Epic work in progress

An unabridged translation of the Mahabharata’s 80,000 shlokas, or two million words? Even at the risk of sounding cliched, it is indeed, an effort of epic proportions.

Conceding that it is a tough venture, Bibek Debroy, the author, expects to complete it by 2014. On an average, the author translates a chapter (1,500-2,000 words) a day. Covering about 10 per cent of the Mahabharata in each volume, Debroy plans to wrap the entire epic, unabridged, in 10 volumes. The first volume was released in 2010 and steadily by June 2012 the half-way mark has been achieved with the release of Volume V.
The scholarship invested in this translation becomes apparent even in the introduction to the work. Debroy uses the critical edition of the Mahabharata compiled by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), Pune. It took BORI the tumultous years between 1916 and 1966 to arrive at the authenticated text. A board of scholars had scrutinised the various recensions, unified the text across the regional versions and had eliminated later interpolations to arrive at what is now known as the critical edition. This was unavailable for the authors — Kishori Mohan Ganguly and Manmatha Nath Dutt — of the other two unabridged English translations, both belonging to the late 19th century. Moreover, their language now reads archaic and the running cross references to various versions make them cumbersome to read.
Epics last for ever, but only when they are kept alive by recitations or readings in languages that people can relate to. Debroy is conscious that translating from Sanskrit to a vernacular would have been easier than to English; in English it is difficult to find words that can bring out the complete meaning of some Sanskrit words. For example, dharma, ithihasa. The epic Mahabharata itself is an ithihasa. Is ithihasa history? Literally, it is translated as “this is indeed what happened.” “It is a chronicle of what happened. Or so runs the belief.” So how does the author get over this? He uses footnotes to clarify, again keeping them brief and crisp, just so that the book does not become too heavy or too academic.
Debroy’s effort is a worthy one as he has adhered to one self-imposed rule: Not just “to try and convey the flavour of the original” but remain “true to the original”. This by using plain, smooth English. From the first to the fifth, every volume has faithfully abided by this rule. He admits “in 95 per cent cases” translation was “straight forward”, while in the rest five per cent he had “to consult dictionaries, chase references or undertake intensive research”. Debroy confesses, “I have had the most difficulty with things that Vidura has sometimes said... Vidura is supposed to have been skilled in the mlechha language.” This should certainly tell us to what extent Debroy has applied his mind as a translator.
Reading an epic such as the Mahabharata in the unabridged is essential. Abridged versions gloss over nuances and end up placing people as heroes or villains, victors or the vanquished, the good and the bad. However, the Mahabharata is full of situations where there can be no absolute answer or a final word on what is right and what is wrong. Debroy rightly explains that episodes in the Mahabharata contextualise “the unsolvable riddle of the tension between free will and determinism, the so-called karma concept”. Most of us have heard “what’s not found in the Mahabharata will not be found anywhere else”. Each one of us can relate to or identify with one or the other numerous characters in the epic, or the situations of conflicts that they are caught up in. Every episode establishes that dharma is relative and not absolute or rigid; it is sookshma or subtle and desha and kaala specific (it’s relative to place and era). It is only an unabridged narration which can allow this for us to read, understand and savour.
Volume I covered the snake sacrifice where the story of Mahabharata was told. It narrated the birth of Vyasa himself, and the Sambava Parva which details the core story. Droupadi’s marriage and Vidura’s arrival are also narrated here.
Volume II covered Arjuna’s banishment to the forest, the burning of Khandava forest, the killing of Jarasandha and Sishupala, the game of dice and the Nala Damayanti story.
Volume III includes the interesting conversation between Droupadi and Satyabhama and ends with Yudishtra answering the yaksha to save his brothers.
Volume IV begins with the Pandava’s 13th year in exile in Virata’s kingdom, details the other war of the Mahabharata when the Kouravas rob King Virata of his cattle. It also includes the narrations about the two failed messenger emissaries — Sanjaya and Krishna and ends with an assessment of the two sides and their warriors.
The latest, Volume V, begins with the episode of Amba who is reborn as Shikhandi, marking the end of Udyoga Parva. Also described are the first 10 days of the Kurukshetra battle, which marks the fall of Bhishma. The Bhagavad Gita also features here. This volume is of great interest, as it describes Jambukhanda or the central continent on earth (wherein the Bharatavarsha is located). A few examples can be picked up from a section in this volume to show how footnotes have made this entire work more than just a translation. And this is where Debroy’s scholarship gives the value addition to the reader. Sanjaya referring to “the aryas, mlechhas and men from mixed lineage” who live in this Bharatavarsha says they “drink water from the rivers”. He names nearly 200 rivers to Dhritarashtra, here the listener. In the footnotes, Debroy identifies and matches most of them to the rivers and locations as we know them today.
Translating epics in contemporary language/s adds to the repository of what is our civilisational heritage. In the age of royal patronage, artists, sculptors and poets created what generations have valued. In the absence of such patronage and in a commercial world, publishers such as Penguin including translations, particularly of the epics, in their portfolio is welcome. There is a market for this, and it is a good augury.

The writer is spokesperson of the BJP. The views expressed in this column are her own.


Debroy's humungous excercise

Debroy's humungous excercise deserves a real praise. A Mammoth translation and time consuming epic work indeed sans Economics&Politics of Author&Reviewer

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