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Book Review: "Self-Surrender", Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Goose": Poems And Prayers From South India by Appayya & Nila-kantha Dikshita and Vedanta Deshika

I can't think of a more difficult job for a translator than translating poetry. Unlike prose it's not just a simple matter of turning one language into another, you also have to worry about conveying whatever ideas are suggested but not spelt out in the poem. How many times have you read a poem where the poet has made use of a word's dual meanings, or the combining of words in a specific way, to suggest something other than the literal meaning of the words in question? There's almost no way you can do a literal translation in those circumstances. On top of that you also have to worry about staying true to the form of the original poem.

While that's definitely not an easy job, a sure fire way of compounding it is if the poetry in question happens to have been written in a language that's no longer in current usage and by writers whose culture has little or nothing in common with your own. For the last couple of weeks I've been working my way through a deceptively slim volume published by the New York University Press of four works written in Sanskrit from Southern India dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Self Surrender", "Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Grey Goose": Poems and Prayers From South India. Translators, and Sanskrit scholars, David Shulman and Yigal Bronner have not only taken on the task of translating four pieces from the classical Indian cannon, the items in question represent the work of three pre-eminent philosopher/poets, one from the Vaishnavas tradition of Hinduism, who worshipped Vishnu as the original and supreme being, and two whose worship was directed more towards the god Shiva.

Vedanta Deshika reportedly lived to be 101 (1268 - 1369) and has contributed two pieces to this collection, the story poem "The Mission of The Goose" and "Compassion" with its ironic sub-title "The Iron Shackles Of Mercy". Appayya Dikshita and his nephew (or grandson - there seems to be some dispute about this as a couple of sites refer to him as the latter) Nila-katha Dikshita lived close to two hundred years after Deshika, 1520 -1592 for the elder and 1580 - 1644 for the younger, and their contributions to the book are "Self Surrender" and "Peace" respectively. While the former reflects the author's devotion to Shiva, the younger poet's work is more along the lines of what we would consider satire as it details the lack of peace in his life due to his association with a ruler and his court.

Those familiar with the epic poem The Ramayana will recognize the circumstances and characters depicted in "The Mission Of The Goose". Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu worshipped by those who follow the Vaishnavas tradition, is attempting to send a message to his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana, and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama is awaiting the construction of a bridge to carry him to Lanka and rescue his beloved he sends a message to her by goose. The poem details instruction he gives the goose to make the journey in safety and what he will find when arrives there.

Without the historical context the translators provide in the introduction to the book, the reader wouldn't understand some of its deeper complexities. For instance part of the directions Rama gives to the goose include visiting a temple that won't be built until the time of the poet - a temple that was built in honour of Rama. Throughout the poem the poet has depicted Rama as a man desperate to be reunited with his wife and embodied him with all the attributes of a lover and husband that we'd expect. With this reference he reminds us how he considers Rama the god on earth in human form and the importance of worshipping him. In fact the majority of the directions contain that sort of double reference to help guide people in their worship. Rama's warning to the goose to not let the beauty of what he sees in flight distract him from his purpose, is a reminder to not let material things distract from the worship of the divine.

Obviously not being either Hindu or an expert in Sanskrit, I'm not in the best of positions to judge as to the quality of the translations. However I couldn't help but be jarred by something I noticed in their translation of the second of Deshika's pieces, "Compassion". Time after time they refer to Vishnu using the pronoun God. To my mind, and I would think to most Western readers, the word god with a capital G has very specific connotations, that of a supreme deity in a monotheistic tradition. While its true that Deshika does practice a form of Hinduism that elevates Vishnu above the other gods, this usage still seems out of place in the context of the poem and the culture its referring too.

However the same usage also appears in both "Peace" and "Self-Surrender", neither of which are about Vishnu. The question for me became what are they trying to imply with the word God? In the minds of most people reading these translations it will conjure up images of a supreme deity who not only dictates how we are to behave, but sits in judgement on that behaviour. Even if there is a god above others in a pantheon that's not the role they play. Couldn't there have been a better way of referring to whomever it was they meant by that pronoun to ensure that those connotations were avoided?

Having read an adaptation of The Ramayana I enjoyed "The Mission Of The Goose" and was looking forward to reading the balance of the poems included in the book. Maybe it's being unreasonable on my part, or overly sensitive, but I found the use of the capital G god pronoun so questionable, I was too distracted to give myself over to simply enjoying the poetry and appreciating them for the works they were. Perhaps it's also a sign that I'm unable to overcome years of conditioning which tell me that God is the bearded guy in the clouds who smites us down if we misbehave. However, if I, who am not an adherent to any of the monotheistic religions can't overcome that - how could those who are?

It's the responsibility of translators when working in another culture to ensure they don't impose, whether on purpose or by accident, their own beliefs or ideas. Whether or not Bronner and Shulman intended to imply there was a similarity between the monotheistic traditions of the West and Hinduism, they did so by the use of one word. As a result, what had started off as an enjoyable adventure in trying to learn more about the poetry of an early and fascinating period of world history, turned into me questioning the veracity of what I was reading to the point of giving up in frustration. Perhaps we should leave the translation of works in other cultures to them and stick to our own in the future. That would sure save a lot of confusion.

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