Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Searching for a translated epic

It was one of those days, when I was obsessed to find out the best available condensed English translation of the Mahabharata. I hunted the web as usual and found a plethora of opinion. I came across the following translations that people have frequently mentioned:
  • The Mahabharata by John D. Smith
  • Mahabharata by William Buck
  • The Mahabharata by R.K Narayan
  • Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari
  • The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, by Ramesh Menon
  • Mahabharata by Tr. Kamala Subramaniam
As you can see, most of them are Indian authors. It is obvious, being an Indian epic and a Sanskrit text would lead to it being translated by Sanskrit scholars. Where can you find most of them? (That is my thought, highly debatable!)

The condensed versions run from about 200 pages to some up to 1000 pages. These pages carry as many stories as much possible from the original text that has 100,000 verses. You might understand the dilemma that goes in picking up a version of the great epic.

Here are some things that I had in my mind:
  • There is no way I can sustain enough patience to go through the texts such as the complete English translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli. (The digital version is available online. Link here.) Even the J. A. B. van Buitenen version is rather big for me to plunge into.
  • Having said that, I do not prefer a version that compromises the multidimensional characters that bring about the Mahabharata and hence, want a version that does justice to the huge text and the myriad characters.
  • I wanted a version that will present the situations that made the characters who they are. We all know the stories and we all know the demarcations into good and bad. Some of us now are interested to know the about the grey side part that overlaps both. I am one of them.
  • Going ahead when I read books like Mrityunjay (Mahabharata from Karna’s POV), or the English translation of Randaamoozham (Bhim’s POV) done by the revered Prem Panicker (A digital copy is available here for free download, review here.), or Palace of Illusions (Draupadi’s POV) by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, or Yuganta by Iravati Karve (link here), I should be able to fit them in the larger picture and understand the nuances of each and every character as retold by the authors.
(Some more related books posted here.)

Faced with these constraints I stumbled upon (Better late than...). He somehow convinced me to select Kamala Subramaniam’s Mahabharata (post's here and here). This decision was also backed by favourable reviews on Amazon (link here). I also read a negative review (link here) about her version that the sentences are slightly broken, but I believe that a text that is originally in Sanskrit will have its own characteristics when translated to English.

I was also convinced to buy a two volume Mahabharata rendition by Ramesh Menon (link here), and I may give it a shot too. Just that I wanted to start with something smaller.

After saying all this, the only Mahabharata related book that I have read so far is Radheya by Ranjit Desai. It is, as the name suggests, Karna’s story. Brilliant story and beautiful rendering of the characters. It made me realize how strongly Duryodhana has been portrayed as an outright villain without understanding any facets of his character. I wrote a post about this thought here. So I hope I get a better insight in the epic that Mahabharata is and delve into it a bit deeper.

To sum it all, I would quote Jai Arjun Singh: “ that places us right amidst the characters...” is a feeling that should be strong when I take up a book.


On a related note – is it a boon or a disadvantage that we have so many opinions out there that we tend to get carried away towards either sides before arriving to a knowledgeable and a very individual understanding?

Moot question.


Sushil said...


girish said...

Am reading 'The difficulty of being good' by G. Das, also based on the Mahabharata. Its a good book, but takes lessons from there rather than narrate the story.

The reason there are so many editions is probably because the epic itself doesn't actually have a definite version. Its been cobbled together from various versions.

Apparently, the Bhandarkar Institute has produced a very good version of it. Maybe you could check that out.

k said...

Girish, I guess the books would be an almost complete translation of the original verses. I doubt if I will be able to go through it all.

BTW did you refer to the J. A. B. van Buitenen version? That is the one that is associated with BRI.