Translating poetry gives rise to a number of problems which may not be present in prose. Poetic language is different from that of prose; it employs many more literary devices. Furthermore, its rhythms may be quite different or varied. Then there is the question of rendering form and meter, not to mention rhyme, if it’s present, which brings on more language difficulties.

Poetry may also indirectly allude to things through symbols, and these, too, have to be conveyed meaningfully to the reader. Factor in the translator’s own emotional response to the work and what may be perceived as the poet’s “intentions” (often rather opaque), and you have a formidable obstacle to overcome. In short, what medium is best suited to the translation of verse?

This been said, I am in favour of free verse translations, and consequently do not entirely concur with AND Haksar’s method of using both prose and short free verse sections to translate Srivara’s 15th-century Sanskrit epic poem, the Kathakautukam.

For example, if we take a text like Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad, a modern free verse translation (I leave Chapman’s and Pope’s rhymes to the scholars), such as that of Robert Fagles, who employs five-beat lines in place of Homeric dactylic hexameters, the choice of meter for epic, which you don’t see often in English verse, (what meter suits in one language doesn’t always suit in another) works very effectively. Even if it’s not in the exact meter of the original, it gives us more of a sense of the rhythmic movement of the writing than a plain prose translation such as that of EV Rieu, whose 1957 translation of the Iliad, while accurate, lacks the fire, energy and rhythm of Homer, which needs those things in order to keep readers interested for 12 books.

Haksar unfortunately does not give a very detailed explanation of why he uses far more prose than poetry, other than a vague reference to “greater clarity”.

When he does venture into poetry, however, he does it very well indeed, giving rise to the wish that he had chosen to render the whole work in verse. He does this, he tells us, “to provide a flavour of Srivara’s style and the overall tone of this work”; I venture to suggest that he should have done this for the whole work to give readers more than a mere “flavour.”

Granted, the result looks like a prose poem, given its language, but that’s not what Srivara wrote – he wrote an epic, or, more accurately, an epyllion (short epic). And are modern readers so completely ill-at-ease with epic poetry? A wonderful poetic translation of Beowulf by Seamus Heaney (1999) sold very well, and we now have excellent verse renderings of Gilgamesh and even ancient Egyptian poetry, as well as the classical texts mentioned above, plus works by Virgil and Ovid.

Srivara’s poem, almost unknown to western readers who are not scholars, is a work with multicultural antecedents.

The story originated in medieval Persia with a poem by Nuruddin Jami (1414-1492) called Yusuf wa Zuleihka, and thence through Srivara, via sources drawn both from the Quran and the Bible. In Srivara’s skilfully syncretic hands, Jami’s poem metamorphoses into an epic poem in Sanskrit, to which the author adds material from Indian mythology.

Zuleikha and Yusuf, the “Persian” lovers in the poem, are intermingled with references to Ganesha, “the remover of all obstacles” and Bharati, the goddess of speech, whom the poet evokes as a western poet would evoke the Muses to give him inspiration. Lord Shiva and the prophet Muhammad also make cameo appearances in Srivara’s first section, entitled “Commencing the Tale”. Later, the god Shankara rescues Yusuf from a well with a little help from the angel Gabriel.

In its barest outlines, the plot consists of how Zuleikha and Yusuf finally overcome various obstacles and become united, after Zuleikha,

“an untouched girl,
in the full bloom of youth,
with eyes like a doe’s
and a slender waist”

dreams every night of a young man whom she has never seen before, a man

“with a broad chest and lengthy arms,
a most agreeable face and neck,
both delicate and fragrant”

and sets out to find him. After a number of false starts, including Yusuf’s enslavement, in the end the two find ideal happiness, “their hearts drenched in this new-found love, as they engaged in all kinds of sport in the gardens”.

This plot, however, contains a great deal of religious symbolism, which gives it unexpected depth and seriousness.

Zuleikha appears to represent the soul, and as such her quest is to seek out god; she is represented as the seeker who suffers emotional pain and longs for unity with the divine aspect of Yusuf; thus Srivara has created a physical love-story as well as a religious one, ending with the lost soul being united with “the best of delights,” and the observation that both union and separation are caused by the highest god.

Yusuf is “like Kama (the personification of sexual desire) himself, come to enchant the world,” someone “who may have been heard of somewhere but never seen before or imagined in the mind.”

Srivara, by giving Zuleikha a more prominent part in the story than Yusuf, is able to mirror through her the soul’s progress towards perfection whilst at the same time telling an engaging and imaginative story. It’s Zuleikha who does all the longing and undergoes severe emotional stress; “I suffer in separation,” she says even before she has met Yusuf, “I don’t know your name, or the place where you are.” The narrative voice describes her this way:

“Her slender figure became thinner from day to day…
She lived just in the hope of union.”

Her servants worry about her “pallor and emaciation and the fear-filled intensity of her mind.” Her father’s solution, at first, is to bind her and confine her. Later, as she stands “lonely in the loved one’s land” on the banks of the Nile, “her mind dwelt upon her beloved, and her eyes sought to see him. Without him all action was an agony. Her inner tumult cannot be described even in a hundred years.”

Srivara keeps the reader almost in as much suspense as Zuleikha in her journeys far and wide to seek the physical presence of her dream-lover.

We, like her, don’t actually meet him until half-way through the work, when the narrative voice, leaving Zuleikha pining away on the banks of the Nile, fills us in on Yusuf’s background. Like his biblical namesake Joseph, he has jealous brothers and ends up being tossed into a well and then sold into slavery, finally to be purchased by the king of Mesra (perhaps Misr, the name for Egypt) for his daughter Zuleikha.

“‘Oh, has my dream now materialised?’, she thought. ‘It is a lovely sight, so rare in this world… Having got my beloved, I am now suddenly happy.’”

Zuleikha, however, isn’t the only girl who wishes to become acquainted with Yusuf. A girl from the Deya clan, “youthful, slender and large-eyed”, with “a slim waist, a deep navel and full breasts”, wants to buy him from the princess, and hopes that her immense wealth will succeed in doing so.

She’s in for a shock; Yusuf tells her that he’s not a godlike creature, that his body is made of “just the five basic elements,” and that he himself has “only the mind of the mindful, who always meditate on Shambhu (a name used for both Shiva and Vishnu), the endless and the universal.”

He advises her to do the same; “what pleasure will be lost,” he says, “if you look in your heart only at that charming god, even in madness or death?” Tellingly, he adds “And, fair one, you will see there an auspicious form that is also my own.” The girl’s “delusions vanished as she heard those words”; after giving up her worldly goods, off she goes into the forest and puts on “the saffron ascetic garb”.

Srivara is here illustrating how the physical can mirror the spiritual, even if, as in the case with the Deya girl, we sometimes don’t know what we are really looking for until we find it. She doesn’t realise that what she needs isn’t the physical Yusuf, but Shambhu, whose spiritual qualities may be found manifested in the physical Yusuf. It might be that Zuleikha, who initially sees Yusuf only as a dream-vision, not a physical person, is already further ahead in her spiritual quest than the more worldly Deya girl, who sees Yusuf in the flesh quite soon after hearing about him, and needs to be enlightened.

Srivara is, then, more concerned with the spiritual and the physical.

However, when he describes the physical beauty of Zuleikha or Yusuf (and Deya, too), he does it with great skill and sensuality. Readers can feel the emotions of Zuleikha, too, as she progresses from physical longing to spiritual fulfilment. Srivara skilfully mixes, using fairly simple but poetic language, the two aspects of love in the narrative to the extent that the reader may occasionally get them confused, but that’s probably done purposely, in order to better highlight the emotions involved, which are indeed confusing to those experiencing them.

Perhaps, by mixing allusions to different religions, Srivara is suggesting that there are multiple ways to enlightenment, that all religions contain some spiritual truths, and that the way to find them is to look within. In the end, the physical will be reconciled with the spiritual; at the end of the book a voice comes from the sky and says, “Be happy in pleasure with your favourite...but keep the soul at peace, in meditation on the great god.”

Despite occasional awkwardness in the English syntax, this translation accomplishes what Haskar wanted to do, namely to present an accessible version of a classic but little-known Sanskrit text for western readers. It’s an important text, too, because it gives us a vision of cultural harmony and spiritual breadth that one does not often find in fifteenth-century literature from any region.

This is a worthy addition to Haskar’s lengthy list of translations, and a tribute to Penguin Books’s desire to make non-western literature available to English-speaking readers. The reservation I (with very little knowledge of Sanskrit) had about the prose is purely based on my own preferences, and certainly does not reflect on the translator’s skill. I unreservedly recommend this book to specialists and non-specialists alike.


A Tale of Wonder: Kathakautukam, translated from the original Sanskrit by AND Haksar, Penguin India.

This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.