Traps and Treasures of Translation: 2

. . . Gold or False Gold
So I was talking about mistranslation as a stage in the adventure of always reaching for the best possible translation and coming up a little short as Achilles always will in the race with the Tortoise according to Zeno’s paradox. Here’s my example.

Narsinh Mehta, a 15th century Gujarati Indian poet-saint authored many songs of prayers to Krishna in the Bhakti tradition, like Mira or Kabir. They were believed to be contemporaries and some inquiry suggests that Mira and Narsinh knew each other’s work. Narsinh is least known of the three.

In one three-stanza poem he wrote, the speaker says she’s been bitten in the heart by that snake-victor, Krishna the black, but don’t give her medicine or send her to a doctor. Lay her at the feet of that famous snake charmer, Govind of Gokul. That doctor pronounces that the bite is deep and so Narsinh’s Lord rids her of the poison.

The text of the poem is colloquial, colorful, full of alliteration (a literary figure that Mehta used often) and very conversational. The term used for the speaker’s listener is a little unusual. In this poem the listener is called ma mu-see in transliteration. “Ma” universally means “mother” and poses no questions. The second term gave me pause. Guessing simply by the context of the phrasing I could use the term “mine” which works reasonably well. But since guesswork is anathema to a purist, I checked the Gujarati dictionary issued by the Gujarat Vidyapith. No such word existed now. Quite possible because this is medieval Gujarati we are talking about.

Ever the persistent researcher I checked nearby words for homonyms or approximations and I found an interesting term. It is in feminine gender and used as a polite prefix for a woman; e.g. Mrs. Originally Mrs. meant “mistress” as Mr. meant “master.” In current usage, the closest word for the same effect might be “lady,” an indicator of some politeness. So, my translation might well read, “lady mother.” It actually works for this poem. In the second stanza the term appears by itself, and, using “lady” again gives coherence to the translation!

So, delighted, I went off on a tangent. After all, the key here is that speaker is rendered poison-less (nirvish in Guj). Such an event is not part of the usual trove of Krishna stories from the major source, Srimad Bhagavatam, or any other derivations. But, yes there is a very famous woman who was not hurt by drinking poison. None other than Mehta’s semi-contemporary, Mira! And who sent her the poison? Ah, it came from her husband’s family. Mirabai might very well address her mother-in-law as “lady mother,” or “lady.”
The icing on my angelic translation cake is the source term I found. It is musammaat, derived from Arabic. Muslim invasions were wreaking their havoc in this era. Such a triple-layered signification: historic motif of mother-in-law persecution of daughter-in-law, true experience of Mira, and hint of the religious conflict makes some magic. I was enchanted!

This is the TRAP! Do not react or take action before reading the next post:True Treasure.

About meenapoetartisan

word lover, meaning maniac, bilingual with metalingual interests, sometimes potter, poet, playwright, writer, mover to music, always a pontificator.
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