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Lively debate marks launch of Kannada classic in Harvard series

Bengaluru,Jan 17,2017, DHNS: 0:32 IST
Playwright Girish Karnad releases 'The Life of Harishchandra', English translation of Raghavanka's epic 'Harischandra Kavya' on Monday. Translator Vanamala Vishwanath, member of the library's editorial board Sunil Sharma, Infosys Foundation chairperson Sudha Murty and member of the library oversight committee Parimal Patil look on. DH PHOTO
A 13th century Kannada classic about Harischandra the truthful is the latest addition to the Murty Classical Library of India.

A gathering of distinguished scholars and literature lovers discussed aspects of translation, society, culture and ethics at the release of its English translation, The Life of Harishchandra, at the ITC Gardenia on Monday.

As translator Vanamala Vishwanatha read out select Kannada verses and their translated English passages, the audience marvelled at the grand beauty of the poetry of Raghavanka, now accessible to readers of English.

It took three years and a half for Vanamala to translate the 728 verses arranged in 14 chapters of Harishchandra Kavyam, in what she describes as a ‘transformative journey.’ One of the challenges for her was to tackle an intense, ‘hyperbolic’ classic into English, a language of understatement.

“Should we be like Harishchandra the truthful or even like the sages Vasishta and Vishwamitra who put him through extreme trials?” was a question many speakers took up, even if briefly and in passing.

This is the first time the book has been translated into a language other than Kannada, Sharmila Sen, editor-at-large at Harvard University Press, said. (The book has been ‘translated’ into contemporary Kannada by at least six scholars.)

For Sudha Murty, who as an eight-year-old had heard Harischandra Kavyam from her mother, it was a simple fable about honesty. “If you are truthful, you will be rewarded by God,” is the message she said she took away, even as erudite scholars discussed its ‘architectonics,’ ‘deconstruction’ and ‘subversion.’

The text also gave Sudha Murty an entry into the world of classical literature, a love of which she said she had passed on to son Rohan Murty. “There results are there to see,” she said, to applause.

The Murty Classical Library of India has published 13 books in three years, digging into the treasures of Indian literature and commissioning translators to render them into English. The brief is clear: translate into easy-to-understand prose in English.

But, Vanamala found, texts like Harishchandra Kavya lose their panache when they are stripped of their poetry. The editors stepped in, and she worked with them almost daily for a year, and compromises were negotiated. This is the first Kannada book in the series; she plans to work on Akka Mahadevi next.

The Murty Classical Library is the brainchild of Rohan, who has provided a generous endowment to Harvard University. When, as a student of computer science, he opted to study classics, he realised how poorly India was represented. The reason: lack of good translations. At best a Kalidasa was studied in Sanskrit, but the wealth of writing in other Indian languages was not recognised. He hopes with the publication of this series, great Indian writers such as Raghavanka will now be known in academia across the world.
The book is priced at Rs 395 (paperback) and Rs 1595 (harback) and is available online.

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