After a PhD from Chicago, Arshia Sattar translated the Kathasaritsagara and the Ramayana for Penguin. She talks to Venetia Ansell about translating Sanskrit and the Kathasaritsagara in particular.
25th June 2008
As Arshia Sattar lights another cigarette and notes how difficult it is to find the right beauty parlour in Bangalore, she does not come across as your average Sanskrit scholar. Her translations are correspondingly more of this world and very readable as a result. The language is most definitely not the high flown archaic prose of the 19th century Sanskrit heavyweights. But nor is it flavoured with Indian or US English. “I try to go for middle of the road idiom.” And in doing so she achieves what ought really to be a translator’s sole aim, conveying the spirit of the thing without adding her own colour, tempting as that may be. Famous poets have in translating a text let their own stature as writers dominate the translation. By contrast, Arshia’s books allow the reader to lose himself in the story, all but oblivious to the fact that he is reading a Sanskrit text in English.
But it’s not as easy as it seems. Sanskrit is a very different language to English – how, for instance, does one render into sensible English ‘let the cow be led by him’? “The first sentence I ever composed in Sanskrit was ‘the kings and the elephants are dancing’, which was great but I had no idea how to say ‘hello, how are you?’. And Sanskrit is a bit like that, somehow disconnected from reality; it’s the way it’s taught too.” For Arshia, it’s about discovering the spirit of the text as a whole rather than labouring over the literal translation for each individual word. A lot depends on context too, “when Ram is trying to dissuade Sita from accompanying him into the forest, the scene needs to sound intimate – you can’t have ‘Oh beloved, you of the moon shaped face’. That just doesn’t do it for us.”
She cites gaja-gamani as a good example of a challenge. Do you translate it literally as ‘she walked like an elephant? “Absolutely not”, because for most readers that would conjure up the notion of an overweight woman stumbling along with great difficulty – not quite how Valmiki intended to describe Sita. “If you haven’t seen an elephant walk you have no idea how gracefully they move.” So Arshia translates as ‘she walks with the swaying gait of an elephant’. It’s very important, she thinks, to give a sense of the time and the place that the text belongs to – but you can’t let the past intrude too much.
Arshia readily admits to the limitations of translation, “You definitely lose the musical and poetic qualities – the alliteration, the sounds, the rhythm – of the Sanskrit.” Would she ever attempt a verse translation? No, “I have a very strong prose voice”.
In contrast to the Ramayana, where translations abound, Arshia’s abridged version of the Kathasaritsagara was the first modern (and readable) translation to appear after Tawney and Penzer’s great tome in 1924. Why is the Kathasaritsagara so under-translated and under-studied?
“Ironically, it’s enormously popular in Kashmir, where it’s touted as a Hindu text born of a Hindu kingdom.” As Arshia explains, in fact the Kathasaritsagara was the product of a Kashmir that was very pluralistic with all kinds of different people passing through – Sufis, Jains, Buddhists. And this pluralism, which is reflected in the sheer variety of people who appear in the stories, is what makes it traditionally such a disregarded text. According to Arshia, as a text defined by its very heterogeneity it simply doesn’t fit into the carefully defined homogenous classical universe. Indeed, “it challenges the classical tradition”.
The Kathasaritsagara is also unashamedly about entertainment. Somadeva narrated it to the pious queen in order to divert her from her otherwise saintly but dull life. The Brhatkatha, the mythical text of which the Kathasaritsagara is simply one part, was the story Shiva told to Parvati in an attempt to please her (she was unimpressed with his first lot of stories). The vetala in the Vetalapanchavimshati tries to while away the long night by telling the king 24 stories (although given that Trivikramasena must then solve the riddle of each story or risk his head exploding he’s not really in a position to sit back and relax). “All other classical texts can’t quite admit that their aim is not just to edify but also to entertain. Here the universe is not weighed down by karma and dharma, and as a result the text is playful – it pokes fun at everyone. I loved translating this.”
“The essence lies in the layers themselves” wrote Arshia in the introduction to this book back in 1994. So are we meant to keep track of the plethora of stories within stories within stories? “When I was prepring to translate the KSS, I attempted to write a synopsis – I thought I ought to, but then I realised that I was far too inside the text to be able to do this and neither I nor my readers needed one.” But the framing technique is extremely important, a key trait of Katha literature and indeed of Indian literature. Stories are not chosen at random, there is a method in the madness..
We could compare the Kathasaritsagara with Ovid’s Metamorphoses – both in the narratological techniques and the huge amount of strikingly diverse material. Both texts are true Daedalean labyrinths, or as Van Buitenen says ‘a maze’. But how much can we read into a text which was a collection of stories handed down orally and finally compiled by Somadeva, rather than conceived and authored by one man? There are times when the text seems to be prompting us, noting how much the internal audience enjoyed a story, or how many animals, humans or celestial beings were listening with rapt attention. Indeed the Kathapitha story was “so interesting that people forgot about the tales of the gods”.
“I think you can read into whatever you want, it’s about what’s going on in your head when you read it. We must be careful about intentionality, but yes I think often the internal audience’s reaction is meant to be a prompt to us, the external audience.” And we can attribute intentionality and choice to Somadeva, says Arshia. She cites the incident when an internal narrator announces he will tell the story of Ram and Sita’s separation, and we are unexpectedly confronted with the story not of Sita’s time in Lanka (the events of Valmiki’s Ramayana are covered in about 10 lines) but with the otherwise unknown story – a counter-Ramayana – where after being banished Sita eventually returns to Ayodhya. Somadeva for some reason chose to use this version of the Ramayana, perhaps a version that was current at the time, instead of the more usual story.
And what next? “I’m not as young as I was, I don’t think I could face spending another year or two of my life working on one text.” For now, Arshia is working more on Hindi translation, but she doesn’t rule out the possibility of a short text – ‘The hermit and the harlot’ perhaps, “yes, that would suit me.”