Every act of translation encodes something political, and, regardless of whether we like it or are even aware of it, all translators are political commentators. As such, to translate in today’s polarised political climate is delicate work, especially when translating the Indian epics.
Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history, tweeted in April that in Valmiki’s Ramayana, “(I’m loosely translating here): During the agnipariksha, Sita basically tells Rama he’s a misogynist pig and uncouth.” Later, writing for The Wire, she described this characterisation as a “colloquial summary of Sita’s admonishment of Rama” during her trial by fire. The tweet elicited serious backlash from the Hindu right. Sadly, many of her detractors exhibited a poor understanding of the material in question, and, even worse, a deplorable tone that, as Truschke pointed out in a piece in this magazine, reinforced the very misogyny they could not tolerate to see Rama accused of. The irony of the situation seemed to have been lost in translation, so to speak.
As a translator and student of classical Indian literature, I believe it is critical to return to original sources. In that spirit, I present below the three relevant verses from Valmiki’s Ramayana in Sanskrit, along with literal, word-for-word English glosses. The verses—shloka numbers 5, 7 and 14 from the Yuddha Kanda (Book Four), sarga (section) 104—capture Sita’s response to Rama’s characterisation of her chastity during her imprisonment in Lanka. Further, I have collated four English translations spanning more than a century’s range of translation styles and idioms, so that readers may clearly see the variations in translation—sometimes subtle, sometimes gross—from a comparative perspective. These are taken from Ralph TH Griffith’s colonial-era retelling in rhymed verse, published in the 1870s, Manmatha Nath Dutt’s prose version of 1893, Arshia Sattar’s widely read Penguin edition, from 1996, and a recent annotated translation, completed in 2017, by a team led by Robert Goldman.
We begin with verse five, in which Sita reacts to Rama’s hurtful reproach. She says:
किं मामसदृशं वाक्यमीदृशं श्रोत्रदारुणम् |
रूक्षं श्रावयसे वीर प्राकृतः प्राकृताम् इव ||
how / to me / unfit / speech / such / ears / harsh
cruel / you cause to hear / hero / common / to common / like
Canst thou, a high-born prince, dismiss
A high-born dame with speech like this?
Such words befit the meanest hind,
Not princely birth and generous mind. (Griffith)
Why dost thou, O hero, like a common man addressing an ordinary woman, make me hear those harsh and unbecoming words painful unto ears? (Dutt)
How could you say such things to me, the kind of things a low, common man would say to his woman? (Sattar)
How can you, heroic prince, speak to me with such cutting and improper words, painful to the ears, as some vulgar man might speak to his vulgar wife? (Goldman)