How can you translate writing that’s densely allusive if you expect few of your readers to recognize the allusions? How can you translate poetry–or any other formally complex writing–into a totally different language while conveying some of the experience of the original form? And how can you translate passages from a language that has one kind of grammatical structure into an entirely different one?
One option is to translate loosely into a poem that works in your own language, sacrificing accuracy for experience. An alternative is to translate into literal prose and provide many footnotes or other explanations. That gives your readers some of the information they need, but it offers a very different experience from reading the original poem.
For instance, consider these two translations of the first stanza of a Sanskrit classic, The Meghaduta or Cloud Messenger by Kalidasa. First, H.H. Wilson (1786-1860) offers a loose translation into Victorian rhymed couplets.
Spoiled from his glories, severed from his wife, A banished Yaksha passed his lonely life: Doomed, by his lord's stern sentence to sustain, Twelve tedious months of solitude and pain. To these drear hills, through circling days confined, In dull, unvaried grief the god repined...
In contrast, E.H. Rick Jarrow (2021) translates “scrupulously and thoroughly,” avoiding constructions that would sound “choppy” in English but striving to convey each name and idea from the original text
A Yaksha, banished in grievous exile from his beloved for a year, his power eclipsed by the curse of his Lord for having swerved from his duty, made his dwelling among the hermitages of Ramagiri whose waters were hallowed by the ablutions of Janaka's daughter and whose trees were rich with shade.
“Drear hills” may convey some of the mood of the poem but gives us no sense of the importance of the particular hills where the Yaksha has to live. Jarrow’s “The hermitages of Ramagiri whose waters were hallowed by the ablutions of Janaka’s daughter” incorporates more information but sends us to notes if we want to make sense of the references. Both translations are poems, but Wilson’s is rhymed and metered in a way that is typical of Victorian verse and perhaps honors the formal regularity of the Sanskrit.
Both translations have merit, but I am excited by the innovative approach of Mani Rao (2014). Here is how she renders the same first stanza:
Some yaksha who made a mistake was cursed by his master: Suffer! One entire year An ordinary yaksha Not a hero When even a season’s separation’s unbearable Imagine six What mistake Kalidasa does not specify Some lapse of duty Same word for ‘duty’ and ‘right’ Has the hero lost the reader’s heart In the very first line? Heavy the pangs of separation from his beloved His prowess gone like a sun that’s set Year-long night He lived in hermitages on a mountain named after Rama Groves cool, waters pure Sita once bathed here Remember Rama remembered Sita Remember messenger Hanuman Flying like a cloud Why hermitages, in the plural? More than exiled. Unsettled.
The plain text is her translation of the original poem into free English verse. The italicized text is her own commentary, also in verse. It’s as if we were listening to someone–or perhaps a chorus–recite the poem while another person interjected comments and questions from the side.
Rao’s additions are not exhaustively explanatory. For instance, she does not retell the story of Rama remembering the absent Sita, which is an allusion at the beginning of the Meghaduta. I do not know that story–but I can look it up once someone mentions the names. The explanation, being a poem itself, is marked by explicit emotion, irony, misdirection, and other literary features.
Rao’s approach may have precedents. (I would not necessarily know.) I have appreciated how Anne Carson supplies prefaces to her Greek translations that are themselves poems. For instance:
i wish i were two dogs then i could play with me (translator’s note on euripides’ bakkhai) Dionysos is god of the beginning before the beginning. What makes beginnings special? Think of your first sip of wine from a really good bottle. [...]
I see great potential in this general approach of using verse to convey context for verse.
Sources: The Megha d?ta or Cloud Messenger: A Poem in the Sanskrit Language
by K?lid?sa, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, revised edition (London: R. Watts, 1843). E. H. Rick Jarow, The Cloud of Longing: A New Translation and Eco-Aesthetic Study of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Oxford University Press 2021); Mani Rao, Kalidasa for the 21st Century (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2014); Anne Carson, Euripides: Bakkhai (New Directions, 2017). See also: The Kural; translations from Kuruntokai; there are tears of things.