South Asian Literature in Translation: Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita

Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary translated from Sanskrit by Amit Majmudar

Publication date: 20 March, 2018
Publisher: Knopf; Translation edition
ISBN-10: 1524733474
ISBN-13: 978-1524733476

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

AM: My book is Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary. Its authorship is almost a theological question! At one level, it is Vyasa, the ancient poet of the epic Mahabharata, of which the Gita is a part. But the Mahabharata grew by accretion over time, and some scholars think of Vyasa as a “compiler” like Homer, or as the author of a core text, or as a literary construct (he is a character in the epic itself). If you believe that, there may be an anonymous author who composed it and interpolated it into the epic. And then there is the third notion, which is that the Gita is divinely inspired, or the transcription of a divine teaching—so in that sense, the author is divine!

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

AM: I wanted a way to read it more deeply. Also, some other translations are pretty terrible, making this lovely and tight poem sound like a longwinded treatise. So there was a gap crying out for a practicing poet who would engage with the original text.

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

AM: The main challenge was engaging with Sanskrit—I’m still not as good as I want to be, and a lot of my knowledge has decayed over the past few years. It’s going to be a lifelong process (I’m translating it again, in fact, this time into alliterative verse.) The big surprise was how many Sanskrit words have Greek and Latin equivalents, very evident from the etymological roots (jnana and gnosis both meaning knowledge is a readily identifiable one, but there are several other more obscure ones I found.) This is because of a distant, common ancestor to all these ancient languages: Proto-Indo-European. It just thrills me to think of Vyasa and Homer writing in such mutually echoing languages! East is East and West is West, and ever the twain have met.

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

AM: That it’s not like other scriptures—it’s not doctrinaire, it never “others” nonbelievers. In fact, it doesn’t even contain the word “Hindu” (none of the Hindu holy texts do.) It’s actually quite accessible and has a cohesive, frankly fascinating way of laying out the human condition and how to navigate it. You can save yourself years of studying Indian theology, psychology, and ethics by studying the Gita because it’s a compendium and summary of a very rich tradition—complete with practical application.

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

AM: As I mentioned, I’m re-translating the Gita but that’s not a project I am going to release in the near future. (Two translations of the Gita by the same poet, with zero overlapping lines, in two different verse forms, two years apart would quite confuse the world—the paperback version of Godsong hasn’t even been released yet!) So my next book-length translation will be a translation of Kabir into rhymed English verse, entitled The Mystical Rhymes of Kabir. I’m the first poet I know of to translate Kabir’s verse, which is rich with songlike rhymes in the original, into rhymes in English. Samples can be read here and here.

Author Bio: Vyasa (/ˈvjɑːsə/Sanskrit: व्यासः, literally “Compiler”) is the traditional author of the Mahabharata, and Puranas, as well as the traditional compiler of the Vedas.  [Source: Wikipedia]

Translator Bio: Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator. His latest books include Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the poetry collection What He Did in Solitary (Knopf,  2020). The former first Poet Laureate of Ohio, he is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and three children. (Image Source: Amit Majmudar)

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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