Sunday, November 6, 2016

Peacocks in the rain

One of the poems my students encountered this semester in Classical Indian Philosophy of Language is found in both in Mukula Bhaṭṭa's Abhidhāvṛttamātṛkā and Ānandavardhana's Dhvanyāloka. It describes "the cloud's friends" who cry out at the rain clouds. My students weren't sure who the "cloud's friends" were, and why it would mean "peacocks," even though Mukula explains that it is because they have similar qualities of fondness.

I explained their role in Sanskrit poetry, but without actually having seen peacocks singing and opening their feathers in the rain, it's difficult. Then I found this nice image, a woodblock by a fellow named Ralph Kiggell, in a book called The Third Thing. If you click you can read the accompanying Sanskrit poem (which I haven't tried to track down). It is by Yogeśvara and was translated by John Brough in Poems from the Sanskrit--I am not sure why the book says "anonymous" and doesn't credit the translator!


With tail-fans spread, and undulating wings,
With whose vibrating pulse the air now sings,
Their voices lifted, and their beaks stretched wide,
Treading the rhythmic dance from side to side,
Eyeing the rainclouds dark, majestic hue,
Richer in color than their own throat's blue,
With necks upraised, to which their tails advance,
Now in the rains, the screaming peacocks dance.

This made me think a bit about the difficulty of translating poetry. Here there is rhyme, which signals "this is a poem" to a lot of readers, but at the expense of a sing-song quality that may not match the original meter. What is it that translators aim at when translating poetry? Since poetry is "sound and sense" as the Alaṁkāra tradition puts it, it's basically impossible to get both together precisely in source and target language. Here's the Sanskrit of the poem my students read: