An English Translation of G. D. Madgulkar's Geet Ramayana

Click here to skip my introduction and download the translation.

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Like so many Indian American children, I grew up hearing stories from the Ramayana and enjoying them in English translations, especially Amar Chitra Katha comics. My parents enjoyed playing recordings of Sudhir Phadke’s performance of Geet Ramayana on their reel-to-reel player. In college, I was fascinated by a performance of the Ramayana in Indonesian shadow puppetry. My own daughters have benefited from the delightful Japanese anime version.

I have encountered conservatives who believe epics and scriptures should be read or heard in their original form or not at all. My own strong opinion has been that appreciation of such works dies—they are lost and forgotten—unless they are continually reinterpreted. Preservation of the original is important—indeed, an interpretation should never be mistaken for the original—but it must be made accessible to new generations. This is how they live on and enrich new lives.

When I heard that Sudhir Phadke’s son, Sridhar Phadke, would be performing the Geet Ramayana in Portland, I knew I had to take my family to it.

Yet, how could this performance be made accessible to a teen and a tween, both Indian-American? Although I am fluent in Marathi, I grew up in America. My own ability to understand Marathi poetry is limited. Their understanding is less than my own, and song and music sometimes makes the words harder to understand.

I was inspired, early one morning, to obtain an English translation of the work, and then project supertitles during the performance. This would open the performance up to the entire Indian-American community—indeed, to the entire community of English-speaking people somewhat familiar with the Ramayana. I had five weeks to get everything together.

Google and Amazon searches revealed that an English translation was not readily available, and even if one had been, I could not imagine obtaining permission to use it in a short time. The other half of the inspiration was to outsource the work of translation to friends and relatives knowledgable in Marathi. There were only 56 poems in total, each no more than a full page in length. How hard could it be? (Famous last words.) The final product could be published under a Creative Commons license.

I was relieved to find eight willing participants without difficulty: my parents, my cousin Bhushan Naniwadekar, and five friends who have long demonstrated deep appreciation and understanding for Indian literature: Subhash Phatak, Satish Palshikar, Govind Deshmukh, Alaka Sarangdhar, and Sanjay Vankudre. We agreed that they would complete a translation and I would edit the final product. Luckily for me, one of them, Mr. Phatak, urged me to contact Sudhir Phadke directly, and to undertake translation of only the poems that would actually be sung during his performance. I was amazed that Mr. Phadke responded immediately to my post on his Facebook wall. My maternal uncle, Mr. Arun Nulkar, is well-respected in the Marathi music community, and dropping his name must have helped! We arranged a time for me to call him in Mumbai.

To my dismay, he immediately nixed the idea of supertitles, saying it would distract from the song and music. Thankfully, he was willing for us to prepare a “handout.” I did not think that supertitles would be distracting, especially considering other performances have included dancers and actors, nor did I think a handout would be less distracting. However, I kept my opinions to myself, not wanting to argue. After all, to him, I was just some random person, and considering he was about to start his tour, he had no time to review our work. He insisted that we do the translation exactly and with care, likely fearing the sometimes ridiculous translations we see in movie subtitles. He referred me to a local acquaintance who had the list of songs that would be performed.

The Project is On!

I distributed the 14 poems to the team and asked each to provide one translation in one week, and the second in the following week. To my delight, two arrived in two days, and all fourteen were completed in one week. I was fortunate to have such an enthusiastic team with more history than me in this work. It is, perhaps, a tribute to the poet that once you start, it is difficult to stop, even though the work of translation is very hard.

When the first translation arrived, I began the work of editing. I held to the same ideal I have held to in other translation work: The best translation neither adds to nor subtracts from the original work.

I have seen translations that diverge from the original in order to further the translator’s agenda or personal beliefs. This I find simply unethical.

I have seen translations that diverge from the original for the purpose of producing rhyming verse. Even though the original did not rhyme. These works, I feel, are best suited for starting logs burning in your fireplace. If I see them in the library, I try to hide them behind other books to protect unwitting patrons from accidentally checking them out.

Borderline unethical are translations that attempt to soften bold, explicit, or politically incorrect language or apologize for it.

I have seen others that add explanatory or contextual words and phrases. In my opinion, these belong in introductions or footnotes, as they were not intended by the original author. This point is especially important when poets have intentionally included and excluded words.

Accidents happen when translating poetry, for example when the poet intends speak ambiguously but the translation removes ambiguity.

There are numerous difficulties in holding to this ideal. Tradeoffs must be made. The grammar of two languages can be different, and the original author may have taken poetic license by breaking grammatical rules. Alliteration may add to the beauty of original poetry, and it may be impossible to preserve it. Or it may be possible to preserve it, but only at the expense of facets of meaning. It can be difficult to recognize whether a word as truly meaningful or was just added to preserve the original meter. Sometimes, you come up with a really great translation, but it just sounds dumb. Sometimes, you encounter a pun or a double entendre. These are the times to throw up your hands and insert a footnote.

However, these very obstacles are why it is a sheer delight to find a translation that “clicks.” It seems to achieve the same effect on the modern English-speaking reader that was intended by the author. Sometimes, this is the result of hard work, a large vocabulary, or a highly sophisticated aesthetic sense. Sometimes, the number of syllables in a line come close to the original. Frequently, it is the result of the universality of human languages, the connection of words from different languages to common roots.

In working on this poetry, it has struck me that a word, beyond its consonants, vowels, syllables, and conjugation, can have multiple meanings and parts of speech. It has a history and, deriving from roots, a lineage. The more of these that can be preserved during translation, the higher the fidelity of the translation. Poetic license can also work the other way. We can break the rules of English grammar for fidelity or to create a certain mood.

Getting back to this particular work, I found myself deeply moved when I encountered the following stanza in the first poem:

Out of the heaven of the seven notes Nine rivers of nine moods Came cascading into the sacrificial hall. The audience bathed at their confluence. Kush, Lav sing Rama's chronicle.

The original Marathi, relatively easy to understand, gave me goosebumps, and my eyes teared up. I finally understood what people mean when they say poetry can change and enrich your life. Invoked here is the romantic Indian notion of rivers originating in heaven, an idea easily comprehended by anyone who understands the water cycle. In the translation, the rhyming of “heaven” and “seven” was an English bonus, absent from the original. And the word “confluence” has a soft beauty in this context.

Since then, my work on this translation has bordered on obsession. The poetry is stuck in my head, and I can’t stop pondering its larger meaning.

To whatever extent meditation upon Rama accumulates spiritual merit, I must have accumulated a lot over the past couple of weeks! I’m grateful to my friends and relatives for their hard work, and proud to present it to the world.

Click here.

Tags: Language, Religion

Updated at: 21 April 2012 8:04 AM