Found in translation

Found in translation

Poet and translator Mani Rao explains how translating ancient scriptures can be a challenge and the socio-cultural relevance of translated works.

Literature is full of fascinating lores, legends and mythology that narrate our heritage in a rich and enchanting 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 tell and hear 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 the 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.”

Translating Kalidasa’s Meghaduta must have been different from translating the Gita

My translations respond to the source-texts, so translating the Gita was totally different from translating Meghaduta. Kalidasa’s Meghaduta has worldly concerns–the primary theme is love. So, there is sringara rasa (romantic and erotic undertones) and dramatisation of human emotions in his poetry. It is suggestive, dramatic and full of rich imagery. By contrast, the Gita’s Sanskrit is simple, and its message instructive.

What do you think is the relevance of such ancient works in the modern world? 

Spiritual and literary sources do not go out of date. Contemporary literature is impacted by globalisation and homogenisation. But early sources tell us who we are. While we read literature from around the world, it is good to understand our own heritage and distinct culture through our ancient literature. They tell us our history in a textured manner, unlike history textbooks that focus more on power politics. Reading such sources can be very valuable.

What message would you like to give to readers of translated works?

Read the preface to know about the translator’s interpretive lens. If you really want to study it (in the case of the Gita, for instance) read multiple translations; it helps compare and analyse. If you love the translation–and have the time and ability–read the original.

  • Mani Rao is the author of eight books of poetry, including New & Selected Poems (Poetrywala 2014), and two books in translation–Bhagavad Gita (Fingerprint, 2015) and Kalidasa for the 21st Century (2014).




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