translating jayadevaSpecific Problems

Here I look at several problems, general to translation but acute here. These are:

1. finding a balance between clarity and ambiguity.

2. dealing with the religious dimension.

3. checking non-literary matters.

Who is Doing What?

The poem opens by introducing the characters and setting the scene. My first rendering was:

With clouds the sky is thickened and the woodlands
darkened with tamála trees. Tonight
is someone drawing home a doubting Rádhá
beside the Yamuná, by Nanda sent,
imagining at every branch and arbour
how her passion Mádhava would win!

Which was a fairly literal rendering of:

meghair meduram ambaram  vana bhuvaH zyAmAs  tamAla  drumair
clouds    sky        thick_with  wood lands  black      Tamála trees

naktam bhIrur  ayam      tvam eva    tad   imam rAdhe   gRham    prApaya |
night    timid   this_one  you   alone that  him    Rádhá  home that_s/he_reaches

ittham    nanda  nidezataz calitayoH praty adhva kuJja drumam
this_way Nanda  instructed gone      every path   tree   bower 

rAdhA  mAdhavayor   jayanti   yamunA kUle   rahaH kelayaH ||
Rádhá with_Mádhava win       Yamuná banks Rádhá sport {1}

Desiraju Hanumanta Rao's translation adds to the text rather:

"Hè! Raadha, clouds are thickening on the sky, black Tamaala trees blacken the woodlands, and night is also drawing nigh... and that one is naively timorous... thereby, you alone lead him home..." this way when Nanda instructed Raadha, both Raadha and Maadhava are on the go homeward, and then the happenstances of their sequestered plays of passion, on each pathway, at every tree, and in each and every arbour on the banks of River Yamuna, are transcendentally exquisite. {2}

And Barbara Stoler Miller's version has Nanda instructing Rádhá to take him (Krishna) home because he is frightened:

"Clouds thicken the sky.
Tamála trees darken the forest.
The night frightens him.
Rádhá you take him home."
They leave at Nanda's order,
Passing trees in thickets on the way.
Until secret passions of Rádhá and Mádhava
Triumph on the Jumna riverbank.

To start with the characters: Translators agree that the someone (ayam) alluded to is Krishna, descendant of an eponymous ancestor Yadu but also a reincarnation of Vishnu. There is equally no disagreement over Nanda, who is the chief of the cowherds, Krishna's foster father when the boy was smuggled out of the Mathura royal household and brought up secretly to escape his uncle, King Kamsa. {4} Rádhá is a more shadowy character, but is generally seen as an important gopi or cowherd, with Nanda for father or stepfather and Krishna for famous lover. {5} Miller calls her "the consort of Krishna's springtime passion". {6} Mádhava is more elusive: he or it may be 1. derivative of the Sanskrit for sweet (madhu), 2. a descendant of Madhu, or man of the Yadu tribe, especially of Krishna or Parashurama as incarnations of Vishnu, 3. an icon of Krishna, 4. an attribute of the springtime or 5. Shiva. {7} Now the literature on this and related problems is truly immense, {8} but as a translator we have to make a decision. We can 1. leave Mádhava as an unexplained entity, 2. hint that it or him is really Krishna in some aspect, 3. firmly replace the character by Krishna, or 4. find some phrase that explains to the reader what indeed is Mádhava at each occurrence. Miller and Rao opt for something between 1 and 2, Miller suggesting that Mádhava is something "that Krishna conquered and absorbed into himself (as) the power of what he conquered, whether it was 'springtime' or 'honey' or Krishna's own primogenitor, all of which are potentially dangerous and so 'demonical'." I have opted for approach 4 because an unexplained entity seems to me an unnecessary complication, especially to be avoided in the opening verse.

Who is speaking? I wouldn't want to quarrel with the outstanding Sanskrit translator of her generation, or with a distinguished personality in Telugu Theatre, TV, Film and literary circles, but I see nothing in the text indicating that anyone is speaking, beyond the causative prApaya, 'that he or she reaches'. There is no iti, and the text resists a definitive reading. Miller and Rao believe that Nanda is speaking, however, which is indeed the common view, though Krishna, Rádhá and even Rádhá's friend have been the choice of other scholars. {9} It matters because the danger is of killing the immediacy of the opening verse if we employ a flashback as Miller has done. We may also muddle up the time line. Perhaps in his boyhood Krishna was indeed led home by Rádhá, but we cannot conflate that boyhood episode, even if the folktale has substance {10}, with the instructions from Nanda, who is now urging Rádhá to go along with Krishna for her sexual awakening and eventual triumph. The two events need some linking piece, which says 'whereas in his childhood Krishna had been led home by Rádhá, now she is being led by a grown-up Krishna'. Since that piece is missing, it seems wiser to put everything in the present, and leave as ambiguous the ambiguities in the text. My later draft was:

With clouds the sky is thickened and the woodlands
darkened with Tamála trees. Tonight
is someone leading home a doubting Rádhá
beside the Yamuná, by Nánda sent
to pathway meetings and in leafy arbours
to win the honey out of him in sport.

Further reading suggests that Mádhava was an important deity (an incarnation of Vishnu) worshipped in an area of Orissa familiar to Jayadeva, information probably not known to Miller. For the present, I have gone back to a more literal rendering:

With clouds the sky is thickened and the woodlands
darkened with Tamála trees. Tonight
is someone leading home a doubting Rádhá
beside the Yamuná, by Nanda sent
to triumph at each path and tree and arbour
there, with Mádhava, in honeyed sport.

Religious Dimension

Rao's version often seems to exceed what is strictly given by the text, and that license is exceeded by Bhaktivedanta Narayana Maharaja's version. His rendering of the first verse is:

O Rádhá, all directions are covered by dense and ominous clouds. The forest floor has been cast into darkness by the shadows of blackish tamála trees. Krshna is naturally timid. He cannot be alone at night, so take him home with you. Srí Rádhá turned her face towards the bower of desire trees and, bewildered by intense joy, she honoured the words of her friend. When she arrived on the bank of the Kálindí river, she initiated her love play in a secret place. May the sweetness of this confidential pastime of the Divine Couple be victorious by manifesting in the hearts of the devotees. {11}

The poem has become an allegory in the worship of Rádhá-Krishna as the divine couple incorporating the sexual principle, which is not the western conception of sex as an expression of human relationships, and very far from its debasement today as a commodity or simple pleasure. We must read the first verse, the commentator tells us, as indicating that the path to the spiritual sky has become obscured by clouds of dark ideologies, and that Krishna is demanding unconditional surrender to an essential aspect of our natures. There is little need for me to summarize an attractive and eloquent pdf document that readers can download for themselves, and I cannot do justice to its concepts here. It may very well be that the neglect of the religious dimension has led to a poverty in contemporary western art, but my present concern is close translation, where we create an equivalent poem by not deviating too far from the original text. Theories of translation or deconstruction notwithstanding, this can often be achieved in practice. All words have shades of meaning, and in checking equivalents to the Sanskrit we can choose words that at least shadow the religious dimension. The opportunity appears in a verse (number 25) between the second and third songs, which I originally translated as:

The goddess of the lotus breasts you clasped,
and so with saffron, Krishna, are you marked:
when sweat pours off your breast's impassioned sport
we pray as followers to be fulfilled.

Bhaktivedanta Narayana Maharaja's version runs:

After embracing Rádhá, Krsna's breast bears the coloured kunkuma imprint of her breasts, as if the deep love within his heart is manifesting outwardly. Hs breast is also covered with droplets of perspiration from the exertion of passionate love-games (kandarpa-krídá). May the chest of Madhusúdana, decorated thus during union with his beloved, fulfill the hearts' desires of you all.

And Miller's version is:

As he rests in Srí's embrace,
On the soft slope of her breast,
The saffroned chest of Madhu's killer
Is stained with red marks of passion
And sweat from fatigue of tumultuous loving.
May his broad chest bring you pleasure too!

The Sanskrit is:

padmA                         payodhara  taTi    parirambha  lagna
lotus/ Goddess Lakshmi breast        bank   embracing   clasping

kAzmIra  mudritam   uro    madhusUdanasya |
saffron    impressed chest Madhu's destroyer

vyaktAnurAgam      iva khelad     anaìga   kheda
manifest fondness like trembling bodiless exhaustion

svedAmbu        pUram       anupUrayatu      priyam    vaH ||
drops of sweat making full following closely beloved  of you all

In the first version above I used the rather coarse 'to be fulfilled'. Versions by Maharaja and Miller are equally disastrous, turning the rapture and tenderness of the original into a yuletide toast. With have to think what 'slope' means, and avoid too physical a meaning (remembering anaìga). So:

Madhu's killer, clasped upon the lotus-
goddess's exhausted breasts, has caught
her mark of saffron in his fondest loving:
may you follow in his sweated drops.

Some Natural History

However vexing these problems, much more difficult is verse I.47:

nijotsaMga       vasad      bhujaMga kavala      klezAd  ive   zAcalaM
close proximity residence snake       mouthful  distress like lord_of_mountain

prAleya                 plavan  ecchayA          nusarati  zrIkhaNDa   zailAnilaH |
snow/snow_waters plunge  inclination_for following Sandal tree  mountain_breezes

kiM  ca   snigdha rasAla mauli  mukulAny Alokya       harSodayAd
how and tender   Mango_tree   top         on_looking joyful

unmIlanti         kuhUH kuhUr iti     kalottAlAH         pikAnAm             giraH
become_visible coo      coo    thus sweet_and_loud Kokila/spring bird voice

I understood very little of this at first, and cavalierly made a stab at the meaning:

Desire and anguish as the lord of mountains:
ice and water follow the Malaya breeze.
From their Mango buds the cuckoos, calling
sweet and loud, announce the joy of spring.

That of course ignored too many words, and then I rewrote as:

Himalaya breezes, sharp as serpents,
fall as snow-melt after Sandal trees;
In coo-coos calling from the Mango shoots
the cuckoos joyfully announce the spring.

Realizing that the lord of mountains are the Himalayas, and that Malaya is the Sandal or Sandalwood tree, it then occurred to me that Jayadeva was playing with zrIkhaNDa, the Sanskrit meaning both 'diffusing radiance' and 'Sandal tree'. Perhaps the springtime Sandal tree is covered in white blossoms that resemble melting snow. So:

When sharp as serpents mountain winds, or melted
snow the brightness of the Sandal trees,
in coo-coo callings from the Mango shoots
the cuckoos joyfully announce the spring.

But on checking, I found that the Sandal tree is in an unobtrusive tree with small yellowish or purple flowers. It gives no hint of scent, and the oil has to be extracted by steam distillation of the heartwood. {12} I looked at Rao's rendering, therefore, noting the spring winds coursing to the Himalayas:

The gentle breezes of Mt. Malaya will always inhabit in close proximity with venomous serpents, only to be gluttonised by serpents, and when repeatedly stricken by their fangs the breezes are in the agony of feverishness, and as though desirous of taking a plunge in the snow waters, to cool of that feverishness, they are coursing to Himalayan mountains... why breezes, even high rejoice is burgeoning in Kokilas, the black singing birds, on their seeing just sprouted tender buds on mango treetops, thus they sally forth their coo-coo voicing in an inexplicably melodious and heightened tones, thus this springtime is blithesome.

As Miller also renders:

Winds from sandalwood mountains
Blow now towards Himalayan peaks,
Longing to plunge in the snows
After weeks of writhing
In the hot bellies of ground snakes.
Melodious voices of cuckoos
Raise their joyful sound
When they spy the buds
On tips of smooth mango branches.

Do spring winds blow towards the Himalayas? In northern India, where the poem is set, {13} climatologists recognize four seasons. {14} Winter (January-February) is cold and dry, the winds flowing from the Himalayas. Summer (March to May) is still generally dry, with winds again blowing from the Himalayas, but temperatures gradually rise to reach an intolerably stifling heat in May. In the Monsoon period (June to September), the winds reverse, to bring cooler but rain-laden winds from the southeast. The winds change again in the Post-Monsoon period (October to December), and bring cool and dry winds from the Himalayas. Technically, there isn't a spring, not in the European or north American sense, though the early part of summer might approximate. Such a spring is not announced by the cuckoo, however, as northern India has many cuckoo birds, most of them indigenous and so heard throughout the year. {15} In short, this verse, which rounds off the first chapter, has moved the story on to the monsoon period, laying the scene for Rádhá's first surrender to Krishna. Miller's rendering does not mention spring after the first chapter {16}, and nor should ours:

From pent with snakes in sandal trees,
the mountain breezes plunge in Himalayan snows,
and, sweet and loud, the cuckoo's coo coo callings
echo from the shoots on Mango trees.

I continue this page with comments on diction, rhyme and the strengths of various versions. The rough drafts are being corrected in the Exhibits section.

The author's full (and free) translation of Jayadeva's Gita Govinda 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. Gita Govita Kavyam. Full text in PDF and HTML formats.
2. Gita Govinda: Word for Word transliteration. Desiraju Hanumanta Rao. 2003. NNA.
3. Love Song of the Dark Lord, Jayadeva's Gitagovinda. 20th Anniversary Edition. Barbara Stolles Miller. ed. and trans. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1997).
4. Krishna. Wikipedia article and links.
5. Radha.

6. Miller, 55.
7. Madhava. Brief entry.
8. Miller, 19-20 (specifically), 39-66 (generally).
9. Miller, 16.
10. Miller, 50.
11. Sri Gita Govinda.
12. Agro Forestry Tree Database.
13. Lee Siegel identifies the Malayan wind with winds that blow from the Western Gháts (the western margin of the Deccan plateau: i.e. from the southeast). Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the GitaGovinda of Jayadeva. (OUP, 1978), 245.
14. Climate of India.
15. A Bird Calendar for Northern India by Douglas Dewar.
16. Not quite true. In stanza 4 of the thirteenth song (VI.6) appears: The sweet spring night torments my loneliness— Some other girl now enjoys Hari's favor, where spring is a translation of madhu, the name of the first month of the year (Caitra , March-April). The possibilities are: 1. there is no timeline in the way I have supposed, when we have again to explain stanza I. 47, 2. Jayadeva has been carried away with the musicality of his line (madhura madhu), 3. the text is corrupt, 4. Rádhá is thinking back to her first meeting with Krishna, or 5. time has moved on, and we are now in March-April of the following year. For the present, I have avoided the problem in the rough draft by writing: Tonight alone, alas, and Hari sporting / with someone now more merited than me.


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