Translator’s Preface of Mahabharata

TRANSLATOR’S PREFACE

 

The object of a translator should ever be to hold the mirror upto his

author. That being so, his chief duty is to represent so far as

practicable the manner in which his author’s ideas have been expressed,

retaining if possible at the sacrifice of idiom and taste all the

peculiarities of his author’s imagery and of language as well. In regard

to translations from the Sanskrit, nothing is easier than to dish up

Hindu ideas, so as to make them agreeable to English taste. But the

endeavour of the present translator has been to give in the following

pages as literal a rendering as possible of the great work of Vyasa. To

the purely English reader there is much in the following pages that will

strike as ridiculous. Those unacquainted with any language but their own

are generally very exclusive in matters of taste. Having no knowledge of

models other than what they meet with in their own tongue, the standard

they have formed of purity and taste in composition must necessarily be a

narrow one. The translator, however, would ill-discharge his duty, if for

the sake of avoiding ridicule, he sacrificed fidelity to the original. He

must represent his author as he is, not as he should be to please the

narrow taste of those entirely unacquainted with him. Mr. Pickford, in

the preface to his English translation of the Mahavira Charita, ably

defends a close adherence to the original even at the sacrifice of idiom

and taste against the claims of what has been called ‘Free Translation,’

which means dressing the author in an outlandish garb to please those to

whom he is introduced.

 

In the preface to his classical translation of Bhartrihari’s Niti Satakam

and Vairagya Satakam, Mr. C.H. Tawney says, “I am sensible that in the

present attempt I have retained much local colouring. For instance, the

ideas of worshipping the feet of a god of great men, though it frequently

occurs in Indian literature, will undoubtedly move the laughter of

Englishmen unacquainted with Sanskrit, especially if they happen to

belong to that class of readers who revel their attention on the

accidental and remain blind to the essential. But a certain measure of

fidelity to the original even at the risk of making oneself ridiculous,

is better than the studied dishonesty which characterises so many

translations of oriental poets.”

 

We fully subscribe to the above although, it must be observed, the

censure conveyed to the class of translators last indicated is rather

undeserved, there being nothing like a ‘studied dishonesty’ in their

efforts which proceed only from a mistaken view of their duties and as

such betray only an error of the head but not of the heart. More than

twelve years ago when Babu Pratapa Chandra Roy, with Babu Durga Charan

Banerjee, went to my retreat at Seebpore, for engaging me to translate

the Mahabharata into English, I was amazed with the grandeur of the

scheme. My first question to him was,–whence was the money to come,

supposing my competence for the task. Pratapa then unfolded to me the

details of his plan, the hopes he could legitimately cherish of

assistance from different quarters. He was full of enthusiasm. He showed

me Dr. Rost’s letter, which, he said, had suggested to him the

undertaking. I had known Babu Durga Charan for many years and I had the

highest opinion of his scholarship and practical good sense. When he

warmly took Pratapa’s side for convincing me of the practicability of the

scheme, I listened to him patiently. The two were for completing all

arrangements with me the very day. To this I did not agree. I took a

week’s time to consider. I consulted some of my literary friends,

foremost among whom was the late lamented Dr. Sambhu C. Mookherjee. The

latter, I found, had been waited upon by Pratapa. Dr. Mookherjee spoke to

me of Pratapa as a man of indomitable energy and perseverance. The result

of my conference with Dr. Mookherjee was that I wrote to Pratapa asking

him to see me again. In this second interview estimates were drawn up,

and everything was arranged as far as my portion of the work was

concerned. My friend left with me a specimen of translation which he had

received from Professor Max Muller. This I began to study, carefully

comparing it sentence by sentence with the original. About its literal

character there could be no doubt, but it had no flow and, therefore,

could not be perused with pleasure by the general reader. The translation

had been executed thirty years ago by a young German friend of the great

Pundit. I had to touch up every sentence. This I did without at all

impairing faithfulness to the original. My first ‘copy’ was set up in

type and a dozen sheets were struck off. These were submitted to the

judgment of a number of eminent writers, European and native. All of

them, I was glad to see, approved of the specimen, and then the task of

translating the Mahabharata into English seriously began.

 

Before, however, the first fasciculus could be issued, the question as to

whether the authorship of the translation should be publicly owned,

arose. Babu Pratapa Chandra Roy was against anonymity. I was for it. The

reasons I adduced were chiefly founded upon the impossibility of one

person translating the whole of the gigantic work. Notwithstanding my

resolve to discharge to the fullest extent the duty that I took up, I

might not live to carry it out. It would take many years before the end

could be reached. Other circumstances than death might arise in

consequence of which my connection with the work might cease. It could

not be desirable to issue successive fasciculus with the names of a

succession of translators appearing on the title pages. These and other

considerations convinced my friend that, after all, my view was correct.

It was, accordingly, resolved to withhold the name of the translator. As

a compromise, however, between the two views, it was resolved to issue

the first fasciculus with two prefaces, one over the signature of the

publisher and the other headed–‘Translator’s Preface.’ This, it was

supposed, would effectually guard against misconceptions of every kind.

No careful reader would then confound the publisher with the author.

 

Although this plan was adopted, yet before a fourth of the task had been

accomplished, an influential Indian journal came down upon poor Pratapa

Chandra Roy and accused him openly of being a party to a great literary

imposture, viz., of posing before the world as the translator of Vyasa’s

work when, in fact, he was only the publisher. The charge came upon my

friend as a surprise, especially as he had never made a secret of the

authorship in his correspondence with Oriental scholars in every part of

the world. He promptly wrote to the journal in question, explaining the

reasons there were for anonymity, and pointing to the two prefaces with

which the first fasciculus had been given to the world. The editor

readily admitted his mistake and made a satisfactory apology.

 

Now that the translation has been completed, there can no longer be any

reason for withholding the name of the translator. The entire translation

is practically the work of one hand. In portions of the Adi and the Sabha

Parvas, I was assisted by Babu Charu Charan Mookerjee. About four forms

of the Sabha Parva were done by Professor Krishna Kamal Bhattacharya, and

about half a fasciculus during my illness, was done by another hand. I

should however state that before passing to the printer the copy received

from these gentlemen I carefully compared every sentence with the

original, making such alterations as were needed for securing a

uniformity of style with the rest of the work.

 

I should here observe that in rendering the Mahabharata into English I

have derived very little aid from the three Bengali versions that are

supposed to have been executed with care. Every one of these is full of

inaccuracies and blunders of every description. The Santi in particular

which is by far the most difficult of the eighteen Parvas, has been made

a mess of by the Pundits that attacked it. Hundreds of ridiculous

blunders can be pointed out in both the Rajadharma and the Mokshadharma

sections. Some of these I have pointed out in footnotes.

 

I cannot lay claim to infallibility. There are verses in the Mahabharata

that are exceedingly difficult to construe. I have derived much aid from

the great commentator Nilakantha. I know that Nilakantha’s authority is

not incapable of being challenged. But when it is remembered that the

interpretations given by Nilakantha came down to him from preceptors of

olden days, one should think twice before rejecting Nilakantha as a guide.

 

About the readings I have adopted, I should say that as regards the first

half of the work, I have generally adhered to the Bengal texts; as

regards the latter half, to the printed Bombay edition. Sometimes

individual sections, as occurring in the Bengal editions, differ widely,

in respect of the order of the verses, from the corresponding ones in the

Bombay edition. In such cases I have adhered to the Bengal texts,

convinced that the sequence of ideas has been better preserved in the

Bengal editions than the Bombay one.

 

I should express my particular obligations to Pundit Ram Nath Tarkaratna,

the author of ‘Vasudeva Vijayam’ and other poems, Pundit Shyama Charan

Kaviratna, the learned editor of Kavyaprakasha with the commentary of

Professor Mahesh Chandra Nayaratna, and Babu Aghore Nath Banerjee, the

manager of the Bharata Karyalaya. All these scholars were my referees on

all points of difficulty. Pundit Ram Nath’s solid scholarship is known to

them that have come in contact with him. I never referred to him a

difficulty that he could not clear up. Unfortunately, he was not always

at hand to consult. Pundit Shyama Charan Kaviratna, during my residence

at Seebpore, assisted me in going over the Mokshadharma sections of the

Santi Parva. Unostentatious in the extreme, Kaviratna is truly the type

of a learned Brahman of ancient India. Babu Aghore Nath Banerjee also has

from time to time, rendered me valuable assistance in clearing my

difficulties.

 

Gigantic as the work is, it would have been exceedingly difficult for me

to go on with it if I had not been encouraged by Sir Stuart Bayley, Sir

Auckland Colvin, Sir Alfred Croft, and among Oriental scholars, by the

late lamented Dr. Reinhold Rost, and Mons. A. Barth of Paris. All these

eminent men know from the beginning that the translation was proceeding

from my pen. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm, with which my poor friend,

Pratapa Chandra Roy, always endeavoured to fill me. I am sure my energies

would have flagged and patience exhausted but for the encouraging words

which I always received from these patrons and friends of the enterprise.

 

Lastly, I should name my literary chief and friend, Dr. Sambhu C.

Mookherjee. The kind interest he took in my labours, the repeated

exhortations he addressed to me inculcating patience, the care with which

he read every fasciculus as it came out, marking all those passages which

threw light upon topics of antiquarian interest, and the words of praise

he uttered when any expression particularly happy met his eyes, served to

stimulate me more than anything else in going on with a task that

sometimes seemed to me endless.

 

Kisari Mohan Ganguli

 

Calcutta

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