The object of a translator should ever be to hold the mirror up to his author. That being so, his chief duty is to represent so far as practicable the manner in which his author’s ideas have been expressed, retaining if possible at the sacrifice of idiom and taste all the peculiarities of his author’s imagery and of language as well. In regard to translations from the Sanskrit, nothing is easier than to dish up Hindu ideas, so as to make them agreeable to English taste. But the endeavour of the present translator has been to give in the following pages as literal a rendering as possible of the great work of Vyasa.
To the purely English reader there is much in the following pages that will strike as ridiculous. Those unacquainted with any language but their own are generally very exclusive in matters of taste. Having no knowledge of models other than what they meet with in their own tongue, the standard they have formed of purity and taste in composition must necessarily be a narrow one. The translator, however, would ill-discharge his duty, if for the sake of avoiding ridicule, he sacrificed fidelity to the original. He must represent his author as he is, not as he should be to please the narrow taste of those entirely unacquainted with him. Mr. Pickford, in the preface to his English translation of the Mahavira Charita, ably defends a close adherence to the original even at the sacrifice of idiom and taste against the claims of what has been called ‘Free Translation,’ which means dressing the author in an outlandish garb to please those to whom he is introduced.
In the preface to his classical translation of Bhartrihari’s Niti Satakam and Vairagya Satakam, Mr. C.H. Tawney says, “I am sensible that in the present attempt I have retained much local colouring. For instance, the ideas of worshipping the feet of a god of great men, though it frequently occurs in Indian literature, will undoubtedly move the laughter of Englishmen unacquainted with Sanskrit, especially if they happen to belong to that class of readers who revel their attention on the accidental and remain blind to the essential. But a certain measure of
fidelity to the original even at the risk of making oneself ridiculous, is better than the studied dishonesty which characterises so many translations of oriental poets.”
We fully subscribe to the above although, it must be observed, the censure conveyed to the class of translators last indicated is rather undeserved, there being nothing like a ‘studied dishonesty’ in their efforts which proceed only from a mistaken view of their duties and as such betray only an error of the head but not of the heart. More than twelve years ago when Babu Pratapa Chandra Roy, with Babu Durga Charan Banerjee, went to my retreat at Seebpore, for engaging me to translate the Mahabharata into English, I was amazed with the grandeur of the scheme. My first question to him was,–whence was the money to come, opposing my competence for the task. Pratapa then unfolded to me the details of his plan, the hopes he could legitimately cherish of assistance from different quarters. He was full of enthusiasm. He showed me Dr. Rost’s letter, which, he said, had suggested to him the undertaking. I had known Babu Durga Charan for many years and I had the highest opinion of his scholarship and practical good sense. When he warmly took Pratapa’s side for convincing me of the practicability of the scheme, I listened to him patiently. The two were for completing all arrangements with me the very day. To this I did not agree. I took a
week’s time to consider. I consulted some of my literary friends, foremost among whom was the late lamented Dr. Sambhu C. Mookherjee. The latter, I found, had been waited upon by Pratapa. Dr. Mookherjee spoke to me of Pratapa as a man of indomitable energy and perseverance. The result of my conference with Dr. Mookherjee was that I wrote to Pratapa asking him to see me again. In this second interview estimates were drawn up, and everything was arranged as far as my portion of the work was concerned. My friend left with me a specimen of translation which he had received from Professor Max Muller. This I began to study, carefully comparing it sentence by sentence with the original. About its literal character there could be no doubt, but it had no flow and, therefore, could not be perused with pleasure by the general reader. The translation had been executed thirty years ago by a young German friend of the great Pundit. I had to touch up every sentence. This I did without at all impairing faithfulness to the original. My first ‘copy’ was set up in type and a dozen sheets were struck off. These were submitted to the judgment of a number of eminent writers, European and native. All of them, I was glad to see, approved of the specimen, and then the task of translating the Mahabharata into English seriously began.
Before, however, the first fasciculus could be issued, the question as to whether the authorship of the translation should be publicly owned, arose. Babu Pratapa Chandra Roy was against anonymity. I was for it. The reasons I adduced were chiefly founded upon the impossibility of one person translating the whole of the gigantic work. Notwithstanding my resolve to discharge to the fullest extent the duty that I took up, I might not live to carry it out. It would take many years before the end could be reached. Other circumstances than death might arise in consequence of which my connection with the work might cease. It could not be desirable to issue successive fasciculus with the names of a succession of translators appearing on the title pages. These and other considerations convinced my friend that, after all, my view was correct. It was, accordingly, resolved to withhold the name of the translator. As a compromise, however, between the two views, it was resolved to issue the first fasciculus with two prefaces, one over the signature of the publisher and the other headed–‘Translator’s Preface.’ This, it was supposed, would effectually guard against misconceptions of every kind.
No careful reader would then confound the publisher with the author.
Although this plan was adopted, yet before a fourth of the task had been accomplished, an influential Indian journal came down upon poor Pratapa Chandra Roy and accused him openly of being a party to a great literary imposture, viz., of posing before the world as the translator of Vyasa’s work when, in fact, he was only the publisher. The charge came upon my friend as a surprise, especially as he had never made a secret of the authorship in his correspondence with Oriental scholars in every part of the world. He promptly wrote to the journal in question, explaining the reasons there were for anonymity, and pointing to the two prefaces with which the first fasciculus had been given to the world. The editor readily admitted his mistake and made a satisfactory apology.
Now that the translation has been completed, there can no longer be any reason for withholding the name of the translator. The entire translation is practically the work of one hand. In portions of the Adi and the Sabha
Parvas, I was assisted by Babu Charu Charan Mookerjee. About four forms of the Sabha Parva were done by Professor Krishna Kamal Bhattacharya, and about half a fasciculus during my illness, was done by another hand. I should however state that before passing to the printer the copy received from these gentlemen I carefully compared every sentence with the original, making such alterations as were needed for securing a uniformity of style with the rest of the work. I should here observe that in rendering the Mahabharata into English I have derived very little aid from the three Bengali versions that are supposed to have been executed with care. Every one of these is full of
inaccuracies and blunders of every description. The Santi in particular which is by far the most difficult of the eighteen Parvas, has been made a mess of by the Pundits that attacked it. Hundreds of ridiculous blunders can be pointed out in both the Rajadharma and the Mokshadharma
sections. Some of these I have pointed out in footnotes.
I cannot lay claim to infallibility. There are verses in the Mahabharata that are exceedingly difficult to construe. I have derived much aid from the great commentator Nilakantha. I know that Nilakantha’s authority is
not incapable of being challenged. But when it is remembered that the interpretations given by Nilakantha came down to him from preceptors of olden days, one should think twice before rejecting Nilakantha as a guide.
About the readings I have adopted, I should say that as regards the first half of the work, I have generally adhered to the Bengal texts; as regards the latter half, to the printed Bombay edition. Sometimes individual sections, as occurring in the Bengal editions, differ widely,
in respect of the order of the verses, from the corresponding ones in the Bombay edition. In such cases I have adhered to the Bengal texts, convinced that the sequence of ideas has been better preserved in the
Bengal editions than the Bombay one.
I should express my particular obligations to Pundit Ram Nath Tarkaratna, the author of ‘Vasudeva Vijayam’ and other poems, Pundit Shyama Charan Kaviratna, the learned editor of Kavyaprakasha with the commentary of Professor Mahesh Chandra Nayaratna, and Babu Aghore Nath Banerjee, the
manager of the Bharata Karyalaya. All these scholars were my referees on all points of difficulty. Pundit Ram Nath’s solid scholarship is known to them that have come in contact with him. I never referred to him a difficulty that he could not clear up. Unfortunately, he was not always
at hand to consult. Pundit Shyama Charan Kaviratna, during my residence at Seebpore, assisted me in going over the Mokshadharma sections of the Santi Parva. Unostentatious in the extreme, Kaviratna is truly the type of a learned Brahman of ancient India. Babu Aghore Nath Banerjee also has
from time to time, rendered me valuable assistance in clearing my difficulties.
Gigantic as the work is, it would have been exceedingly difficult for me to go on with it if I had not been encouraged by Sir Stuart Bayley, Sir Auckland Colvin, Sir Alfred Croft, and among Oriental scholars, by the
late lamented Dr. Reinhold Rost, and Mons. A. Barth of Paris. All these eminent men know from the beginning that the translation was proceeding from my pen. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm, with which my poor friend, Pratapa Chandra Roy, always endeavoured to fill me. I am sure my energies
would have flagged and patience exhausted but for the encouraging words which I always received from these patrons and friends of the enterprise.
Lastly, I should name my literary chief and friend, Dr. Sambhu C. Mookherjee. The kind interest he took in my labours, the repeated exhortations he addressed to me inculcating patience, the care with which he read every fasciculus as it came out, marking all those passages which threw light upon topics of antiquarian interest, and the words of praise he uttered when any expression particularly happy met his eyes, served to stimulate me more than anything else in going on with a task that sometimes seemed to me endless.
Kisari Mohan Ganguli