Undoing the mischief of the Demi-God

Undoing the mischief of the Demi-God

`To achieve that lost understanding despite our keeping to our own languages is indeed the philosophy behind the culture of translation.’

THE ancient Babylonians were a proud and united people and they had the audacity to try building a tower to touch the heavens. Built they on — with giant ambition and mighty zeal, supported by a perfect understanding among themselves as they exchanged ideas and finalised each phase of the plan.

Alas, all of them stood bewildered one morning, for nobody understood what the other was trying to say. Each one raised his voice higher and higher until it cracked. Exasperated and frustrated, they dispersed in different directions, never to come together again. The Tower of Babel remained incomplete and slowly disintegrated.

The irony was, probably they were all speaking the same thing; but overnight they had forgotten their common language and each one had been equipped with a language exclusive to him. The demi-gods had worked out the mischief in their consciousness, as they lay asleep.

Need for understanding

Without delving into the deeper significance of the myth, we can learn enough from the surface of the story: no global endeavour can succeed unless there is perfect understanding — the opposite of which is the perfect Babel, a situation that characterises mankind today, more or less. The language is only symbolic.

To undo the mischief done by the demi-gods, to achieve that lost understanding despite our keeping to our own languages is indeed the pronounced or unpronounced philosophy behind the culture of translation.

We cannot conceive of an Indian literature without the role played by the great translators like Kamban, Tulsidas, Sarala Das, Kashiram Das and Thungam. In fact, most of the modern Indian languages achieved adulthood through a translated or trans-created version of the two great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. What is more, we are beholden for the entire robust branch of our pragmatic literature to an illustrious translator, Somadeva. This 11th Century savant of Kashmir translated a much earlier work, Gunadhya’s Brihat Katha, from a language that is dead since long, Pishacha, into Sanskrit. The impact of Somadeva’s work, entitledKathasaritsagara, not only on Indian literature but also on the literatures of the world, is incalculable and can be rivalled only by thePanchatantra and the Jatakas.

Behind the tradition of translation remains the faith that consciousness of mankind, essentially, is one. I was in school when a friend of mine took home my copy of the Oriya translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His mother was in tears while reading it. “Mother, that is an American novel!” observed my friend. “But, my son, Uncle Tom brought alive in my memory my own grandfather!” What moved the German audience while witnessing Kalidasa’s “Abhijnana Shakuntalam” is the play of fate in the heroine’s predicament. Basic emotions and aspirations of man cannot be qualitatively different, whichever be his continent.

Needless to say that translation of creative writing must be faithful; it should be far from the kind of stuff that made Louis Borges to comment, when asked about the quality of a translated work, “The original is not faithful to the translation!” But can there be anything as a perfect translation? A good translator can transmit the elements of emotion and intellect from one language to another; but what about the dhvani — the sound — of the word? In a sense, every word is a miracle. If I utter “sky” or “ocean” and instantly the vision and the vastness are invoked in the listener, the word is performing a miracle. This miracle becomes more striking when the sound plays a role — almost a mantric role. Like the mantra or the incantation, where the meaning and the sound are inseparable, there are words, particularly when used in poetry or poetic prose, that cannot produce the right effect merely through their meaning, devoid of the sound. Here comes the second formidable hurdle in the process of translation — the association of ideas. Tagore’s Bengali Ksudhita Pasan is translated as Hungry Stones. But pasan in several Indian languages is intimately associated with the idols of deities, an association that is imbedded in the collective subconscious. Similarly, ksudha is not just hunger; it has far deeper psychological import in Sanskrit and several other Indian languages.

An imaginative translator must explore ways, even if roundabout, to recreate the effect of the original in the language into which it is translated by locating phrases and words that are closest in the latter to the ideas in the original.

Capturing the spirit

While residing in Vadodara in the early 1920s, Sri Aurobindo rendered into English several works of Kalidasa. While agreeing with the theory that had gained some ground in the 19th Century — though even to this day most translators have not proved equal to the demand of the theory — that there is a spirit behind the word that eludes the “faithful” translator, that unless the translator captures that spirit, no poetry worth the name can be presented in a different language, Sri Aurobindo offered several examples of his translation of lines from Kalidasa, explaining the reasons for his not being literal. While “the dark foot of Vishnu lifted in impetuous act to quell Bali” should be the faithful translation of a line from Kalidasa, where the poet describes through comparison, a huge dark cloud striding northwards, Sri Aurobindo renders it as:

Dark like the cloudy foot of highest God

When starting from the dwarfshape world-immense

With Titan-quelling step through heaven he strode.

Vishnu (in the last decade of the 19th Century) may not have meant for a Western reader anything more than a bizarre Hindu deity and Bali simply would not convey anything to him. Hence “highest God” and “Titan”. The Sanskrit shyama padah has been presented as “dark like the cloudy foot”, as Sri Aurobindo explains, “the word cloudy being necessary both to point the simile which is not so apparent and natural to the English reader as to the Indian and to define the precise sort of darkness indicated by the term shyama“.

One of the finest things that has happened to Indian literature in the recent past is the institution of Akademi Awards for translations. Even though workshops on translation are yet to produce any credible results, we should feel stronger in our inspiration for transmitting the creative splendours of one language into another if we remember that the act of translation is a natural phenomenon native to our consciousness, for, even when we speak or write our own language, it is a translation, an articulation of what existed as formless vibrations of ideas.

"Samayara Dui Dhara" a Talk by Shri Manoj Das at Bhubaneswar in February 1992

About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.