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At a time when we are moving away from our local and classical languages, a nuanced translation of a beloved epic

Written by Arshia Sattar |
June 9, 2018 1:12:19 am

Book name: The Valmiki Ramayana 3 volumes

Translated by Bibek Debroy

Publisher: Penguin Random House

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Pages: 1536

Price: Rs 1,699

In the Introduction to his translation of the Valmiki Ramayana, Bibek Debroy tells us that he was “going for the double”,’ i.e., translating the complete critical editions of both the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. With this publication of the Ramayana, he has achieved the remarkable distinction that he seeks, that too, within just about a decade. The same decade holds within itself translations of the Bhagavata Purana and the Gita. Congratulations and applause are in order.

It is of some consequence that Debroy has chosen to translate the critical edition (i.e., a constructed standard text of a story that has many manuscript traditions) of the Valmiki Ramayana and that he has chosen to translate it fully. In doing so, his three volume set comes straight up against the heavier, more scholarly version of the same critical edition, commonly known as the Princeton Ramayana, a translation that brings together the collective heft of the foremost scholars of the Sanskrit Ramayana in the US. If this were a championship bout, I would have to say that the Debroy (and Penguin Random House) volumes would win on points for compactness and accessibility.

As we move further and further away from our local and classical languages, especially in terms of being able to appreciate their great literary works, commitments to translation such as Debroy’s become all the more worthy. He has a breezy and conversational style as, for example, in his Introduction, where he is able to present complex ideas about philology and the history of the text’s composition simply and without fuss. These provide the lay reader with all the information that s/he needs to have, should s/he care to know more about the form and content of the text at hand. Not having this information does not diminish the enjoyment of the story’s many and great pleasures, but knowing more than just the story can deepen our appreciation of how a literary masterpiece becomes responsive to its environment — social, political, aesthetic and religious.

For the most part, Debroy opts for a literal translation of the critical text. In a single passage from the Aranya Kanda (p.112 in vol 2), Debroy presents Sita to us in the following ways: “Maithilee’s complexion was golden and the lord of the rakshasas was blue in his limbs. The one with the golden complexion was like a sapphire encrusted in a golden ornament. Janaka’s daughter was fair, with the complexion of a golden lotus… Vaidehi’s ornaments made a sound around the lord of the rakshasas … As Sita was being abducted, a shower of flowers descended from the upper part of her body.”

A close translation of approximately 10 lines such as these gives the reader a sense of the original. It drives home the point that Sanskrit verse, for reasons of metre and rhythm, uses a vast and imaginative vocabulary of epithets and descriptors for its characters. These epithets become names that remind us of the characters’ physical attributes, their places of origins, their fathers and their mothers. While this variety of names might be necessitated by the mundane causa metrica, (sometimes, you need a word with two long syllables such as Sita, at others you need a word that has two long and one short syllables such as Maithilee in order to complete the shloka), it manifests as a literary language rich in imagery and resonance.

As such, there is much to recommend this three volume set that can renew our interest in the Ramayana, surely one of the greatest stories ever told. I will however, point to some interesting translation choices that Debroy has made. He refers to the forest dwellers as “apes”, when we are more accustomed to them being called “monkeys”, a standard translation of the Sanskrit word “vanara” and “kapi”. These are the words most commonly used in the Valmiki text when describing the exploits and virtues of Sugriva and his followers. In order to conjure up the extraordinary monkeys of the Ramayana for the mind’s eye, Debroy is obviously reaching for the sombre majesty of the gorilla and the quick intelligence and humanoid behaviours of the chimpanzee and the orangutan when he calls them “apes”.

To use the word “ape” is a brave idea and has to be rooted in the fact that we all find it hard to reconcile the super-simian capacities that the “monkeys” of the Ramayana display with the appearance and actions of the biological monkeys we see around us. However, while we have several and diverse kinds of monkeys on the sub-continent, we have no apes. Thus, for me, Debroy’s use of “ape” is a stretch — when a text from the sub-continent says “vanara”, it is more likely to point to the familiar “monkey” rather than the exotic “ape”. Secondly, for centuries, the visual iconography of the vanaras, of Hanuman in particular, has always been that of local and native rhesus monkey. It’s even highly unusual to see Hanuman depicted as a langur, a species also commonly known in India. Nonetheless, a confident translator reaches for nuance and seeks connotation rather than simple and obvious denotation and so, Debroy can justify his choice of “ape” as an unconventional but expansive translation for “vanara”.

However, I am less comfortable supporting Debroy’s use of “Hanumat” for Hanuman, especially because the Sanskrit text always uses Hanuman when our beloved monkey is the subject of a sentence. “Hanumat” is the root of word that gives us the nominative singular “Hanuman”, and simply means “he with the jaw”, a name etymologically justified by the story of the baby monkey being felled by Indra’s thunderbolt and breaking his jaw as he crashes to the ground. By this standard of returning to the root rather than using the more appropriate grammatical form that the text itself offers, Debroy should have called Sugriva’s brother “Valin” (also the root word) and not Vali, as he does throughout his translation.

Hanumat/Hanuman, Valin/Vali — it does not matter, in the end. These roses, too, by any other name, smell as sweet. Arshia Sattar’s abridged translation of the critical edition of the Valmiki Ramayana was published by Penguin (India) in 1996

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