Literature is full of fascinating lores, legends, and mythology that narrate our heritage in a rich and textured manner. It’s a rather colourful way to learn about our culture, who we really are as a society, and how we came to be. Language, of course, is a pre-requisite for literature. It’s the medium through which we receive the stories. But what if we’re not well-versed in certain languages?
Enter translation. We’ve often heard the phrase ‘lost in translation’ in several literary discussions. It’s easy to point out how much content, context, and flavour of the original text goes missing in a translation. The truth is, a lot can be found in translation–culture and heritage. In a conversation with Soulveda on how translating ancient scriptures can be a challenge, poet and translator Mani Rao emphasises the socio-cultural relevance of translated works.
You’re one among the writers who took on the monumental task of translating the Bhagavad Gita. What inspired you to attempt it?
Over the years, I had tried to read translations but always gave up because they were dull. It was only when I was in my early 40s that I turned to reading the entire Gita in Sanskrit. I was surprised to discover its poetic qualities–a light alliterative touch, assonant word pairings that help clarify meaning, and wordplay that was highly functional. I had to translate it, of course! Translating it was my way to study, absorb and appreciate the Gita.
How does your work differ from the many other translations of the Gita?
My translation is actually different in many ways. I consider the Gita as a spoken word poem with no footnotes or commentary. I have translated it as a continuous poem made of scenes, rather than chapters. I have focused on the textural aspects such as the sound and particular emphases.
It probably takes some courage to translate texts considered holy by so many. How has this affected your work?
I too consider Gita holy; reading it was an encounter with the sacred for me. It was a palpable experience. But I arrived at an intimacy with it, so there was no fearful distance. For sure, I was nervous before I translated the formidable Vishwarupam section, but once I began to translate it, I found myself fully immersed in it, flowing smoothly.
“While we read literature from around the world, it is good to understand our own heritage and distinct culture through our ancient literature.”