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Translating India: The pain and pleasure of translating classical Sanskrit into English

By February 12, 2018No Comments

Source : Hindustan Times

In a new Translating India series, ten noted translators will share their experiences of translating from their respective languages. In the second part, author Padmini Rajappa writes about the problem of fluency, readability and fidelity that she faced translating classical Sanskrit works into English.


Some time ago I came across an unacknowledged quotation comparing translations with women. I found it in the unsigned translator’s note in the English translation of the novel Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. It goes as follows. “Translations are like women: When they are beautiful they are not faithful, and when they are faithful they are not beautiful!”

I would like to talk about the problem of fidelity versus beauty, fluency and readability that I faced when I worked on my first translation, putting Banabhatta’s prose work Kadambari, written in classical Sanskrit in the seventh century CE, into English. I found that there were two aspects to the problem: Faithfulness to the style of the author and faithfulness to the content of the work. It was the first aspect that proved to be almost intractable.

Bana’s literary style possessed all the distinguishing features of the Sanskrit prose of the time: Extensive use of samasapadas, or compound words, writing extremely long sentences and profusely decorating the sentences with alankaras or figures of speech.

The style of writing has always been held to be an important criterion, perhaps even more important than content, by the Sanskrit literary critics for judging the worth of any piece of writing. If Bana is considered great, it is not just because he wrote an interesting story, but more because he couched it in the literary style held in admiration and awe by both the average reader and the literary critic. Can one do justice to Bana without incorporating these aspects in the translation?

Some simple compound words are at times used in English, but it is not the general practice to do so; it is certainly not the hallmark of good writing. Further, there is no equivalent grammatical mechanism in English to facilitate a full translation. Therefore, I realised I would have to paraphrase the compound words which made the expressions longer than the original single word and in the process took away something of the sharpness of expression.

To give an example, Kanakasutranusaranapravrthah (rajapurushah) has to be translated as: “Royal officials gone forth for (the sake of) searching for the golden cord.” Long sentences had to be broken into shorter ones in English in order to make the text readable. A cousin of mine who read my translation, having studied a few pages from Kadambari some time in school or college, got suspicious on seeing my short English sentences; he questioned me again and again about where the long sentences had gone and even expressed doubts about whether I had got the whole thing right.

With regard to the alankaras that Bana habitually uses, the problem arose because most of the figures of speech used in Sanskrit literature are based on what is called slesha or double entendre when the words used have more than one meaning. Paraphrasing was the only way out with the attendant loss of sharpness of meaning and immediacy of comprehension, not to mention the real risk of the book spinning out of control with regard to its length.

Here is an example of a slesha phrase from Kadambari which draws a comparison between Brahma and Shudraka. “Kamalayoniriva vimaneekrita rajahamsamandalah.” This short phrase, in which the play is on the words vimanee and rajahamsamandalah, may be used to describe both Brahma and Shudraka and therein lies the ground for comparison.

When applied to Brahma (kamalayoni), who was born in the lotus, the phrase means “he who has made the rajahamsas (the flamingos) his vehicles (vimaneekrita)”; when applied to Shudraka it means “he who has broken the pride(vimaneekrita) of the entire circle of great princes (rajahamsamandalah)”. The idea is that since the same words can be used to describe the actions of both, even though the actions themselves may be completely different, there is valid ground for postulating a similarity between the two. The paraphrasing turned out to be much longer than the original expression.

Mrchchakatikam is a play in ten acts. The characters are all ordinary men and women placed in different circumstances in life. The language of the play is much simpler since it does not offer much scope for literary embellishments. Shudraka himself seems to be of a practical bent of mind as the verses too are simple although very lucid and free-flowing.

However, the 10 acts are not further divided into scenes. This gives rise to awkward situations when enacting the play. Hence I took the liberty of dividing the acts into scenes so that a scene may end or a new one may begin avoiding these awkward situations.

But I had a peculiar problem; I found it difficult to translate satisfactorily the colloquialisms used by many of the characters from ordinary walks of life, such as house servants, charioteers, masseurs, shampooers, policemen and so on into the rigorously grammatical English learnt in school and college. I can only say that I have done my best to convey to the extent possible, the raciness of their speech to the reader without crossing the bounds of permissibility drawn by grammarians like Wren and Martin.

What gives immense pleasure and a sense of fulfilment to the translators is that due to their efforts, literary treasures are being made available to a wider readership than earlier when it was confined to just those who were proficient in that particular language.

Padmini Rajappa was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award in 2014 for translating Banabhatta’s Kadambari. The views expressed are personal.

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