Better A Live Sparrow Than A Stuffed Eagle

On March 26, 2013 by admin



Ashok Pande


[Ashok Pande is poet, painter and translator, working from Haldwani. His collection of poetry Dekhta Hoon Sapne got published in 1992.  He has translated Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate into Hindi and written books on Yehuda Amichai and Fernando Pessoa. His translations of Shamsher Bahadur Singh’s poems were published in 2002 as Broken and Scattered, and Viren Dangwal’s poems as It’s Been Long Since I Found Anything, in 2004. Other translations include: the novel Lust for LifeDharti Jaanti Hai (Yehuda Amichai’s poems), Ekaakipan ke Bees Arab Prakashvarsh (Shuntaro Tanikawa’s poems) and selected poems and prose by Fernando Pessoa. This is his acceptance speech for the Laxmi Prasad Nautiyal Lifetime Award which was bestowed upon him in 2009. Translation by HUG]


Traditionally and naturally, Scotsmen brew the best Scotch whiskey. Everybody knows that all Scotch whisky must be ripened in oak barrels for best results. The freshly fermented stuff must be matured and mellowed. And yes, as Scotch begins to age, the barrels breathe. Around 2 % of alcohol volume is lost to evaporation in the very first year. And a Scottish proverb tells us that indeed the humans have no right over this lost portion. That is the reason it is called Angel’s Share!  Only when this portion has evaporated do we get the transformed and magical substance that Scotch whiskey is.

Can one not say something like this about literary translations too?  During the act of translation it may so happen that things get lost from the original but it is also possible that certain facets get added to it, so much so that the writer may not have been even aware of these nuances and possibilities during the initial composition. Perhaps such a comparison sounds a bit outlandish to you but in order to buttress my point let me narrate to you a rare literary incident.

Not too many of you may have heard about Patrick Brandon. Critics and reviewers always felt that he did not exactly write first rate novels.  One of his novels was translated into French by one Penelope Wilton and it so happened that this version received the highest literary award in France. Actually, Wilton had taken so much literary license that this regular thriller got turned into an autobiography of sorts. The original book by Brandon got trashed by the reviewers and was not even a popular success. It sank.  In fact, during those days Brandon was pretty down and depressed by such a literary failure. He convinced himself that he will not wield his pen ever. And lo! This award, publication and amazing popularity of the translated book in France had literary agents and publishers making a beeline for him to buy the rights of his other works.

When he came to know about the changes that Wilton had made in his novel he was happy, but was also hounded by a strange moral quandary. Penelope Wilton had transformed his novel into an intimate work of art.


Omar Khayyam is justly considered the greatest khalifa in crafting and nurturing the rubaai form.  But this truly great eleventh century Persian poet was completely unknown in the wider world for centuries outside of Iran.

Till Edward FitzGerald came.  FitzGerald was considered eccentric and quaint in his own circles. It so happened that in 1856 one of his friends chanced upon a rare copy of Khayyam’s work in the Asiatic Library in Calcutta and sent it forthwith to FitzGerald  in England. Fitzgerald was studying Persian and the Islamic religion during those days. And in January 1859, in the form of a little pamphlet, the first edition (75 quatrains) of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam saw the light of the day. The translator’s name was not inscribed in it.  And in the early days not too many readers noticed this little pamphlet. But soon the translation became a rage, as if it got a life of its own – and eventually got translated into many more languages.  There were 5 editions in English by 1889. The rest is history.

Surely FitzGerald must be given credit for this initial breakthrough: for simply making the effort and for his labour in translating the text. Fitzgerald himself called his work transmoglorification.  In a letter to E. B. Cowell, written in 1859, he wrote:  “I suppose very few people have ever taken such pains in translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all cost, a thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.” Rubaai has now become an established literary form all over the world, outside of its strict Islamic roots.  For instance, Fernando Pessoa of Portugal and Nazim Hikmat of Turkey have also written their own Rubaiyat.


I am saying all this on such an occasion because this honour is being bestowed upon me primarily for my translations.  It has usually been a convention to disregard the translator and not consider him to be a litterateur proper.  His name, in a minor and inconsequential way, gets printed on that page where you have the publication and copyright details, price and so forth. On occasion, you don’t even have the appellation anuvaadak; what you see is anu, followed by a colon or a dot!

Therefore, I would like to thank the referees and judges of this award from the bottom of my heart. I am overwhelmed by the realization that this is actually an honour to all those translators who have spent lifetimes in silent and dedicated endeavour, mostly unknown and unperturbed by ignominy, and still opened up in front of us a rich vista of distant worlds and cultures.

I also know that I am not particularly qualified to receive this honour and was for a long time a bit hesitant and tentative – but this instance also makes me feel much more responsible, and I promise to work harder in the coming years so that I can be live up to your faith in and love for me.

Let me conclude by citing a small section from Vincent Van Gogh’s biography, Lust for Life:

“To work in this world humans have to first die within. Man does not come to this world for happiness. Nor to be merely honest. He is born to create great things for the whole of humanity. He arrives to infuse breadth of heart and soul. He comes to go across the limits of that crass ugliness in which most human beings are being daily grinded.”

And yes, to end, the justly well known words of Akbar Allahabadi:

दुनिया में हूं दुनिया का तलबगार नहीं हूं

बाज़ार से गुज़रा हूं ख़रीदार नहीं हूं.”


“Being in this world and not partaking in it

Passing through the marketplace and not buying anything”


One more time—to all of you, my gratitude. Thank you and Namaskar.


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