Tips for Reviewers: Comparative Analysis

[or how to review a translation from a language you don’t know]

Eric M. Gurevitch’s review of Mani Rao‘s new translation of the Bhagavad Gita is exemplary. It does what translators wish more reviewers would do. Gurevitch illuminates Rao’s highly original approach to the oft translated epic poem that nevertheless remains unfamiliar to many Western readers, explaining the strict traditional meter of the original, the problem of maintaining linear poetic structure, and the musical qualities of the poem–it isBhagavad Gita meant to be chanted or sung–as well as situating it within the larger Hindu epic. Gurevitch, a Sanskritist, is well positioned to evaluate the creative strategies Rao employs in the face of the difficult and mysterious text: “We see her Sanskrit skills shine through in puns that span two languages separated by thousands of years and dozens of isoglosses. Except for the first chapter, almost every word of Rao’s translation has a direct correlate in the Sanskrit text,” he writes. With the well-chosen example, “The section Rao translates as ‘hey Krishna hey yaduboy hey buddy’ in Sanskrit reads, ‘he kṛṣṇa he yādava he sakheti,‘ Gurevitch helps a reader with no knowledge of Sanskrit to penetrate what Rao has done. I don’t know how to pronounce the original Sanskrit, but I can see that she has cleverly mimicked the phonetics of the verse, rendering it in casual language that is both familiar and strange.

Thankfully, we have scholars like Gurevitch who can help an uneducated reader select the translation of the Bhagavad Gita that will speak to him or her. We’re not always so fortunate, but that said, a reviewer who is not fluent in the original language of a translated text can still contribute something meaningful to its interpretation, and he should certainly try. Otherwise, how can we hope to learn about even the small fraction of books that make it against the odds into the hands of English-speaking readers? Of course, as a reviewer, one could simply add a disclaimer–“I confess I don’t know Sanskrit”–and then approach reviewing Rao’s work as essentially a poem written in English, ignoring the fact that it is a translation. While that would be difficult to do in the case of a work like the Bhagavad Gita, it’s remarkably easy with first English editions of relatively unknown writers. This is not the approach I endorse. When one has recourse to earlier translations, a comparative analysis yields incredibly rich material for criticism.

BeowulfAllow me an example from the slightly less ancient but no less foundational text of the English literary canon, Beowulf, written in a language even fewer English-speakers can fathom, though it is a relative of our own. Beowulf, like the Bhagavad Gita, has probably been translated hundreds of times, providing much fodder for comparison. Like the Gita, Beowulf has a complex poetic structure that does not exist in modern English poetry. Translators must contend with approximating its lines composed of two half-lines with rhythmic stress patterns, joined across the caesura by alliteration. Here are the opening lines from Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed translation of 2000, followed by Frederick Rebsamen’s translation, first published in 1991, a personal favorite of mine:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
-Seamus Heaney, 3

Yes! We have heard   of years long vanished
how Spear-Danes struck   sang victory songs
raised from a wasteland   walls of glory.
-Frederick Rebsamen, 2

A bonus of Heaney’s translation is that it is presented bilingually, with the Anglo-Saxon text en face; however, this allows a reader to observe that Heaney has not followed the original line spacing, which indicates the presence of the caesura with a longer spacing in the line, and that he has also broken the long poem up into stanzaic chunks. Rebsamen, in contrast, does mimic the line spacing of the original text presented in Heaney’s version.


The translation of the opening word is notoriously problematic. Heaney translates it as “So,” Rebsamen with the more emphatic “Yes!” and new research seems to indicate they may both be wrong; certainly we can expect other efforts in the future. [For Heaney’s rationale, see his tremendous introduction, which belongs in my Part 1 of the Tips for Reviewers series on Translators’ Introductions.] Heaney, in his opening line captures the alliterative pattern of the original with “Danes”/”days,” as well as with an abundance of s-consonance, while Rebsamen finds it less directly with “Yes!”/”years,” picking up slant rhyme on “heard”/”years.” As I think his lack of adherence to marking the caesura demonstrates, Heaney is less apt to tie the alliteration immediately across the break, instead often catching it in a later stressed syllable in the second half-line. Rebsamen tends to follow the alliterative pattern established by his next two lines much more obsessively over the course of his translation than Heaney who, as he states in his introduction, privileges a “directness of utterance” (xxix).

Both translators use “Spear-Danes” in their opening, but elsewhere, they depart on the issue of names, with Rebsamen maintaining the original “Scyld Scefing,” which he tells English readers how to pronounce, and Heaney going with “Shield Sheafson,” which requires no pronunciation guide. They also invent different compound nouns: a few lines later Heaney has “mead-benches,” and Rebsamen comes up with “meadhalls.” Heaney tends to hyphenate his, whereas Rebsamen punctuates variously.

So. I’m no expert in Anglo-Saxon, but a comparative analysis of those three lines generated quite a lot of material. Since I’m not reviewing these translations here, rather than staking my claim, I’ll leave it to you, my readers, to decide which you prefer. However, I will close with one last thought. Ancient texts are constantly studied and reinterpreted; there is no definitive translation that won’t some day be refuted by a scholar. Many reviewers, when assessing translations, concern themselves above all with accuracy, but, in the case of these two works, what we’re talking about is poetry. I would argue that the transference of poetry, in verse or in fiction, is a more significant criteria for a literary review and is more likely to do the translator’s work justice.

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