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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation / literary criticism

Translating the Orient

Dorothy Matilda Figueira

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To purchase Translating the Orient

Title: Translating the Orient
Author: Dorothy Matilda Figueira
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1991
Length: 211 pages
Availability: Translating the Orient - US
Translating the Orient - UK
Translating the Orient - Canada
  • The Reception of Sakuntala in Nineteenth-Century Europe

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating study, well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Journal of Asian Studies . 5/1992 S. Pollock
Religious Studies Review . (1992) Francis X. Clooney
South Atlantic Review . 5/1992 Steven F. Walker

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The complete review's Review:

       Kalidasa's play, Sakuntala, was eagerly embraced by the Western world when it first reached Europe, acclaimed as a work that belonged in the pantheon of world literature and seen as proof that the Greek and western tradition of drama was not the only one that could create a masterpiece. (For more about the play itself, see our discussions of the translations by Barbara Stoler Miller, Arthur W. Ryder, and Chandra Rajan.) It was also a first glimpse of India, an exotic, largely unknown world that Europeans could shape through their readings of the play.
       Dorothy Matilda Figueira looks at the reception of the play, and the early translations, and it makes for a fascinating study of how the west took to the Orient -- as well as of translation theory. She focuses only on the earliest translations, before the study of Indology was fully established:

those from the period when Sanskrit translations were still very much a matter of fantasy and game. it was also during this period that European language renditions were influenced by rigid national translation conventions.
       Figueira consider Sir William Jones' 1789 translation the first of a complete Sanskrit text without Persian intermediary (though she notes he first rendered it into Latin -- a version that has, unfortunately, been lost). It started a veritable avalanche: she counts at least forty-six translations in twelve languages in the hundred years that followed. What particularly interests her is the "free play" approach the early translators took:
The discovery of Sanskrit literature, exemplified by the reception of the Sakuntala, provided translators with a screen upon which to both project and conceal specific cultural, psychological, and religious concerns. With so few pedagogical tools available, it was difficult to assimilate in any more than a rudimentary fashion this new and different literature. Later linguistic refinement overcame teh distortions made by the first generation of Sanskritists and led to a loss of the "free play" which had characterized
       The books offers everything from a solid summary of the play itself to a historical survey of the translations and a discussion of the difficulties translation from the Sanskrit poses, both generally and especially in those early days. All readers of Sanskrit in translation should be aware that:
       Since Sanskrit verses have very strict and definite metrical forms, complex patterns of assonance and alliteration and qualities of rhythm and musicality, it is difficult to render them directly into another language. The difficulties of translation are complicated by the highly inflected nature of Sanskrit and its capacity for building
       The central section of the book offers a close analysis of different approaches to three short sections from the fifth act of the play. Figueira provides the (transliterated) original, a "minimal translation", Jones' version, and then a selection of other translations, including into German, French, and Italian. The translations are also highlighted and marked, to show where translators strayed (and how far they strayed). She then provides brief commentary on each translation. Comparative translations aren't everyone's cup of tea, but Figueira shows that it can be a very revealing exercise, and though it takes a bit of effort to follow along it is a fascinating bit of intellectual and literary history. She ably demonstrates:
       This selection of Sakuntala translations, with the exception of Jones' and Rückert's admirable renditions, are of little interest to the modern Indologist. They are, however, provocative to modern readers. Their worth resides inb their ability to communicate a perceptionof concerns shaping their own time. More significantly, they are valuable expressions of a phnatom India arising from particular motives and ideals.
       Additional chapters then consider the different implications, as well as later Sakuntala-reception, including a variety of dramatic adaptations.

       Translating the Orient is a quick, broad, and very readable survey -- with over a hundred pages of comparative translations in the middle. Figueira gets to her many points quickly and ties them up succinctly: this book could have been padded and wound up being many times as long (and sometimes one wishes it had), but she sticks to the essentials. It's fascinating and thought-provoking -- and, except for some of the translations themselves -- readily approachable.
       Highly recommended for anyone interested in translation, as well as those interested in how the West took to India.

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Translating the Orient: Kalidasa's Sakuntala: Translations of Sakuntala under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dorothy Matilda Figueira was born in 1955. She teaches at BYU.

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