Somewhere, perhaps, the spirit of Thomas Macaulay is troubled. "I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves," the British imperialist wrote in 1835, justifying the decision that all public education in India supported by the colonizers be conducted in English. "I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia."

Macaulay's imperious assertion has been swatted aside by the English-speaking world. Recently, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the major religious texts in the Hindu tradition. October alone promises two new translations. But as with any work of ancient provenance ("The Iliad" and the Bible come to mind), the quality of translation can vary widely.

Literally translated, Bhagavad Gita means "Song of the Lord." A Sanskrit poem, the Gita is part of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata. The larger story is of the war between two sets of royal cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, over control of the ancient kingdom of Kurukshetra in northern India. The warrior Arjuna, one of five Pandava brothers, decides, upon arriving at the battlefield and seeing his extended family arrayed in front of him, that he does not want to fight. He would rather his side cede control of the kingdom than engage in what he feels would be senseless killing.

The Gita is a response to Arjuna's anguish by his charioteer, the Lord Krishna. It touches on everything from duty and obligation to the nature of reality and the omnipotence and omnipresence of god.

The academic world has long relied on Barbara Stoler Miller's 1986 translation of the Gita. It is a pocket-sized parcel of beauty, grace, and wisdom. The same cannot be said of either of the two new versions. The first, Stephen Mitchell's, is subtitled "A New Translation." It is not. Mitchell admits that "my knowledge of Sanskrit is rudimentary." He consulted several other translations and relied on Sanskritic commentary to come up with his "translation." "What seemed to me essential was finding a line that had the dignity of formal verse, yet was free and supple enough to sound like natural speech," Mitchell says.

In that he succeeds. When Krishna reveals his cosmic form to Arjuna, Mitchell translates Arjuna's response thus: "I see all gods in your body and multitudes of beings, Lord, and Brahma on his lotus throne, and the seers, and the shining angels. I see you everywhere, with billions of arms, eyes, bellies, faces, without end, middle, or beginning, your body the whole universe, Lord."

The question, though, is why should one want the Bhagavad Gita to read prosaically. What elevates a masterpiece above a middling text is not only its message but the shape and style of the language. Without F. Scott Fitzgerald's touch, "The Great Gatsby" would be a cheap dime-store melodrama about lost love. Without translator Richard Lattimore's command and complexity, "The Iliad" reverts to a silly war tale not much different than other silly war tales.

Miller's take on the same scene does not sound like "natural speech", but it is more beautifully conceived. She writes, "I see the gods in your body, O God, and hordes of varied creatures: Brahma, the cosmic creator, on his lotus throne, all the seers and celestial serpents. I see your boundless form everywhere, the countless arms, bellies, mouths, and eyes; Lord of All, I see no end, or middle or beginning to your totality."

Mitchell's text may be an easier read. But it is less rewarding. Carl Woodham's translation, on the other hand, is all but useless. The cover of Woodham's book claims that his is "A New, Easy-to-Understand Edition of India's Timeless Masterpiece of Spiritual Wisdom." Facile would have been a better description. Woodham has written the Gita in rhyming couplets. Miller, in translating a passage of the third teaching, writes, "As the ignorant act with attachment to actions, Arjuna, so wise men should act with detachment to preserve the world. No wise man disturbs the understanding of ignorant men attached to action; he should inspire them, performing all actions with discipline."

In Woodham's hands, the phrase becomes, "Foolish people, seeking gain, work hard all day and night. Sages also work quite hard to set the people right. Sages never stop the work of those who seek reward; They instruct them how to work in service to the Lord."

This is the Bhagavad Gita as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

Macaulay, it turns out, may not have had it all wrong. One shelf of a good European library is not worth more than the native literature of India and Arabia. But one shelf of a good European library is worth infinitely more than ill-conceived translations of the literature of India and Arabia. "Bhagavad Gita: The Song Divine"
Translated by Carl E. Woodham, Torchlight
"Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation"
Translated by Stephen Mitchell, Harmony Books

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