I’m translating Mahabharata for young English-speaking readers: Bibek Debroy

July 1st, 2012 - 1:30 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, July 1 (IANS) Well-known economist Bibek Debroy is addressing a growing need among youngsters bred on English as their staple tongue: He is translating the Indian epic Mahabharata in 11 volumes into contemporary English.

Unusual for a full-time economist, who is a research professor at the Centre for Policy Research, an economic and socio-political think-tank. But Debroy is a veteran at his job. The economist has translated the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita before taking on the Mahabharata in 2009, when he published his first volume.

“There is no satisfactory answer as to why I wanted to translate the Mahabharata. It came from inside and I felt that I needed to do it to purge that internal urge,” Debroy told IANS in an interview.

Debroy says contrary to popular impressions, “there aren’t any unabridged or complete translations of the Mahabharata in English”.

“Most of the ones that one sees are abridged and other attempts are still incomplete. The two completed and unabridged ones go back to the late 19th century, when the ‘Critical Edition of the Mahabharata’ did not exist. The language is archaic,” Debroy said.

The “Critical Edition of the Mahabharata” that takes into account various versions of the Sanskrit epic compiled over centuries runs into 13,000 pages in 19 volumes. It was collated by scholars of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune between 1919 and 1966. This work, often referred to as the “Poona” edition of the Mahabharata, is used for current studies of the epic.

But the critical edition with his explanatory and comparative notes puts off young readers, who are used to single uninterrupted narratives. “There is a new generation brought up on English. They do not have access to vernacular translations and the knowledge of Sanskrit is dying out. Therefore someone needs to address the vacuum,” Debroy said.

The fifth volume of Debroy’s Mahabharata was published by Penguin Books India this month. It is the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata in which Amba is reborn as Shikhandi, the eunuch who is used strategically in the war between the Kaurava and Pandava brothers. The volume includes Bhishma Parva, which covers the first 10 days of the war. It touches on Krishna’s first words of advice to Arjuna and enters the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Drona is made the commander of the Kuru army for five days of the war after Bhishma’s fall.

“Actually, six volumes are now complete, since the manuscript of the sixth is also ready. On an average, I try to extract time for 1,500-2,000 words - one chapter - every day. I don’t do it everyday, especially when I am travelling. I usually work on the Mahabharata in the evenings, cutting down on some social engagements,” Debroy said.

The final manuscript of the 11th volume of the translated epic will be ready by the first half of 2014.

The machanism of translation is complex. Debroy simultaneously reads and translates the epic.

“I read the Sanskrit and translate on the computer. Ninety-five percent of the cases are straight-forward. In five percent of the cases, I have to consult dictionaries and in some instances, even dictionaries don’t help. I have to chase references and do some research,” Debroy said.

After doing his draft translation, Debroy checks with translators Kishori Mohan Ganguly, Manmatha Nath Dutt, J.A.B van Buitenen and John Smith (if he has done the relevant part) to discover if he has “missed something”.

“Once the page is off my computer screen, I don’t take a second look until the time the editor asks for clarifications, if any,” Debroy said.

The author believes that the Mahabharata is still relevant because it deals with human sentiments and relationships which are universal even though the contexts might have changed.

“I think part of the problem is that readers (not just young ones) read watered down and distilled versions that tend to over-simplify. The unabridged versions of the Mahabharata are much more interesting - and the characters are not good or bad in black and white,” Debroy said.

The Mahabharata is entirely about dharma, Debroy says. “And dharma is relative, not absolute. All of us have to find the dharma in our lives, the reason for existence. We find our own answers and our questions in the Mahabharata,” the writer said.

If Debroy had a wishlist, he would have “liked to be born in 19th century Bengal with a benefactor funding the Mahabharata project”.

Debroy, who mastered the source language of Sanskrit, has a deep knowledge of Indian mythology and the scriptures. He is also fond of dogs and Bengal is close to his heart.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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