Found In Translation Books

Both homage and critique

Harishchandra Kavyam, an important Kannada text that has thrived over eight centuries. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Photo: Special Arrangement

Both homage and critique
Let me share the ‘misery and splendour’ (as distinguished Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset graphically described the labour of translation) of translating pre-modern classics, based on my recent experience of translating Harishchandra Charitra/ Kavyam, a medieval Kannada classic, into English. Harishchandra Kavyam, a poetic rendering of the Harishchandra legend, written by Raghavanka, an eminent Kannada poet around 1225 C.E., has just been published by Harvard University Press in the Murty Classical Library of India series.

An important text in Kannada literary culture, which has thrived over eight centuries, both as a people’s narrative and a scholar’s delight, Harishchandra Kavyam has diverse textual and performance traditions. The first work to turn the legend from the Puranas into a full-fledged poetic composition, it tells the riveting tale of King Harishchandra, who lost his kingdom, his family, his loving citizens, and his caste status (something he held most dear), for the sake of truth, a paramount value in his moral order.

Pre-modern texts, which largely remain opaque to the untrained eye/ ear of present-day readers, often seem like foreign texts from a foreign country. So, first, I had to turn into a scholar-translator to embark on this adventure: choosing the text after a serious study of literary history, ‘fixing’ the original from among the different editions, and making sense of the niggling, local details as well as the larger movement of the narrative. This involved educating myself on the various editions — full-length and abridged, articles on textual criticism, critical materials, and the history of the text’s reception. All this proved to be inadequate. I had to seek out the few Kannada scholars still living (a ‘tribe’ fast becoming extinct!) to benefit from their sustained engagement with pre-modern writing.

Further, these classics are not merely literary texts; they constitute a knowledge repertoire that opens up a new world in all its myriad shades, demanding that the translator also master several knowledge domains. For instance, the hunting scenes spread over two chapters sent me packing for a crash course to diverse gurus like hog-hunting websites, hunters’ accounts, books, narratives, and films on hunting!

When the Indian text has to travel through a language as dissimilar as English, the challenge is exponential. I had to set aside current notions of the modern, suspend a literary sensibility shaped by Western, secular, modernist ethos, and enter the spirit of a classical imagination that is utterly religious, unabashedly hyperbolic, highly stylised, and entirely bound by metrical constraints. And yet, the classical text from another time, place, and sensibility has to work within the literary universe of contemporary English. This calls for an active intervention from the translator at many levels: ideology, theme, form, and style, to walk the tightrope between a commitment to the integrity of the text and its communicability to a modern readership.

Being a well-crafted, intricately-patterned text, Harishchandra Kavyam poses unique challenges. Its mind-boggling virtuosity, its amazing versatility (the ashtadasha varnanas: the 18 descriptions that mark an epic; the nava rasas: nine primary moods; and the seamless weaving of modes: narrative, lyrical, and dramatic), and its awe-inspiring vitality — the élan vital evident in the potent, packed, power-filled, punchy narrative full of high drama, and the racy, confident telling of the tale with utter self-assurance, are hard to match. Here is a glimpse at some of its challenges:

The text, in keeping with pre-modern writing practices, makes abundant use of proverbs. Do we translate proverbs literally or do we find an equivalent proverb in English? Since proverbs refuse to travel easily from their local, folk habitat, I decided to keep them literal as in this example:

When poet Raghavanka of Hampi describes the beauty of the inner grove,

it proves the saying right: “Kavi, the poet, sees what Ravi, the sun, cannot. (C3:V35)

Pre-modern writing, because of its genesis in orality, is an intensely auditory experience. Consider the following verse: how do we translate onomatopoeic sounds into English? When dogs can bark differently in French and English, why can’t forest fires sizzle differently in different forests? So I decided to keep the sounds as they are in the Kannada text:

bhugibhugil bhugibhugil… chiļichiļil chițichițil…

dhagadhagil dhagadhagil… gharigharil gharigharil…

dhagadhagam dhagadhagam dhagadhagil…

chimichimil churuchuril chațachața…

dhamdhaga dhagadhagam… ghuļughuļu... (C10:V6)

Raghavanka’s text displays a highly patterned structure, which is somewhat unusual in English. But in order to capture the rhetoricity of the text, rather than opt for greater economy of words, I decided to keep the repetitive speech pattern of the two lower caste maidens who speak to power, question Harishchandra:

What is so pure about the flesh of the udders that yield holy milk?

What is so pure about the bee that makes such sweet honey?

What is so pure about the deer’s bowels that yield fragrant musk?

Are they all not sacred enough to be used in worship? (C7:V17)

How can I not talk of the misery of translating puns and paronomasia? Puns, since they stubbornly refuse to budge out of their linguistic ecosystem, constitute a translator’s nightmare. This is how I have translated a verse that uses sleshas:

The king gazed bemused at the lovely lake,

that at once was and was not a pool of contradictions:

swelling with vişa (water), yet anything but vişa (poison);

teeming with fresh kamala (lotus), yet free of kamala (deer);

thick with kumuda (night lilies), yet devoid of ku-muda (evil pleasures);

swarming with vi-jāti (multifarious birds), yet without vijāti (enemies);

resplendent with pratikūla (the opposite bank), yet with no sign of prati-kūla (opposition).

The lake — a terrestrial wonder indeed! (C3:V42)

Then, there is the tricky issue of ideology, the value system represented by the religious/ social order of the time that is often at odds with a modern temperament: for instance, the valorisation of absolute truth looks quaint in our post-truth era; or an ideology that endorses misogyny and caste hierarchy is hard to justify. I often had to fight my visceral resistance to the text’s implicit stance towards caste and gender, and establish a critical distance from the material, even as I tried to make the text my own, by a process of transmigration (parakaya pravesha).

I hope these opposing pulls and pushes have turned the translation into an act at once of ‘homage and critique’, as famously characterised by South African writer J.M. Coetzee.

And yet, how fulfilling! During his hunting expedition, when Harishchandra accidentally strays into his guru Vasishtha’s holy grove in Hampi, and receives the blessings of Lord Virupaksha, he is so overcome with ananda and gratitude that he exclaims, like a commoner, “I got to see the Capital City paying nothing!” This Kannada proverb sums up my own sense of gratitude as well, for this windfall, this transformative journey of translating Raghavanka’s classic.

Vanamala Viswanatha is a visiting professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 7:17:24 PM |

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