TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

Interpretation among translations

T. C. A. Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on June 21, 2011

Penguin, Pages 161, Rs 250

As an atheist, I have often been told to keep my views on religion to myself. Mostly, I have respected this wish but every once in a while I do not. '

This is one such occasion because, where the Bhagavad Gita is concerned, my cowardly inability to believe in God has not come in the way of my being awed by the scope of this extraordinary poem.

Sadly, I have read only translations, of which there are many. This one must rank with the better of them.

Going by the blurb on the book, the author is one of those people who loves words. She has worked in TV and advertising, both of which use words to suit their purposes. She has now turned full-time to poetry, of which she has eight books to her credit.

Why she chose the Gita is not made entirely clear by her.

But whatever the reason, her translation fills a gap — as she says in the short, sharp introduction — that many have felt: The variability of the meaning of a word, depending on the context in which it is used.

Playing a game

Ms Rao has, therefore, translated according to the context. This makes footnotes and commentary, if not actually redundant, at least less needed.

She has also adopted a form, to misquote Robert Frost, less taken, namely, the e.e. cummings one of using the lower case throughout.

Even the title on the cover page, with one exception, is in lower case: Only Gita is spelt with a capital G, which says a lot about the designer's eye. There is also a touch of R. D. Laing's Knots: “They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game… I must play their game, of not seeing that I see the game.”

Good's goodness

Much has been written on the philosophy of the Gita and so Ms Rao has done well to resist the temptation to take the road more travelled. Indeed, she tells the reader what it is all about in passing: Detachment and duty — which cannot be performed properly if you are not detached.

To judge how good a translation is, I always see how well the chapter in which Krishna tells Arjuna who he, Krishna, really is, has been translated. On the whole, it is not a hard chapter to translate but different translators have used different words, and therefore, meanings. The usual translations tend to be like I am “the heat in the fire” or “the austerity in the ascetics”, “the intelligence of the intelligent” or, of swindles, I am the dice game” and “of secrets, the silence”.

Ms Rao has a somewhat different — even modern, if that's the word — take on it. You need to read the book to see why, but I can't resist giving some examples.

Krishna tells Arjuna that he is “the chant amongst yagnas”, “time amongst calculators”, “logic amongst debaters”, and “clout amongst rulers”.

One complaint

I have only one complaint: The Introduction is written in the form and style of a Ph.D. student making a seminar presentation — I do this, then I do that etc. Ms Rao is indeed studying for her doctorate. But some detachment from it while writing the introduction would have been nice.

Published on May 28, 2011

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