The Lumber Room

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

How not to translate: an example

with 5 comments

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.)

Turns out, this isn’t even the worst of the lot. Somewhat coincidentally, I found this paper which gives a few examples of translation of the same. The original is this, in verse:

kiṃ śītalaiḥ klama-vinodibhir ārdra-vātān
sañcārayāmi nalinī-dala-tāla-vṛntaiḥ /
aṅke nidhāya karabhoru yathā-sukhaṃ te
saṃvāhayāmi caraṇāv uta padma-tāṃrau // KSak_3.19 //

A certain P. K. Roy has this monstrosity, quoted by another Indian scholar P. Lal as an example of “succulent silliness” that arises from slavish faithfulness to the Sanskrit text:

Shall I work the lotus-leaf-fan whose breeze is moist with particles of water that allay lassitude; or O thou, with thighs-like-the-outer-edge-of-the-palm-of-the-hand, having placed your lotus-red feet in my lap, shall I press them as is agreeable to you?

Besides, as karabha may mean either “the outer edge of the palm” or “young elephant”, his “faithful” translation may not even be accurate (karabhoru may mean “one whose thigh tapers like an elephant-trunk”, which of course is an idiom no one should try to translate into English). Even Murray Emeneau, whose prose translation “has been acclaimed as extremely literal and faithful”, only comes as close as “beautiful-thighed girl”:

Shall I wave the lotus-leaf fan, its breeze damp with spray that removes fatigue, or shall I put your lotus- red feet in my lap and stroke them to ease you, O beautiful-thighed girl?

The very first translation of the Shakuntala into English, by Sir William “Oriental” Jones, has something fairly literal yet without an over-stiff manner:

Why should not I, like them, wave this fan of lotus leaves, to raise cool breeze and dissipate your uneasiness? Why should not I, like them, lay softly in my lap those feet, red as water lilies, and press them, O my charmer, to relieve your pain?

And actually Monier-Williams had a different translation which wasn’t so bad, with this in blank verse:

Oh let me tend thee, fair one, in the place
Of thy dear friends; and with broad lotus fans,
Raise cooling breeze to refresh thy frame;
Or shall I rather, with caressing touch,
Allay the fever of thy limbs, and soothe
Thy aching feet, beauteous as blushing lilies?

The Swedish scholar Edgren (1894) has:

May I with cooling lotus-fans
Allay the fever of your frame?
Or take your lily-tinted feet,
Sweet-molded maid upon my lap,
And, gently stroking, soothe your pain?

Finally, Arthur W. Ryder, as usual, has the simplest version and the only one that rhymes, with:

Shall I employ the moistened lotus-leaf
To fan away your weariness and grief?
Or take your lily feet upon my knee
And rub them till you rest more easily?

(Ryder’s entire translation is fairly good, though entirely devoid of often would-be-useful explanatory details, and is available here or as a beautifully typeset PDF here.)

The P. Lal who advocates breaking free from Sanskrit suggests the even simpler:

Shall I fan you with the lotus leaf? Would you rather I pressed your tired feet?

The paper also has some discussion of other translation issues and difficulties faced by Jones, and what his aims were (showing the West that India had a rich culture, which they found stunning, and getting others to take interest in Sanskrit, in which he famously succeeded). It also quotes another example from Shakuntala, with the question of whether “heavy rounded hips” as a symbol of beauty should be translated literally, or left out entirely as too physical and gross for Western audiences, or worked around with circumlocutions like “the weight of her elegant limbs” (Jones) or “betokening the graceful undulation of her gait” (Monier-Williams).

Finally, a couple of remarks quoted. Rolfe Humphries on whether names should be “translated” or what:

We all know how, as soon as a word begins with a capital letter, boys and girls get the absolute horror and tie their tongues all up in knots over words that would bother them no whit in lower case. They prove stumbling blocks to the translator, too …. Some names, whether of place or persons, let’s face it, mean nothing to us in allusion or connotation, and one of our obligations to the original author is not to bore his audience …. Occasionally I will include, in the text proper, material that would otherwise have to go in eye-dropping footnotes.

And from Keith (emphasis mine):

It is in the great writers of Kāvya alone, headed by Kalidasa, that we find depth of feeling for life and nature matched with perfection of expression and rhythm. The Kāvya literature includes some of the great poetry of the world, but it can never expect to attain wide popularity in the West, for it is untranslatable; German poets like Rückert can, indeed, base excellent work on Sanskrit originals, but the effects produced are achieved by wholly different means, while English efforts at verse translations fall invariably below a tolerable mediocrity, their diffuse tepidity contrasting painfully with the brilliant condensation of style, the elegance of metre, and the close adaptation of sound to sense of the originals.

Another quote (unrelated to all the above), from Michael Coulson:

Translators from all languages have a difficult and thankless task: in the end there are no degrees of success, only degrees of failure. But translators of Sanskrit kāvya have more to complain about than most. To translate a Sanskrit stanza so that it merely bores rather than bewilders the reader can be an achievement in itself.

And so on, see the rest here (p. 27ff).


Written by S

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

Posted in sanskrit

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. I liked the way you put it. I am studying some old texts in Sanskrit on musicology. I will read you tips.


    Tue, 2010-05-25 at 15:30:25

  2. Fantastic post. There’s really no way to translate a sufficiently-complex line in Sanskrit without losing either the point or the literal meaning. The general surfeit of lotuses, elephants and their assorted secretions does not help, either.


    Sun, 2010-06-06 at 03:20:59

    • Indeed… Symptomatic is what I found in one translation: the phrase “ample ichoral exudation”. :-)


      Sun, 2010-06-06 at 03:56:12

  3. […] poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, so I will not try to tackle this verse. But I’m partial to Ryder’s rendition: On […]

  4. […] (Another example of good vs bad translations from Sanskrit. Previously see here and here.) […]

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