Posts Tagged ‘sanskrit translation’
(Another example of good vs bad translations from Sanskrit.)
One of Kālidāsa’s famous similes is in the following verse from the Raghuvaṃśa, in the context of describing the svayaṃvara of Indumatī. The various hopeful suitors of the princess, all kings from different regions, are lined up as she passes them one by one, her friend doing the introductions.
संचारिणी दीपशिखेव रात्रौ यम् यम् व्यतीयाय पतिंवरा सा । नरेन्द्रमार्गाट्ट इव प्रपेदे विवर्णभावम् स स भूमिपालः ॥ ६-६७
saṁcāriṇī dīpa-śikheva rātrau
yam yam vyatīyāya patiṁvarā sā |
narendra-mārga-aṭṭa iva prapede
vivarṇa-bhāvam sa sa bhūmipālaḥ || 6-67
Only today did I discover a decent translation into English. It’s by John Brough (1975/6):
As if a walking lamp-flame in the night
On the king’s highway, flanked with houses tall,
She moved, and lit each prince with hopeful light,
And, passing on, let each to darkness fall.
Every other translation I have seen really falls short. Witness the misunderstandings, and the killing of all feeling.
Here is Ryder (1904), who is usually good:
And every prince rejected while she sought
A husband, darkly frowned, as turrets, bright
One moment with the flame from torches caught,
Frown gloomily again and sink in night.
The idea is there, but requires too much effort to understand.
This is P. de Lacy Johnstone (1902):
Now as the Maid went by, each suitor-King,
Lit for a moment by her dazzling eyes,
Like wayside tower by passing lamp, sank back
In deepest gloom. …
Every king, whom Indumati passed by while choosing her husband, assumed a pale look as the houses on a high way are covered with darkness in the absence of lamps.
Whatsoever king the maiden intent on choosing her husband passed by, like the flame of a moving lamp at night, that same king turned pale, just as a mansion situate on the highway, is shrouded in darkness when left behind (by a moving light).
67. pati.m varA sA= husband, selector, she – she who has come to select her husband, indumati; rAtrau sa.mcAriNI dIpa shikha iva= in night, moving, lamp’s, [glittering] flame, as with; ya.m ya.m= whom, whom; [bhUmi pAlam= king, whomever]; vyatIyAya= passed by; saH saH bhUmipAlaH= he, he, king – such and such a king; narendra mArga= on king’s, way; aTTa= a turret, or a balustrade; iva= like; vi+varNa bhAva.m= without, colour, aspect – they bore a colourless aspect; prapede= [that king] obtained – that king became colourless, he drew blank.
Princess indumati who came to choose her husband then moved like the glittering flame of a lamp on a king’s way, and whichever prince she left behind was suffused with pallor just like a turret or balustrade on the king’s way will be shrouded in darkness and becomes dim when left behind by the moving light on the king’s way. [6-67]
And this is representative of the average quality of Sanskrit-to-English translations, and how much beauty is lost.
Viṣṇu, appearing before Bali as Vāmana, transformed into Trivikrama, filling the universe, covering all the earth and the heavens in two steps.
The verse that opens the Pūrva-pīṭhikā of Daṇḍin’s Daśakumāracarita plays on this imagination, and on the word daṇda / daṇḍin. Here’s the verse (in Sragdharā metre of pattern GGGGLGG—LLLLLLG—GLGGLGG):
May the leg of Trivikrama,
pole for the parasol that is the universe,
stem of the lotus that is Brahma’s seat,
mast of the ship that is the earth,
rod of the streaming banner that is the river of the Gods,
axle-rod around which the zodiac turns,
pillar of victory over the three worlds,
rod of death for the enemies of the Gods,
favour you with blessings.
brahmāṇḍa-cchatradaṇḍaḥ śata-dhṛti-bhavan’-âmbhoruho nāla-daṇḍaḥ
kṣoṇī-nau-kūpa-daṇḍaḥ kṣarad-amara-sarit-paṭṭikā-ketu-daṇḍaḥ /
jyotiścakr’-âkṣa-daṇḍas tribhuvana-vijaya-stambha-daṇḍo ‘ṅghri-daṇḍaḥ
śreyas traivikramas te vitaratu vibudha-dveṣiṇāṃ kāla-daṇḍaḥ //ब्रह्माण्डच्छत्रदण्डः शतधृतिभवनाम्भोरुहो नालदण्डः क्षोणीनौकूपदण्डः क्षरदमरसरित्पट्टिकाकेतुदण्डः । ज्योतिश्चक्राक्षदण्डस्त्रिभुवनविजयस्तम्भदण्डोऽङ्घ्रिदण्डः श्रेयस्त्रैविक्रमस्ते वितरतु विबुधद्वेषिणां कालदण्डः ॥
[The Mānasataraṃgiṇī-kāra, agreeing with Santillana and von Dechend the authors of Hamlet’s Mill, considers the “pole” or “axis” motif central to the conception of Vishnu (e.g. matsya‘s horn, Mount Meru as the rod on kūrma, nṛsiṃha from the pillar, etc.: see here), sees much more depth in this poem, and that Daṇḍin was remembering this old motif.]
The translation above is mildly modified from that of Isabelle Onians in her translation (“What Ten Young Men Did”) of the Daśa-kumāra-carita, published by the Clay Sanskrit Library:
Pole for the parasol-shell that is Brahma’s cosmic egg,
Stem for Brahma’s lotus seat,
Mast for the ship that is the earth,
Rod for the banner that is the rushing immortal river Ganges,
Axle rod for the rotating zodiac,
Pillar of victory over the three worlds—
May Vishnu’s leg favor you with blessings—
Staff that is the leg of him who as Trivikrama reclaimed those three worlds in three steps,
Rod of time, death itself, for the demon enemies of the gods.
Ryder, in his translation (“The Ten Princes”), takes some liberties and manages verse in couplets:
May everlasting joy be thine,
Conferred by Vishnu’s foot divine,
Which, when it trod the devils flat,
Became the staff of this and that:
The staff around which is unfurled,
The sunshade of the living world;
The flagstaff for the silken gleam
Of sacred Ganges’ deathless stream;
The mast of earth’s far-driven ship,
Round which the stars (as axis) dip;
The lotus stalk of Brahma’s shrine;
The fulcrumed staff of life divine.
For another verse that fully gets into this “filling the universe” spirit, see The dance of the bhairava on manasa-taramgini.
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:
|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.
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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Translated from the शार्ङ्गधर-पद्धति by Octavio Paz:
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
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.
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