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Perennial Delights in Translation

A.N.D. Haksar

Translated by Bibek Debroy
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2005, pp. 321, Rs. 250.00

By Deepavali Debroy
Smriti Books, Delhi, 2005, pp. 136, Rs. 175.00


Both these books are fresh presentations of famous Sanskrit works for the English-reading public. The two writers, distinguished academics who are also husband and wife, had in the past jointly authored abridged translations of the Vedas and selected Upanishads and Puranas. Drawing further from the ancient language’s treasure trove, they have now dealt separately with the best known of its scriptures and some classics from its literature.   Bibek Debroy’s is a prose translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Each verse is translated separately, with the corresponding Sanskrit text on the opposite page for those familiar with the Devanagari script. “This is purely a translation” says the author. “To the extent interpretations are needed, they are in the notes”. The latter also explain several technical terms occurring in the original text, some of which, like dharma and yoga, have been left untranslated.   Retold in almost fifty languages, the Gita is among the world’s most translated books. Debroy lists 66 English-language translations while noting that the actual figure could well be upto a 1000! The translators, beginning with British official Charles Wilkins over 200 years ago, have included scholars and savants, philosophers and poets, religious and public figures in an almost ever-flowing stream. The present translation is itself the third brought out by the same publisher. Why another translation when so many already exist? Debroy devotes the bulk of his introduction to this question. His unexceptionable reasons are: “Because the more the Gita is read the better. Because each generation should have its own translation and the English in some earlier translations now seems archaic. And because there is some reason for dissatisfaction with translations that are available”.   In explaining his dissatisfaction, he opines that for 90 per cent of the Gita’s text, there is little difference between the words chosen in different prose translations. The difference lies in the quality and range of notes which he claims set his translation apart from others. As for the remaining ten per cent, he has examined original verses with the language of various well-known translations in framing his own, separating translation from interpretation unlike many earlier works where the two tend to get mixed up. “And when there are questions about what has been done, as there are bound to be”, he concludes candidly, “that is the point when you should produce your own translation. As a reader dissatisfied with what already exists. That was ...

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