Epic Task

The audacity of the translators of The Mahabharata, from Kisari Ganguli to Bibek Debroy, verges on insanity

Published:February 15, 2014 11:17 pm

With metronomic regularity, the silence of libraries and bookstores across India is being broken by a loud thump, as yet another volume of Bibek Debroy’s translation of The Mahabharata hits the shelves. The latest thump heralded the arrival of Volume 8, a regular brick of a book which runs from Souptika Parva, in which Ashvatthama conceives the stratagem of a night attack, and closes with Bhishma’s moral sermons in Shanti Parva. The next volume, due out in April, will take the story forward into Anushasan Parva.

Debroy is shooting for the smallest big league in literature, the tiny club of Sanskrit readers and scholars who have attempted a translation of the greatest story ever told in its entirety, line by rigorous line. He has only five predecessors — Kisari Mohan Ganguli, who executed his translation between 1883 and 1896, Manmatha Nath Dutt (1895-1905), JAB van Buitenen (from 1973), Prof P Lal and the Clay Sanskrit Library edition (from 2005). Only Ganguli and Dutt have taken the epic task to completion so far. Van Buitenen died before his time and the multi-translator Clay edition remains a work in progress.

Debroy is two-thirds through the epic, with six out of 18 Parvas left. At the rate he’s been going, he will complete the tremendous project, which would make it only the fourth successful work by an individual translator without institutional backing. This reckoning, of course, excludes the myriad retellings of The Mahabharata, from manga to Ashok Banker. Not to mention screen and TV versions, which P Lal had declared to be unreliable by definition. Why was the killing of the untouchable Shambuka not shown in the Ramayana according to Doordarshan, he had asked in a 1988 article, protesting that myth in modern mass media could only secure majoritarian comfort. And he was sure that “the Mahabharata, if it is produced honestly, will be a double X-rated movie.”

Here, we are talking only about complete translations into English, produced honestly verse by verse, as dictated to Ganesha, and as interpreted by lone translators. The audacity of this tiny club verges on insanity. Taking on something between 70,000 and 1 lakh slokas all on your lonesome is “a hazardous venture”, as Debroy puts it. To do it, you need the crutch of a religious or political motive. In contemporary times, even with the religiously rooted dream of Soviet-style monumental statuary rather than temples, politics provides the default motive.

Debroy writes of a vacuum in contemporary translation with promising projects trailing off, and a dissatisfaction with the archaisms of earlier translations. Dissatisfying for whom? To Debroy’s ear? To the ears of India’s new Sanskrit-illiterates who connect with their roots through low-cal retellings? Or the ears of the globalised world that India has a love-hate relationship with, and which throws up Peter Brooks and manga renderings? These are political questions.

The political motives of Mahabharata translation are varied. P Lal embarked on a line-by-line translation in mingled verse and prose to rescue it from the tyranny of print. A spoken word classic, it was meant to be heard, not read. His was a huge project of over 1 lakh slokas drawn from all standard recensions of the text and every Sunday from 1999 until his death in 2010, Lal read from the work in progress to an audience at Kolkata’s Library of Dharma and Culture. About 100 hours were recorded by Writers Workshop, his extraordinary publishing house.

An insistence on orality is the politics of literature. For politics in its customary sense, we must turn to the very first line by line translation, executed by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, but erroneously attributed to the publisher Pratapa Chandra Ray. It was a polite, learned slap in the face of Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose “Minute on Education” of 1835 had caused some bemusement in India. “I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves,” he had said at Westminster. “But I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

As a translator, Ganguli was too reticent to allow his name to appear on the cover of his Mahabharata. But in his introduction, he was withering: “To the purely English reader there is much in the following pages that will strike as ridiculous. Those unacquainted with any language but their own are generally very exclusive in matters of taste.”

While establishing the linguistic poverty of Anglophones, the project acknowledged that to be acceptable, your culture had to be translated well into English. The Mahabharata project was serious business. It survived Ray, the publisher, who bequeathed it to his wife. Perhaps the first instance of cultural nationalism in India, it established the dictum that, almost a century later, powered the explosive growth of translation: if you can’t be understood, you can’t expect to be respected.

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