I’d like to talk about translations that have stayed with me over the years rather than ones that thrilled me in 2014. Obviously, behind every great translation, there is a great book.
One that I return to often, just for the pleasure of reading, a book that I read slowly because I don't want it to end, is Guiseppi di Lampedusa's The Leopard (Il Gattapardo in the original Italian). Written in the late 1950s, it tells the story of a dying moment in Italian history, when Garibaldi has begun the process of unification and traditional feudal elites face change and the destruction of their way of life. The book had been translated into English as early as 1960 by Archibald Colquhoun, and this remains the primary (if not the definitive) text for English readers to access this marvellous piece of writing.
Even though the story and the context are specifically and utterly Sicilian, there is something about the elegant majesty of Don Fabrizio, the prince who watches his world change with a delicate detachment, that is oddly compelling. There is a langour to the prose that refracts the Sicilian sun ‒ the burnished hues of the harsh landscape are softened by the loving eye that captures them for the page.
The book is cynical and humorous, compassionate as well as clear-eyed, gentle and forgiving as it gazes, along with its Prince, at a fading glory. The writing lulls you into thinking that this a story without a central event, but when you wake from the reading dream, you realise that an entire world has died.
A Woman in Berlin
Another book from the 1950s has had me in its thrall for a while now ‒ A Woman in Berlin (Eine Frau in Berlin) ‒ a book that called attention to itself in another language before it reached its “natural” readers. Although the book, (in the form of a diary which recounts the occupation of Berlin by the Red Army in the weeks before Hitler's suicide), was written in German, it first appeared as excerpts in an English translation.
It was published in German a few years later, attributed to Anonymous (and if you read the book you'll know why this was necessary). The translation that I've been reading is by Philip Boehm and he captures the flat, uninflected tone of the original and produces a chillingly mundane account of the unspeakable horrors inflicted upon women and others in a city that has been ground into the dust by bombs and jackboots.
The centre of the diary, its ghastly rhythm, in fact, is the continual rape of the city's women by occupying soldiers. The diarist is one of the women who is raped countless times over eight weeks, often more than once a day by one man. With and through her, you become witness to the degradations of a peace that is thrust upon the defeated after a war ‒ hunger, fear, disgust, cunning, even hope ‒ as she does all that she can to preserve the fragile soul inside her brutalised body.
The Gita & Kalidasa
Closer to home and closer to my own work, I remain struck by Mani Rao's translations from Sanskrit, first of the Bhagavad Gita and more recently, of Kalidasa. The Gita has become so shrouded in its commentaries and expositions that we have forgotten the voice of the text itself. Rao restores that, finding a sharp and provocative tone for her reading of it.
At the centre of the Gita lies the vishwarupa, that awesome moment when Krishna reveals his universal form to the warrior Arjuna. It is a terrifying image of blood and gore and flames and dead soldiers streaming in and out of god's mouth, skewered on his fangs. If there ever was a mysterium tremendum, surely it is this.
Rao's language reminds us that this was a lesson to a warrior on a battlefield, to a man who has to reminded to perform this dharma as a kshatriya. Moreover, she resurrects the Gita as a poem, albeit as a mystical one, with a secret teaching at its core.
Her translations of Kalidasa (notably of Shakuntala and Meghaduta) carry a strong, fearless, poetic voice, her own, as she pulls these texts into our century. It's wonderful to read a work that is not afraid of the text it translates. It becomes, rather, a re-newed work that revels in all that a contemporary voice can add to a well-known and well-loved text. Rao's translations from Sanskrit prove that a classic can never be exhausted by multiple translations, it can only be enriched.
Arshia Sattar translates from Sanskrit into English.