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At the Feet of The Mother

Works of Sri Aurobindo: Translations CWSA 05

n this talk we take up the fifth volume of CWSA (The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo) “Translations”. Sri Aurobindo’s translations are unique by how Master’s touch enriches existing masterpieces which had lost some of their shine through the ages. Not only does Sri Aurobindo brings them to us in the language we know, but also shows us the way to approach these marvellous works. The great beauty of Sri Aurobindo is that by his masterly touch he can turn base metal into the purest gold. Here he is touching gold itself and polishing and carving it into a beautiful ornament for the soul to relish.

Volume 5 of CWSA comprises all of Sri Aurobindo’s translations from Sanskrit, Bengali, Tamil, Greek and Latin into English, except for his translations of Vedic and Upanishadic literature. His translations of the Mother’s Prayers from French to English appear in CWSA 32 whereas his translations from Sanskrit into Bengali are part of CWSA 9. They span from a period during his days in Baroda to nearly mid-1940s for almost 50 years. This clearly suggests that the purpose of these translations was not just a mastery over certain languages, – which could be said of the early ones, but something deeper than we can fathom with our human sense. Of course, Sri Aurobindo’s way of learning a new language was always by taking up a classic in that particular language and thereby discovering it as one discovers the world through constant growth and grows through the discovery. As an aside, we may say that this is the way one could approach Sri Aurobindo’s own works. Even if one does not know enough English to start with a study of his works not only improves our English but also opens our doors to the subtle nuances that are not easy to find in less sublime literature.

Another aspect of these translations is that it touches upon the four ages of mystic poetry thereby connecting them in a single thread of God Knowledge and God Love. At the same time, he does it with perfection that allows us to see the distinctive differences between them. Each author he takes up is a master in his own right. Each is a marvel and a wonder. Sri Aurobindo like a deft artist guides us through the ages of Indian spiritual vision and poetry.

Part 1 consists of five sections. The first three sections of Part One consist of translations of portions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and works of Kalidas. The next two parts consist of Bhartrihari’s Nitishatakam, portions from the Bhagawat Purana and Shankaracharya’s Bahavanyashtakam.

Part 2 consists of translations from Bengali, mainly Vaishnava devotional poetry and many chapters from Bankimchandra’s classic Bande Mataram. Section three has a translation of Chittaranjan Das, the God-driven lawyer credited with inspiring moments of speech securing Sri Aurobindo’s release from the Alipore Jail. Finally there is the fourth section that contains translations from Ashram poets notably Dilip Kumar Roy, Nirodbaran, Anilbaran, Nishikanto and Sahana.

Parts 3-5 contain translations from Tamil devotional poems, Greek and Latin.

It is interesting to note that Sri Aurobindo describes the method of translation that should be followed and which he has followed himself:

The principle of translation followed has been to preserve faithfully the thought, spirit and images of the original, but otherwise to take the full licence of a poetical rendering. In translation from one European tongue into another a careful literalness may not be out of place, for the genius, sentence structure and turns of thought of European languages are not very dissimilar; they belong to one family. But the gulf between Sanscrit and English in these respects is very wide, and any attempt at close verbal rendering would be disastrous…..

I hold it more pardonable in poetical translation to unstring the language than to dwarf the spirit and mutilate the thought. For in poetry it is not the verbal substance that we seek from the report or rendering of foreign masterpieces; we desire rather the spiritual substance, the soul of the poet & the soul of his poetry. We cannot hear the sounds & rhythms loved & admired by his countrymen and contemporaries; but we ask for as many as we can recover of the responses & echoes which that ancient music set vibrating in the heavens of their thought.[CWSA 5:374-375]

It is the spirit of the times breathing through the writings, the soul of the person who brought out these wonderful works that we find in the Translations. It brings to the forefront the ethos of the age and the highest point that a civilisation and culture had touched in their self-discovery as a race. Added to the translation are a few appendices and notes relevant to the text and the author which, though brief, are quite an eye-opener revealing a whole world that is lost and forgotten to our modern sight. Sri Aurobindo takes us through these worlds giving us a vision that we lack and the aesthetic and spiritual sense that is most needed, not only to appreciate them but also to awaken them as a need of our times.

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