translating kalidasa 3Translation: First Draft

We start with the stanza form. Possibilities:

1. Write a quantitative verse that echoes the Sanskrit.
Impossible. All attempts to represent Latin verse (which is much simpler than Sanskrit) in quantitative English measures have failed. The English has to be regimented in unnatural ways, and doesn't then read as poetry.

2. Represent each stanza by four-line hexameters. Requires some rearrangement and compression:

1. By his master banished far from one he loved
a twelve month for neglecting office, a Yaksha came
to penance groves, thick-shaded, of the Ramagiry
and streams the bathing daughter of Janaka blessed.

2. So separated, gold chain slipping from his wrist,
he saw, the last day of Ashadha, a cloud roll down
to butt the summit, as sometimes will the playful
elephant, a sight that hurt him, sport with ground.

3. He knew, from tears withheld, how hard that fall, who had
at one time waited on the King of Kings, when much
the cloud from otherworlds would comfort him, how more
drew breath in thinking of that neck he clung to still.

99. He feels that body thinned as his is, shedding tears
as he does, the more tormenting in tormenting:
for all the pain, the sighs and the excess tears, averse
to union and against them, fate obstructs the path.

3. Represent each stanza with five-line pentameters. We replace Janaka's daughter by Sita, as do many translations, and begin to move away from a word-for-word rendering. We add rhyme and slow the metre a little:

1. A year without the loved-one passes slowly:
So thought a Yaksha by his master sent
For neglect of office to the Ramagiry:
Its shaded monasteries his banishment
And waters Sita's bathing there made holy.

2. Weak from separation, months that found
The golden bracelet loosed upon his wrist,
He saw the last day of Ashadha how
A cloud rolled down and clung as summit mist,
A playful elephant that nudged the ground.

3. In tears withheld he took that fall from grace,
From wealth attending on the King of Kings.
The otherworld that brimmed in cloudy air
Was still discomfort when far longing brings
A breath that held him to that neck's embrace.

99. He wastes as she that is his fuller half:
Across the distance her sad breath he hears
As breath within her has his copious pain.
To thwart our union and the mutual tears
Lies adverse fate that will obstruct the path.

4. Moving back from traditional forms, write a verse modelled on the iambic, but with line lengths more determined by rhythmic cadences:

1. Sent by his master for neglect of duty
far from amorousness for one long year,
a Yaksha came to the Ramagiry
to live in monasteries by trees
and rivers blest by Sita bathing.

2. There, months on the mountain, separated,
the gold bracelet slipping from his wasted arm,
he watched, the last day of Ashadha,
in play a cloud come down to take the summit,
joyfully, as elephants will butt the ground.

3. A thought that was unwelcome. Here was one
who had attended on the King of Kings,
who knew the comfort of the brimming cloud
but thought more deeply of that other person,
the neck that waited for him, far away.

99. The breath that pained her body pained in his;
he sighed as she sighed, shed her tears,
was thin with waiting as she wasted.
Athwart all union and fond hope
lay adverse fate and blocked the path.

5. Finally — though there's no end to what we could try — we write in a colloquial, more free verse style without regard for classical proprieties:

1. Forgot his duty somehow, and was sent
post haste, this Yaksha, by an irate master:
a year cut off from any hanky panky,
to mope in penance groves and by the rivers
there known for having witnessed Sita bathing.

2. And so he sat there, on the mountain top,
the Ramagiry, while his arms grew thin,
and then — it was the last day of Ashadha —
he saw a playful cloud bestride the summit
and thought of elephants that rut the ground.

3. An association most unwelcome
to a courtier attending to the King of Kings
and knew what otherworld was in the cloud
but thought the more of her who waited,
that neck he'd cling to and so far away.

99. The breath that fills her body brimmed in his,
he sighs as she sighs, sheds her tears,
is thin with waiting as she wastes, and is,
well, inconvenienced by the stumped libido:
but there it is: fate blocks the path.


Taking the versions in turn:

2. A quiet, workmanlike rendering, close to the original but a constipated and clumsy rhythm. There are touches of poetry, but the emotional flow is muted.

3. Rather formal, echoing in English verse some of the effects Kalidasa gets in Sanskrit. It's a little 'measured', however, and rhyme brings some departures from the sense.

4. A rather odd form, but rhythmically deft. The cadences develop harmonies between words as Kalidasa does, but the metre is nothing like the original Mandakrata.

5. Good fun: breezy, irreverent and more contemporary. But it's a travesty as a translation, just as Homage to Sextus Propertius was, though Pound created an important and beautiful poem this way. We are not translating the poem so much as distancing ourselves and commenting on it.

The renderings throw up the usual questions any translator faces, notably how contemporary should the language be? Writing in Dedication of the Aeneis, Dryden remarked that "On the whole I thought it fit to steer between the two extremes of paraphrase and literal translation; to keep as near to the author as I could, without losing all his graces. . . I have endeavoured to make Virgil speak such English as he would himself have spoken if he had been born in England, and in the present age." A translation for his time, therefore. Unfortunately, our time is remarkably unclassical, and its favoured translations do not always capture the graces of the original, or even seem aware of them. {1} Much translation today is in free verse, and it aims for a 'slice of life' vitality that classical authors would not have understood.

Sanskrit drama, and probably its poetry recitations, were formal occasions, given before the whole court. {2} Decorum was important. Kings are somewhat stereotyped, praised for their virtue, prowess on the battlefield and skill in the harem. Wives are dutiful, courtiers faithful and and other women modest. It is a world of great beauty and sensitivity to nature, but the players are not characters in any Shakespearean sense, {3} and vexing social issues do not intrude. The sentiment of Kama or love which underlies these compositions is not the dangerous, fracturing passion of Greek or Jacobean drama, but something accepted, expanded in all its forms and contained by strict rules. Of the fourteen conditions of the Kamasutra, eleven appear in Meghaduta: tantuta in stanza 2, cinta in stanza 3, and vyadhi in stanza 99. {4} How sympathetically and movingly the poet can evoke these conditions is what the audience looked for.

Educated connoisseurs, therefore. "The man of taste is known in Sanskrit theory as the sahgdaya, who is regarded as the final court of appeal in all artistic matters. Abhinavagupta lays down clearly that, apart from culture and technical knowledge, the sahgdaya must possess the capacity of identifying himself with the poetic creation (varnianiyatanmayibhavanayogyata). It must be understood that empirically the critic and the poet are not the same, but by the process of idealized contemplation his spirit can be one with that of the poet. That the process is not one of mere understanding is made clear by the observation that the sahgdaya is not a mere intellectual cogniser (boddhg), but an enjoyer of the idealized bliss produced in his soul by the poetic creation (rasayitg). Abhinavagupta also recognizes that there may be disturbing elements due to prejudice, perversion, and ignorance; but in the true critic these are eliminated by knowledge and culture, and the mirror of his mind becomes free and clear (vizadibhutamanomukura)." {5} Sanskrit aesthetics has its problems, but the common reader is clearly not the arbiter.

Who is the judge today, therefore, and why should we bother with this strange world frozen in a language hardly more alive today than liturgical Latin? Because of its artistic achievement, greater in some respects than classical Greek or Latin. {6) Because its gives us access to a world wholly different from ours, but still vitally human. And because it explored certain aspects of life beyond anything we can conceive of today. Kalidasa is a classical author, resolutely so, and we have to respect that in our translation. Version 3, however remote it may seem today, is probably what we should develop.

But is it not a little too measured, lacking vigour and variety? At this point, clearly yes. But it's often wise to establish some conservative, middle ground before allowing stanzas their individual licence. Changes are not difficult: heightening the passion:

99. Excess of sorrows and her sighs are his
As he in waiting wastes for her. How raw
The flooding tears, the hopelessness as fate
Still blocks the lawful passage that before
Flung breath and her full body into his.

Or using a more falling measure to emphasize the difficulties of the situation:

99. Excessive sorrows, and her sighs are his
As he in sighing feels for her: distress
That wastes her body wastes in his. To block
All lawful union is the hopelessness
Of adverse fate athwart their path to this.

We could also convey some of Kalidasa's density (and sonority) with a freer word order:

Far from amorousness, it passes slowly,
This year, a Yaksha by his master sent
For scanting duty to the Ramagiry:
To mope in penance groves as banishment
By rivers Sita's bathing there made holy.

And so on: all decisions to be taken as translation continued, and the narrative took clearer shape.

Verse or Prose?

We have noted the free word order in lines of Hafiz, but Kalidasa's words are jumbled up across the whole stanza, and the inflections do not wholly constrain the meaning. Where exactly do the words puraH kautukAdhAnahetoH (before desire of_her cause impatience) in line one of the third stanza fit in? Translators have generally supposed that before referred to standing in front of the cloud:

C.R. Devadhar

The humble servant of the Sovereign Kubera stood somehow before it, tears welling up inside and lost for long in hesitant thought. Even a happy heart is perturbed at the sight of a cloud in the rainy season; what will be the state of those far off from lovers' embrace? {7}

McComas Taylor

Managing with difficulty to stand up in front of that cloud which was the cause of the renewal of his enthusiasm, that attendant of the king of kings, pondered while holding back his tears. Even the mind of a happy person is excited at the sight of a cloud. How much more so, when the one who longs to cling to his neck is far away? {8}

Leonard Nathan:

So he stood there, shaken, this courtier
of Kubera, his tears held back, considering
that heart-breaking sight a long time.
A sudden cloud can mute the mind
Of the happiest man — how much more
When the one he is dying to hold is far from him. {9}

They may well be right, and, M.R. Kale's very full commentary on the Meghaduta explains that the sight of the cloud was unbearable to the Yaksha because it indicated the approach of the rainy season, when men travelling abroad come home to enjoy the company of their wives. {10}

But puraH also means previously, and the following aloke attached to the cloud has nothing to do with rains but means uncommon, other-worldly, of the spiritual or immaterial. Hultzch's addition of rain in fact comes from the previous stanza: Ashadha is the lunar month of June-July, which is indeed the monsoon season in northern India. That being the case, I suspect the stanza is a linking piece, between the unwelcome associations thrown up by the elephant-shaped cloud that reminds the Yaksha of separation from his beloved, and the stanzas afterwards where the Yaksha begs help of the immaterial being of the cloud, of the otherworld as I have put it.

No translation is perfect, and its practitioners will always disagree on individual points. But McComas Taylor's version, which introduced me to Kalidasa, and which I think in many ways the best, spells out the meaning far more than the original words really allow. The result is a very straightforward rendering, but also rather prosaic, as was the rendering of Bhartrhari by Dharanidhar Sahu. It seems to me that we should take the meaning of individual words back as far we can by analyzing the samasas, etc. but then render those layers of meaning, with their frequent gaps and obscurities, in a verse that aimed at what Kalidas is famed for: an unpendantic eloquence, a sweetness and fullness of style.

Leonard Nathan aimed for a rendering in contemporary language — heartbreaking sight, dying to hold — and many professional translators will today consider that the only acceptable approach. Nathan's volume is immensely useful, and the rendering is quiet, supple and intelligent. The trouble comes the free verse style, however, where everyday words prevent the syntax conveying the many shades and connotations of meaning essential to poetry.

Whatever. The translation of Meghaduta is taxing, and will therefore benefit from proper working practices. Approaches I have found useful are explained on the next page.

The author's full (and free) translation of Kalidasa's Meghaduta is published in pdf format by the Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.


1. Vincent Katz (trans.), The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004) Review by J.L. Butrica.
2. A.P. Singh, Influence of Court Culture on Sanskrit Drama, in Sushma Kulshreshtha (Ed.) Erotics in Sanskrit and English Literature with Special Reference to Kalidasa and Shakespeare. Vol. 1. (Eastern Book Linkers, Delhi. 1977).
3. T.S. Rukmani, Kalidasa and Shakespeare: A Study in Contrast, in Sushma Kulshreshtha, 1997.
4. Usha Devi, Erotics in Kalidasa's Meghaduta with Reference to Kamadasa (Carnal Conditions) in Sushma Kulshreshtha, 1997.
5. S. K. De and Edwin Gerow, Sanskrit Poetics as a Study of Aesthetic (Univ. California Press, 1963), 63. Q
6. A. Berriedale Keith, A History of Sanskrit Literature (Motahil Banarsidass, Delhi, 1928/1993) 344-51.
7. C. R. Devadhar, Works of Kalidasa: Vol. 2 (Motilal Banarsidass, 1984).
8. Kalidasa's Meghaduta or 'The Cloud Messenger' McComas Taylor. May 2001. NNA. Biligual text.
9. Leonard Nathan, The Transport of Love: Kalidasa's Megadhuta (Berkeley, 1976).

Translating Kalidasa: page one   |  page two   |   page three   |  page four


Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.