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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Cloud Messenger
(मेघदूत trans. Franklin and Eleanor Edgerton)


general information | our review | links | about the author

Title: The Cloud Messenger
Author: Kalidasa
Genre: Poetry
Written: ca. 400 (Eng. 1964)
Length: 81 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Cloud Messenger - US
The Cloud Messenger - UK
  • Sanskrit title: मेघदूत
  • Translated by Franklin and Eleanor Edgerton
  • With an Introduction by Franklin Edgerton
  • With drawings by Robert I. Russin
  • The (transliterated) Sanskrit text is included
  • See also our reviews of other translations of the Meghaduta:

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Our Assessment:

B : decent translation of the classic poem

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Kalidasa's classic poem, the Meghaduta ("(poem) wherein a cloud is messenger", as the Edgertons translate the title), remains a popular target for translators. The Edgertons', from 1964, is a reasonably successful one. (See also our reviews of the translations by Arthur Ryder (hereafter referred to as AR) and Leonard Nathan (hereafter referred to as LN).)
       The Edgertons present the poem with a fairly useful introduction (focussing particularly on difficulties that arise in translating from Kalidasa's Sanskrit), as well some fairly useful (if not very extensive) notes. They also present the Sanskrit text -- transliterated -- facing their translation, allowing for some comparison with the look and sound of the original. The version the Edgertons base their translation on differs slightly from both AR (which has 115 stanzas; the Edgertons' only 110) and LN (111 stanzas). It is not meant to be a "critical edition"; the version they present, like AR and LN, is certainly an adequate approximation of the text.
       The Edgertons pay particular attention to Sanskrit poetics. Acknowledging that the basically quantitative metre of Sanskrit poetry can not be recreated in English, they nevertheless go to some pains to show readers how Kalidasa's poem works in the original, and what compromises were made in presenting it in English. The Meghaduta was written in four-line stanzas, each line having seventeen syllables, in a metre called "mandakranta" ("the slowly approaching", as they translate it). The Edgertons also present their translation in unrhymed four-line stanzas (cf. AR, who uses five-line rhymed stanzas, and LN, who uses six-line unrhymed stanzas). They have also tried to keep the length of each line close to Kalidasa's seventeen syllables -- without being too rigid about it. The look and feel of the original is thus presented fairly well in the translation (though the sound and much of the poetry is lost).

       The Cloud Messenger is a poem built on an unusual premise. A yaksha ("one of a class of demigods, attendants on Kubera, the god of wealth") has been sent into exile for a year "for neglect of duty". He is separated "from his dear wife", and after eight months apart from her, at the beginning of the rainy season, he decides to send a message to her -- via a passing cloud. This charming if unlikely device seems to trouble some critics (believing that the poem is "overfanciful, too unreal" the Edgertons note). Kalidasa addresses the concern in the fifth stanza, admitting "what could a message mean to a cloud", but readers certainly should be willing to accept the premise.
       Most of the poem describes the voyage, and what the cloud will pass along the way. The end, then, describes what the cloud-messenger will find, as well as the message he has been sent to relay.
       The Edgertons do a good job most of the way, particularly in the stanzas conveying the message. There are a few rough spots along the way: "vapors streaming from lattices" (32), for example, is a puzzling translation ("Incense (...) drifting up through latticed windows" (LN, 32) and "odours through the windows drifting" (AR, I.xxxii) are much clearer). The yaksha worries that his wife is "dispirited by sunderance from me" (84), a jarring word-choice (cf. LN : "suffers separation" (85)).
       Some word-choices are also not helped by the change in usage in the time since the translation was published -- so, for example, the unfortunate "Hanging there on networks of fiber" (69) ("hung from a web of threads" (LN, 67) and "hung in nets of thread" (AR, II.vii) are luckier choices).
       The Edgertons do present the yaksha's message well. Throughout they also show a willingness to try to imitate the run-on compounds so common in Sanskrit, often to good effect. Comparative stanzas (64, comparing the city of Alaka to the cloud -- "The palaces there compare with thee in many varied ways", etc. --, for example) generally come off better here than in LN and AR.
       Among the most challenging stanzas is 98 -- "the climax of the poem" (or the "tonal climax", as LN would have it). The Edgertons admit that: "In a language like English, which does not inflect nouns and adjectives, it is hard to reproduce the stunning effect of the stark and passionate simplicity of this verse". Usefully, however, they parse the passage in an extensive note, suggesting what is missed in their rendering. Their translation itself is not ideal, but seems a reasonable compromise:

With his body thy body he enters; all-haggard body with haggard;
   Fevered with intensely fevered; tear-flowing with tearful; incessantly eager
With eager; hotly sighing with yet more abundantly sighing;
   In his thoughts, far distant as he is, and the way barred by adverse fate.
       LN chooses a more straightforward rendering, going perhaps too far in his compromises:
'He, far off, a hostile fate blocking
his way, by mere wish joins his body
with your body, his thinness with your thinness,
his pain with your intense pain, his tears
with your tears, his endless longing
with your longing, his deep sigh with your sigh
       AR succeeds in making the stanza a poetic, English version -- but here the transformation is complete, the Sanskrit word-play completely abandoned in favour of tried and true English:
   With body worn as thine, with pain as deep,
With tears and ceaseless longings answering thine,
   With sighs more burning than the sighs that keep
Thy lips ascorch -- doomed far from thee to pine,
He too doth weave the fancies that thy soul entwine.
       This stanza shows the differences between these three translations at their starkest.

       The Edgertons' version is not entirely successful. It lacks some of the poetry of both AR and LN, but is truer in trying to preserve the uniquely Sanskrit elements of the poem. Along with the notes (and the transliterated Sanskrit text) it is certainly a useful version -- but it still is only a shadow of Kalidasa's great work.

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Other translations of the Meghaduta under review: Other works by Kalidasa under review: Kalidasa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Kalidasa probably lived during the reign of Candragupta II (ca. 380-413). Only three dramas and a few poems of his survive, but he continues to be revered as one of the greatest Sanskrit playwrights and poets.

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