Trawittering – Sound Play in Sanskrit

तारतारतरैरेतैरुत्तरोत्तरतो रुतैः ।

रतार्त्ता तित्तिरी रौति तीरे तीरे तरौ तरौ ॥

listen to this verse

Before we come to the translation(s) of this verse, you’ve probably noticed something slightly unusual about it – a predominance of ‘t’s and ‘r’s. These are in fact the only two consonants used, alongside an assortment of vowels. In Sanskrit such a verse is called a dvyakṣarī – literally a ‘two-letter’ verse. There are single-consonant verses – ekākṣarīs – and similarly verses that deliberately use only three or four consonants (after that it becomes far too easy…). Such verses are prized more for their sound and their ability to impress the literati than for their poetic sentiment. Indeed often the meaing is secondary, if not inconsequential.

Accordingly a translation of the meaning alone does little to convey the nature of the original:

Wracked with love, the partridge laments upon every river bank and every tree, his cries growing shriller with each passing moment.

Instead we need to try and convey something of the form – as well as the meaning – in English. Re-creating the two-consonant-only effect though in a language such as English is not easy.

We managed a four-consonant-only translation:

A tittiri, in Eros’ snare, tires not

as it tunes its strain.

On trees it rests, on straits nearest,

to raise its notes sans restraint.

But we happily throw down the gauntlet to Rasāla’s readers – can anyone render this verse using only two, or even three, consonants in English or in any other language?

In fact, conveying such sound play is not always best achieved by mimicking in English the original effect in Sanskrit. At times, using a sound device native to English more effectively communicates the impact the original would have had on the listener. Thus for the verse in question we could try something like alliteration:

Trawit trawit,

trills the twitterer tragic-struck,

traversing

tree after tree

track after track.

So one Sanskrit verse and three translations – none of them wholly conveying the original. Translating such śabdālaṃkāra or sound play is challenging and very often translators don’t even attempt it – which is a great pity we feel.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be demonstrating some of the different sound devices Sanskrit poets use and experimenting with different translation techniques. We’d love to make this series as interactive as possible, so please do send in your thoughts, translations and feedback at any point – use the comment button or write to us at venetia@rasalabooks.com

One thought on “Trawittering – Sound Play in Sanskrit

Leave a Reply