Notes on a translation choice

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.1 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.2

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 –
can’t even
hold back
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:

There are many other things that can be said,7 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!

  1. “How to Love in Sanskrit”: Print/ebook in India, but for now in US only ebook: Kindle/Google Play↩︎

  2. I guess this post can be considered part of a series of looking of individual poems' translations, like this and this. :-) ↩︎

  3. I heard recently in a lecture that somewhere Dharmaśāstra(?) cautions against learning or engaging too deeply with foreign languages, because we are likely to get infected by that language’s patterns of thought. When we see the turn taken in English academic writing about Indian culture, this to some extent seems valid sadly! ↩︎

  4. In a comedy sketch, Stephen Fry asks “Is English too ironic to sustain [highly chared oratory]? … Is our language a function of our British cynicism, tolerance, resistance to false emotion, humour and so on, or do those qualities come extrinsically from the language itself?” but the point is a serious one. ↩︎

  5. Dictionaries: √bandh, bandhana. Aside: English bandana is another cognate, but a more recent/direct import. ↩︎

  6. A poem attributed to Dharmakīrti begins “śailair bandhayati sma vānarahṛtair vālmīkir ambhonidhiṃ / vyāsaḥ pārthaśaraih…” — he uses the same bandh- word both for the bridging of the ocean in the Rāmāyaṇa (the same incident as the poem here), and for Arjuna damming (completely stopping) a river with arrows in the Mahābhārata. ↩︎

  7. E.g. why do they start with “They say that”? Is it for poetic effect, is it for an audience not familiar with the Rama story (how would “once upon a time” work?), is it an unusually literal translation of the “remote past” (liṭ) tense of babandha, or is it a note of iconoclasm/skepticism about the Rāmāyaṇa story, different from what feels like straightforward narration in the original? One of the minor discordant notes in book, apart from the “how to” conceit/gimmick that I’m not a fan of🙂—at best the “how to X” is “how to write about X”—is what some might see as occasional approaching of the boundaries of aucitya, either because of the chosen original itself or because the translation pushed it over. :) But IMO this is perfectly fine and just as it should be, given the audience that the book is for — I really hope it finds a wide audience, much wider than “people already interested in Sanskrit”. ↩︎