Vijay Nambisan’s translations of two 16th century Bhakti classics do not work given his limited access to the languages of the originals.
The book contains Vijay Nambisan’s translation of Puntanam’s Jnanapaana, Melpattur’s Kesadipadavarnanam (both 16th c) and a linking poem by Vallathol, “Bhakti and Vibakthi” inspired by a Puntanam-Lord Krishna legend. Kesadipadavarnanam (Description from head to foot) of Melpattur (Sanskrit) makes abundant use of floral imagery to describe Lord Krishna.
The praise reads well, considering the translator’s limited access to Sanskrit. Jnanapaana, the religio-philosophical text, communicates with child-like purity; yet takes its reader to peaks, reverentially interpreting Vedic Karma with exalted Bhakti (devotion).
Nambisan’s introductory ‘apology’ is a damper. “I can barely comprehend the (Malayalam) newspapers, and most literary texts are closed books to me…. I still lack fluency” and “I am not a bhakta”. Jnanapaana’s symbiosis of bhakti with lofty imagery, as the gateway to the poem’s spiritual climax, is bound to make Herculean demands on any translation attempt.
And without bhakti and home language skills, Nambisan must mean disaster. Nambisan ‘translates’ Jnanapaana as “The Paana of learning” when it should mean “A metrical composition of truths”.
Look at the opening lines as translated faithfully by a Malayalam scholar-devotee. “Unto the day last, the past was unknown/The future destined is also not known/When this perishable body we own/Ceases to function is also unknown…” (Wisdom Song: Poonthanam’s Jnanappana by T. Sivaraman).
Here is Nambisan’s translation: “O yesterday the things we did not know would come!/And O the things we do not know will come today!/Now we behold those soon pass away!/ We are not told how long they’ll stay with us”. Note, in the faithful version, Puntanam’s use of the image of the mortal body to suggest transience and disintegration.
This is a prelude to the launch of the saga on Karma-cycle, with advice to take shelter in bhakti in the Lord and attain deliverance. Nambisan’s lines lie depleted of the essential image validations that must bring it nearer the original.
Here again is the Malayalam scholar-devotee’s faithful feel of the most famous lines of Jnanapaana. “The familiar loving faces we see/Vanish suddenly because of Thee/Riding the palanquin in two days or four/The prince who lived in mansions lovely/Shoulders the beggar’s bundle lonely…” (The Fountain of God: A Transcreation of Poonthanam’s Hymns).
Now, Nambisan’s version: “Now we behold those that pass away;/We are not told how long they’ll stay with us./So used we are to familiar faces:/But You alone know their span of days with us/ wo or four days, and one of the herd we know/To him we’ll bow, if you but will it so/You choose, and he who lives within his halls/Will lose it all and labour for his wage.”
The lines drop all the classic images of opposites (seen in the faithful version) with which Puntanam effectively traces the cosmic acts of the Lord Krishna through Karma, and His flaming dimensions as creator, preserver and destroyer. Visuals used by Puntanam to recreate the Lord’s powers to spin karmic illusion, to rip away the nobleman from his palace or palanquin in a trice, to make all vanish, to make a beggar a nobleman, or a rich man shoulder rags, are absent in the translation. “One of the herd we know/to him we’ll bow” even looks like Nambisan’s own, original contribution to Puntanam!
Puntanam laments, “How many births we stood (fixed) as trees” a line suggestive of the aeons of rooted imprisonment in the karmic-cycle. In the translation, the pain of remaining rooted becomes a dreamy pleasure: “How many stood as tall green trees dreaming (?) within the wood;. Thus, line after line drifts away from context and meaning.
Nambisan clarifies that he asked his father “to supply me with literal translations (Malayalam and Sanskrit) of these three poems which I could turn into verse”. This, perhaps, explains the copy and paste situation we have here for verse, or worse. Nambisan could have done better with his lack of bhakti and vibhakti, to pointedly state to his publisher that this was not his cup of tea.