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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