously of the same one.1 The difference in style is not entirely due to the 10 years between them. :-)

Following the previous post, which egregiously violated “Show, don’t tell” — with a whole lot of telling and nothing to show for it — here are a couple more random examples of short verses that I feel are successful in translation. [As I started gathering examples, this post started turning into a tribute to Ryder, so I’ve cut that off for another time. What I like is obviously subjective, and I’m easily delighted by a simple rhyme. :-) Of course, most good poems can be translated into prose or free verse and still remain beautiful; the below are merely examples of translations being cleverly coerced into the verse forms of English.] I avoided commentary on the poems — for attempting it would be futile — and only touch on the translation.

This is from Amaru:


     She did not redden nor deny
       My entrance to her room;
     She did not speak an angry word;
       She did not fret and fume;
     She did not frown upon poor me,
       Her lover now as then;
     She only looked at me the way
       She looks at other men.

The core of the poem, its sting, is in the last two lines, and it may owe more to the inherent rhythms of the English language than to the skill of the translator that the natural way of expression fits so neatly into metre, but few other translators would have exploited it so well.

Also from Amaru:


     When my love draws nigh,
       When his voice I hear,
     Why am I all eye?
       Why am I all ear?

How simple! As is the next one:


   If, maiden of the lotus eye,
     Your anger hurts you so,
   'Tis right you should not let it die,
     You hardly could, you know.

   But once I gave you an embrace,
     To keep it would be pain;
   And once I kissed your willing face,
     Give me that kiss again.

The following is from the first act of Shakuntala. The context: Dushyanta arrives at the hermitage and sees Shakuntala and her two friends. It is love at first sight for both of them, although he does not know this — she is shy and uncommunicative and all those things that make it so deucedly difficult for a fellow to know when he has a chance. But probably every young fool in love suffers from either the most unjustified optimism or incurable pessimism, or alternates between the two. :-) In this case, Dushyanta is hopeful:2


     Although she does not speak to me,
       She listens while I speak;
     Her eyes turn not, my face to see,
       But nothing else they seek.

The majority of Sanskrit poetry, like poetry in any language, is on love, but moving on…. Ryder especially excelled at humour and wit, sometimes injecting more of it than others saw in the original:



   "We fear no fire nor goad nor sling,
     Nor any man that lives;
   We do not fear a single thing
     Except our relatives.


   "A thirsty bee will kiss a flower,
     And then extract the honey;
   A relative will praise your power,
     And carry off your money.

Apparently, that (whole thing here) is from the Ramayana. Another hilarous bit from the Ramayana is the Rakshasas’ attempt to wake up Kumbhakarna. It is too long to include here, so look here. (He translates all the Rakshasas as “giants”, and Kumbhakarna as Pot-Ear.)

And finally (for now), this famous verse:

   yathā dhenusahasreṣu vatso vindati mātaram /
   tathā pūrvakṛtaṃ karma kartāraṃ anugacchati


   A calf can find its mother cow
     Among a thousand kine:
   So good or evil done returns
     And whispers: "I am thine."

There is no “whispers” in the original, but isn’t that intrusion just perfect?

For more translations by Ryder, you can look here, or see the books linked from the Wikipedia article. For more translations of Bhartṛhari, you can look here, or the books linked from the Wikipedia article.

  1. Update: Found it. It is from some versions of Bhartṛhari’s Śṛṅgāraśataka:

         smṛtā bhavati tāpāya dṛṣṭā conmāda-kāriṇī |
        spṛṣṭā bhavati mohāya sā nāma dayitā katham || BharSt_2.42 ||

    True to character, Bhartṛhari’s original expresses more frustration than love, which is assumed taken for granted. :-) See post by Mohan, who calls it “negative energy”. :p

  2. Original:

         vācaṃ na miśrayati yady api mad-vacobhiḥ
         karṇaṃ dadāty abhimukhaṃ mayi bhāṣamāṇe /
         kāmaṃ na tiṣṭhati mada-ānana-saṃmukhīnām
         bhūyiṣṭham anya-viṣayā na tu dṛṣṭir asyāḥ // KSak_1.28 //

    You can read the entire play here, or a nicely typeset PDF here. The amazing complete review website has reviews here.

Written by S

Thu, 2010-03-18 at 21:48:37

2 Responses

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  1. She only looked at me the way
    She looks at other men.

    Wow! These are wonderful.


    Fri, 2010-03-19 at 00:57:04

    • Agreed. :) And these are not the best ones, just the ones that look like English.


      Fri, 2010-03-19 at 09:26:51

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