There was a time in the past when I, while reading a particular translation, would wonder at how another translation of the same text could exist. What other ways are there of expressing this very sentence, and how different could they be that they would warrant a whole other translator and translation? But that may well be one of the guiding principles of the craft, pointing to the importance of choice and discretion in the conveyance of a word from a source to a target. Amit Majmudar gives us a new verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita, and its manner is brief but remarkable.

It is one thing to translate a text. It is quite another to translate a classic. No matter the fact that the classic is still very much a text. There is something in one’s approach to it that also makes it a not-text, or an ultra-text, and often times, it requires us to make changes in our imagination and tolerance as we approach it. The Gita is one such “text.” It is formidable and, taken out of its ideal and rather beautiful self, can be made distasteful when appropriated by the Hindu fundamentalism of today.

Indeed, many of the ideas, names, people, texts, and interpretations of our history – which Hindutva politicians are grabbing at in the manner of a four-year-old who has discovered imitation jewellery – can reveal staggering levels of beauty, pleasure, tolerance, argumentation, and – that overused term Westerners love attaching to India – wisdom. The Gita may appear to the uninitiated liberal as a not-too-distant cousin of the Manu Smriti, but it is far more identifiable as a text depicting conflict and human desperation, and the occasional redundancy of knowledge.

A poem of friendship

One of the successes and beauties of a piece of literature should be its availability to absolutely anyone who might want to read it, rid of barriers of language, length, and intent. On that count, the Gita is no different from Anna Karenina or from The Second Sex. In Majmudar’s own words, “It is the greatest poem of friendship, after all, in any language.”

Like most translations, this one, too, comes with a glossary and a note. Majmudar also includes, towards the end, a piece called “A Note on Technique.” This section is remarkable, because even as it delves thoroughly into its chosen examples, it retains a tone that encompasses acutely the failure-prone project of translation, and why one might never want to give up on it. Of a certain phrase using the locative case in Sanskrit, Majmudar writes, “I remain dissatisfied with my own solution (…) but I love how much I had to think about it.” There’s nothing grand about this quote, and it is actually the simplicity of this admission – that the translator enjoyed thinking about the near-impossibility of translation – that I found notable.

With modern novels, the translator’s unironically absent presence is often forced even further into invisibility by the audience. A good translator is always the one who doesn’t allow you to spot the translation. Book reviews will lavish numerous paragraphs on the author’s – but not the translator’s – vision, skill, brilliance. Once again, however, it is the text you are translating that dictates more than just the sentences.

Brief but remarkable

Majmudar’s project is by no means a new one, and his office – that of translating “the song of god” – may be intimidating, but is, due to the sheer volume of prior translations, by no means impossible. That means Majmudar can positively revel in the historical near-impossibility of translating the Gita, since it very much also a possibility. And he carries out this revelry, this celebration of his task, admirably.

He informs us that he has been reading the Gita for the past 25 years, that even though it has awakened a certain religiosity in him, it may have also been the reason he does not like “a crowd of the like-minded.” Describing his younger self as a friendless and near-sighted boy who would eventually place the Bhagavad Gita at the centre of his universe, he sets out with a clear demarcation not just of his objective task, but also of the subjectivity that has led to its creation.

Brief but remarkable is how I’d described the manner of his translation earlier. And this comes across in both the likeliest and unlikeliest of instances. Krishna declares, at one point in the second session, “Fruition’s a pitiful motive.” You only need to reread that line in order for it to hit you. As explained by Majmudar in his notes, the Gita is a dialogue, with Arjuna asking all the questions and expressing all the despair. But never is Krishna a crude or unfathomable force.

Arjuna, the listener

Even in his purely celestial avatar, when Arjuna – or anybody else beholding him – would have been downright scared, enough to simply melt into the ground, the pattern of questioning and answering continues. “I want to understand you, primordial one!” cries Arjuna, a statement that’s at once profound and frivolous when directed at a god. Krishna’s belief, reiterated by him throughout the text, is simple in a counterintuitive way: “Detached, deliberate work that’s done with no desire, no hate, no wish to get its fruits – I say that work is Pure.”

But, thanks to Majmudar’s notes and translation, we do not end up forgetting the spatial rootedness of their dialogue, the fact that Arjuna’s despair has spread into the air he’s breathing because he’s standing on the actual battlefield, nursing cold feet and an uncertain heart, unable to bear the thought of murdering his beloved teachers. Krishna’s exhortations, as well as Arjuna’s role and performance throughout the Mahabharata, give us what we need in terms of plot progression and characterisation. But the Gita gives us something more: a chaos that desires to read itself and in doing so, to overcome itself.

Krishna has many ways of expressing the same advice, and is eloquent to the point of being loquacious, like a true god. But it is Arjuna – the listener, the frowning warrior, the confused student – that we end up seeing and feeling for the most. His desire to find a way out of desire speaks to us all. If there is one thing this translation does not allow us to forget, it is the image of that disheartened warrior, with his mind wandering, who has let go of his weapons and is sitting down on his chariot seat to ask questions, and obtain answers, on a battlefield.

Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary, Amit Majmudar, Penguin Books.