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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Recognition of Sakuntala
(अभिज्ञानशाकुन्तलम् trans. Arthur W. Ryder)


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To purchase The Recognition of Sakuntala

Title: The Recognition of Sakuntala
Author: Kalidasa
Genre: Drama
Written: ca. 400 (Eng. 1912)
Length: 94 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Recognition of Sakuntala - US
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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing simple version

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Arthur Ryder's early 20th century translation of Kalidasa's Sakuntala is one of the more enduring and frequently reprinted ones, despite a wealth of competition. Freely accessible (it's out of copyright, unlike many recent translations) but already considerably more refined than earlier versions (such as those by Monier-Williams and Sir William Jones), it's a convenient and entirely adequate choice.
       Sakuntala is perhaps the classic Indian play, at least as seen from a Western perspective; for a more detailed summary of the play, see our review of Barbara Stoler Miller's translation, Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection.
       It is a drama filled with poetry, and Ryder opted to try to attempt to convey the poetic feel, rather than aim for complete fidelity to the text. Because Sanskrit is so very different from English -- the lengthy nominal compounds alone are almost impossible to translate, except in even more expansive English -- and given the difficulty of rendering the text literally "accurately" even if no attention is paid to other aspects of it (specifically the Sanskrit poetics) this doesn't seem the worst choice.
       What results is admittedly a tamed-down Anglicised version that sounds comfortably familiar, as Ryder writes from within the English tradition (and hence loses many of the Indian-Sanskrit aspects in the process). It does, however, make the play approachable. And it does convey some of the poetry of the play, a light touch and feel that is markedly absent from most of the other translations.
       Sometimes he seems to stray away from the text too much, but the effect remains. Compare, for example, the same passage translated by Miller and Ryder:
       Miller's appears to be close to literal -- and, in this case, she manages to express the verse fairly elegantly as well -- when the king moons over Sakuntala:

       The divine creator imagined perfection
       and shaped her ideal form in his mind --
       when I recall the beauty his power wrought,
       she shines like a gemstone among my jewels.
       Ryder embellishes and twists the words more than necessary, and doesn't quite capture Kalidasa's simpler praise -- but his version is also effective:
She is God's vision, of pure thought
       Composed in His creative mind;
His reveries of beauty wrought
       The peerless pearl of womankind.
So plays my fancy when I see
How great is God, how lovely she.
       There is actually considerable agreement between the Miller and Ryder versions (less so the Chandra Rajan version); little of the meaning is found in one and not the other -- suggesting Ryder's is also close enough to the literal to be satisfactory in this regard.
       The greatest advantage of the Ryder version is simply that it reads well. The rhymes, and the familiar English expression (rather than forced circumlocutions found so often in translations from the Sanskrit), make it an easy -- and good -- read. Because of this Ryder's rendering is perhaps a good introductory Sakuntala, the right version to read first, to see simply how the story goes and get a feel for it. Interested readers can then move on to a more academic version, perhaps with more supporting material.
       Ryder does offer a brief, informative introductory essay, but otherwise there is no supporting material, and anyone who really wants to plumb the depths of Sakuntala needs to look further. But for readers having a first look, or those wanting just a sense of what all the fuss is about, this version is certainly adequate and appealing.

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Abhijnanasakuntala: Kalidasa: Other translations of Abhijnanasakuntala under review: Other works by Kalidasa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Kalidasa (कालिदास) 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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