Thursday, May 13, 2010

Other people's sorrows don't hurt us - the Clay Sanskrit Library and the value of translation

When I emphasized the social value of translation, independent of actual readers or reading, I was thinking of projects like The Clay Sanskrit Library, which has published over fifty volumes of English translations of Sanskrit literature in a uniform, attractive format.  The project seems to be complete, which means, I think, that it ran out of money.  This was a philanthropic enterprise.  Please investigate this David Shulman article in The New Republic for more information.

Who was all of this for?  Students of Sanskrit, certainly.  Each translation has facing page Sanskrit, in Roman script, and is lightly annotated.  Who else?  University libraries bought them.  I can only guess about readers in India.  Then there are a few restless readers like me.  I’ve never noticed another book blogger reading one, at least, so I assume "few" is right.

All of the work – the translation and scholarship and editing – was in the service of enlarging the opportunity of theoretical readers, future readers, maybe just that one reader whose life will be completely transformed by this stuff.  There’s no money here, and the potential audience is tiny.  Yet it is obvious to me that the mere existence of the Clay Sanskrit books is valuable.  Our cultural possibilities are greater than they were, whatever that means.

I’ve read three of them now – Ashvaghosha’s Life of the Buddha, the first volume of The Ramayana, and now the play How Úrvashi Was Won by Kālidāsa (translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman), supplemented by the Oxford World’s Classics version of Kālidāsa’s The Recognition of Sakuntalā, translated by W. J. Johnson.  They have all been worth reading, although I would recommend that a first-time reader of The Ramayana start with a shorter retelling, like R. K. Narayan’s or William Buck’s.

The Kālidāsa plays (4th or 5th century CE, maybe*) are both stories of noble couples united and separated and reunited.  The Recognition of Sakuntalā was more melancholy, more serious, often resembling The Winter’s TaleHow Úrvashi Was Won is altogether sillier.  Donald Frame, in the article I mentioned yesterday, talks in terms of percentages – no more than 20%, say, of a book can possibly be translated, and he’s happy if he gets to 15%.  Those numbers seem about right for these plays, which would have included music and dancing (and costumes and sets and actors) all of which are left to my inadequate imagination.  Nevertheless, 15% of something this good is worth experiencing.

The fourth act of How Úrvashi Was Won is especially impressive, or odd, or delightful.  It’s a solo mad scene, with the king wandering the forest looking for the lost Úrvashi, who has been turned into a vine, don’t ask.  Has the cloud seen her?  No?  How about the peacock?  No answer.  The cuckoo?

Other people’s sorrows don’t hurt us.
It’s true what people say.
Arrogant, self-centered, the cuckoo
doesn’t even notice that I’m suffering
in love. She’s absorbed in tasting
the ripe rose-apple, red
as a woman’s lip.

The geese, the bees, the king of the elephants, the waterfalls, no one can help him.  The king sings and dances through the forest, and his songs are sad but sweet, and somehow everything works out in the end.  I’d love to see this performed.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.

* The imprecision of the dating of Sanskrit literature is in itself startling and marvelous to a Western reader.


  1. These books sound lovely and I had never heard of them until you mentioned them yesterday. I have checked my library and we have 19 of them. I've put them on my list of books to investigate one of these days. Thanks!

  2. Nice post. It is indeed tragic that the Clay Sanskrit Library ran out of money. Still, at least they made it to 50 volumes. There have been a few bloggers who read a book or two; see their "Press" page. I think most readers in India (of the very small proportion who would be interested) would find these books too expensive, and possibly feel that the Roman script instead of Devanagari makes it somehow less authentic (which isn't true; Sanskrit has been written in many scripts).

    It is great, though, that the Clay Sanskrit Library chose to translate such a wide variety of books apart from the few frequently translated, from religious books to irreligious satires to love poems to adventure novels. BTW, if you're interested in good Sanskrit translations into English apart from the Clay Sanskrit Library, also look for the translations by Andrew Schelling (or, less recent, those by Barbara Stoler Miller, Daniel Ingalls, Arthur Ryder). Only very few people have managed to translate highly ornate Sanskrit without turning it into awkward English.

  3. Stefanie and shreevatsa, you both make a key point about these books. It's library access that's crucial. They're too expensive for me, too!

    I'm on that press page! But I had not looked at it in a while. There are a few more people writing about a book or two. Not many.

    Thanks a lot for the translator recommendations.

    By the way - no, not by the way, right on the main path - this piece of how to write about criticism" by shreevatsa is fantastic.

  4. Thanks for the appreciation. :-) You are right, there are actually not that many people writing about them.

    [BTW, the previous comment appears to be a sort of spam: the "free PDFs" are incomplete, and the same comment is everywhere on the internet; see Google.]

  5. Spam! Bhagavad Gita spam! That, in a way, is hilarious. I've squashed it - thanks.

    Can I keep praising your translation posts? The new one was even more interesting.