David Shulman in The New Republic discusses the sad state of awareness of Sanskrit literature: “The astonishing fact is that cultivated readers of [European] tongues may have never heard of Kalidasa, or of the no less important Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Magha, and Sriharsha.”

Happily, help has now arrived. In the last decade, a new library of translations from Sanskrit has begun to appear. It is called the Clay Sanskrit [Library], named after the generous donor who has made it all possible, John P. Clay, who took a degree in Sanskrit from Oxford University many years ago. More than thirty volumes have already appeared in this extraordinary project, with another twenty or more in the pipeline. And so, for the first time in English, we have the beginnings of a representative canon of Sanskrit literary works, for the most part well translated and accessible to a wide public.
The Clay volumes are patterned after the justifiably celebrated Loeb Classical Library for Greek and Latin: small, elegant books, beautifully printed, sparsely annotated, and bilingual—the Sanskrit, transliterated into Roman characters in a system devised by the Clay editors, sits on the left page, facing the English translation on the right. This arrangement naturally delights students of Sanskrit, who may dispense, at least temporarily, with their dictionaries and grammar books; but you do not have to know Sanskrit to enjoy reading these volumes. Indeed, their raison d’être is to win for the Sanskrit classics an audience outside India, and certainly beyond the limited scholarly circles that have, for the last two centuries or so, studied these works, produced critical editions and philological commentaries, and sometimes also translated them into Western languages, almost invariably badly.

This is an excellent thing, and I wish these volumes had been around when I was sullenly studying Sanskrit 35 years ago. Thanks, Kári!


  1. Is our ignorance of Sanskrit lit especially astonishing or lamentable? Any more than our ignorance of ancient Finnish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese lit, of equal importance to their respective cultures?

  2. “”Shall I set in motion moist breezes by (means of) cool lotus-leaf-fans which-removed languor? Or placing thy feet, brown as the lotus, O round-thighed (maiden), in (my) lap shall I rub them soothingly?” That, believe it or not, is another verse from the play by Kalidasa that I mentioned at the start.”
    I notice that he jeers at the indications of supplied words–but one sees exactly the same approach (albeit with different typography) in the single most celebrated translation in the English language. As in the KJV’s case, “stilted” idioms can develop the language, rather than defacing it.

  3. “(This fuzziness in dating, unthinkable in China or the Mediterranean world, is perfectly normative for classical India. We are lucky if we can identify the century, more or less, in which a great poet may have lived.)”
    Clearly Shulman has never heard of Homer. Or Beowulf. Both founding documents of their respective literatures.
    (I could go on, of course.)

  4. I love the CSL editions, too, but the case that they fix the western ignorance problem isn’t completely convincing.
    There are, in fact, a number of translations of Sakuntala in print. In addition to the classic ones by William Jones, Arthur W. Ryder, and Monier-Williams, OUP has reprinted Chandra Rajan’s that Hawaii published in the 90s and Penguin has W. J. Johnson’s even more recent one (or maybe it’s the other way around). Both of these show up for real cheap in the used bookstores here, so someone is assigning them. Maybe the translations aren’t as good as the Clay one, but it’s not because they were made by fussy Victorian dons.
    If Westerners know more about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms than the Mahabharata, it’s because it has a better video game, I suspect.

  5. I shall look out for these. In my clumsy efforts to teach myself Hindi, I’ve developed a tendency to shy away from Sanskritic words. So many are inordinately polysyllabic that I’m reminded of schlangenwörter, except harder to pronounce. Maybe the Clay transliterations will make it easier for me to overcome this antipathy. In the meantime, if anybody knows of decent translations of the epics into Hindi, I’d love to know.

  6. There are, in fact, a number of translations of Sakuntala in print.
    Indeed, but I think the point is that we need to get beyond Sakuntala and bits of the Ramayana.

  7. I think Aaron Johnson’s comment is an admirable summing up of the reason why all this translation is futile:
    “At the end of the day, foreign literatures have long been known, and there is a reason why so much has failed to gain widespread dissemination. Not because they aren’t beautiful, but because maybe they are not so very different from what we have in our own vernacular.”
    This is such a wonderful argument against the broadening of horizons, I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it myself.

  8. I’d never even thought about Sanskrit literature before reading this post — if you’d asked me whether it existed my answer would have been a guess — and I doubt if I’m going to read a huge quantity of it. But if I was to read just one translation, where should I start?

  9. Definitely Sakuntala—it’s a lovely play. There are a number of translations; read a bit of as many as you can find at your local large bookstore (or online via Amazon or Google Books) and pick the one whose style you like best.

  10. The “clay” through me for a loop – I kept thinking “cuneiform” …

  11. John Emerson says

    It’s odd that this has taken as long as it has, because India has a lot of good English language writers, scholars, and even publishing houses.
    I had a friend who regretted studying Sanskrit about 30 years ago. All just boring old sutras and sastras, he told me. I have no idea where he got that. He really had studied Sanskrit and was quite learned in Chinese.
    I’d love to know more about the rajas’ Greek lady bodyguards in some of the plays.

  12. Don’t forget that Penguin Classics has a volume of Sanskrit Poetry, from 1977, I believe. I bought it years ago and was always enchanted by the poetry. I don’t know where it is now.

  13. Sakuntala it is, then. Thanks.

  14. Emerson,
    Was your friend primarily focused on Buddhist studies? (The pairing of Sanskrit & Chinese makes me suspicious.) If so, then I understand completely how he could have come away with that impression of Sanskrit literature.

  15. John Emerson says

    Yeah, but it sort of bothers me that he didn’t look further.

  16. parvomagnus says

    I’m glad I can put off mastering Devanagiri just that much longer, as it makes my head spin. I’d quibble with one thing in these volumes – the incredibly unhelpful pronunciation guide. Illustrating Sanskrit aspirated and unaspirated ‘p’ with ‘upheaval’ and ‘pill’, respectively, as the Clay Library does, is going to help exactly nobody. It’s not even accurate.

  17. David Marjanović says

    It should be the other way around, and even then it’s probably not quite right — in modern Hindi, the unaspirated supposed “p” is a voiceless [b], as found in English at the beginnings of words. Same as the Spanish p. I’ll dig up the soundfile tomorrow.

  18. “I’m glad I can put off mastering Devanagari just that much longer, as it makes my head spin”
    I found devanagari easy to grasp. I often think it would be great if we’d adopt it for English, since it’s so much more nearly one sound per character. Gurmukhi on the other hand, I am really struggling to master, for some reason I can’t fathom.

  19. parvomagnus says

    I found devanagari easy to grasp.
    Conceptually, me too. My difficulties are with its use in writing Sanskrit, mainly 1. conjunct consonants and 2. sandhi. The first, I think, would be a barrier to using it in English, without perhaps simplifying the common conjuncts.
    The second is not an inevitable feature of Brahmic scripts, just a parallel convention. The linguist in me kinda wishes such detail were notated in ancient Greek and Latin too, while the reader’s rather glad it wasn’t.

  20. Yes, devanagari was one of the things that kept me from being more interested in Sanskrit. Sad, but true.

  21. “Yes, devanagari was one of the things that kept me from being more interested in Sanskrit. Sad, but true.”
    Whereas my fondness for devanagari is a big part of the reason why I have little interest in Sanskrit.

  22. conrad’s first post gets into the question of what literatures we ought to be interested in, and that has as much to do with cultural background—in our case, the implicit comparison between the “oriental” and the greek and roman classics—as with personal taste or curiosity. i’d also venture that professor shulman has heard of homer and beowulf. i think he was referring rather to the fact that three-century uncertainty is the norm for sanskrit authors, whereas only one author in the greco-roman tradition, homer, even approaches that, and we have very specific biographical information about nearly all of the others.
    as for the transliteration issue, david shulman noted the kinds of word-play that form the artillery of sanskrit poetics: sometimes sanskrit utterances can be divided into words in different ways, producing different meanings, and roman transliteration with its insistence on explicit word-division doesn’t lend itself to representing it (whereas nagari is traditionally written without word-breaks). but nagari takes time to learn, and the entire purpose of the collection is to make the literature more accessible.
    “p” might sound closer to “b” in hindi, but in sanskrit it was defined as an unaspirated, unvoiced, stop consonant—closer to the “p” in “spot” than “pill,” but the idea in the clay guide is for each sound to be distinct.

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