Library of India

‘How I translated Kalidasa to make his world enter ours’

Mani Rao’s translation of Kalidasa’s works has been shortlisted for the 2015 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize.

Today, if most people know the storylines of Kalidasa’s famous works Sakuntalam and Meghadutam, not as many have actually read them, even in translation. This is unsurprising, for the conventions of ancient Indian poetics are far removed from our present context.

We no longer compare women’s faces to lotuses or their figures to vines, and fanciful expressions of love seem obsessive-compulsive. And because translations just cannot replicate Kalidasa’s metre, the English-language reader cannot relish his literary delights.

However, Sanskrit readers of Kalidasa know that his brilliance is not just in prosody, it is in the use of the apt word, in the suggestiveness and unity of parts, how everything comes together.

This kind of literary appreciation is one of the goals of this translation. A couple of examples will help illustrate the methodology. In Meghadutam, we learn that the hero, a supernatural being called a yaksa, lived on a mountain named Ramagiri. Why is the mountain called Ramagiri? Kalidasa does not spell it out, nor do any commentators.

In fact, “Ramagiri” has unmistakable connotations for anyone who knows something about the importance of the epic Ramayana to the Indian imagination. The anguish felt by the yaksa upon this mountain recalls the anguish of Rama when separated from Sita. The cloud (megha) brings back thoughts of Hanuman, who is the son of the god of wind, and who flies like a cloud, and Rama’s messenger (duta). A comment within the translation helps the reader pay attention to these connotations.

And what kind of hero is this yaksa? The first word in the poem is ‘some’ (kascit) – we are about to enter an epic-length poem from Kalidasa, and the character we meet is nondescript. This is most unusual. In the very first line, we are told of the yaksa’s lapse of duty. Unless the reader knows the context of classical poetry and what is expected of heroes whom poems are written about, s/he will not realise its significance.

A duty or obligation (adhikara) is the same as privilege (adhikara); therefore, a person who neglects his duty is not only a rebel, he is foolish toward himself. Has the yaksa become ordinary after the curse? Was it because he was besotted? An anti-hero? This translation helps point out this contrast by way of a commentarial remark. But it does not spoil all the fun.

Why the use of the plural in ‘hermitages’? A wandering yaksa, lost soul? Kalidasa does not say, nor do I. Having expanded just a little, I get back to Kalidasa’s summary-style brevity, repeating the “story so far” and then move to the next step in the narrative.

Across this translation, such commentarial input also takes the form of word choices, translation decisions. An example is in the dedication of Raghuvamsam. Kalidasa compares Siva and Parvati to speech (vac) and meaning: Vagarthaviva sampṛktau vagarthapratipattaye, Jagataḥ pitarau vande parvati paramesvarau.

This stanza is popular as a stand-alone devotional hymn. It is also often quoted in discussions around language and Indian theories of meaning, and as an example of a poet seeking inspiration and divine help.

MR Kale translates: For the right comprehension of words and their senses, I salute Parvati (the mountain’s daughter) and Parameśvara (the supreme Lord) the parents of the universe who are (perpetually) united like words and their meanings. The meaning of the Sanskrit verse is conveyed accurately in Kale’s literal translation.

I go a little further. I translate: To make words meaningful / I invoke Śiva-Parvati// Makers of the world/ Like word and meaning wed. By saying “makers” instead of parents, and also using the word “make” for what the poet does, I draw attention to their connection.

In general, I try to recapture the effect rather than the arrangements of the parts.

In Meghadutam, I often repeat a phrase that applies to several parts of the stanza, gaining the sense of an oral rendition, as well as the montage effect.

Raghuvamsam has a different pace, more brisk and compact. In the first canto translated here, each stanza has a distinct concept – an analogy, or a pattern – that adds to the narrative. On a cursory reading, stanzas 6, 7 and 8 which talk about the ideal King, may seem random, but they have tight, logical links. In fact, Stanza 6 is about the extent of the Raghu dynasty, its influence.

Dative case governs Stanza 7, it informs us about their purpose, their high motivations, and this contrasts with the worldly supremacy we learned about in stanza 6. Stanza 8 covers their propriety, and within four lines we find out how the Raghu kings behave in each of their life-stages. Stanzas 7 and 8, therefore, build on the information given in Stanza 6.

I indicate these connections by adding “yet” and “and”, words which are not in the original. Everywhere, such interpolations, whether for the purpose of appreciation, or for explanation, are indicated by italicisation and indentation. This method also helps do away with footnotes or endnotes altogether, and minimal explanatory remarks are integrated into the rhythm of the translated text for an uninterrupted reading.

Where I have explained names, or given more recognisable names to descriptors or epithets, I have not used italics – thus, Saphara fish, river Gambhira, three-eyed Siva, Śiva’s wife Bhavani, fire-born Skanda, oblation bearer god of fire, Agni. However, for expressions that involve an imaginative usage, or where I draw attention to an etymology, I italicise my interpolations – thus, cowherd-guise Kṛṣṇa, fragrant river Gandhavati.

While Kalidasa’s poetry has metrical craftsmanship and intricate design, and features colourful similes, it is also attentive, precise, purposeful – values of modernist poetry. Whereas the plays cover a range of locations, shift between human and divine realms, they can also zoom in on fine details of emotional states.

In addition to showing how Kalidasa can speak to contemporary poetics, I also use contemporary language. Thus, in the plays, I use language which today’s actors may speak comfortably on stage. No quaint addresses like “Hail, Majesty” to King Duṣyanta, nor the address “friend” when speaking to a person the audience already knows is a friend. As we enter the world of Kalidasa, Kalidasa’s world also enters ours.

Excerpted with permission from the Introduction to Kalidasa For The 21st Century Reader, translated by Mani Rao, The Aleph Book Company.

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