The Infinite Regress of Translation

Translation from Hindi of high canonical literature poses some really interesting challenges.  I’m currently working on a novel by Ajneya (Sachhidanand Vatsayan) with this very interesting line:

चीन की एक पुराणी कविता है, जिसका भावार्थ है, “व्यक्ति क्यों यह इच्छा लेकर अलसाया पड़ा रहे की उसकी हड्डियाँ भी उसके पिता की हड्डियों के साथ समाधिस्थ हों?  जहा भी कोई चला जाय, वहीं कोई शस्य-श्यामला पहाड़ी मिल सकती है.”

This is both what is really cool about Ajneya and maddening.  So the sentence begins by saying that there is an ancient Chinese poem that he’s about to translate for his reader (I don’t know what ancient Chinese poetry Ajneya had access to, so I tried to google it … with little success).  So I have to operate on the idea that his translation is good, though he is likely reading a translation of the Chinese (probably into English) and then working back to the Hindi.

Then as the passage continues, he throws in “शस्य-श्यामला” (shasya-shyaamalaa) which is famous for every post-independence Indian as a phrase from the opening verse of the former national anthem (“Vande Mataram“) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.  My knowledge of Indian poetry is limited to the stuff that I read in classes or the stuff I read for my research, but the presence of the phrase is distinctive, something like coming across “amber waves of grain” in a random bit of prose.

So Ajneya is using Bankim’s phrase in a translation of an (imaginary?) ancient Chinese poem, my guess is to give the idea in the passage some ancient-cultural wisdom that doesn’t have a corollary in Hindi by connecting it to something that everyone would recognize as Indian.  Something like compensating for a familiarity deficit with a familiarity surplus.  Most Indians I know don’t know what “shasya shyaamalaa” means despite knowing the line from the poem (one could say something about how religious and patriotic memorization works here).

Here’s my attempt at a translation:

There’s an ancient Chinese poem which roughly says, “Should a man be lulled into a stupor by the desire that his bones be buried in the same tomb as his father’s?  Wherever one goes, one can find rolling hills ‘dark with the crops of harvest.’”

So he needs it to be a Chinese poem to get the idea of family burial grounds into the novel (Ajneya’s worldview is pretty well-framed by Hinduism of a particular kind, and I don’t know where he might have turned to in order to find that particular idea in Hindi or Sanskrit … he seems to have avoided, too, English poems which could have contained similar ideas).
But the presence of “शस्य-श्यामला” is interesting because it’s so connected to the former national anthem and to a history of vernacular poetry in India. It’s not quite the same as “amber waves of grain” which sounds to me like a bit of purple prose more than good poetry, while “शस्य-श्यामला” still has something of the high poetic feel to it.
So in a passage that is about not needing to return home to die, he smuggles in a phrase about the beautiful landscapes of the country (the Bankim poem is about the nation as mother, figured like the Goddess Durga) in order to talk about his obviously Oedipal relationship to his father.  But when he wrote the passage (early 1940s), Vande Mataram was not the national anthem, even though it was famous (Tagore read the poem aloud in a meeting of the Indian National Congress).  So I am not really sure how the phrase would have felt to Ajneya or his earliest readers — perhaps it would be immediately recognized, perhaps it would just sound familiar?
I settled on using Aurobindo Ghose‘s translation of Bankim’s phrase for the language in the passage, in part because it is the official translation of the poem that the Government of India uses.

I show gratitude to thee, Mother,
richly-watered, richly-fruited,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
The Mother!

Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight,
her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom,
sweet of laughter, sweet of speech,
The Mother, giver of boons, giver of bliss.

But there are two parallel problems that are not resolvable, for me, simultaneously.
One is the chain of associations that are interesting but hard to collapse back into manageable prose:
(Is the canon of poetry the thing you are trying to run away from when you compare Kashmir to Bankim-as-father?  Is it the nation yet, since he’s in Punjab when he has this thought about Kashmir, using a phrase from a Bengali poem?)
The second is the translation within a translation problem:
Hindi prose–ancient Chinese poem–Bankim’s Bengali turned into Hindi
 The ancient Chinese poem thing is relatively easy since in English “ancient Chinese poem” means more or less the same thing as it would mean to a Hindi reader (ancient wisdom turned into pithy aphorism).  But no matter what phrase I use for “shasya-shyamala” I can’t get the association to work in English.  I might have taken a cheap shortcut (put a footnote, use the official translation) but it seems like the only way to leave a trace of the readerly problem one might encounter with the line.  But then the feeling seems so remote, even to me, of homesickness for a land (I certainly don’t feel that way about Houston for obvious reasons) while living in another part of the same land (India?) while using a poem about the unity of those two pieces of land figured about yet another piece of land (Bengal).
There’s also a problem with geography, since I don’t know if Kashmir ever has hills that are dark with grain (at least not in the way that they are in Bengal), since the line in Bankim is probably referring to thick rice paddy (I’m just guessing here) and not wheat fields (which is the only thing, I think, that could have the same association).  But noticing that seems more like a critical problem than a translation problem, so I avoided doing anything about it.
I don’t think that I’ve ever been as close a reader as when I am translating from Hindi.

One thought on “The Infinite Regress of Translation

  1. “(shasya-shyaamalaa) which is famous for every post-independence Indian”

    no matter how red they think they are, elite hindians glibly assume that their cultural context is the only one that exists.

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