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Translating metaphor into English: Time and Motion?

with 5 comments

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

5 Responses

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  1. Without at all being able to appraise the poem in its original Sanskrit, the second and longer translation is markedly superior to the first. Was that your own attempt? I found the first translation wooden and incomprehensible, though imagine that it might be of value to somebody who is learning to read the poem in its original language (I tend to prefer formally equivalent translations for languages that I am familiar with, myself). The second, however, is beautiful in its own right, and works splendidly as a poem in English. Its second stanza reminds me of some of Tolkien’s elvish ballads, if you don’t mind the comparison. Its first stanza puts me strongly in mind of Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters”.

    Simon Holloway

    Sun, 2012-09-30 at 06:10:05

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree with you, and I’d like to better understand why.

      (No it wasn’t my translation; it’s still from the book I quoted… I guess the indentation doesn’t make the quotation clear enough.) There are some obvious reasons why the second version is better. For one thing, it is in verse (metre and rhyme). Also it uses more “poetic” words, and, as you said, can be read as a poem while the first one can’t. Also, the classical Indian literary world has a number of stock conventions and metaphors (the chakora bird gazes eagerly at the moon and subsists on moonbeams, a kind of lotus that opens up at night, comparing a face to the moon, etc). (Consider for instance how in English we can just say “this was her swansong” without having to explain the background like “there exists a belief, not factual but a poetic convention, that the mute swan just before dying sings one beautiful song. This was similar to that.”) Trying to read the first version while both trying to make sense of these, and the “poem” itself, is painful.

      But my question is: apart from all these, in English is it preferable to use simile to metaphor, and preferable to describe something as narrative (events that unfold), rather than in the manner of painting a static picture?

      1. To refer to the table I made in the post, the first translation (and presumably the original) goes over each column as a whole, one at a time from left to right. The second translation goes over the first row first, and then goes over the second row, while making reference to the first row where appropriate.
      2. It seems there is a subtle difference between (“narrative”) “When Vishnu smiles, then Lakshmi looks on, the heart of the devotee expands…” and (possibly) the poet’s intention of describing it as the eternal state of the world: Vishnu is ever-smiling, his face ever the moon, Lakshmi is ever-looking, ever the chakora bird (metaphorically), etc. The ultimate message is the same, but I suspect the first is actually more natural to English. Your comparison to Tolkien’s ballads is interesting in this context, and most appreciated. :-)
      3. An argument can be made that the second translation is “diluted”, losing (and loosing) the tautness of the original!

      To pick the other poem as example, is

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

      (which already has some “time”/”narrative” aspect, so I’ll just compare metaphor and simile) less natural to English than

      As a cat darts out its tongue,
      and licks the cream in a saucepan,
      So the cloud darts out lightning
      and licks the moon in the sky.


      [FWIW, the original poem is actually a ~16th-century poem in Kannada (or “Kanarese” as it used to be called in English), but the classical literatures of most Indian languages are sufficiently similar in style to that of Sanskrit, to treat them together for this purpose. I looked up the book, and the first translation is given with six footnotes :-) ]


      Mon, 2012-10-01 at 11:08:31

      • “there exists a belief, not factual but a poetic convention, that the mute swan just before dying sings one beautiful song. This was similar to that.”

        It would be awesome to read a poem written this way!

        Preyas Popat

        Tue, 2012-10-02 at 01:35:40

  2. 1. I echo the point you make in reply to Simon Holloway, that there is a lot of ‘assumed preknowledge’ in Sanskrit poetry. The “point” of the poem is really the completeness of the table that you’ve written, and the first translation does bad job of putting that table in words, while the second does a better one. I don’t think the “versification” (if one may be so kind as to call it that) or the rhyming does anything more than make it a more familiar form. Frankly, I think the rhyme and the artificial poetic language are distractions that could be readily removed.

    2. A rupaka is *not* metaphor! I think this makes a big difference to your questions. The equivalent of the English ‘metaphor’ is ‘utprekSA’. I don’t think there’s an English equivalent of the rupaka – maybe a ‘compound word, intended to express the extreme similarity between its components. They are so similar that one is the other, and this compound word can be a placeholder for either’. It’s a very specific grammatical feature of the language to be able to join two words, and expect the reader to impute all features of the object one word refers to to the other word. In ‘nayanAnguliyinda tividaru’, the nayana (eye) in question is assumed to be so similar to a finger that it can be expect to have all the features of a finger (pointiness, ability to maneuver, can poke), and one such power (tiviyuvudu, poking) is invoked. The beauty, or ‘the sense’ of the line is the look itself was like a poke. If we translate it as “They poked with their eye-fingers”, hardly any of that subtlety carries through. The closest one can come is, “Their looks hurt like sharp finger pokes”. I think this is simply a part of the ‘infrastructure’ of the language.

    3. If you hadn’t qualified Ingalls’ para as honestly-written, I’d have said this kinesthetic thing is utter rubbish. I tried in every accent I know for several times, and not once did I feel the leaves shaking nor the snow’s inclemency. I strongly suspect that this is an acquired sentiment, very much like the feeling that using some words mark you out as belonging to a certain social class. I agree with him about the rational completeness of Yogeshwara’s poem. In contrast, the Eliot verse is rubbish. Aside from all the things Ingalls identifies, what kind of fog or smoke is yellow? What is being attempted here? I’d told you sometime ago that most of English poetry seems like a random mix of samasyapurti and guNAkSara nyaya (reading too much into coincidences). In a heap of sentences suddenly a line reminds a reader of his childhood crush, favorite toffee or pancreatic ulcer, and that is supposed to be ‘poetic’. Ingalls’ description of the cat poem seems to hinge primarily on the use of the idiom ‘licks his tongue’. This ‘natural language basis’ is well and good, but then one must also accept that to a reader who has mostly _learnt_ English, this entire genre is meaningless.

    4. I didn’t understand your point about ‘static’ vs ‘dynamic’ – probably because I’ve never heard a ‘dynamic’ verse before. Could you explain?


    Thu, 2012-10-11 at 03:37:27

    • LOL, this is hilarious – I went back and read the Ingalls book from the beginning, and it turns out that JUST BEFORE the para you quoted, he speaks of the naturalness vs learnedness. I still think he’s taking it to the extreme – I learnt Kannada ‘naturally’, and Kannada has virtually none of the ‘natural language’ features he speaks of.


      Thu, 2012-10-11 at 03:54:35

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