‘To the edges of language’: Souradeep Roy in Conversation with Mani Rao

By and | 1 May 2021

SR: These instances of humour, or at least a lightheartedness, are there in other instances as well. In ‘Meghadutam,’ after the speaker has made his case to the cloud, (s)he says:

Gentle cloud, is this on? 
This friendly favour

to me 
by you?

Both these instances are preceded by speech which are quite lofty and, I imagine, in the original, give the readers a breather.

Keeping these examples in mind, by no means exhaustive from your oeuvre of translations, how do you think the colloquial fits into the classical? Does modern English, which is fairly at ease with casual conversation in verse, actually enable some of these shifts in the register?

What purpose, do you think, these serve in the overall reading of the poems in bringing out the dramatic tensions, or sometimes in easing the dramatic tensions in fairly dense verse which packs broad philosophical concepts in verse?

MR: But let me pick up on your broader point about how colloquial ‘fits’ into the classical. By the way, I’m so relieved at the chance to actually discuss this point with someone! There is formal and informal when it comes to style of speech. Embellished and straightforward in diction. Simple and complex for ideas.

But when we call a work ‘classical’ or ‘modern’ we are connecting the work with a time period – it is a positioning – a perspective.

Calling something ‘classical’ is also to say that a work is established, its credentials have been agreed upon by posterity. Typically, by the time a work is a classic, it belongs to the past. So, when people translate classics, there is a tendency to use archaic language or language from any random period that reminds us of the past. But that does nothing to convey how the work really is – formal or informal, simple or complex. Classical and colloquial are not contraries.

But obviously – Kalidasa never thought of himself as a classical writer. In the opening act of his play Malavikagnimitram, the assistant director asks the presenter (the sutradhar) – why are we presenting the play of a ‘vartamana kavi’ (a contemporary poet) instead of famous ones like Bhasa, Saumilla, Kaviputra, etc. We see thus that Kalidasa thought of Bhasa and others as classics with established credentials and saw himself as a contemporary poet (yet to become a classic).

As we read and translate Kalidasa today, we must try to get into his work, and try to get away from our preconceptions and expectations of the work, the aura of the work. Kalidasa’s language is not formal or informal per se, it depends on the situation. When King Dushyanta jumps out from behind a tree from where he has been ogling Shakuntala, and eavesdropping, he addresses Shakuntala ‘Hey Sundari!’ Now this is really – actually – exactly – literally: ‘hi beautiful!’ There is no kingly gravitas in that address – how else should it be translated if not colloquially?

Your point about ‘fairly dense’ verse is great. The conventions of Sanskrit word compounds make it dense. But when you parse it – if you read it with understanding – you’re hearing the meaning, not the density.

In Kalidasa’s plays – even in the verses – you can hear the change of tone, the commas, the breathing, the breaks. It’s just that when you look at it on the page it looks like a nonstop line (‘classical’?). But when you read it expressively, you’re bound to hear it as so many little waves, or cognitive parts.

Take this line from a verse in Shakuntalam: ‘mūḍaḥ syām ahameṣā vā vadenmithyeti saṃśaye’. The line is actually two questions, and I translate it as two lines which correspond to the two parts:

Am I stupid? mūḍaḥ syām aham

Is she lying? eṣā mithyā vadet

                         Am I stupid?
                         Is she lying?

                         Should I be 

                         A wife-deserter?
                         Or foul wife-snatcher?

SR: Your Kalidasa is translated like it can actually be performed. Does something change when you think of the text as an object which can be performed or heard collectively, rather than read privately?

MR: I cut back the over-the-top courtly language (an ‘O’ Mighty King,’ or ‘O’ Majestic Lady!’ which would have sounded weird on stage) and went with language that would be a little more comfortable to say aloud. So, when a person speaks to a friend, in the Sanskrit plays, they may say ‘Friend, blah blah’ – in every line! In my translation, if it was not especially telling, and if obvious, I just took it out.

About private reading and public performance/audience – I don’t know that it would be any different. Even when we read silently/privately, surely, we sound it in our minds – theater of our minds? Maybe someone more familiar with theater will be able to suggest improvements.

This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.