On Translation – Nabokov, Borges & Sri Aurobindo

Nabokov & Borges seemed to have had opposing views on literary translation. While reading that post I could not but help think about Sri Aurobindo’s approach to literary translation, more specifically, translation of poetry.

The two contrasting views, as articulated in the post, are: Literal translation and Free-form Translation. Nabokov adheres to the literal school and views any change  in a translation as a deformation. While Borges delights in the “happy and creative infidelity” of the translated material to the original.

Sri Aurobindo had the following to say on literal vs free-form translation:

A translator is not necessarily bound to the exact word and letter of the original he chooses… We find that literal translation more completely betray than those that are reasonably free – turning life into death and poetic power into poverty and flatness.

Above quote was taken from an essay (warning, its a PDF file) by Usha Mahadevan on Sri Aurobindo’s Tirukkural translation. Some splendid examples there of how a translation could retain fidelity to spirit of the original, rather than the word-forms.

First Kural, first line – “Agara Mudala Ezhuthellam..”

Rev. G.U.Pope translates as, “A as its first of letters, every speech maintains”

Sri Aurobindo translates as “Alpha of all letters the first”.

Read the essay (PDF again) for some more examples contrasting Sri Aurobindo’s approach and others in dealing with Tirukkural.

I posted a comment on the Dialogos site about my views on literary translation. Yes, I do know its presumptuous to put my views in a post where Nabokov, Borges and Sri Aurobindo are mentioned..but hey, my Master is a tad lenient at such things 😉

Word-sense, sound rhythm, feeling and emotional aftertaste all make up our experience of language. To retain fidelity over all these factors while transplanting an idea from one linguistic landscape to another is a challenge.

For me, translation is less about the words than it is about transcribing that soul-state which yielded the words. The “sanctity of source text” resides not in the words but in the idea behind them and in the mind & heart that produced them.

To leave a reader in the target language the same joy, feeling and insight evoked by the original should be the primary goal.

Specific linguistic characteristics of the source language, say culture-specific ideas, puns, brevity of expression, sound rhythms…are more difficult to bring across and will invariably undergo a deformation, or mutation, driven by abilities of a target language and the translator.

So what do you think? Any strong views?

Note: Okay, I know this is not the most pressing issue for mankind's problems...but..damn..will shut up now!

Stephen Fry on Language

Stephen Fry’s soliloquy on Language and pedants who play spoilsport. Beautifully animated by Mathew Rogers.

Make Good Music with Shankar Tucker via Kickstarter

And no, it does not involve learning an instrument, practicing it for 10,000 hours and being visited by the muses. Just support Shankar Tucker via Kickstarter!

Before we get to the how, do sample what sort of music am talking about here.

“Jaane Kaise” – Shankar Tucker ft. Shashwat Singh (A Cappella)

“Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo” – Shankar Tucker ft. Rohini Ravada


So if that appeals to your musical sensibilities, there is awesome news for you..Shankar Tucker, a musician from the US, trained in Western Classical and Indian Musical styles has launched a Kickstarter project. Below is the introduction.

Am going to support this project.

Shanker via his Shrutibox YouTube channel has given me untold amount of joy and I sincerely hope with our support he can make this project happen. Visit the Kickstarter project and sponsor his effort, we need people like him to bring out more India inspired music out.

And am curious to know which of Shankar’s songs are your favorites. This rendition of Bharatiyar’s song, or this one completely move me.

Cloud Atlas, What Art Can Be

Cloud Atlas is a movie based on novel of same name by David Mitchell. Now a movie with Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Check the trailer below.

The best sort of art is not one which entertains or informs or clarifies or even celebrates. Art at its most sublime poses the big questions, leaves us with a sense of wonder and makes us grapple with the mystery of existence.

Simply wonderful to see movie makers attempt complex topics without compromise. Am watching this once its out.

Go Forth – Levi’s Campaign

Poetry, even when employed to peddle souped up nothing, still carries with it the majesty of the spheres it issues from. Like a flame in the cup of your hand, a thing so fragile, yet so rife with possibilities.

[Read more…]

Valhalla Rising–An Elemental Savior


The Story

One-eye is our protagonist, possessing an excess of strength, mute and without a vocabulary beyond the gestures of his physical self. Held prisoner by a tribe, he escapes with the aid of a boy he befriends. They come across a band of men who are on a quest to find the holy land. He accompanies them through their fated journeys and reaches a region that is the very antithesis of holy. A bunch of barbarians, or perhaps even cannibals, who are into this unfortunate habit of performing human sacrifices ensure these new arrivals don’t last long. One-eye and the boy are the last to survive and end up confronting the cannibals. I will not spoil the ending for you but let me just say its an iconic moment that makes you reconsider all the impressions one has made of one-eye.

Characters and Their Motivations

If you are looking for characters that anguish whether to do or not to do, then you’d be disappointed. This is territory and times where deliberation can often mean meeting your maker quicker than normal.

Bareness of the landscape, animality of man and a marginally ennobled primal pursuits come together in a bleak harmony. Without the decorations of a complicated plot or the distractions of a familiar setting, the narrative transports us to a place and time where the actions and motivations of the characters are observed objectively.

Survival is everything here. And of course the elusive myth of the Christian tradition during the middle ages of the Promised Land,  an alluring combination of adventure, salvation and treasure attracts the sort that heaven would cringe from, or at least we believe so. But therein lies the twist.

Beyond the Savage

(Spoiler alert, stop reading if you intend to watch the movie)

One-eye and the boy come across the barbarians who surround them on a jagged terrain. With One-Eye’s skill in violence it is evident there is a slim chance he would come out victorious. He considers the odds carefully and we almost feel a mental switch that goes off in his head and understand a decision has been made and do not know it yet. Having seen his prowess so far we wait in anticipation for a blur of limbs and hope to see the barbarians eased from their cannibalistic predicaments.

Now One-eye calmly glances at the boy, in a look that says little to us. He walks towards the barbarians in silence, when within striking distance he quietly drops his weapon and offers himself as a sacrifice.  In that one single instant our mental model of One-eye and his moral stature undergoes a shock so deep that I found myself zipping through all the impressions of him and his actions in the space of a couple of seconds. Every past act of One-eye I revisited and assessed them in the light of this single and supreme gesture.

And that act elevated the character and this movie to something approaching philosophy, and I mean that in a good way.

A Savior?

Every stage of evolution has its heroes. The yet-to-be-human, the barbarian and the contemporary man each have their heroic standards. Regardless of what the stage the pattern is simple. One who exceeds the conditions of his existence is counted as a hero. But the savior is something beyond the idea of a hero. There is in him a conscious understanding of the terrible price that he must pay to redeem himself and those that depend on him and he willingly pays it.

Our cultural blinkers cloud and constrain our perception of who a savior is and can be. With One-Eye and his sacrifice I left behind a few of these blinkers.

Elevating the Mundane by Design


Walking meditation is one of the techniques to center one’s attention and consciously deepen awareness of the self. The idea is to walk with complete awareness of all the bodily sensations that are enjoined during the act of walking. Its quite popular with those who owe allegiance to the dharma of the Buddha.

Amongst practitioners of this technique, the location does not typically matter. As long as there are no disturbances during the initial stages.

With that as context I could not help but smile at the level of ingenuity in designing as space for performing this simple act. I came across this via FactCoDesign blog. Have quoted a portion the post below.

For instance, from 4 a.m. to noon, an east wall offers shade during morning chants and the daily meal. From noon until 8 p.m., a roof protects the monk from harsh midday sun. And during the final period, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., evening chants take place in an exposed area of the circle with a hanging mosquito net to sleep under.

Even the mundane can be elevated by design. All it needs is for us to pay attention to the forces that envelope and shape the mundane.

Creativity and Collaboration – Kanye West Style

Found this coverage of a Kanye West recording session of his latest album, via Kottke. Not sure if it’s the take of a fan-boy but definitely seems intriguing. A small quote from one of the participants..

My favorite thing about Kanye is he just doesn’t quit. He does not quit on a song. Sometimes in pop music, there’s so much clutter and so many people trying to do something that’s gonna get on the radio or whatever, but he’s truly about approaching the song and finishing it and doing the coolest possible thing that he wants to express. He’s not just a rapper. He’s not just a producer. He’s a musician. He’s a true artist in every sense. Every part of his expression, from his clothes to everything, is a part of how he lives his life, and I think that’s why he’s so successful. I would show him what I did and he would come back and be like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ Or, ‘Oh, that’s not cool.’ And we would just work on it—there was no ego involved, it was just what’s best for the song.

What comes out is the collaborative nature of the creative process, the feedback loop that feeds the next iteration, the perseverance, the openness to critical appraisal, the trust that seems to exist between the team..all of this built upon a foundation of honesty.

As I said at the start, it could be a fan-boy’s view but at that level of public scrutiny every chink in the armor would be a gaping wound attracting unwanted attention.

Also, our blinkered view sets up stereotypes that are hard to look beyond. Perhaps the rapper and his bling bling are more virtuous than the suave banker siphoning off what is not his.

Update: Fixed typo in Kanye West’s name.

Napoleon – Kubrick’s Unfinished Masterpiece


Since coming across the Kubrick interview that I blogged here about earlier, I did some digging around. The result was this screenplay(warning, it’s a PDF file) for Napoleon by Kubrick.

I cannot comment as to its authenticity, but there is sufficient brilliance in there to suggest it could be the work of the master himself.

The whole screenplay makes for excellent weekend reading, which is what I did last weekend by the way.

Some sections that bring out the personality of Napoleon

  • 1789 Revolution on Page 9. Napoleon’s ability to take charge of volatile situations.
  • Toulon Road – Day on Page 13. Ability to think strategically.
  • Paris Street – Day on Page 24. Willingness to use force, morality be damned.
  • Notre Dame – Day on Page 69. Self-coronation..enough said!
  • Bedroom – Day on Page 147. Last moments of the hero and his descent into clouded states of memory.
  • Production Notes on Page 149. Notes of Kubrick on the planning work done until then.

It is amazing to learn about the rigor and planning that supports a creative endeavor like movie making. Coupled with the interview I linked to in my previous blog post on Kubrick, we get a little insight into the mechanics of creativity.

Stanley Kubrick – The Mindscape of an Artist

2001 has to be the first movie I had seen that shocked me to the possibilities of narrative grammar and the means of visually articulating imaginary worlds. Until then Stanley Kubrick to me was a master director because critiques said so and not by my own direct experience.

I came across this excerpt of an interview with Kubrick, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the mindscape of this brilliant director. Below are some highlights that should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in creativity.

On depicting the battle scenes of Napolean

(the movie that was to be directed by Kubrick but never got done, earning it the sobriquet  “masterpiece that was never made”):

”There’s an aesthetic involved; it’s almost like a great piece of music, or the purity of a mathematical formula. It’s this quality I want to bring across, as well as the sordid reality of battle. You know, there’s a weird disparity between the sheer visual and organizational beauty of the historical battles sufficiently far in the past, and their human consequences. It’s rather like watching two golden eagles soaring through the sky from a distance; they may be tearing a dove to pieces, but if you are far enough away the scene is still beautiful.”

On the ‘purpose’ of a film

“the basic purpose of a film, which I believe is one of illumination, of showing the viewer something he can’t see any other way”

On depicting futuristic or historic themes

“it enables you to make a statement with which you’re not personally blinded; it removes the environmental blinkers, in a sense, and gives you a deeper and more objective perspective”

On whether the ambiguity in 2001 was deliberate

“..it was inevitable. And I think in a film like 2001, where each viewer brings his own emotions and perceptions to bear on the subject matter, a certain degree of ambiguity is valuable, because it allows the audience to "fill in" the visual experience themselves. In any case, once you’re dealing on a nonverbal level, ambiguity is unavoidable. But it’s the ambiguity of all art, of a fine piece of music or a painting..”

Read the whole interview. I gained a lot from it.