translating jayadevaSpecific Problems 2

Continuing with translation problems, we look at:

1. diction

2. rhyme revisited

3. strengths and shortcomings of four translations.

Diction or Word Choice

Gita Govinda was written in a simple but elevated court language over eight hundred years ago. What language should we adopt now? If we look at different renderings of a typical stanza (Sixth Song, II 18) we find:

Barbara Stolles Miller uses an elevated but contemporary diction, sometimes jarring the effect with phrases from other registers. Though set out as free verse, the lines are self-contained prose units, marked by occasional alliteration but not cadenced. Her hope was to render the various Sanskrit measures in rhythmic phrasings, but English lacks the means of harmonizing these, and the result is often cacophony:

Jayadeva sings about Rádhá's fantasy of making love with Madhu's killer.
Let the story of a lonely cowherdess spread joy in his graceful play.
Friend, bring Keshi's sublime tormentor to revel with me!
I've gone mad waiting for his fickle love to change. {1}

Lee Siegel employs an elevated prose, and there is no attempt to make poetry.

The speech of the longing cowherd's woman is this song of Shrí Jayadeva (about) the abounding erotic disposition of the Enemy-of-Madhu—may this (song) spread happiness with ease. O friend! Make the noble Slayer of Keshin make love to me passionately, I am engrossed with desire for love! {2}

In aiming for a popular rendering, Desiraju Hanumanta Rao uses a more everyday prose, which sometimes descends to cliché:

This song that contains the accounts of Krishna's romantic frolics, as said by poet Jayadeva, who always worships the feet of Goddess Lakshmi, and as retold by me, an ecstasied milkmaid Raadha, let this song broadly pass blessedness all round, to one and all, and such as I am, a well-wisher of one and all, and wishing now for Krishna, oh, friend, why don't you make him to take delight in me now, when my heart and mind are filled with love for him. {3}

The text and a word-for-word rendering is:

zri-jayadeva-  bhaNitam idam atizaya-  madhu-ripu-    nidhuvana-            zIlam
Shrí Jayadeva said         this  abundant Madu    enemy sexual_intercourse custom

sukham    utkaNThita-gopa-    vadhU-           kathitam vitanotu                 salilam
agreeable longing      cowherd young_woman told        different_directions sporting

sakhi  he kezI-  mathanam udAram
friend Oh Keshi destroying exalted

ramaya             mayA     saha madana-manoratha- bhAvitayA           sa-  vikAram
cause_to_enjoy with_me with  passion  heart's_joy cause_to become him changed

In aiming for the spirit of the piece, I have rendered this as:

So Madhu's enemy, sings Jayadeva,
ever moving, laughing in his sport:
and so at last knows Rádhá, sorrowing
to see him playing with his women still.
Why can't Keshi's foe, my friend, reform
his ways, and meet me in desiring him?

No doubt a case could be made for each of the renderings, but I've thought it best to adopt an homogeneous middle range in contemporary diction that allows for subtle music and reasonable fidelity to the text.

Rhyme Revisited

After some experiment I decided to translate the Gita Govinda without rhyme, but have added rhyme in the previous translation of Meghaduta. How is that justified: adding rhyme to an unrhymed original, and removing it from another that is rhymed? Only by expediency. It's difficult to fit long Sanskrit lines into the shorter measures of English verse, and even more so when rhyme is added. I've used a good deal of assonance, alliteration, vowel patterning and cadence to give metrical coherence to what has been winnowed down to the bare bones of meaning. That's not to say that rhyming cannot be added, sometimes fairly easily. The start of the Twentieth Song, unrhymed:

To you he offered graceful words
and bowed in reverence to your feet,
and at the border of his thicket bower
awaits you on his loving bed.

Innocent Rádhá, you must follow
as Madhu's foe has followed you.

Firm the haunches and the breast
when borne on slowly-moving steps:
with tinkling, jewelled anklets come
and mimic the Marála bird.

Innocent Rádhá, you must follow
as Madhu's foe has followed you.

Listen to the bees whose hum
intoxicates the lovelorn girls
Watch as flocks of cuckoo birds
announce the flower-arrowed one.

Innocent Rádhá, you must follow
as Madhu's foe has followed you.

As winds make stir the early leaves,
and thicknesses of creepers urge,
as trunks of elephants now move
immediately those supple thighs.

Innocent Rádhá, you must follow
as Madhu's foe has followed you.

The motion of your breasts betrays
the love god trembling in their swell:
and rippled water, bright and pure,
are necklaces in his embrace.

Innocent Rádhá, you must follow
as Madhu's foe has followed you.

And rhymed:

Bowed in reverence to your feet
he offered to you words of grace,
and at the border of his thicket bower
awaits you in his loving place.

Innocent Rádhá, you must too
follow as he's followed you.

When borne on slowly-moving steps
are breast and haunches firmly bound:
so mimic the Marála bird
and make the jewelled anklet's sound

Innocent Rádhá, you must too
follow as he's followed you.

Intoxicating lovelorn girls
the bees will make their steady hum
as flocks of cuckoo birds announce
the flower-arrowed one is come.

Innocent Rádhá, you must too
follow as he's followed you.

The winds make stir the early leaves,
that in the thicknesses of creepers lie,
as trunks of elephants now move
immediately the supple thigh.

Innocent Rádhá, you must too
follow as he's followed you.

The motion of your breasts betrays
the love god trembling in their place:
and rippled water, bright and pure,
are necklaces in his embrace.

Innocent Rádhá, you must too
follow as he's followed you.

But this simple rearrangement to find the rhyme plunge us into the difficulties noted with heroic couplets. Rhyme alters the balance, and in this case regiment the lines too much, requiring more blatant verse devices if the structure is to be 'heard' above the rhyme sounds:

The trembling of your breast betrays
the love god moving in that place:
and necklaces are skeins of water,
pure and bright, in his embrace.

The translation tends to become more an English poem on an Indian theme, and may lose the meaning to accommodate the rhyme. Such conundrums help the creative poet to find his lines, but are a fearful problem for the translator. I'll experiment further, probably off these pages, but am not hopeful of success.

Renderings Compared

I have learned enormously from all three versions, as I hope these notes make clear, but someone wishing to read further may like to know how the versions compare.

Desiraju Hanumanta Rao's popular version is freely available on the Internet, and each stanza is accompanied by a full vocabulary, a translation and sometimes a comment on the further meaning or significance of the stanza. The renderings go further than simply translation and often include commentary, swelling out the text considerably. The work is by someone whose first language may not be English, and some of the vocabulary renderings can be questioned (I have checked with the Monier-Williams dictionary), but the approach gives the general reader an excellent sense of how the Sanskrit verse is built up.

Translations were not the first concern of Barbara Stolles Miller and Lee Siegel. Their books are extended works of Sanskrit scholarship where translations have been added as a courtesy to the minority of readers who couldn't read the original. Both books feature the Sanskrit text, an English translation, notes on the text, referenced and detailed essays on specific aspects (Siegel on erotic literature generally, Miller more on features of the text, including metrical structure) and an extensive bibliography. Anyone who reads the books carefully will appreciate, if not be overawed by, the depth of learning and detail that inform a love of the subject, and Miller's, which took five years to write, saw the author pay three visits to India, learn the Indian flute to appreciate the metres better, and experiment with metrical schemes to properly render the Sanskrit. Nonetheless, neither book was intended to be literary criticism as such, and we do not learn in detail how and why Gita Govinda works as literature. The Miller translation is the more accessible, but suffers from the occasional lapse noted below. Its 'free verse' was written at a time when Modernism was being welcomed into academia, moreover, and unfortunately demonstrates how difficult it is to write attractively without the poet's ear for verse of some sort. The lines have been carefully crafted, but remain strangely flat and prosaic. The Siegel translation does not attempt to be more than a prose rendering, but does penetrate the meaning of the original and is the generally the more faithful.

Gita Govinda is written in a simple Sanskrit, but its poetry is phenomenally difficult to convey in English. An academic translator has the further problem of remaining faithful to the literal prose sense. Barbara Stolles Miller's success has been widely recognized, but the result does not generally evoke the responses we expect of poetry. Some examples:

Free verse needs to be more than segmented prose, though the Siegel and Rao renderings show what is sometimes omitted in any standard verse form. Chapter V, Verse 18:

Miller: Two lovers meeting in darkness / Embrace and kiss / And claw as desire rises / To dizzying heights of love. / When familiar voices reveal / That they ventured into the dark / To betray each other, / The mood is mixed with shame.
Siegel: From an embrace, then from a kiss, then from scratching with their nails, then from love's rousing, then from shaking about (in coition), then from sexual exertion, both are pleased—when a husband and wife who have gone to an affair with another (lover) come-together by mistake and (then) recognize (each other) by their speech there, in the darkness, their pleasure is mixed with embarrassment, isn't it? isn't it?
Rao: In these dark nights libertine couples start meandering in still darker bowers for their cherished lovers, but unwittingly one meets one's own wife/husband, and then their escapade firstly starts with hugging, next with kissing, next with nail scratching, next highly excited by excitement and desire they enter into foreplay, and then step by step they culminate it into their conjugal bliss... after that when they converse, he comes to know that she is his wife, and she comes to know likewise... and caught unawares, they mix that bliss in shame and depart shamefully, nil desperandum... and in such passsional nights, aesthetic pleasure seeking is null and void - Really?
Holcombe: How many supposedly on some affair, / impelled by passion and in pleasure keen / to clasp and kiss and claw their bodies, find / then bashfully it is their spouse they meet.

The dances should have some sense of movement, something difficult to achieve in free verse: the refrain to the Third Song:

Miller: When spring's mood is rich, Hari roams here / To dance with young women, friend— / A cruel time for deserted lovers.
Siegel: Hari plays, now, in the amorous spring-time, endless for separated lovers, he dances with the young girls, O friend!
Rao: and in which solitude a group of yearners are yearning for the love of Krishna, hence Krishna is frolicking and dancing with groups of girls of age, at this very moment... oh, dear, therefore, come on... let's go... lovelorn people are unrequited, otherwise.
Holcombe: Look to Hari in the spring, / dancing with his youthful women: / how endlessly the pain encircles / one who's solitary, my friend.

Occasionally Miller's 'flatness' extends to missing the sense. In Chapter XII Verse 18 Jayadeva is giving his heroine's vagina the strength and fierceness of the elephant, a complement to Krishna's love-making powers.

Miller: My beautiful loins are a deep cavern to take the thrusts of love.
Siegel: my passionate hips which are firm and beautiful, which are the cave-dwelling of the elephant who is love!
Rao: My hips are big and burly and will be like the picturesque and elephantine mountain-slopes
Holcombe: the cave so potent, firm and beautiful / it hold the elephant of love in sport.

In Chapter X Verse 7, Jayadeva is picturing Rádhá's lac-painted feet leaving their marks in lovemaking on the chest or belly of Krishna:

Miller: Your hisbiscus-blossom foot colors my heart / As your beauty fills the stage of love. / Speak, soft-voiced Rádhá! Let me dye your feet / With the rich liquid of gleaming red lac!
Siegel: Speak, O soft-voiced-woman, and I'll make your feet red with passionate, shining lac, (your feet which) excel the land-lotus (hibiscus), delighting my heart, having produced excellence on the stage of love-pleasure.
Rao: O, mellisonant Raadha, those that gainsay land-lotuses are the delighters of my heart, and I can maquillage them with crimson red foot-cosmetic, then they will be mutually excellent, splendorous, and adept in footwork on the stage in the play of passion, that which will be delightful to you.
Holcombe: Outshine the flared hibiscus, soft-voiced one, / and let me paint your feet with pale red lac, / that you in amorous disporting place / a shining harmony about my heart.

Rádhá should remain the heroine throughout her moods, and Miller's 'whining' in Chapter IV Verse 10 is a reading not supported by the Sanskrit:

Miller: Her house becomes a wild jungle, / Her band of loving friends a snare. / Sighs fan her burning pain / To flames that rage like forest fire. / Suffering your desertion, / She takes the form of a whining doe / And turns Love into Death / Disguised as a tiger hunting prey.
Siegel: Her dwelling is like the forest and the garland of her dear friends is like the snare and her heated-sorrow with her sighing-breath is like the sheet of flames in the burning forest; and, alas, in your absence she is like the doe (caught in the snare, the burning forest); Ah! How, moreover, is (the god of) love like (the god of) death (Yama) performing tiger's play?
Rao: hè, Krishna, her house became an empty forest, hence she came out, but a flock of her dear friends became a human-net to hold her in, presuming a possibility of some untoward action by her, but bringing them round she came to a real forest, and sitting there lonely she is sighing in her bodily heat, but that bodily heat became a wildfire, and her sighs became myriads of tongues of that wildfire, and whole of that forest is afire, then even she became like a she-deer caught in that wild fire, and when she wanted to flee, hah, that Love-god who scripted all these scenes, even he became a roaring, growling, prowling Death-godlike tiger.
Holcombe: Her home's the forest and her friends a snare; / she fans her blazing griefs with sighs. / The absence terrifies: as with a deer, / your play become the deadly tiger's sport.

And so on: snippets that may demonstrate what is gained and lost by the various approaches. Rao has aimed at a popular version. Miller's and Siegel's works are superb Sanskrit scholarship. I have simply tried to produce something worth reading as a poem. The author's full (and free) translation of Jayadeva's Gita Govinda is published in pdf format by the Ocaso Press.


1. Love Song of the Dark Lord, Jayadeva's Gitagovinda. 20th Anniversary Edition. Barbara Stolles Miller. ed. and trans. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1997). N.B. This does not include the Sanskrit text of the 1977 edition.
2. Sacred and Profane Dimensions of Love in Indian Traditions as Exemplified in the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva (OUP, 1978)
3. Gita Govinda: Word for Word transliteration. Desiraju Hanumanta Rao. 2003. NNA.


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