Tuesday, April 17, 2012

NPM: Poems from the Sanskrit

Huh. Scroll down to the bottom of this post.

See that ad?

I have no recollection of telling Blogger or Google to put it there. It's like digital kudzu and my annoyance with it is growing -- especially since Blogger's ad dashboard seems to consist of only "place a new ad somewhere" or "delete all ads."

ANYway. Today National Poetry Month us draws into strange new territory! For the next few updates we'll be looking at stuff I've never really explored before, and is as new to me as to you -- such as the contents of this 1968 Penguin collection of secular Sanskrit poetry. (Secular Sanskrit = not the Upanishads or Bhagavad-Gita. Usually contains a lot of talk about how one's lover's eyes are like moons or lotuses, or of the eminent squeezability of his lady's breasts.)

A point of particular interest in this collection is the forty-page introduction by translator and editor John Brough. After brief explanation of Sanskrit and its relation to the languages of modern India (one similar to that between Latin and modern Western European languages), Brough launches into a miniature dissertation about "the general problem of translation."

I am, to my great regret, a monoglot. English is the only language in which I'm fluent, but I've had crash courses in enough others to discern that it's basically impossible for a literary work in one language to achieve a perfect translation into another one. Of course, such a thing is probably sufficiently obvious so as not to not even require stating. But there are definitely differences in the extent to which certain kinds of text stands to make it through the ringer with its author's intentions intact.

It would be flip to suggest that translating prose into another language is an easy task but it's definitely less arduous than that other type of literary text. The aim of prosaic language, after all, is primarily to get its point across. It's much more concerned with content than with form.

In poetry, however, form is as equally crucial as content -- since in a poem the one is more or less equivalent to the other. The form is the content, the content is the form, et cetera -- and the form of a poem is determined by the idiosyncrasies of the language in which it is written. Brough makes explicit that translating poetry from one language to another is a choice between the better of two undesirable alternatives. You can offer a literal translation, but what you frequently end up with is a block of prose that carries none of the "poetic" qualities of the original. Otherwise, you can try to build a translation that conveys the same music and "sleight of word" tricks employed by the poet, but this usually entails tweaking the content (so that it communicates more, less, or something altogether different than the original) and seems to be damn near impossible when the "to" and "from" languages are totally unrelated to each other. My impression is that it can be like trying to play on a violin a piece that was specifically composed for a xylophone. You just can't make an instrument do something it's not built to do; you can't make one language mimic the lyricism of a totally different language.

I had just as much fun learning about some of the particular challenges in translating poetry from Sanskrit into English:

1.) Vocabulary. English-speakers have a tendency to vaunt their native tongue for its exceptionally rich vocabulary (even though most of them haven't any grounds for comparison in their own experience). Brough mentions that he may have heard somebody suggest the idea at one point or another, but in the same sentences shrugs off the idea and argues that the amount of words at the English poet's disposal are dwarfed by the linguistic arsenal of Sanskrit. The difficulty in translating a passage from a language with a greater vocabulary into one with a smaller one should be obvious: the word translated into English as "lotus" might be one of fifty words in Sanskrit, and any of them might have been chosen deliberately for the specific connotations or nuance it might carry. Whatever meanings were packaged in these nuances doesn't make it through the ringer between Sanskrit and English.

2.) Sanskrit's "shapeliness." This is a new scenario to me. In my (admittedly meager) experience seeing Eastern poetry translated into English, the concision and sparseness of the original piece is frequently too extreme for English to accomodate, compelling the translator to toss in some "padding." (If you look at ancient Chinese poetry, it tends to run like "verb-noun-verb-verb-noun-verb-noun..." An unpadded English translation obviously wouldn't be very readable.) But when converting a line of verse from Sanskrit to English, the opposite problem seems to prevail: the translator finds himself having to trim the original to fit into lyrical English with any semblance of grace. ("For example, in verse no. 222...the dog rejoices in the epithet lālākīrna-vidīrna-skrra-vika-cad-damstrā-karālānanah, "having-a-saliva-smeared-split-open-mouth-corners-expanding-teeth-fearsomely-gaping-face.'")

3.) The cultural gap. This quick passage from Brough pretty much sums it up: "For example, the walk of a young woman [in a poem] is sometimes compared with that of an elephant; and even the western reader, if he has seen the grace and majesty of the elephant's slow gait, might admit that the comparison is by no means derogatory to the lady. But I confess that it is difficult to use such a comparison in English without the result seeming to be comic or worse."

All of this would be why our favorite fascist hardass insists that those who would understand literature should be polyglots.

In any event, thank you for reading and indulging me. I just think this stuff is neat.

At any rate, here's a helping of Sanskrit shorties translated into English. (Most of the original authors' names appear to be lost.) I would be very interested in seeing another translator's take on them (ideally a more flexible one who's not as married to iambics and rhyme), but I'm not holding my breath on this one. In all likelihood, Brough will be the only game in town for the foreseeable future.

I left a loving new-wed wife behind,
And slaved at books, and slept upon the ground,
And lived on alms, and disciplined my mind,
To win the wisdom waiting to be found.
Yet, with the ages' knowledge I inherit,
Throughout the land no patronage I find.
Why should a man for learning vex his spirit,
Gaining nor comfort nor religious merit?


Dearest, if you will love me true,
What use are joys of heaven to me?
But if you will not love me true,
What use are joys of heaven to me?


Her eager lover still she tried to keep
From intercourse, the longer to enjoy
Love's tender talk; and the impassioned boy
Quite suddenly fell fast asleep.


Her thighs——so firm they are, and round,
And so extremely smooth withal,
That nowhere in the world at all
Can fitting similes be found.


    Earth mocks the man who buries wealth;
    Death laughs at him who guards his health:
The secret mocking of a faithless wife
Who laughs to see her husband love her son.


My best respects to Poverty,
The master who has set me free:
For I can look at all the world,
And no-one looks at me.


    A poet's song
Sings in the hearts of poets: the common throng
    Does not respond.
    The ocean's swell
Wakes to the moon: do tides rise in a well
    Or muddy pond?


'Stop but for a moment, friend, and rise and carry
The burden of my weary poverty.'
But the dead man, who would not change his peace
For poverty, said nothing in reply.


  The great autumnal clouds pour rain
And cool the fever of our summer pain.
  Do great lords gather riches, then,
To ease the suffering of their fellow-men?


The moon tries every month in vain
To paint a picture of your face;
And, having failed to catch its grace,
Destroys the work, and starts again.


Sweet girl, your dress has come apart
  While you lie in the heather;
And here I am, with lonely heart:
  Why don't we sleep together?


This life on earth's a poison tree,
And yet with two fruits sweet:
Ambrosia of poesy,
And joy when two friends meet.


Nature can kindle and, unaided, nurse
The fire of love. Must we endure this curse
Of poets who thus needlessly rehearse
Their wretched passion in such wretched verse?

Tomorrow: HAIKU!!

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