Library of India

How do you translate classic literature for contemporary readers?

It must be a meaningful conversation with the currents, conflicts and concerns of the present.

“The idea of the classic is invested in a particular model of history, one that allows for a perpetual tension between the enduring and the transient, and for the survival of the past in ways that are comprehensible even to a radically different present. This comprehensibility is not immediate or unmediated, but involves acts of translation by successive generations of readers. Classics in translation thus epitomise a peculiar mode of historicity which consists of the co-articulation of the timeless and the historical: each one of these categories both sustains and endangers the other.”

— "Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture", Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko

By its very definition, a classic is a work-in-translation-in-eternal-progress, its “pastness” examined and renewed by readers in each generation that it survives, making it comprehensible and relevant to a succession of “present”s. Arguably then, what forges a “tradition” is not that which is purportedly timeless, but these temporal interventions, these timely acts of interpretation.

When textual traditions close ranks and form “classical” canons, they withhold their contents from this organic process of translation over time, holding them in an ahistorical warp. This is often a prelude to the death of the classic, not a sign of its continuing life. For canonical texts can fall out of circulation in any real sense even while the halo of their timelessness persists, forfeiting renewal by changing contexts of readership and by juxtaposition with newer works that become their vital links to living, evolving traditions.

What, then, is the task that confronts the contemporary translator of the “classic”? Certainly not to transport through time – in an enchanted vial, as it were – the uncorrupted essence of a literary work. It is, rather, the careful recuperation of a fragile, porous text through the complex, layered history of its origins and interpretations, reframing it as a resonant cultural and political artefact for our times – no longer whole or unmediated, but capable of meaningful conversation with the currents, conflicts and concerns of the present.

Some translations are never finished

At a panel discussion on translation during the 2017 edition of Bangalore’s literary festival Lekhana, two scholars traced the aesthetic, philosophical and political dimensions of translating the classics with vibrant examples from their own practice. Referencing source texts belonging to premodern, vernacular literatures which they bring to a contemporary global readership, Velcheru Narayana Rao and Vanamala Viswanatha spoke of the complexities of translating across time, place and cultural sensibilities. Their accounts intersected at a vital point: for both translators, the soundscape of the text is key to understanding the limitations and possibilities of their transformative practice, locating premodern works in translation within a theory of aural reception.

For Velcheru Narayana Rao, pioneering scholar and prolific translator of premodern Telugu and Indian literatures in Western academia, literary translation is in itself a happy paradox—both possible and impossible. Rao’s lecture, titled “Word and Meaning in the Indian Tradition” at Lekhana, addressed the problems and pleasures of conveying a text across time (while attempting to keep its auditory universe intact) with specific reference to practices of anuvada (translation) in pre-19th century India.

The intricate dance of word and meaning in anuvada, for Rao, is nowhere more palpable than in the experience of translating kavya (poetry), which he names as the third and most complex in his rather broad typology of discursive genres in the Indian classical tradition. Unlike the other two genres – veda, which communicates primarily through sound or “what is heard”, and purana, which privileges the communication of narrative content – kavya is a composite mode of textuality that binds together sound, meaning and feeling.

While meanings in one language can be rendered in another, the music that encodes them in a text, according to Rao, remains untranslatable. This is why the translation of kavya is never finished, causing it to travel down centuries and generations in countless renditions. In premodern literary cultures where language served an essentially phonetic (rather than graphic) function, and texts were composed, spoken or sung, and heard (not written or read), the original texture of a poetic work resists re-creation in other tongues and future ages. The endeavour, in such cases, must be to produce an interpretation which evokes an “equivalent texture” for its readers.

Rendering the soundscape

For achieving this equivalence, Rao recommends the usual litany of parameters derived from a patently Sanskritised poetics: preserve the abhipraya (poetic intention) of the source text, communicate its bhava (feeling), support rasa (mood), reconstruct alamkara (figures of speech), maintain aucitya (propriety), and so on. Yet the central imperative of translating from premodern traditions, opening doors to every other aspect of the text, must be to follow the shabda, or sound, of the work in question. This is a tricky business at best, as “a sequence of sounds in one language might mean something else altogether in another”. Hence the translator must also resist the temptation to imitate this soundscape.

How to traverse this technical impasse of the timeless and the historical? In his own work spanning the Sanskrit and Telugu classical canons, Rao recognised that the textures of Sanskritised Telugu are distinct from those of Sanskrit, as loan words from the latter have been subject to a range of phonetic and semantic modulations in the vernacular. Translations from the Sanskrit need therefore to be re-sanskritised to meet the requirements of the target literature.

Rao invokes in this context his own medieval predecessors in the Telugu tradition of anuvada – “Adikavi” Nannayya, who rendered the Mahabharata in Telugu in the 11th century, retelling “the great tale told by the Sage Krishnadwaipayana, with the proven meaning embedded”, and Srinatha, who evolved a new rubric for metrical translation (the prabandha style) in his 15th century rendering of Sriharsha’s Naishadhacharita. Both translators were re-creators, who broke convention and forged new formal languages in their practice of anuvada, bringing into being original works of translation.

Despite variegated textures of sound and meaning, there is a felicitous degree of “inter-translatability” among Indian languages, Rao claims. This is owing to a similarity of affective content and styles across the bhashas of the subcontinent, even in the absence of a common syntactic-semantic or phonetic base. But for our tongues to survive translation into foreign languages, bridges must be built across syntactic-semantic conventions as well as structures of feeling, “translating from one tradition into another”.

In a sense, it is the reader and not the text that one strives to translate in such cases: the mind of the former must shift contexts and leaps across sensibilities in order to receive a work in translation. Yet, Rao reminds us, the losses incurred by the conversion are enormous and frustrating: the original music of the text, locked in the time-bound intricacies of its composition and reception in a particular place, often becomes inaudible to us.

Making palpable the contemporaneity of the classic

How does the modern translator negotiate shabda as the paradoxical nucleus of the translatability of a classical text? If answers remained largely elusive or undefined in the generic sweep and fleeting references of Rao’s observations, Vanamala Viswanatha’s lucid and individualised account of rendering in English the Kannada poet Raghavanka’s medieval epic Harishchandra Kavya offered a sharper focus on the question.

For Viswanatha, translator, pedagogist and bilingual academic, translation is a means of making palpable to the present-day reader the contemporaneity of the classic. Furthermore, she believes, literary translations from the vernacular carry subversive cannon that can infiltrate and thereby transform the very nature of the classical canon. In effect, they expand and diversify the notion of the “classic” in Indian literature, traditionally restricted to the archetype of the ancient Sanskrit text.

The Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI), which commissioned and published Viswanatha’s The Life of Harishchandra, is among those translation initiatives that have resisted the ossification of the canon and revitalised it by including in its collection bilingual editions of medieval works composed in regional Indian languages (Pali, Prakrit, Urdu, Hindi, Telugu, Bangla, Marathi and Punjabi, among others), bringing into it the “little traditions”, spoken rhythms, folklore, and multiplicity of form and theme (including issues of caste, class, gender and region) that these bhashas carry.

Not incidentally, the MCLI was targeted last year, in the wake of its general editor Sheldon Pollock’s public statements in support of student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, by a reactionary “Make in India” campaign. The campaigners circulated a petition, with over a hundred signatories demanding the replacement of Pollock as editor of the series as well as a “Swadeshi” realignment of the MCLI project with the goals of “the Government of India”. Indicatively, for some petitioners, this meant reserving “right to translate” exclusively for “those who really know Sanskrit”.

The controversy clearly testifies to the radical political charge that certain translation choices bring to the dialectics of canon-formation, a dynamic that power-structures of the past and present have relentlessly sought to appropriate and nullify in the interests of a self-serving cultural essentialism.

What is translated? Not just a text

Needless to say, subversive translations point to source texts with radical contexts of composition. Harishchandra Kavya is a case in point; Raghavanka himself was a medieval prototype of the poet as literary innovator, renegade canon-breaker and advocate of social change. A Hoysala court poet by profession and Lingayat by faith, he was well-versed in both Sanskrit and Kannada traditions. His boldly original choice of subject-matter, genre and language in the matter of the Kavya – to render in Kannada verse the epic biography of a merely mortal (if legendary) king (rather than the mythological exploits of gods, or the lives of Veerashaiva saints), with some unequivocal criticism of the prevailing varnashrama dharma to boot – was in itself an act of “translation” that defied the dominant political, religious and literary structures of his time.

It is therefore an entire world, and not a single text, that one translates. Viswanatha raises the critical question of reception in this context: How, she asks, does a literary work like Harishchandra Kavya – a Middle Kannada text which poses difficulties for scholars and translators, and even greater ones for a lay reader – become intelligible to us today? More specifically, how does the modern translator interpret and relay the complex and volatile pasts these texts embody, preserving their rich “rhetoricity” while projecting their sensibilities across time and space?

For they come to us through “both ideological and innocuous distortions” – the latter caused chiefly by clumsy abridgement, which translators often resort to in the case of texts from another time. While Viswanatha disagrees with the purist stricture that a translator must be a native speaker of the source language, she concedes that there is a distinct advantage in “translating from the inside”, or being embedded in the cultural context of the source text, as literary translation is primarily “a matter of the ear”. The dual-language excerpt Viswanatha read from The Life of Harishchandra was a resounding affirmation of these views.

The passage narrates the legendary king’s encounter in the forest with two beautiful holatis (low-caste maidens) whom the sage Viswamitra creates out of a jealous rage, in order to entice Harishchandra into breaking his vow of truth. The “unnameable” enchantresses entertain the king with “mellifluous” music and “sinuous” dance, and beguile him into showering them with jewels and precious gifts. The anamikas then demand that he either part with his royal umbrella, sacred symbol of his kingship, or marry them. When the king is enraged by this audacious proposal of marriage, the holatis respond with a powerful and lyrical indictment of the practice of untouchability which taps ingeniously into the gender dynamic of the scene:

“The ears that enjoyed every note of our music are not defiled;
the eyes that feasted on our shapely form are not defiled;
the mouth that acclaimed our art is not defiled;
the nose that smelled the fragrance of our bodies
wafted by the gentle wind is not defiled.
How is it that only our touch is defiling?
How is it that, among the five composite senses,
One is superior and the other four inferior?”

Many classics thus present “a more equitable view of the world”, Viswanatha observed, underlining the role of the translator as radical interpreter, who renders the political codes of these progressive texts legible to modern readers.

Viswanatha’s own rendering and explanation of the verses in English combined vaachana (musical interpretation) and vyakhaana (scholarly annotation) in the ancient Gamaka tradition of Kannada storytelling, of which she is an exponent. In her translation of the Kavya this manifests in a lively hybridisation of the narrative modes of the source text, transforming the original shatpadi (six-line) metre into a vibrant modernist collage of prose, poetry and drama. Arguably, her use of gamaka (wherein the singer chooses the raga to interpret the bhava of the text) here shows how vernacular exegetical practices based on the sound of the text might be enlisted as cutting-edge aesthetic tools to recreate affective idioms of the past in contemporary translations of the classics.

What reconciles the radical opposition of the “timeless” and the “historical” within the classic, reconfiguring it for each successive generation, then, are these re-inventive acts of translation. Here, the translator stands in a liminal space between text and reader, past and present, a polyphonic synthesiser tuned to receive, and transmit to contemporary ears, textual echoes of meanings formulated as music centuries ago. One is reminded of TS Eliot’s reverberant formulation of the poet as the alchemist in tradition; the modern translator of classics becomes in this sense a deeply embedded yet depersonalised medium in which past and present combine to forge a society’s vital cultural links to the future.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.