The Life of Harishchandra by Raghavanka
Translated by Vanamala Vishwanatha
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MCL of India, Rs. 395
Murty Classical Library of India, established (in Harvard University, 1910) to publish English translations of ancient Classics in Indian languages, has published till now ten books, the latest being The Life of Harishchandra , the first to be published from Kannada, translated by Dr. Vanamala Vishwanatha.
Harishchandra Kavya (as it is popularly known), a 13th-century epic by the Veerashaiva poet, Raghavanka, is a path-breaking work in many ways. It is the first Kannada epic to give up Sanskrit metres ( vruttas) and narrate the entire epic in a native metre called Shatpadi (a six-line stanza, similar to Spenserian stanza in English ). Although the description of war is obligatory in the epic tradition in order to demonstrate the hero’s valour, Harishchandra Kavya has all the other descriptions (including veshya varnana - the description of prostitutes), excepting war. Despite amour and valour ( shringara and veera ) being the major rasas of an epic in Sanskrit and Kannada poetics, this epic appeals to neither; the dominant rasa throughout is pathos ( karuna). Above all, the ‘hero’ of the epic is a ‘non-heroic’ mortal king; he achieves nothing and loses everything till the end of the work. (It is but natural for Raghavanka, having selected such a person as the ‘hero’ of his work, to be highly defensive and humble about his endeavour; in the long introductory section, he pleads with scholars and readers to be sympathetic to his work.)
Further, we notice that the work of 14 cantos falls easily into two parts: the first seven describe the quarrel of the sages and the vanity of Harishchandra about his caste and lineage ( kula) . Heartlessly, he punishes the two lower-caste or dalit women who please the king with their singing and dancing. His arrogance and cruelty lead to his fall, symbolizing his ‘death’; and he is reborn only when he himself is literally reduced to the position of a Chandala, the lowest in social hierarchy (cf: 14: 7, 14: 10). In short, the over-all structure of the epic is ‘sin--suffering—repentance--self-realisation,’ or ‘Being – Becoming.’
Although the frame story of this epic talks about gods and sages, in its motif and tenor, it is a secular narrative; and Vanamala deserves appreciation for having chosen this work for translation for the prestigious MCLI series. As a translator, she has done a remarkable job of recreating the experience of the Kannada epic in English. She resorts as a translator to many semantic and linguistic strategies, a few of which can be identified as follows.
A translator has to satisfy two antipodal demands:
fidelity to the original work and intelligibility of the translated text. Regarding the first demand, Vanamala rightly believes that a translator is neither an editor nor a PR officer; hence, she has translated the entire work as it is although a few parts (ex. the 56 stanzas describing prostitutes) may appear tasteless to the modern reader.
To satisfy the demands of the reader, she provides a comprehensive and critical ‘Frame’ (consisting of introduction, foot notes and end notes, glossary and bibliography) to the text in order to ‘ translate the reader’ as A. K. Ramanujan would put it. Her scholarly Introduction (21 pages) critically places the text in the Kannada epic tradition and discusses the poet’s critique of the 13th-century social hierarchy based on caste, lineage and gender.
Consciously, she decides to give up ‘visual equivalence’ and translates most of the text into prose, excepting a few emotively charged stanzas. Usually, classical poetry is full of instances of ‘extended pun’ running to an entire stanza, and it is always a problem for the translator whether to explain the pun in the text itself or in ‘Notes.’ Appreciably, Vanamala explains the pun in the text itself. (ex. 3: 43, similarity between the lake and a poet established through words with multiple meanings; 5: 18, pun on words like shiva, shikhi, etc.) She often achieves exquisite results through Parallelism based on syntactic or lexical cohesion. (ex. 4: 23, 4: 27, 7: 12, 7: 19, 10: 5, 10:25, etc.). She translates a dialogue in the text as a dialogue and thereby exhibits the mimetics of the epic. (ex. 6: 22)
Congratulations are due to Vanamala Vishwanath and the editorial staff of MCLI on a brilliant work, faultlessly produced.