VEDIC AND EPIC TRANSLATIONS
On translating from an unknown tongue
In the early sixties, I had the pleasure of being part of a team of American poets working with Professor Vidyaniwas Misra in one of the earliest examples of "transcreation," ultimately producing the volume, Modern Hindi Poetry: An Anthology (Indiana: 1965). Since that time, a number of such teams have changed the character of translation, assuring the integrity of the original by the supervisory presence of a scholar in the original and assuring the poetic quality of the translation by having poets responsible for the final product in the receiving language.
In 1966, I began working with Professor Misra again, this time also with the distinguished Hindi poet and novelist, S. H. Vatsyayan, on a more ambitious project: to bring over into American a fair sample of ancient traditional Indian verse, beginning with the Vedas. The method we have used is very much the same as that which was employed in the Hindi project. I receive what one might call a flat prose transposition, along with commentary as to textual implications, symbols, and tone. Since the "plot" is already given, my job is to texture the surface, bring up the flatness to the level of poetic discourse. That, of course, means finding contemporary American equivalences for the original.
It is at this point, I believe, where so much translation before the sixties has gone wrong. Since, by and large, the originals are in what would be for us high style, earlier translators have immediately gone — in a perfectly understandable way — to the only high style available to them: a curious mix of grandiose Shelley and sensuous Tennyson. The results are unhappy and turn the originals into a third-rate offshoot of English Romanticism. Unhappy too in that the translators have been amateur poets. Tennyson would have done much better making mdhakavyas into true English poems of Victorian vintage.
But what alternatives are there? Western poetry has more and more dismissed the high style as insincere "rhetoric." Our model now is the spoken word whose intensity arises from highly particularized and individual situations. Among all American contemporary poets, only perhaps Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht have the courage of a style, which if not high by traditional standards, is elevated by ours.