The literary and the literal

Reddy’s translation of Meghadutam isn’t obscure or convoluted, but the readability comes at a cost

April 15, 2017 07:00 pm | Updated 07:00 pm IST

Kalidasa, Srinivas Reddy

Meghadutam Kalidasa, Srinivas Reddy Penguin ₹399

It takes courage, the courage of conviction, to translate yet again an iconic text such as Kalidasa’s Meghadutam , one of the most widely translated Indian texts over the last two centuries. And that is just what Srinivas Reddy has done. All translation is sweat; but the translation of classics is sweat and blood. And considering how translations are routinely undermined, kudos to Reddy on the effort.

Kalidasa’s Meghadutam , which tells the tale of an exiled yaksha who entreats a cloud to carry a message to his beloved, remains unsurpassed in its poetic power and lyrical grace. In fact, this masterpiece, which acknowledges its lineage to Valmiki’s text wherein Hanuman is the messenger, initiated an entire tradition of duta-kavya (courier poems) in Sanskrit and other languages.

Titled The Cloud Messenger , this 2017 translation published by Penguin, joins a long list of retellings in various languages, genres, and styles. Reddy’s translation, based on Kale’s 1969 edition of the Sanskrit text, presents Kalidasa’s lyrical treat of a poem with 111 verses, in two parts: Journey and Message. With the express purpose of offering the poem as a delectable poetic experience rather than a dry, scholarly exercise in epistemology, the translation highlights the literary rather than the literal. Given the impossibility of translating the quantitatively fixed patterns of Sanskrit into fluid English verse, Reddy has chosen a verse form of eight lines to represent the four-line verse in the Mandakranta metre in Sanskrit. In keeping with his intent of foregrounding the literary, the translator has not provided any explanatory notes or used diacritics within the body of the text; however, the translated text provides an extensive, 10-page glossary of 102 items! It is strange that the translator’s name does not figure on the cover page—a small but important act of omission in this day and age when the translator’s invisibility in public culture is being stoutly resisted.

Let me quote the very last verse to show how the eight-line structure works in the translation:

O great cloud, though I was wrong to even


you gladly did this for me

Out of friendship, or may be out of


for you could feel my pain.

Now roam wherever you please in your


monsoon glory,

And may you not suffer even one moment


from the light of your life. (Canto 2: verse 55)

It is interesting that while other translations have used the word ‘lightning’ based on the Sanskrit original, Reddy has used his translatory licence to improvise it to ‘the light of your life’, when he refers to the cloud’s beloved. And why not?

So what is the conviction that has impelled this translation? Quoting the well-known poet, Vishwanatha Satyanarayana, who re-created the Valmiki epic in Telugu and wrote, “I worship the same Rama as everyone else/ but the devotion in my poetry is my own,” Reddy makes the valid claim that refashioning a text is a deeply personal and subjective expression. He writes, “… the translation of Sanskrit literature into English has almost exclusively remained in the realm of academia. And while this long engagement has produced some superb scholarship, the fact that we are dealing with literature, with poetry of the highest order, has been deplorably neglected. Literality and accuracy have remained the twin foci of most such translations, while literariness and emotive depth have fallen by the wayside, leaving us with a poetically impoverished body of translations from one of the richest canons of world literature.”

Missing craft

Chandra Rajan, who has also extensively translated Kalidasa’s oeuvre including Meghadutam , argues in the preface that because his poetry is stylised, the translation, to be faithful, also has to be stylised, and yet be readable, wherein readability is not coterminous with contemporaneity. When I compare the following verse in Reddy’s rendition with the original and with seven other translations, two Indian and five Western, I see that it may have gained in readability of a kind; however, it seems to have lost out on the text’s style, its deliberate craftsmanship—a hallmark of Kalidasa’s poetry. Compare the two versions of the following stanza, utterly crucial to the message carried by the cloud:

Both bodies frail and fragile, burning within

with an inner fire,

Wet with tears and sighs of sorrow, and filled

with lust and longing.

But he’s worse off than you, being so far away,

his way being barred

By fate, and so he endeavours to enter

your heart through his imagination.

(Reddy: Canto 2: v 42)

Far off, his way barred by adverse decree,

in his imaginings

His body becomes one with your body;

thin with thin,

anguished with intensely anguished,

tear-drowned with tear-drenched

yearning with endlessly yearning,

your hotly-sighing body

with his racked by long drawn-out sighs.

Chandra Rajan

( Meghadutam , v 101, 1989, Penguin)

Reddy’s version is readable as it is not obscure or convoluted; there is an easy informality here. But this readability comes at a cost—it misses out on the rich tonality, compression, physicality, and poetic energy of the original verse. This further raises the question, ‘Doesn’t the literary inhere in the literal?’

Reddy’s perspective also raises some important issues. First of all, his evaluation of translations into English over two centuries and more seems too dismissive and overgeneralised. His stand that explanatory notes mar the ‘literariness’ of a classical text is problematic. These explanations are essential for understanding the mythological, metaphorical, and literary allusions in their cultural context, which makes for multiple readings of the text. If a classic cannot be savoured in all its depth and reach, are we not losing out on tasting its full flavour?

David Damrosch, teacher and scholar of world literature in Columbia University, has an illuminating essay (2008) on reading classics, exemplified through a reading of Meghadutam . Damrosch points to the historical context of the translator and the reader as a shaping influence in reading a translated work—using H.H. Wilson’s Neoclassical, Leonard Nathan’s New Critical, his own Deconstructionist, and Abhinavagupta’s Rasadhvani theoretical frameworks. While admitting the possibility that the foreign text may affect us deeply even on an uninformed reading, Damrosch argues that “It is not ideal for us to rest forever in a random, half-assimilated state of ignorance, and the Meghaduta ’s reader can certainly benefit from greater exposure to Kalidasa’s home culture... Our encounter with the new—and with the radically old—poses challenges to what we think we know, offering us new possibilities that neither we nor Kalidasa would have experienced on our own. Our readings, and the Meghaduta itself, have a great deal to gain in translation.” Thus, we cannot wish away context—social, cultural, and literary—as an important carrier of meaning in reading any text, more so in reading classics which come to us from far away times and rhymes.

Poetic gift

By way of an unfair comparison, let me share the story of yet another Meghadutam translation (1943), by a Kannada poet, the peerless D.R. Bendre, more for his brilliant metaphor for imaging translation. Kannada culture has justly celebrated Bendre by describing him as ‘the good fortune of the earth’. While there have been other Kannada translations of the text before and after, it is Bendre’s bhāvānuvāda (re-creation of the emotive impact of the kavya) that has been considered a fitting tribute from a varakavi (gifted poet) to a kavikula guru (teacher to the clan of poets). Bendre has translated the text using a four-line, desi metre, imbuing the text with the rhythm, rhyme (the AABB end rhyme typical of Kannada), idiom, and sensibility of Kannada. For a consummate poet like Bendre, translation was an erotic relationship between the author who offers his poetic talent and the translator who has the sensibility to receive it, as articulated in a prefatory verse to his text:

A bee savouring bhāva, I avidly fed on the

Poet’s lotus-work;

Its petal-words may come drifting to fill my

inner being;

The lovers’ embrace may slacken even in

that wet, exquisite form;

The life-infusing drink from those lips,

would it trickle down to the womb? (tr: VV)

This extended metaphor should give us some sense of what it takes to translate the ‘literary’, to create a new text in another tongue that resonates with the expressive rhythms of Kalidasa’s poetry. That said, how can we possibly allow millenial happenings like Bendre to cramp our style? So we shall translate—to express our ‘devotion’, to s(tr)ing one more raga in the raagamalika of Meghadutam translations.

The writer is a visiting professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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