My friends Suhas and Anusha have a book of excellent poems on love, translated into English from the Indian literary tradition (Sanskrit/Prakrit) across the centuries, coming out in a couple of days. The book itself is a delight (I’ve read a draft) and I hope literally everyone reads it. I’ll say more about it when I’ve read it again, but in the meantime here just wanted to focus on one poem from their book, as an example of good translation choices.
This is their poem (shared here):
I’m no hero
They say that Rama,
parted from Sita,
held back the mighty ocean
to build a bridge.
And here I am,
parted from her –
a few tears.
translated from Sanskrit:
प्रियाया विरहे रामो बबन्ध सरिताम्पतिम् ।
अहं नयनजं वारि निरोद्धुमपि न क्षमः ॥
priyāyā virahe rāmo babandha saritāmpatim |
ahaṃ nayanajaṃ vāri niroddhum api na kṣamaḥ ||
Some things to note:
This is a good kind of poem to translate, as what’s best about it is its idea: the original poem is memorable not for either its simple metre nor for any particular sound effects (the amount of alliteration it contains is nothing beyond what comes almost for “free” in Sanskrit), so most of its beauty can be captured in translation.
The word used for “ocean” in the Sanskrit original is “saritāmpati”, literally “the lord of the rivers”. (All the rivers flow into the sea/ocean, so it’s their lord/husband.) This poetic descriptor for the ocean is not central to the poem’s core idea, but in Sanskrit literary practice such terms can simply be used casually in an almost throwaway manner. English, on the other hand, has a notion of “purple prose”; the language itself carries an air of cynicism and cannot sustain too flowery language. So in English one has to more cautiously expend “flourish points” only where they matter, and the translators here wisely choose to simply write “ocean”, while adding “mighty” for the sake of the main contrast at heart of the poem (on which more below). One of the translator’s responsibilities is not translating something natural (in the source language) into something unnatural (in the target language).
The word used for “built a bridge” in the Sanskrit original is “babandha”, which is the form in the past perfect tense of the root bandh, cognate with English bind (and bond), and like it meaning binding, fettering, checking, stopping, etc. It also means “building a bridge or dam over”—the notion in Sanskrit is that damming or building a bridge over a water body are both somehow overcoming or checking it. Different languages just have different ways of carving up the world’s experiences, and in English “building a bridge” simply carries connotations of construction work, not of overcoming the ocean. So if translated literally, there would not have been any clear connection between bridging the ocean and restraining one’s tears. So the translators here wisely choose “held back the mighty ocean to build a bridge” (rather than just “built a bridge”) and “hold back a few tears” — this parallelism in English establishes the juxtaposition that is natural in Sanskrit but could be otherwise hard to see in English.
The phrase used in the Sanskrit original here for “tears” is “nayanajaṃ vāri”, literally “water born in the eyes”. Sanskrit does have more straightforward words for tears (aśru mainly, and bāṣpa which can also mean vapour), but the original poet chose to write instead “nayanajaṃ vāri”, either for metrical reasons or sound reasons (honestly not very strong ones) or for more clearly bringing to mind the contrast/relationship between the ocean and tears (they’re both water). In the English, using “eye-born water” would sound unnatural and is not necessary—the contrast has been established with the parallel “held back”, and moreover “tears” occurring as the last word of the poem makes it a surprise/punchline, whose power would be ruined by circumlocution.
The Sanskrit original starts with “priyāyā virahe”, “in separation from (female) belovèd”. This is in the first line applied to Rāma, but the second line does not repeat it: it just says “aham” “I”, and that is enough, as the “priyāyā virahe” still applies. The translators choose to write in the first sentence “parted from Sita” mentioning Rama’s beloved by name, and in the second sentence repeat “parted from her”, and this kind of parallelism is both more natural in English than trying to use a common qualifying clause, and helps establish the juxtaposition/counterpoint.
There are many other things that can be said, not even mentioning their addition of a well-chosen title that sets the tone, but I think this discussion, or even a glancing comparison of their translation with an overly literal one, possibly something like:
In beloved’s separation, Rama bridged the lord of the rivers.
I cannot even restrain eye-born water.
— will serve to illustrate how each translation in this book has had great care and judgment exercised on it: the poems have been lovingly worked upon, and that’s one of the things that make the book great. I hope it finds many readers!