Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 1 September 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
(Re)Translating the Classics
with Laurie Patton, Gopal Sukhu & Vivek Narayanan
PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library presented (Re)Translating the Classics livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 1 September 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
Join us for Week 17 of Translating the Future as we continue our series of conversations between translators with (Re)Translating the Classics with Laurie Patton, Gopal Sukhu and Vivek Narayanan.
It has been said that every generation deserves its own translation of literary classics. But who decides when it’s time for a new version, and by whom? How are these texts in dialogue with each other? What can these new editions tell us about ourselves? Join us for a conversation about translating and writing through classic works from Sanskrit and Chinese.
Viewers can submit questions during the livestreaming at email@example.com.
Laurie L. Patton is the 17th president of Middlebury, and the first woman to lead the institution in its 219-year history. Patton is an authority on South Asian history, culture, and religion. She is the author or editor of nine scholarly books. She has also authored three books of poetry, and has translated the classical Sanskrit text, The Bhagavad Gita.
Gopal Sukhu is a graduate of Boston Latin School and Yale University, where he studied with Hans Frankel. After studying Chinese history, literature, and archaeology at Wuhan University on a Fellowship from the Committee on Scholarly Exchange with the People’s Republic of China, he received the PhD in Chinese Literature from Columbia University, where he studied with C. T. Hsia and Hans Bielenstein. During the 1970s he was lyricist for the Finnish jazz composer Heikki Sarmanto. He has taught at the Cultural College in Taiwan, Hunter College, Columbia University, Ohio State, and Queens College, where he teaches Classical Chinese and Comparative Literature. His publications include “A Male Mother Mencius Moves House Three Times,” in Silent Operas, in collaboration with Patrick Hanan, The Shaman and the Heresiarch: A New Interpretation of the Li Sao, and The Songs of Chu, a complete translation of the second oldest anthology of Chinese poetry, the Chuci.
Vivek Narayanan’s books of poems include Life and Times of Mr S and the forthcoming AFTER: a Writing Through Valmiki’s Ramayana. A full-length collection of his selected poems in Swedish translation was published in 2015 by the Stockholm-based Wahlström & Widstrand in 2015. He has been a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (2013-14) and a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library (2015-16). His poems, stories, translations and critical essays have appeared in journals like The Paris Review, Granta, Poetry Review (UK), Modern Poetry in Translation, Harvard Review, Agni, The Caribbean Review of Books and elsewhere, as well as in anthologies like The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry. Narayanan is a member of Poetry Daily’s editorial board where he contributes and occasionally writes about contemporary world poetry. He was the Co-editor of Almost Island, an India-based international literary journal from 2007-2019. He currently teaches at George Mason University.
Allison Markin Powell: Hello and welcome. I'm Allison Markin Powell, Japanese literary translator and former co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee. My co-host today is Larissa Kyzer, whom many of you will recognize from our week five program on the 2020 manifesto on translation. Larissa is an award-winning translator from the Icelandic and the current co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee, as well as a co-organizer of Translating the Future, the conference you're now attending.
Larissa Kyzer: Thank you, Allison. And, thank you all for joining us for the 17th installment of our weekly program on Translating the Classics. Today's conversation will feature Laurie Patton, who has translated the "Bhagavad Gita" and is also President of Middlebury College, the sponsor of today's program. Laurie will be joined by Gopal Sukhu, a translator of classical Chinese poetry and professor at Queens' College, and Vivek Narayanan, a poet, writer, editor and translator who is a former fellow at the Cullman Center, one of our conference partners. You can read their full and illustrious bios on the Center for the Humanities website. We've just finished celebrating the seventh year of August as Women in Translation Month, which aims to highlight women and non-binary writers and translators to address gender disparity in the field of literary translation. The past year saw the publication of more classics appearing in their first translations by women, including Michael Nylan's "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, and Maria Dahvana Headley's "Beowulf". In her translator's note to her edition of "The Odyssey", Emily Wilson rejects the, quote, "Gendered metaphor "of the faithful translation, whose worth "is always secondary to that of the male authored original". Instead, she points to a translator's, quote, "Responsibility to acknowledge her own agency "and wrestle in explicit and conscious ways, "not only with the multiple meanings "of the original in its own culture, "but what her own text may mean "and the effects it may have on its readers". Because "The Odyssey" and, I might add, the texts that we're discussing today, are such foundational texts, Wilson asserts that, quote, "It is particularly important "for the translator to think through "and tease out their values and to allow "the reader to see the cracks and fissures "in these constructed fantasies". It is in this spirit of reflection, considered critique and acknowledgement of a translator's agency that we welcome these re or un-translations, their daring interpretations and creative works in their own right, pushing both reader and translator to look at familiar, canonical works with new eyes. And, we hope to see more such projects taken on by translators and encouraged by publishers in the future.
Allison: As usual, a Q&A session will follow today's conversation. Please email your questions for Gopal, Laurie and Vivek, to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll keep questions anonymous unless you note, in your email, that you would like us to read your name. Translating the Future will continue in its current form through the rest of this month. During the conference's originally planned dates in late September, several marvelous larger-scale events will happen. We'll be here every Tuesday through the rest of this month, with the week's hour-long conversation. Please join us next Tuesday, September 8, for Translating Trauma with Ellen Elias-Bursać, Aaron Robertson and Julia Sanches, moderated by Queenie Sukhadia. And, keep checking the Center for the Humanities site for future events.
Larissa: Translating the Future is convened by PEN America's translation committee, which advocates on behalf of literary translators, working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers and others with an interest in international literature. The committee is currently co-chaired by Lyn Miller-Lachman and myself. For more information, look for translation resources at pen.org.
Allison: If you know anyone who was unable to join us for the livestream today, a recording will be available afterward on the HowlRound and Center for the Humanities sites. Before we turn it over to Gopal, Laurie and Vivek, we'd like to offer our utmost gratitude to today's sponsor, Middlebury College, and to our partners at the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and PEN America, and to the masters of dark Zoom magic at HowlRound, who make this livestream possible. And now, hand it over to our speakers.
Laurie Patton: I think we're still just waiting for Gopal to become visible.
Gopal Sukhu: Oh, sorry about that. Hello?
Laurie: You are definitely with us, but we can't see you.
Gopal: Oh, that's strange. My video is on. I don't know what the problem is. I seem, oh. It stopped again. I don't know what's going on. Okay?
Laurie: You know, Gopal, I think what we might wanna do is just start and maybe you could work with Travis to see how you might become visible to us.
Laurie: But, you can hear us okay, yes?
Gopal: Yes, I can hear you.
Laurie: Okay, great. All right. Well, first of all, I just wanna say thank you so much to Allison and Larissa. Just wonderful to be part of this. I think we're all so excited to be talking to each other. And, I also just wanted to say, on behalf of Middlebury, how honored we are to be able to co-sponsor this or co-host this session with these really wonderful, my fellow co-panelists today. This would have been right after the ending of our Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, had we hosted it in person, and, as you know, Bread Loaf also sponsors a translators' conference earlier on, and so we feel like we are amongst kindred spirits and we've lapped at the opportunity to be able to really support this incredible work that everyone's doing. So, I'm gonna switch hats now, from my admin role to the translator and poet reflection role. And, I just wanted to start with three or four reflections. Allison and Larissa asked us to think about our language and the relationship to our language, so my work, as you may have read from the bio, is in Sanskrit and early Indian religions, although I'm now doing a contemporary ethnography of the lives of women Sanskritists in postcolonial India, so I have some contemporary understanding and engagement with the language. The one thing that I would say is I've always had a focus on trying to open up Sanskrit. It's understood from the very early period, even in the early satires we have about Sanskrit, that it's an elite language, it's a Romanichal language, it is one that is muttered, should not be fully, clearly heard in all situations, because it is a sacred language. There's a lot more to say about that, but that understanding of Sanskrit is a very interesting and important part of someone who is from an Anglo-American heritage, learning in a postcolonial environment, where concerns about neocolonialism emerge in some very interesting ways. Is Sanskrit even a language that we should engage in a postcolonial environment? That's one of the big questions that certainly arose for me in graduate school and beyond. And so, after having published a couple of books in this area, on poetics in ancient Vedic material, the earliest material that we have, I was asked to translate the "Bhagavad Gita". It would have been the 251st translation. It is. And, the question is, why do that? And, my first response is always, well, there is no intellectual reason to do the 251st translation of this Sanskrit classic, however there are generational reasons. And, the last Penguin Classic was in the mid-20th century and was done by someone who wanted to really see Christian resonances. And, it was of its time and it was time for something new for Penguin. And so, I really narrowed my scope into saying, there's no intellectual reason, we have many wonderful translations, I astute right away, the definitive, the idea of any definitive translation. I disagree with that idea deeply and I think there are many translations that are as good, if not better, than mine. But, I did feel that it was important to take a new view of gender in my translation. So, I do not use the gendered pronoun, him. I use one, except in one place in the text. Second, I wanted to focus on the poetic simplicity that I think had been not as present in many of the Victorian English translations. And, finally, I wanted it to be concrete language. There's a lot in the Gita that uses a lot of early Indian language, Vedic language that is deeply concrete and I think even more poetic. So, for those three reasons, I thought it was worth giving the world a very small alternative to the many other wonderful translations that were out there. Lots more to say, but I'll begin with that in a brief way and then maybe turn to Gopal, who is now newly visible, next and then we can go to Vivek. Oh, you're muted. I think you're still, we can't hear you. So, Gopal, I think now, if you're working on the sound, we've got the vision together, but since we're working on the sound, I'm gonna turn to Vivek next, as you work on the sound.
Vivek Narayanan: So, hello, everyone, and I'm excited to be on this panel. I think of myself, in some ways, a bit of an interloper in the world of translators, because I'm not a language expert of any sort and probably don't have the discipline to learn new languages by the traditional means. But, I'm very grateful to the community of translators that I've been among in recent years, because they've been so welcoming. In my case, I found myself, in my engagement with different texts, driven by a kind of necessity, as a writer. And, more specifically, as a writer in the tradition of Indian poetry in English. And, you can see this more or less from the very beginnings of Indian poetry in English in the 19th century, with a writer like Toru Dutt, which is, you know, driven by a necessity to investigate, reconcile, challenge one's own past and the forces and the discourses that have shaped me, and to be in a kind of critical dialogue with all of that. And, as we go on, I want to talk about two texts. One, Valmiki's "Ramayana", which I've been working on for the past decade and recently completed a book of poems on, which is not a translation, but what I've called a writing through. A kind of critical conversation, through poems, between Valmiki and contemporary poetry in English. But, one that incorporates translation and also plays with and tries to open up the idea of translation in various ways. And then, also maybe I'd like to say a bit about a project I've just started or returned to, which is the "Kuṟuntokai", an ancient Tamil anthology of short poems, four to eight lines in length, which I've just started working on in earnest. And, well, I'll talk, you know, as we go on, I'll talk in more detail about my method and my inspiration and how I came to Valmiki and the "Kuṟuntokai" and so on. But, I just wanted to maybe, you know, propose a few things. One is that, and these are personal things. I really want to echo Laurie's idea, against the idea of a definitive translation, and maybe propose something more personal, which I found for me, which is the first point would be that every translation, you know, is a unique encounter, as I see it, between the concerns, personality, et cetera, of the translator and that of the text. And, various things follow from there, including the ethics of translation. So, what I've found myself doing is not the kind of objective translation that seeks to produce a single authoritative version that replaces all the others and, you know, there's this kind of, I think, you know, a false idea that we have of translations becoming obsolete, you know, and being kind of replaced in every generation. I think that's pernicious, but I want to propose something more personal and, I would say, both a strength and limitation of what I do. And, one of the things I've thought about is translation as a kind of soul fusion technology. A translation is a place where souls start, with the soul of the translator and the soul of the text are fused. And, this is especially true, I think, with the so-called ancient texts, because they're distant from us, not only in terms of language, but also in sort of terms of time. And, the other thing I want to propose is that translation is a fundamentally collaborative process. And, again, not only between the translator and the text, but also that you can't be indebted to all the translators that came to this text or the specific area of a language before you. So, what I find is that even if one rejects the work of a previous translator, one is still indebted, because they've given you something to reject. So, for instance, with the "Kuṟuntokai", the most famous previous translator is A.K. Ramanujan, who really introduced the poems to the world. And, although I would say I would disagree with and reject a lot of his choices in my work, he's given me something to reject, which he didn't have when he went at it. So, again, the idea of multiplicity. And, final thing I want to say to start off as a proposal, is that, for me, the biggest revelation through the process of working with these texts, as a writer and not a scholar, in the past 10 years or so of getting into the weeds by various means, is just how much is still not known about them. How little, for instance, that the reading of specific lines has actually been settled. And, I would say this is true for Valmiki and the "Kuṟuntokai" definitely. And, I was also thinking recently of, you know, a poem like "Wulf and Eadwacer" in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, where, you know, virtually every word, in a way, is not settled. And, I think this is not the general public's understanding. They usually tend to assume that the meaning and interpretation of these canonical checks is already well settled and has to merely be conveyed in an updated contemporary language. So, although there have been all these different layers of critical interpretation and silting, there is still, I think, this matrix of raw mystery. And, this applies to poetry especially, because poetry is mystery. And so, they can be opened up again and again. And, I think, for the text I've been talking about, it's not too much to say that these texts can keep telling us new things, that earlier generations perhaps could not even hear in them. So, those are some kind of proposals for things I've been thinking about.
Laurie: Vivek, I love those, I'm hoping that Gopal's volume is now ready. You're unmuted for us, so can you say? Can you hear Gopal, Vivek?
Vivek: I can't hear him, but I see the unmuting, oh, I see the unmuting sign went on now.
Laurie: Yeah, so Gopal, what I would suggest that you do, perhaps, is unmute yourself, but stop your video and see if that makes a difference. Can you now say something? No. Looks like we still can't hear. I'm hoping that Travis can still work with you. So, what I'm gonna do, Gopal, is I'm gonna respond to Vivek, but turn back to you in a second. And, Travis, I'm assuming that you can continue to work with Gopal to make sure that we can hear him at some point and it's not just my computer. So, hopefully the two of you can continue to work on this. One more try, Gopal, you wanna just try and say something and see if we can hear you? Trying to say something, still doesn't work. Okay. Okay, so I'll come back to Gopal, but Vivek, I love many of the things you said. I will tell you that Ramanujan was one of my teachers, one of my major teachers at Chicago, and one of the things that really struck me in the middle of trying to decide, and I'm sure you have some thoughts about this, about whether to be a scholar or a writer, which I was obsessed with in graduate school, he looked at me at one point with, you know, only a stare that someone like him could give and said, just write. It was so simple, you know? It sort of didn't matter what genre it was. I had just done some work in publishing poems and, you know, was filled with all the identity crises that only someone in their mid-20s trying to figure out a professional identity can have. And, there he was and he just said, it's very simple, you know, just write. So, I'm really excited to hear from you, given that the introducer of an ancient language classical text that is not known to the world can have certain liberties and also certain limitations, I think, as you rightly said, in a way that the person who is saying, no, I actually wanna do it this way, that you're taking up is, you know, you have a whole different perspective on it, in a way that has its own limitations and advantages. The other thing that I think was a wonderful thought was how collaborative we are with other translators. I know, for the Gita, there were two or three particular ones that I felt, one of my other mentors, Vēlcēru Nārāyaṇarāvu, says frequently that the Gita is, that frequently, our understanding of Sanskrit in the contemporary world is not Sanskrit, it's actually Victorian English, right?
Laurie: And, it's sort of true at a certain level. And so, the simplicity of my verses I tried in the shloka move, I didn't do short, long, short long, I didn't want to imitate it, I didn't think it would work in English, but what I tried to do was no more than eight syllables per line and always eight lines. So, I gave it a loose, free form understanding, very much like the poems that I have written in my three books of poems, very similar kind of deep simplicity. And, I was reacting all the time, to the ornate, you know, flowery thing. But, what's been very interesting is some folk don't like the turn to a contemporary idiom for the Gita, because in their view, the only English that the Gita can be poured into, literally, must be something more ornate, because that's what the English reflection of the high Sanskritic language, right? So, there was this very interesting conversation happening all the time, as I wrestled with that. I'd love your thoughts on that as well, on how you wrestled with A.K. Ramanujan, would be a deep personal interest, as I hope for others as well, who are translating and wrestling with their predecessors.
Vivek: Yeah, I mean, and, you know, with the Ramanujan, the thing that's fascinating to me is the sort of traffic or the sort of portal between his translations and his own poetry, that we can see kind of moving back and forth, you know? And so, it seems, you know, as with me and it seems that his approach to the "Kuṟuntokai" poems is also a matter of him working out his own poetics and, in some ways, channeling pound, obviously, and, you know, and, you know, sort of working out his obsessions, you know, like all sexually, Brahmans growing up with this kind of sexually repressed, as with me, sex obsessed, and so that. You know, and so there are various questions that he's asking himself and various things that he's trying to work out in his own poetics. And, as I said, that is very much the sort of tradition of Indian-English poetry. I mentioned Toru Dutt earlier, who was writing in the 19th century and, you know, dies very young, dies at the age of, I think, 25, but, towards the end of her life, is working with Sanskrit. And, she is translating a story from the "Vishnu Parana", and in the middle of the translation, she stops and disagrees with everything, disagrees with some character and comes in, so it's a very, you know, a personal process. But, for many years, Ramanujan's translations had more or less replaced the Sangam poems in my mind.
Vivek: Because, so in fact, I felt no need to, you know, see what, locate other translations, even, and even show up in original. And then, I think that that happened for a lot of people, that, in some way, they were so compelling and so original and so fresh that they had kind of replaced the original. And, the break for me came for when I started to look at some other translations. And, comparing them with the translations done by others, I started to wonder. And then, eventually, you know, I found myself going back towards the original. It was a long process and, in my case, you know, a crucial thing was actually this text here, by Eva Wilden, which came out just a couple of years ago. And, it's a critical edition of the "Kuṟuntokai", the short poems. And, just to show you a little bit about how I've been working with this text, similar to how I've been working with Valmiki. Let's see if I can do this. Yeah. So, you see that there, in this corner, is the original and then the transliteration. And then, you know, here you have variations between the text. And, here you have a word for word translation. And, at the bottom here, you have a kind of summary of various previous critical readings of this particular poem. And then, you have here, a translation done by Eva Wilden, but what I found was so moving, is that she says, you know, she has also furnished a complete English translation.
[Gopal can be heard very faintly, but Laurie and Vivek do not hear Gopal.]
Vivek: The purpose of which is not to offer a polished version that brushes over the awkwardnesses, but rather a tool that lays open the difficulties of interpretation. So, I was very moved by, you know, her kind of effort as a scholar, first, to go back to the original manuscripts and compare, but also to be able to offer someone like me, you know.
Vivek: I speak the Tamil language and had an early encounter with it through the script, but, you know, I read very haltingly, so to offer someone like me a way to kind of have these words and how to kind of put them together.
Vivek: But, in one way that doesn't close them up, that shows all the different ways and the kind of arguments that critics are having about how to read the lines, you know, and, you know, that shows, kind of, the mystery of these texts. And, in many cases, we don't even seem to have figured out what these lines have said or how to put them together in certain ways. And so, that was kind of an opening for me. And so, one of the things was that, you know, Ramanujan and many of the translations kind of reconstruct the poem from within. And--
Vivek: And, yeah, sorry?
Laurie: No, I just was gonna say, there's so much to say and I think that question of allowing both the mystery of the language, as well as the fact that, in India and in other Asian materials, it's different than the Greek. It's different than the Latin, there's a mystery because there hasn't been the same amount of translation happening, so there's, I think, the double mystery. I think Gopal's, and I wanna, I'd love to—
Vivek: I think I heard Gopal, yeah.
Laurie: I think Gopal is happening.
Gopal: I’m sorry, I hope I didn't disturb you.
Laurie: Yay, you're back!
Vivek: Yay, we hear you.
Gopal: That’s fine.
Laurie: We’ve been jumping all around, but we can't wait for you to join us. So, Gopal, I'm so happy.
Gopal: I’m very sorry. I'm a tech dunce and among other types of dunces, but anyway, it's one hat that I wear not very proudly anymore. But anyway, here I am. Let's see, where am I? Okay, a short introduction. I got into Chinese originally through the study of Buddhism, but I did the foolhardy thing of trying to learn all of the Buddhist languages at the same time, Sanskrit, Pali and Chinese and it wasn't easy. And so, I went off in the Chinese direction, but, of course, I never quite gave up the others. Anyway, the text that I'm working on, or the text that I've published on is known as "The Songs of Chu" in English. And, the main problem with that is, well, if I can go back to the beginning. I, of course, cut my teeth in Asian studies on translations, like most people in the western world. And, one peculiar thing that I noticed about a foundational poem in Chinese, and that poem is known as the "Li Sao", sometimes translated as "Encountering Sorrow". There are at least two translations of it out. But, what I noticed with all of the translators is that they admitted that they had no idea what the poem means, or very little idea of what the poem means. And, much was written on this. And, I found this a very curious problem. How could it be that a poem is considered great, but no one knows what it means? And, when I looked at the Chinese commentators, I found that there also was a great deal of disagreement and bafflement about what the poem means. So, I looked at the poem and realized that there's something very odd about it. As you all, all of the participants here know that when you read an ancient text, you are dependent on commentaries, on ancient commentaries. And, when you read an ancient commentary, especially when you are a beginner, as I was in those days, you trust it, right? You try to follow it, because you have nothing else. And, in doing that, I found that there were, I decided I wanted to get into this commentary literature to find out what is going on. And, the disagreements were appalling. And, the disagreements not only went across space, in terms of different people, you know, at the same time, disagreeing, but also across time. And, I found that I had to find out what was behind the commentary and behind the disagreements. Long story short, the problem was ideology and politics, which is to say that, as is the case in many ancient cultures, the commentator had an ideological ax to grind. And, following the tradition, he basically used the hermeneutical tools that were available to him and commented on the poem, glossed the poem in a way that would be convenient for him, during the period that he was writing. To put this a little bit more succinctly, because I think we wanna get on with the, conduct the discussion, the poet was something of a patron saint of loyal descent during the Han dynasty. And, the people who were commenting on his poetry were opposing those who were attempting to create a new ideology, wherein the emperor would be considered above criticism. And so, they were using the poet and the poetry as a kind of, as their hero, as a kind of effigy of their movement. And so, they commented on the poem that way. And, it was through basically uncovering all of this that I was able to get back to a coherent reading of the poem. And, I'll leave it there and we could perhaps go on in the discussion, but that's essentially what was going on. And so, by doing that, I finally managed to come up with at least one coherent explanation of the poem, perhaps not the coherent one, which is perhaps a little step forward, you know, in at least western scholarship. Okay, so I'll leave it there.
Laurie: Gopal, we were just talking about the fact that we have an allergy to the idea of the definitive and I love the way you framed that at one step. But, what strikes me about all three of us, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, is the role of commentary in poetry, particularly in ancient classical work, right? So, you know, we all laugh with, there are so many commentaries on the Gita and it's sort of assumed to be ideological in precisely the way you're talking about. It's laughter, because there is so many, that you are sort of overwhelmed, but you know that each one is going to give you the key, you know, and claim that key in a particular way. So, that question of commentary is, commentary can do two things in a poem. One is enliven it in way that you never thought, you know, or help you with, you know, words that only occur once, where meaning is, you know, there are two or three levels of obscurity, right? And then, there's also commentary that deadens, and this is something I think about a lot, commentary that gives you alternative words, but they're simply, sort of, it's almost like a thesaurus, almost. And so, I've noticed in my own writing of poetry, as well as in translating ancient poems, that my relationship to commentary is highly dichotomous, right? I go back and forth in my relationship to it, every time I try and do translation. I don't know if either of you have, Vivek mentioned commentary earlier too, so I'm really delighted that that has come up for all three of us.
Gopal: Yes, yes and, yes, in fact, well, perhaps Vivek can speak to that, because it is, well, let me put it this way. You have to use the commentaries. We have to use them. And, as you say, there are often very, very valuable things in it. But, you know, as Vivek put it, what silting do you get rid of and what silting do you keep? And, the silting is, you know, in case of ancient languages such as Chinese and Sanskrit, it's thousands of years old, in many cases.
Laurie: Vivek, any thoughts?
Vivek: Well, you know, I mean, one thing I should explain about the Valmiki, how I got into the Valmiki was, Arshia Sattar, who is the translator of the Penguin abridged Valmiki, but also, I think, really a groundbreaking scholar of Valmiki, in that I would say her readings of it are more, like, closer to, less Indological, if that makes sense, and more closer to kind of literary criticism. And, my project is dedicated to her and about a decade ago, she called a workshop for Indian-English poets to engage with Valmiki. So, that was a kind of, that was an entry point into it, which kind of opened that out, that there was something more immediate about that reading, whereas much of what is written on the "Ramayana" kind of relies very heavily just on the kind of commentaries and in the way trying to kind of convey supposedly what the tradition from within transmits. That's one thing, the other thing is, of course, the "Ramayana" is an incredibly layered, in terms of the various commentaries that have appeared of it, and really the various Ramayanas and that's one thing that's kind of interesting about it, which is that I think what you could call translations, when the "Ramayana", Valmiki moves from Sanskrit into Tamil or Tulsi. I think that these can legitimately be called translations, because they've clearly studied the Valmiki very closely and when they want to, the Hindi "Ramayana", Tulsi's Hindi "Ramayana", they follow it very closely when they want to, but then at other times, the translation diverges, it draws from elsewhere, it cuts scenes short, it rewrites scenes, so the history of the versions of the "Ramayana" or the sort of translations of the "Ramayana" has also been a process of kind of rewriting and reinventing. Which is to say that every translation, in a way, is also a commentary. A translation, I think, encodes a certain reading of the text and sometimes a willful reading of the text, even though it may not be explicit about that. And so, essentially, what it does, what these commentaries and these different Ram, it produces multiple Ramayanas, many Ramayanas as Ramanujan said. And, I would argue what I think is fascinating is that Valmiki itself, as a singular text, also contains many Ramayanas in it. Like, it is already multiple. So, while, in a sense, if we're going to kind of rest on a particular commentary or rest on the most recent commentary, it can be suffocating, there's another way to look at it, which is that, essentially, produces multiple texts, produces a kind of multiplicity of texts and that's what, so I think that that's perhaps, for me, that became a very empowering thing, that when I could see these different commentaries and different versions, where actually creating this kind of multiplicity that were in dialog with each other, that then created a space for me to create my own "Ramayana", which, let's face it, is just another reading of the "Ramayana", with its own limitations and something I kind of threw onto that massive pile of Ramayanas that already exist.
Laurie: Although, you make a really interesting point, which is, and Arshia, by the way, is a friend from graduate school, and so we have worked together, she's amazing and I use her translations for my early India classes, and I agree with you completely around the compelling interpretations of Valmiki and "Ramayana". The thing I would say that's so interesting about this though, is that that call for poets to engage, you know, with the "Ramayana", that you were mentioning, it also suggests that poetry itself is a form of commentary. And, I actually, you know, the three works that I've done on all of them are, the first is "Poems to a Hindu Year", which are, they are really commentaries on Hindu holidays. The second is based on the Jewish tradition and very much commentaries on biblical passages, you know, various kinds. The third is based on home and commentaries on architectural elements like roof, window, hallway, et cetera, but I realized a long time ago that the poetic voice I am most happy with, including in the Gita translation, is one where there is a structure upon which I am commenting. And so, I think, you know, the Sanskrit is, this sort of self-originating understanding of poetry I've always been somewhat suspicious of, even though the earliest Vedic poets in India understood themselves to be, in some ways, but they were apprehending something, a deity usually, a vision of a deity, to which they were responding, so even there, there's a dialogical, but also commentarial element to poetry, which I think is, you know, so interesting and fascinating in its own right. I can't wait to hear what Gopal says about this, since he brought up the commentary and got us going on this. Gopal, are you still there?
Vivek: Can we hear you?
Gopal: Yes, I'm here.
Laurie: Okay, perfect, yeah.
Gopal: Can you hear me?
Laurie: Yeah, we can hear you, we can't see you, but hearing you is lovely.
Gopal: I don't know what's going on.
Vivek: But, we can hear you, so.
Laurie: Yeah, so just jump in.
Gopal: Okay. It's very interesting, of course, I'm also gonna talk to you about commentary and, of course, you are the Sanskritist, and so what I'd like to ask you is, from your point of view, was there ever a time in India when commentary was controlled by a central authority?
Laurie: You mean culturally or in terms of, religiously, or?
Gopal: Well, yeah, let me give you a counter example. In China, it was the imperial government set what was orthodox commentary and what wasn't. And, this system broke down only after a few thousand years.
Laurie: Yeah. So, it's an interesting question. I would say a couple of things about that. The first is, I think I did a paper comparing, not being in anyway focused on Chinese or educated as you are, but comparing Sun Tzu's view of language and an early etymologician in Sanskrit Yāska view of languages. And, the scariest thing for Sun Tzu is that there could be several meanings to a word. And, I'm sure you know much more about this than I do, and the best thing for Yāska is that there are, and the more alternative etymologies that you can give for a word, this is the first etymological dictionary in the fifth century C.E., roughly, the more powerful the word is, and of course, I'm, you know, very much attracted to the second and fascinated by the first, but so I'm somewhat familiar from having read Sun Tzu, what you're talking about. I think you certainly, within particular monasteries, particular schools of thought, particular Vedangas in early Indian history, there would be orthodoxies, yes. And, there are certainly kingdoms where patrons would want a particular kind of translation, yes. But, the kind of thing that you see, or that I am only a student of and learning just a little bit about, in China, you wouldn't see at all. You see, instead, something like a proliferation. And, when I was part of a comparative China-India panel, we all decided we would read the others' texts, so I was reading Chinese texts and Sinologists were reading Indian texts and we laughed, because we all came to this very interesting thing, which was exactly the stereotypes we were trying to get away from, where the Sinologist would say, you know, the Indian texts seem a little too loose and free, and the Indologist would say, yes, and the Chinese texts seem a little uptight about language, you know, and there we were again, back in our stereotypes. But, that's a long answer to your question, but it's a question that delights me, so I'm grateful for it.
Gopal: Well, this is very interesting, because when Vivek was talking about, you know, the proliferation of Ramayanas and also what you said, what I'm talking about it, what I had to break through in China is, at least in one instance and maybe in a few, a commentarial tradition that precluded certain readings. In other words, instead of allowing a proliferation, it controlled the readings and controlled, if you want, different versions of the story. And, this was so intensely applied to the particular poem that I was concerned with that it turned it into an incoherent poem. Now, when I say incoherent, of course, you know, one could argue about exactly what that means, but I do believe in a thing called world literature. And before, what my project was, was to take this poem out of the context of purely Chinese culture with all the controversy at least, and to make it available for various readings. In other words, to break the hold that the commentators had on it in China itself. And, well, perhaps I can give you an example. And, I should say that this, what the Chinese commentarial tradition did was a bit what the Romanichal and the early church fathers did to, for example, the "Song of Solomon", I mean, which is an example that's used over and over again. In the early church fathers, you had this idea that the "Song of Solomon" is not an erotic poem. It is about Christ's love of the church. And, of course, part of that, of course, is a whole hermeneutical culture, which, because, of course, if Solomon wrote it, which everyone believed, how could he be talking about Christianity? But, of course, there is the hermeneutical theory that what is the in the Old Testament prefigures what's in the New Testament, and this was all part of that hermeneutical maneuver to turn the "Song of Solomon" into a Christian poem. A similar thing goes on in China, in traditional Confucianism. I could give you an example of it, but perhaps, you know, perhaps you want to talk about—
Allison: Well, I have to salute the speakers today for their intrepid response to our technical difficulties. And, all of you have performed so well and we're grateful to you for powering through, because it has been a fascinating conversation already and we're sorry to break in. We tried to give you a few extra minutes to continue the conversation, but we do have a couple of very interesting questions that have come in, so actually, I'm going to, we have some from Peter Cole, who is watching. And, I think Larissa's going to read his question.
Larissa: Yes, he says, this is Peter Cole and I'd like to thank everyone for the excellent conversation so far. My question is initially for Vivek, but really for Laurie and Gopal too. I would love to hear more from you on what you're calling the soul or soul dimension of the work of translation. You spoke of it in relation to the mystery of the poem. People are so wary of bringing the language of mysticism and even psyche into translation, and yet it has been so central to the history of translation throughout the world and certainly in my own experience. Could you say a bit more? And, Laurie, Gopal, how does this sit with you?
Gopal: Who wants to go first?
Lauire: I think Vivek should answer and then I can jump in.
Vivek: Well, yeah. I mean, yeah, I think of it as soul fusion technology, because, you know, there's also, there are technical aspects to it somehow, to the process of translation. But, I mean, if I were to say, I mean, like, sometimes I think that what, the place where we can actually see our souls is somewhere kind of trapped in a poem. And so, that raised the question of what a translation is, as some kind of thing. And, on one hand, it draws on all the sort of apparatus and there are specific things that go together, but on another hand, you know, each translation produces a kind of unique object. And, I've often, at least in my experience, sometimes I feel like I find myself using translation to bury my secrets in plain sight. So.
Allison: Love that.
Lauire: I love the question, Peter, and it's so lovely to hear from you. I would say it's really interesting and it's, I think, with the Gita translation in particular, I wanted it to be really simple and direct and poetic, you know, all at the same time, because it's frequently translated in prose or as philosophy and so on. And, I think that move, I was worried always about mysticizing the text, because of the influence of the images, right? So, I was gonna go off with Vivek before Gopal jumped in on this question of images, poetry and the tradition that, you know, some of us still labor with and for and under. But, there was only one person who wrote and said, your translation is too contemplative for a warlike poem, you know, the Gita. And, of course, back to our commentaries, right? We had some many commentarial traditions that make it contemplative and others make it warlike. So, I didn't mind that I was too contemplative. If you're gonna be too something, it would be fine for me to be that. But, I worried about it all the time, because I think, in moving to the concrete simplicity, there's a sort of over-evoking that I worried about doing, especially with philosophical terms, making them too poetic or too concrete. But, in the end, I was happy to take the risk.
Allison: Gopal, would you like to respond?
Gopal: Yeah, so I'll answer that. I suppose, I don't know if I'd use the word soul. I'm a Buddhist, so we don't believe in it. But, at the same time, there is something that happens between the reader and the text, that is a truly wonderful thing. I guess we call it poetry. And, it's important to see what that is, and not everyone can. And, some people will, you know, let's put it this way, there has to be some poetic skill, if you want, to make a poem accessible to a reader, but accessibility means not only, bringing a poem that has a certain amount of cultural viability, in terms of the culture from which it came. But, at the same time, it has to connect with some sort of world that the reader inhabits. That's a very, very important thing and that's a very, very complex thing to achieve. It's something that is achieved not only in imagery, but also in sound and diction. Well, I'll leave it there.
Allison: I do want to add, this is really just a comment, but I would like to say, we've had a response from Amil Alkalai, who would like to add, like to say that, soul fusion technology is a superb term that should be generally adapted. So, there's an endorsement for you. I think we had one other question that came in early on, perhaps a little bit more technical. How do you preserve, in the translations in your poems, the ancient social and cultural class-bound language levels, so that today's American or I should say English language readers can understand them? Does anyone—
Laurie: This is, I'll just jump in and then be brief, but it's a wonderful question. And, the issue of footnotes is something you struggle with in translation, so how many notes do you put in to do that sort of cultural work? So, what I decided to do was to put, I did not translate many terms that others had decided to translate, others had not, so. Yoga is not translated, guna, the qualities, is not translated, but I explain them in the beginning. I also provide a glossary. But, for the really key terms that have so many of the social and cultural connotations that you're talking about, and class-based connotations, varna-based connotations. It's very important for the reader to know that first, and so that's what I decided to do. But, I think, secondly, I just appreciate the spirit of the question too, because I wrote this Gita for my Hindu students in America, who wanted something that they could connect to. And, I kept providing better, or not better, again, translations that were better for them in my classroom and I said, well, it's better to think of them as an audience, to get at some of the issues that really provide plain-spoken, in the best sense, accessible ways of thinking, but they're gonna have to do the work upfront to understand some of those connotations in order to be better readers. So, that's the way I design the translation and the terminology to get at some of the issues that you're talking about.
Gopal: Well, all right, this is Gopal. Certainly, these texts, if they are read within the cultures that produced them, are very often read, especially if they're old texts, right? They're very, very often read with commentaries. And, the problem, of course, is that even within a culture, something from another time can appear very foreign. And so, I think that the idea of footnotes, which many people find in Athamma, is unfortunately an inevitable thing, right? You're going to have to set the thing in some sort of frame. And, the other problem, of course, is that even within a culture, there is very often a kind of stereotypical depiction of its own ancient time. And, we have to often deal with that as well, which is to say, well, you know, take, for example, the way Shakespeare used to be presented. It would be presented in simply contemporary clothing. And, although we've reverted, we've come back to that, but there was a time when they tried to recreate, and of course, you have now, in early music, right? The recreation of the sound of that ancient western time. And so, we have to do work a little bit like that, but the problem is always the accessibility for the reader. In other words, when terms get in the way, you have to let them go, especially if you want there to be a kind of lyrical impact of the poem, of the text. In other instances, it doesn't matter so much.
Vivek: So, I mean, I feel like, basically, this is a question about the impossibility of translation. And, if you're a skeptic at first, you can say all translation is impossible, especially poetry translation. But, I would counter with that is that translation is always possible. And, the reason why it's always possible is that we forget that a translation is actually the bringing of something new into the world, something that has not existed before. And, to the extent that it, you know, real translation, lyrical translation is something new. It represents a kind of a new conversation, it represents the exploration of what is possible. And so, in that sense, you know, every translation finds, no translation can find any absolute strategy, but every fine translation finds new things to add to the conversation. And so, in my case, in some ways, you know, the answer about classes would be to think about, for instance, the kind of class divisions that exist in our society. And, how can you produce resonances and create an object that, in a way, looks backwards to that earlier text, but also reflects on the world we live in today?
Allison: Thank you. Thank you all so much. Again, thank you for your efforts to get through these technical difficulties, but Laurie, Gopal and Vivek, it was a wonderful conversation and we're sorry to have to cut you off here now. Thank everybody for watching. Once again, we'd like to thank our partners, HowlRound, PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center and, of course, Laurie and Middlebury College for their support of today's event. Thank you again, and we hope to see you next week.
About this Conference and Conversation Series
Translating the Future launched with weekly hour-long online conversations with renowned translators throughout the late spring and summer and will culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.
The conference, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, with additional support from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and Robert Payne, and featuring Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on US literary culture.
The conversations are hosted by Esther Allen & Allison Markin Powell.
About HowlRound TV
HowlRound TV is a global, commons-based peer produced, open access livestreaming and video archive project stewarded by the nonprofit HowlRound. HowlRound TV is a free and shared resource for live conversations and performances relevant to the world's performing arts and cultural fields. Its mission is to break geographic isolation, promote resource sharing, and to develop our knowledge commons collectively. Participate in a community of peer organizations revolutionizing the flow of information, knowledge, and access in our field by becoming a producer and co-producing with us. Learn more by going to our participate page. For any other queries, email email@example.com, or call Vijay Mathew at +1 917.686.3185 Signal/WhatsApp. View the video archive of past events.