The Nature of the Word
In order to understand the history of translation in India, we need to understand what the Hindus thought about the nature of language. The locus classicus is the following hymn from the Rig Veda:
uta tvah pasyan na dadarsa vacam,
uta tvah srnvan na srnotyenam.
One who looked did not see the word,
One who listened did not hear it (Rig Veda 10.71.4).
The hymn emphasizes the fact that the Word is not revealed to everyone. The uninitiated have no access to it. It was a closely guarded secret by the Brahman priesthood. The Word was never written down; it was communicated only orally. For once it was written down, it was no more than a dead letter. It lost its sacred power and ceased to be a mantra. Under the circumstances, translation was an abomination. For how could the language of the gods, deva-vani, as Sanskrit was regarded, be translated into any human tongue? It was simply inconceivable. And so the Rig Veda was not written down until much later. In fact, for over 2,000 years it was orally transmitted—all of its 1028 hymns comprising about 21,200 lines—from one generation to another by priestly families, a process that has continued to this day. It is a phenomenon that has no parallel anywhere else. This explains why the Rig Veda had not been translated in its entirety into any Indian language until recently (I believe there are translations in Hindi and Kannada), although complete translations began appearing in the nineteenth century in French (1848-51)1, English (1850-88)2, and German (1876-77)3—a monument to Europe's fascination with Sanskrit.
Translators of the Vedas were regarded as traitors (traduttori traditori, as the Italians say), who exposed the Word to the unholy ears of the Untouchables. But the European Indologists changed all that, even though Sir William Jones in the late eighteenth century found it almost impossible to find a Brahman to teach him Sanskrit. Jones was an Untouchable in the eyes of the Brahmans. I experienced no such problem from the English, Irish, and Scottish priests of the Salesians of Don Bosco who were more than eager to teach me English. They even arranged for me to study Sanskrit, even though the language was not taught at the school. I am grateful to them for this gift of tongues. Before enrolling in Don Bosco, I went to an elementary school where the medium of instruction was Hindi. To this day, I do my multiplications in Hindi. Therefore, with four languages to speak ofTamil, Sanskrit, Hindi, and English—what else could I be except a translator? To make available in English a few of the masterpieces of Indian literature—that has always been my objective. And I am glad to report that the Tamil Tale of an Anklet now stands shoulder to shoulder with the major epics of the world.
Drawing upon my translations from the Tamil, Sanskrit, and Pali, I would like to share with you my thoughts on "Translation as an Afterlife." In the process, I will be talking briefly about these languages and about the problems I encountered in making poets from these languages speak in English. Though it takes a poet to translate a poet, I must confess that at my back I often hear Shelley's despair about translation expressed memorably in his Defence of Poetry (1840): "It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principles of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language to another the creations of a poet."4 The word "translate," as we know, comes from the Latin trans, "across," "beyond," and latus, "to bear" or "carry," therefore "a carrying across." And the Greek for translation is metaphor: meta, "beyond," and phero, "to carry," therefore "a carrying beyond."
Translation is the most intimate act of reading. To interpret his text to his audience, the translator must study the culture that has produced the text, and study it diligently and for a long time, so that he knows what the Sanskrit word moksa or the Tamil word ananku means (both words lack English equivalents) or what a bo tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, looks like.
The texts that the paper will discuss are the Tamil Cilappatikaram [The Tale of an Anklet, 5th c. CE], the Sanskrit Subhasitaratnakosa [A Classic Anthology of Fine Verses, 11th c. CE], and the Pali Therigatha [The Songs of the Elder Nuns, 6th c. BCE]. Some problems of idiom, syntax, imagery, and tone will be examined in the course of making English poems from the Indian languages. The paper will also talk about the differences in the poetics of the Indian languages on the one hand and English on the other, and examine the implications those differences have for the translations.
Tamil, the oldest of the four major Dravidian languages, is spoken mainly in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India. The language was regularized around 250 BCE. However, the earliest Tamil poetry goes back to a period between 100 BCE and 250 CE, and is found in numerous anthologies that were later gathered together in two great collections: the Ettutokai [The Eight Anthologies] and the Pattuppattu [The Ten Long Poems].
Throughout its history, Tamil Nadu was relatively isolated and free from the invasions that swamped the rest of the country, except for a brief Muslim interlude (1324-70 CE) in Madurai. Though the Aryanization of South India had been going on since the first millennium BCE, Tamil Nadu (and Kerala) were not united with the rest of India till the British period. Again, Tamil, among all the Indian languages, has resisted Sanskritization by preserving archaic features of phonology and morphology. As a result, the spoken and written forms are different from each other. Also, unlike other Dravidian scripts, Tamil orthography has resisted the inclusion of special characters for writing down Sanskrit sounds. The only exception is the grantha script that the Tamils used in writing Sanskrit.
For nearly two thousand years, the Tamil country in southern India has had a distinct culture of its own. Early Tamil literature speaks of the country as bounded by the Venkatam Hills (Tirupati) in the north, by the ocean in the east and west, and by the Kumari Hill (Cape Comorin) in the south. It consisted of the three Tamil kingdoms of the Cola, the Pantiya, and the Ceral. Two Greek works, The Periplus of the Erytharean Sea (1st c. CE) and Ptolemy's Geography (2d c. CE), mention the flourishing Roman trade with southern India, which the Tamil kings encouraged. Poets from Kapilar (2d c. CE) to Subramania Bharati (1882-1921) have sung the praise of the Tamil country. Ilanko is no exception. The Tale of an Anklet speaks for all Tamils as no other work of Tamil literature does: it presents them with an expansive vision of the Tamil imperium, and embodies at the same time a concern for spiritual knowledge represented by the heroine Kannaki's apotheosis. No other work has endeared itself more to the Tamils than the unhappy tale of Kovalan and Kannaki. The Tale of an Anklet is the quintessential Tamil poem that in the words of Subramania Bharati "rends the hearts" ("nencai allum cilappatikaram") of all Tamils. This is another reason why it has possessed their imagination for over fifteen hundred years as a staple in both its oral and written traditions, crossing generic boundaries, to be retold in verse, prose, fiction, drama, and film.
The Tale of an Anklet is one of the literary masterpieces of the world: it is to the Tamils what the Iliad is to the Greeks—the story of their civilization. Anyone interested in comparative religion will find it especially useful since it abounds in Jaina, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. It spells out the problems that humanity has been wrestling with for a long time: love, war, the inevitability of death, evil, and God's justice. It unequivocally admonishes us to "Seek the best help to reach heaven" (30.196-97), since life is unstable, and we cannot escape from our fate. Ilanko is, after all, a Jaina monk who renounces the world, and his perspective on the events in the epic strongly reflects his own spiritual bias. Epics from Gilgamesh (c. 2000 BCE) onwards have reflected on these problems.
The translation of The Tale of an Anklet into modern English verse is one way of acknowledging the debt I owe Tamil, my mother tongue. My assimilation of the eponymous author Ilanko is another form of translation—rewriting a poem in English that I could not myself write in Tamil. I envied Ilanko his great epic, and the only way I could possess the poem, make it my own, was to rewrite it in English. By making Ilanko speak in the accents of English, I hope, I have breathed life into the poem, and awakened it from its enforced sleep in Tamil. For a poem is firmly rooted in a language. When translated into another language, it is exiled from its own, but is no less a poem for the experience.
Let us look at an example from The Tale of an Anklet. Whatever its origins, Ilanko's Tamil was a not a spoken language. He appears to have embalmed the speech of the bards or panans, who orally kept alive the tradition of the story of Kovalan and Kannaki. The diction is elitist and courtly, which is perhaps understandable, as the realm of the epic's passage are the three kingdoms: the Cola, the Pantiya, and the Ceral.
karutturu kanavar kantapi nalla
tiruttalu mille nirralu milanenak
korravai vayir porroti takarttuk
kiltticai vayir kanavanotu pukunten
merricai vayil variyen peyarkena (23.179-83).5
Let us then separate the constituent elements in each line, and translate them. The virgules indicate phrase/ clause boundaries which are marked by Arabic numerals.
karuttu-uru kanavar kanta-pin allatu
iruttalum illen nirralum ilan-ena-k
korravai vay-ir pon-toti takarttu-k
kil-t-ticai vay-ir kanavan-otu pukunten
mel-ticai vay-il variyen peyark(u)-ena
/[my] heart-has known [the] husband I have seen-after till/2
/sitting there is no standing there is no/3-/thus [Kannaki] vowed/1
/[of] Korravai temple-in [the] [her] golden-bracelets breaki`ng//4
[the] East Gate-through [my] husband-with I entered [this city]/6
[the] West Gate-by//7b [and] grieved/5 /I leave [now alone]/7a
This is how the lines appear in my English version.
"Till I have seen the husband
My heart has known, I will neither sit nor stand."
Her golden bracelets she then broke in the temple
Of Korravai, and wept:
"With my husband
I entered this city through the East Gate:
I now leave by the West Gate, alone" (23:185-90).6
English has blurred the focus of the Tamil original as the latter's phonetic template has all but vanished. Despite all the erosion that has occurred in translation, I have firmly held on to Ilanko's voice, and anchored my English version to it. The voice often peaks as it does in the famous scene above where Kannaki leaves Madurai after burning it down. Translation is a necessary rite of passage. Exiled from its own language, the poem puts down roots in the host language to begin its life as an immigrant in hopes of eventually becoming a native.
A language and nation remember themselves best in a poem. The Tale of an Anklet is the well of Tamil undefiled to which the Tamils return to witness their language and identity most vigorously asserted. In translating a poem, one translates nothing less than an entire culture with all its idiosyncrasies. Here is one. Traditionally, an Indian woman's life ends with the death of her husband. She removes the ornaments on her person, stops putting the tilaka on her forehead, and shaves her head to indicate her unholy status as a widow. Kannaki finds herself in this limbo when she vows in the temple of Korravai, the goddess of war and victory, that she will not rest till she has seen her husband, and ceremoniously breaks her golden bracelets. Ilanko turns this gesture, dictated by tradition, into a resonant symbol: earlier, in canto 20, Kannaki confronts the king with his injustice, and in his presence breaks her anklet to establish her husband's innocence. The king collapses from the shock. So does his queen. And Madurai itself goes up in flames. Only then is Kannaki's wrath appeased. A woman's ornaments function metonymically as extensions of her power that even kings may not trifle with. The king rules only at the pleasure of his subjects. Such gestures, as Kannaki's, are culture-specific. There is no way a translator, short of erecting a babel of footnotes, can alert his English to them. But I want the poem to speak without choking itself on too many footnotes, though I appreciate the fondness some translators have for them.
The word "Sanskrit" means "perfected" or "refined." The language was standardized from the spoken language by about 500 BCE. It is an inflected language like Greek and Latin. It has, for instance, eight cases of noun inflection, and both nouns and verbs are inflected differently. This inflection allows endless variations of word order. Unaccented functional words in English, such as "the," "a," "with," and "at," are indicated in Sanskrit by a change in the inflectional syllable. Thus, for the three English words "of the book," Sanskrit has only one, "pustakasya," where the genitive singular marker "asya" represents "of the." Thus the inflected nature of Sanskrit makes pos sible an unusual tightness of construction. Also, the analysis of tropes or figures of speech in Sanskrit is based on poetry; in Greek and Latin, it was originally based on oratory. While Greco-Roman rhetoric focuses on the manner of presentation, Sanskrit poetics emphasizes imagery and tone. Nothing is explicitly stated. It is always suggested. Indirect suggestion (dhvani) is a fundamental aesthetic principle. The poems are impersonal. No names are mentioned, as any public acknowledgement would be socially disapproved and in bad taste.
Let us look at an example, "The Riverbank," from Vidyakara's A Classic Anthology of Fine Verses [Subhasitaratnakosa, 11th c. CE]. This is one of the few poems on infidelity, and it is by the incomparable Vidya, the foremost woman poet in Sanskrit.
drstim he prativesini ksanamihapyasmadgrhe dasyasi
prayo naiva sisoh pitadya virasah kaupirapah pasyati |
ekakinyapi yami tadvaramitah srotastamalakulam
nirandhrah stanamalikhantu jatharaccheda nalagranthayah ||
Vidya, Subhasitaratnakosa 8077
He can't stand well water, the child's father,
refuses to touch it.
Would you, neighbor, keep an eye on the house
while I slip out for a moment, alone as I am,
to the riverbank overhanging with tamalas
and spiked with bamboos that may prick my breasts
with their sharp, broken stems?
A wife, in the Indian tradition, is expected to be faithful to her husband. The poem subverts that expectation by referring to the wife's infidelity obliquely through the use of innuendo (vyanjana). The poet does not explicitly spell it out as it would offend social conventions. Indian erotic texts, such as the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana [4th c. CE], recommend the practice of scratching the body with nails during lovemaking. The woman anticipates the marks on her breasts as she sets out to meet her lover under the pretext of fetching water from the river for her husband. Eight kinds of nailmarks are identified: the knife stroke, the half-moon, the circle, the dash, the tiger's claw, the peacock's claw, the hare's jump, and the lotus leaf. Nailmarks are a prelude to lovemaking, and are therefore treasured as souvenirs. "If there are no nailmarks to recall the lover's presence," reminds Vatsyayana, "it means that passion has long since disappeared, and love has been overcome."8
The task of the translator from Sanskrit into English is to try to bring across the intention of the poet. In Sanskrit poetics, the intention is a rasa, a transcendent emotion or state of being induced in the hearer, but inherent in the poem. The emotion is of course the transforming experience of love that knows no boundaries. It is in marked contrast to the restrictions that patriarchy imposes on women to conform to the social proprieties in writing. The line "and spiked with bamboos that may prick my breasts" is the only clue we are offered about the intention. A translator unfamiliar with ancient Hindu erotic practices will be unable to make sense of the poem.
Again, the translator must bear in mind that Tamil and Sanskrit were written to be heard. The ancient Hindus did not read with their eyes only but aloud, and it follows that the sound of a classical text is supremely important and ought not to be disregarded in translating.
It is precisely the imaginative universe of Vidya's Sanskrit poem that I have tried to bring across in English in all its breathtaking sophistication. I have not been able to resolve the problem with the "tamala" (Xanthochymus pictorious Roxb.), a black-barked tree that grows on riverbanks, as I could not find an equivalent tree in English that grows along with the bamboo. So I have left the word untranslated.
In contrast to Sanskrit, the "perfected" or "refined" language, there were many vernaculars known as Prakrits, the "original" or "natural" languages. One such Prakrit is Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures, the Tipitaka. Pali means "holy scripture," as opposed to commentary. Pali is a form of the ancient Paisachi language spoken in western India. In the first centuries after his death, the Buddha's sermons in Magadhi were translated into Paisachi, which later developed into Pali. Unlike Hindus, Buddhists had no qualms about translation. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to spread his teachings in their own dialects. Pali is still the religious language of the Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Southeast Asia.
Let us look at an example, "Song of a Former Courtesan" by Vimala, from the Songs of the Elder Nuns [Therigatha, 6th c. BCE] said to have been composed during the lifetime of the Buddha (ca. 563-ca. 483 BCE).
matta vannena rupena sobhaggena yasena ca |
yobbanena c' upatthaddha anna samatimanni 'ham || 72 ||
vibhusetva imam kayam sucittam balalapanam |
atthasim vesidvaramhi luddo pasam iv' oddiya || 73 ||
pilandhanam vidamsenti guyham pakasikam bahum |
akasim vividham mayam ujjagghanti bahum janam || 74 ||
sajja pindam caritvana munda samghatiparuta |
nisinna rukkhamulamhi avitakkassa labhini || 75 ||
sabbe yoga samucchinna ye dibba ye ca manusa |
khepetva asave sabbe sitibhuta mhi nibbuta || 76 ||
Vimala puranaganika, Therigatha9
Young and overbearing—
drunk with fame, beauty,
with my figure, its flawless appearance—
I despised other women.
Heavily made-up, I leaned
against the brothel door
and flashed my wares. Like a hunter,
I laid my snares to surprise fools.
I even taught them a trick or two
as I slipped my clothes off
and bared my secret places.
O how I despised them!
Today, head shaved, wrapped
in a single robe, an almswoman,
I move about, or sit at the foot
of a tree, empty of all thoughts.
All ties to heaven and earth
I have cut loose forever.
Uprooting every obsession,
I have put out the fires.
The songs were chanted. Each stanza (sloka) of the Songs comprises four verses (padas) of eight syllables each. The first two verses, divided by a caesura, form one line; the next two verses, again divided by a caesura, form the second line. Unlike the secular poets of Tamil and Sanskrit, the Pali Buddhist poets attempted to raise the language of their religious songs above that of the profane model. They deliberately shifted the emphasis of their songs away from the love poetry of the secular poets to the attainment of liberation (moksa), the true joy which, according to early Buddhist teachings, was granted only to the monk or nun meditating in a world of his or her own. The first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths is suffering (dukkha), and the cause of suffering is desire (tanha), especially sexual desire. One description of nirvana is the dying out of the fires of lust (kama), greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and illusion (moha).
Vimala, the former courtesan of Vesali, after her initiation into the Buddhist order of nuns realizes the impermanence of all things and is on her way to enlightenment. A contemporary of Sappho, her poem is an extraordinary spiritual testament unlike anything in the Lesbian poet. The song is a chant, and there is no way I could reproduce the prosody of the Pali original. So I settled for a vigorous, colloquial idiom spoken simply but passionately in five quatrains. The Pali word for "obsessions" in the last stanza is asavas, "the obsessions of the mind." Buddhism distinguishes four types: 1. the obsession with sensuality (kamasava); 2. the obsession with life (bhavasava); 3. the obsession with ideologies (ditthasasva); and 4. the obsession of ignorance (avijjasava). The struggle for the extinction of these asavas is one of our primary duties. In his commentary on the Therigatha, Dhammapala of Kancipuram (5th c. CE) tells the story of Vimala's initiation into the order.
One day Vimala saw Moggallana, one of the Buddha's foremost disciples, in the streets of Vesali. Infatuated with him, she followed him to his house. There she turned on her charm and tried to seduce him, but was repulsed. Moggallana lashed out at her: "You bag of dung, tied up with skin. You demoness with lumps on your breast. The nine streams in your body flow all the time, are vile-smelling, and full of dung. A monk desiring purity avoids your body as one avoids dung."10 Vimala was speechless. The encounter was a turning-point in her life. She renounced her life as a courtesan, and became a Buddhist nun. Vimala's spiritual conversion can be explained in terms of the interdependence of the ascetic and the whore in Indian culture, which considers sexual desire an obstacle to enlightenment. Vimala flaunts her sexuality, and is proud of it. Her very identity depends on it. It empowers her to make fools of men for whom she has nothing but contempt. And yet she cannot do without them. Her survival as a courtesan depends on her ability to dispense sexual favors. In the end, she is filled with self-loathing and turns her life around to become a renouncer who has cut loose "All ties to heaven and earth." Free at last, she becomes an arahant, the "holy one," the highest stage reached by a Theravada Buddhist.
Translation is a way of reading a poem, of interpreting it in a second language. Given the differences between languages, not every feature of one language can be imitated by another. Yet it is possible to establish a family resemblance. Eventually, the differences are only of secondary importance. For as Max Picard said: "Languages seem like so many expeditions to find the absolute word."11 Often a single poem may aspire to the status of the absolute word. Such a poem is the Ramayana.
A translation must first abolish the word in one language before it attempts, with the word, to restore it in another language. Languages orbit by themselves in splendid isolation. Occasionally, they come into close proximity with one another, thanks to the daring of a translator. Translation ensures the survival of a language, even if its speakers have vanished from the face of the planet.
1. Langlois, Rig-Véda ou Livre des hymnes.
2. Wilson, Rig-Veda-Sanhita: A Collection of Ancient Hindu Hymns.
3. Grassmann, Rig-Veda.
4. Shelley, Defence of Poetry, p. 484.
5. Cilappatikaram, ed. Caminataiyar, pp. 506-7.
6. Parthasarathy, trans. The Tale of an Anklet, pp. 205-6.
7. Subhasitaratnakosa, ed. Kosambi and Gokhale, p. 148.
8. Daniélou, trans., The Complete Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, p. 136.
9. Thera- and Theri-Gatha: Stanzas Ascribed to Elders of the Buddhist Order of Recluses, ed. Oldenberg and Pischel, p. 131.
10. Norman, trans. The Elders Verses II [Theragatha], p. 106.
11. Picard, The World of Silence, p. 43.
Cilappatikaram of Ilankovatikal. Ed., with the commentary of Atiyarkkunallar, by U. Ve. Caminataiyar. 8th printing. Madras: Sri Tiyakaraca vilaca veliyitu, 1968.
Daniélou, Alain. Trans. The Complete Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1994.
Translated by R. Parthasarathy
The Tamil poets, Kalporu Cirunuraiyar, Nannakaiyar, Palaipatiya Perunkatunko, Kavarpentu, and Kaniyan Punkunran, were active between 100 BCE and 250 CE. The Sanskrit poems are from anthologies compiled between the seventh and eleventh centuries CE.