translating kalidasaPoints Illustrated

1. Examining previous translations.

2. Assessing the task: Sanskrit poetry.

3. Making a word-for-word translation.

4. Constructing a suitable stanza form.

5. Translation strategies.


The Meghaduta or Cloud Messenger is one of the masterpieces of Indian, indeed world literature. {1} Its 120-odd stanzas, each of four unrhymed lines, were written in the Mandakrata {2} metre at some time between 100 BC and 500 AD. {3} The Mandakrata is a long metre, moving slowly like the python, with a form as follows: {4} {5}

Kalakalah, the ferry in the sound, now lets great boats lie. Beneath
bold, broad, stone forts in which stiff Brits fix pride, lie little boats aground. Wet,

wild, welcome, warm they hint at bitter storms. Bold, bitten barricades fall.
Whose to say "fly," if nits pick petty fights and the work wanders widely?

Each line has 17 syllables and 10 stresses (or, more accurately, long syllables, as Sanskrit poetry is quantitative.) The stanza is richly elaborated and tightly knit {6}, so that each stands as a somewhat individual creation. When we realize that Indian poetry is often richly sensuous, moreover, with a leaning towards reflection and speculation unlike anything in Chinese, or indeed in English, {7} we begin to appreciate the difficulties. The story is also far from contemporary interests: a lovesick supernatural being (Yaksha) asks a cloud to convey a message across the subcontinent to his loved one. {8}

Other Translations

There have been many translations. {8} {9} {10} {11} {12} {13} {14}. Here are three Internet versions of the opening stanzas:

A lean and lovesick Yaksha, newly wed,
Dallied at home avoiding his work.
His elder, made angry, packed him into exile
For a year. Now his misery knows no bounds.
He lives in Ramgiri Parvat near a crystal lake,
Whose waters once touched by Sita, are holy.

Frustrated and forlorn, distant Chitrakut Mountain
His new home, Yaksha is lost and starved for love,
His wrist so thin it sheds its golden jewels.
Ashar has come, filling the southern sky with
A cloud, frolicksome as an elephant
About to charge, he seems to lower his tusks.

Seeing that beautiful cloud high on the mountaintop,
Filled with desire and tearful, Yaksha
Plunged into deep reflection. O Cloud!
Look at me -- how I pine to caress
The long neck of my beloved.
Should my feelings not be moved? {8}

Yue-tchi chief, neglectful of his fief,
Sentenced to suffer exile of one year,
(A heavy fate to part with his beloved,
And see his glories, joys and splendours set)
Came to dwell and wait in abbeys far
Amidst the ancient trees' sequestered shade,
Above the Rama-hills by springs wherein
The daughter of the Prince of Mithila
Once bathed and hallowed them for evermore.

And on these heights he whiled away some months,
An ardent lover torn from hapless wife,
His golden armlets from his wasting wrists
Slipt loose: Then with the first advent of rains,
Below him, clinging to the mountain side,
He spied a cloud, an elephant as 'twere,
With lowered tusks, against a rampart bent in sportive butt.

I know thou comest of the far-famed race
Of rolling, heavy clouds, -- and changing garbs
At will, thou leadest troops that serve the God
Of Rains, the Bountiful. And I by stroke
Of fate and law from dear ones cast afar,
Would seek of thee a favour.

Refuge thou art for all that suffer wrong,
Distressed and parched, on them thou pourest balm.
Then take this message to my love, for we
Are torn apart by angry Lord of Wealth. {12}

A certain yaksha who had been negligent in the execution of his own duties, on account of a curse from his master which was to be endured for a year and which was onerous as it separated him from his beloved, made his residence among the hermitages of Ramagiri, whose waters were blessed by the bathing of the daughter of Janaka and whose shade trees grew in profusion.

That lover, separated from his beloved, whose gold armlet had slipped from his bare forearm, having dwelt on that mountain for some months, on the first day of Asadha, saw a cloud embracing the summit, which resembled a mature elephant playfully butting a bank.

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? {11}

And from printed sources:

This Yaksha, banished a desolate year
from his love and from the king whose curse
for some carelessness sent him impotent away,
spent his exile among the holy retreats
of Ramagiri where Sita, bathing, had made
the waters holy and where trees cast a rich shade.

On this mountain, months from his mate,
aching for love, his wrists so wasted
that the gold bracelet he wore slipped off
and was lost — he saw at summer's end
a cloud swelling against the peak
like a great elephant nuzzling a hill.

So he stood there, shaken, this courtier
of Kubera, his tears held back, considering
the 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. {13}

A certain nameless Yaksa, divested of his powers by his King and condemned for his dereliction to yearlong exile away from his family, lived in a cottage on Ramagiri hills, where the trees had a gentle shade and where the brooks had become holy from Sita's baths.

A few months of separation from his wife sapped his vigour and the bracelets slipped from his thinned wrists. Then, on the last day of Asadha, he noticed a cloud clinging to the mountain-peak, a visual pleasure, like an elephant playing and butting the peak.

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? {14}

A demigod who was heedless in his office
had lost his honored rank--
his master cursed him to endure
a year in exile from his love.
He lived on Mt. Rama
in the hermit groves
whose waters were pure from Sita's ablutions. {15}


What do we think? The first is direct and moving, with an authentic touch of poetry is Whose waters once touched by Sita, are holy. The language of the second seems a little dated, but the story line is well developed. The third, the McComas Taylor prose version, professes to follow the original closely, and indeed can be divided into 4 lines (with syllable count shown in brackets):

A certain yaksha who had been negligent in the execution of his own duties, on account of a curse (27)
from his master which was to be endured for a year and which was onerous as it separated him (26)
from his beloved, made his residence among the hermitages of Ramagiri, whose waters were blessed (27)
by the bathing of the daughter of Janaka and whose shade trees grew in profusion. (21)

Clearly, it is not the Mandakrata metre with its demanding: G G G G L L L L L G / G L G G L G v, pattern, where G is a guru or heavy syllable, L is laghu or light syllable, / is a yati or caesura and v is a syllable of variable quantity {16}. But the prose is supple, slow-moving, and suggests that free verse might be the most suitable.

The Nathan version {13} is also written in a supple, rhythmic prose but is more concise. The Devadhar version is also prose, but elevated, closer to Edwardian prose-poetry, and that diction also appears in the children's verse of rendering 15 — inexplicably, as Barbara Stoler Miller was a noted Sanskrit scholar and translator.

Let's see how the better candidates, Taylor and Nathan, compare on a demanding part, where Kalidasa has pulled out all the stops. One such is Stanza 99 (or 2.41 in some versions). McComas Taylor:

He whose path is blocked by an invidious command and is at a distance, by means of these intentions, unites his body with yours, the emaciated with the emaciated, the afflicted with the deeply afflicted, that which is wet with tears with that which is tearful, that whose longing is ceaseless with that which is longed for, that whose sighs are hot with those whose sighs are even more numerous. {11}

We shall see later how the original Sanskrit, with its interlinked and repetitious phrases works its magic, but this translation seems to have fallen into the matter-of-factness and circumlocution of a legal document. The Nathan version (his stanza 99) is intelligent and quiet, but also falls rather flat:

'He, far off, a hostile fate blocking
his way, by mere wish joins his body
with your body, his thinness with your thinness,
his pain with your intense pain, his tears
with your tears, his endless longing
with your longing, his deep sigh with your sigh. {13}

The difficulties of Sanskrit translations are apparent with this fragment of a Bhartrihari poem. The line consists of eleven syllables in the Indravajra pattern: {16}

- - u | - - u | u - u | - -
viSramya viSramya vanadrumAnm
wandering wandering of trees
chAyAsu tanv vicacAra kAcit
in shadows slender woman roamed one
stanottari yena karoddhrtena
with a breast-cloth held in hand
nivArayanti SaSino mayUkhAn
warding off moon's rays

The translation provided:

A certain slender woman was wandering
seeking solace in shadows of forest trees,
warding off the moon's scorching rays
with a silken shawl held by her hand.

is perfectly acceptable, perhaps admirable in its way, but doesn't convey the sound patterns, or achieve the poetic ideal which "is to compress the profusion of nature's qualities into a palpable, thick, emotion-laden atmosphere, so highly controlled that the audience participates in the aesthetic experience" {16}:

How do other versions of stanza 41 stack up?

With his body thy body he enters; all-haggard body with haggard;
Fevered with intensely fevered; tear-flowing with tearful; incessantly eager
With eager; hotly sighing with yet more abundantly sighing;
In his thoughts, far distant as he is, and the way barred by adverse fate. {10}

With body worn as thine, with pain as deep,
With tears and ceaseless longings answering thine,
With sighs more burning than the sighs that keep
Thy lips ascorch -- doomed far from thee to pine,
He too doth weave the fancies that thy soul entwine. {9}

Say to her: "Your life's companion
Pines in far away lands, forbidden
From return until his sentence is up.
He is lean, teary-eyed, vexed and penitent.
Throbbing with warm sighs, he's
United with you in forelorn desire." {8}

Obstructed by an angry and inexorable fate, the distant one seeks to unite with you, to mingle tears with tears, arms with arms, pining bodies, anxious heart to heart, sigh with sigh — such are his wishes {14}

Simply as verse, the best is probably the Ryder version, No. 9, but it's not (as we shall see) a close rendering of the meaning.

Understanding the Sanskrit.

We must now look closely at the Sanskrit. Since the original can be found on several sites, it should be a simple matter to employ a Sanskrit dictionary to arrive at a literal translation. Alas, no:

1. The Sanskrit is commonly written in Devanagari, which take some practice to read: unfamiliar letters, words run together, letters joined up in strange conjuncts, compound words (samasas) and a good scattering of other signs. {18}

2. For transliteration, the Latin alphabet has to be tricked out with capitals and diacritical marks — naturally, as there are 14 Sanskrit vowels/semi-vowels, 33 consonants, etc. Different conventions are in force, however, not widely different, but sufficient to confuse the beginner and cause problems with online dictionaries. The transliterated Meghaduta text on the University of Frankfurt site {20} differs from that on the University of Goettingen site, for example, {21} and neither is in the Harvard-Kyoto convention employed in the large Sanskrit-English-Sanskrit dictionary at the University of Cologne. {22}

3. Sanskrit is an ancient language, and the better dictionaries have large entries — 160,000 in the modified Monier-Williams dictionary at Cologne, for example {22}). Nevertheless, the entries do not cover all eventualities because Sanskrit, like Latin, is an inflected language. When in English we say, Peter hit David on the foot with a hammer, the word order matters: transposing Peter and David changes the meaning, and things like On the Peter with David foot hit a hammer make little sense. But an inflected language like Sanskrit indicates relations by inflecting, i.e. adding case endings to the key words: PeterNominative DavidAccusative HitSingularpasttense HammerInstrumental FootLocative. Meaning is retained whatever the word order. But the drawback is that we have to recognize these case endings: just entering segments of the Meghaduta text into a dictionary {23} {24} {25} {26} {27} will not generate a proper translation, or usually anything at all. Words are further changed by an extensive system of preserving euphony (sandhi). Naturally, there exist many grammar guides and courses for Sanskrit, {28} {29} some free, {30} {31} {32} but learning sufficient Sanskrit even to use the dictionaries takes time.

4. Several versions of Meghaduta exist, with authorities disagreeing on what is genuine and what a later interpolation. E. Hultzsch's Kalidasa's Meghaduta: Manuscripts With the Commentary of Vallabhadeva and Provided With a Complete Sanskrit-English Vocabulary (1911/1998) {32} compares the listings of ten authorities to arrive at an 'authentic' 110 verses, but the version by M.R. Kale (which McComas Taylor adopts) allows 120 verses. {34}

5. The Meghaduta can be written in other scripts altogether, as would be expected on the subcontinent.

6. Finally, the Internet adds problems of its own. Its stock of European letters for transliteration is somewhat limited, and even sites displaying the same Devanagari text often employ different typefaces, requiring each to be loaded down, installed and the browser adjusted.

In short, reading the original Sanskrit requires extended effort. But the rewards are an appreciation of a beautiful and learned language, and a glimpse of traditions that enrich our understanding of south and southeast Asia. More to our purpose, we remove the filters that particular translations inevitable impose, drawing us closer to what Kalidasa intended.

Undertaking a Transliteration

To save space, we look at transliterations of two stanzas only: Number 1 of Part One and Number 41 of Part Two, the last numbered 99 in other versions. The Devanagari is taken from Hultzsch's version, and the transliteration follows the Harvard-Kyoto convention. The three lines following the original Devanagari show 1. transliteration (long vowels shown in bold), 2. Mandakrata pattern of light (l) and heavy (g) syllables with caesura (/) and syllable of variable quality (v), and 3. a word-for-word translation. {18}

Syllables in Sanskrit are long if they contain a vowel intrinsically long, or the vowel ends in two or more consonants. (But Kh, gh, ch, jh, th, dh th dh, ph and bh are single, breathy consonants.) Devanagari is read from left to right.

Verse 1 of Part One

  kazcit kAntAvirahaguruNA svAdhikAra pramattaH

   g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

               a_certain beloved separation hard_to_be_borne his_own office negligent

  zApenAstaMgamitamahimA varSabhogyeNa bhartuH
    g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

              curse caused_to_set power a_year to_be_endured master

   yakSaz cakre janakatanayAsnAnapuNyodakeSu
     g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

               Yaksa made janaka daughter bathing pure water

   snigdhacchAyAtaruSu vasatiM rAmagiryAzrameSu
     g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

               pleasant tree_affording_shade dwelling Rama_mountain hermitage

Verse 41 of Part Two (Verse 99 in Hultzsch's version)

   aGgenAGgaM tanu ca tanunA gADhataptena taptaM
     g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

               body body emaciated and emaciated intense tormented tormented

   sAsreNAsradravam aviratotkaNTham utkaNThitena
   g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

              weeping shedding_tears continual longing longing

  uSNocchvAsaM samadhikatarocchvAsinA dUravartI
   g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

               ardent sigh excessive sighing staying_far_away

   saMkalpais te vizati vidhinA vairiNA ruddhamArgaH
    g  g  g  g  l  l  l  l  l  g / g  l  g  g  g  v

                  longing unite_with fate adverse obstructed path

Making a Word-For-Word Rendering

We continue with the same procedure for Stanzas 2 and 3:

1.2. tasminn adrau kati cid abalAviprayuktaH sa kAmI
mountain some woman separated loving

nItvA mAsAn kanakavalayabhraMzariktaprakoSThaH
pass a_month gold bracelet slipping_down bared forearm

ASADhasya prazamadivase megham AzliSTasAnuM
Ashada completion a_day cloud clung_to summit

vaprakrIDApariNatagajaprekSaNIyaM dadarza
playfully_butting_like_an_elephant_a_bank stooping_down elephant beautiful to_see

1.3. tasya sthitvA katham api puraH kautukAdhAnahetoH
that to_stand somehow_or_other before flowering_palm production cause

antarbASpaz ciram anucaro rAjarAjasya dadhyau
restraining_his_tears for_a_long_time servant king_of_king that

meghAloke bhavati sukhino 'py anyathAvRtti cetaH
appearance of clouds become happy also attend mind

kaNThAzleSapraNayini jane kiM punar dUrasaMsthe
neck embrace longing_for person how_much_more staying_far_away_from

Now these word-for-for translations, taken from the vocabulary provided by Hultzsch's book, give a general sense of the meaning, but two problems remain. Firstly, without the inflections, we cannot fully understand how the words fit together. And secondly, we are tied to these particular renderings: without having the Sanskrit roots for the words we cannot assess the latitude possible in interpretation, or indeed whether the renderings are entirely correct (a few need amplification). We have therefore to learn some Sanskrit grammar, when we find — continuing this already overlong pagematters somewhat improved.

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.

Notes and References

1. SriRangaSri List Archive: Message 00112 May 2003. Comments on Kalidasa and Indian literature.
2. Lyric Poetry. Daniel H. H. Ingalls. NNA. Short article, with paragraph devoted to Kalidasa's Meghaduta.
3. Kalidasa and Ancient India. B.S.V. Prasad. Jan. 2001. NNA. Extended article on chronology, with short bibliography.
4. Poetic Forms Used in English. Jan Haag. Extensive compendium.
5. Chanting Sanskrit Metres in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Jagadananda Das. NNA. Examples of common metres: also supply a tape recording.
6. Sanskrit Literature. NNA. Brief Encarta entry.
7. Vidyakara: Cameos of Wisdom. Eloise Hart. 1970. Brief essay on Vidyakara and Indian literature generally.
8. An Illustrated Meghaduta by Mahakavi Kalidasa. Jaffor Ullah and Joanna Kirkpatrick. NNA. Translation, summary and background information.
9. The Cloud-Messenger (Meghaduta: trans. Arthur W. Ryder) by Kalidasa. A Complete Review review, comparing Ryder version to those by the Edgertons and Leonard Nathan.
10. The Cloud Messenger (Meghaduta: trans. Franklin and Eleanor Edgerton) by Kalidasa. A Complete Review review, comparing Edgerton version to those by Arthur Ryder and Leonard Nathan.
11. Kalidasa's Meghaduta or 'The Cloud Messenger' McComas Taylor. May 2001. NNA. Biligual text. Section also here: NNA.
12. Meghaduta. Sushim Shorkar. NNA. Short article with translation of opening verses.
13. Leonard Nathan, The Transport of Love: Kalidasa's Megadhuta (Berkeley, 1976).
14. C. R. Devadhar, Works of Kalidasa: Vol. 2 (Delhi, 1977).
15. Barbara Stoler Miller, ed., Masterworks of Asian Literature in Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching, (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1994), 59. Q Miller's translation of the opening verse.
16. Barbara Stoler Miller, 56.
17. Miller, 56. See also: Barbara Stoler Miller (trans.), Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva's Gitagovinda (Columbia Univ. Press, 1977).
18. Indian Prosody. Edwin Gerow and Allen Entwhistle, in Alex Priminger and T.V.F. Brogan (Eds.) The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press. 1993)
19. Learning Negari script. Avashy. Simple introduction from the O.A.S.
20. Kalidasa: Poems: Meghaduta. Transcripts and (free) Titus fonts.
21. Kalidasa: Meghaduta Based on the edition by M.R. Kale. NNA. Simple transliteration, employing UTF-8 convention.
22. Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon. Based on the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, with 160,000 main entries.
23. Capeller's Sanskrit Dictionary. 50,000 entries, input governed by Harvard-Kyoto convention.
24. Apte Sanskrit Dictionary Search. NNA. Based on The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary of Vaman Shivaram Apte.
25. Gérard Huet's Sanskrit-French dictionary. NNA. Free to use online or download.
26. Online Sanskrit Dictionary. Cologne University's Sanskrit dictionary, plus a good listing of others.
27. Many exist, obtainable cheaply from Indian booksellers through, etc. The best, and worth the money, is the English-Sanskrit Dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2003).
28. E.g. Sanskrit Language and Literature Start Page.
29. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Charles Wikner. Excellent guide to getting the most from the Monier-Williams dictionary.
30. Sanskrit. Helpful Wikipedia overview.
31. Sanskrit. NNA. Step by step lessons plus reading texts and small dictionary.
32. Academic Subjects : World Languages : Sanskrit. Good Wannalearn listing of free courses.
33. Kalidasa's Meghaduta: Manuscripts With the Commentary of Vallabhadeva and Provided With a Complete Sanskrit-English Vocabulary. Edited By E. Hultzsch; Foreword By Albrecht Wezler. (MRML, 1911/1998). The book is enormously useful, but readers will need to read Devanagari and understand some Sanskrit grammar to make full use of the Vocabulary, which is not entirely complete or accurate.
34. The Meghaduta of Kalidasa, M. R. Kale (Motilal Banarsidas Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2002).
35. Language Links: Sanskrit. Brief listing of texts, dictionaries, courses and grammars.
36. Sanskrit Documents. Online listing at the University of Cologne.
37. Poetry Archives: Kalidasa. Short list of useful sites.

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