Each translation of the ancient Indian scripture reflects the time and location of its translator, says Mani Rao, whose Bhagavad Gita was released recently.

The Macmillan dictionary defines ‘Palimpset' as something that has many obvious stages or levels of meaning, development, or history. The Bhagvad Gita is an obvious example. According to Mani Rao, who launched her translation of the Gita as a poem — at the Crossword recently, organised by Toto Funds the Arts — each translation of the ancient Indian scripture reflects the time and location of its translator.

Mani's translation can, at best, be called a contemporary translation, as the back cover of the Penguin-published book says Mani, “In her bold, new translation of the Gita, cuts past conventions and uses space and language innovatively to deliver an experience of immediacy for the reader. At the same time, she adheres strictly to the meaning of the original and is sensitive to the nuances of the Sanskrit original with all its wordplay and texture.”

Back to childhood

Indeed, the Sanskrit wordplay and texture are what made this ardent contemporary poet, want to translate the Gita in the first place. “It just so happened that my encounter with the Gita impressed me. As a school kid, I learnt some slokhas but I had never really read the Gita in original. A few years ago, when I read the original in Sanskrit, I was struck by how lively, dramatic and interesting it was. I saw it as a poem and wanted to capture that side of it that I felt had not been satisfyingly expressed in the other translations,” she recalls.

“The history of the Gita, is a definition of history itself,” for the tradition includes its long history of translation and interpretation.

But why a poem? “I feel that the Gita is usually transmitted as a sermon, people focus more on the meaning and stick to the stanzas. When you translate as a poem, there are two ways to do it. One is metrical — where the rhyming constraints could take a toll on content. The other is free verse, which is usually translated line to line or stanza to stanza. But the meaning in the Gita comes in packets. So to bring in the fluidity, I have taken it as a cognitive unit where the translation is done cognitively or stanza-wise, depending on what communicates best. I have used English the way it is meant to be used.”

And that is what makes her translations stand out among so many others. “I have not stuck to the literal meaning of words. I have taken into account the context, subtext and the texture of the words. Otherwise, every translation feels the same. I have tried communicating the sound and flow of the text.”

What does she think is the message of the Gita? She pauses for a minute and says solemnly, “It's hard to say what the meaning of the Gita is. One can say so many paradoxical things and defend them by quoting the verses. But what you see in it depends on who you are. I don't have any vested interest in the Gita. If a religious leader talks about it, then it's fine. But it's not appropriate for me to talk about it. Personally, I was very struck by the love that Krishna has for Arjuna.”