Module 4: Theories of translation
  Lecture 13: Indian Aesthetic Theories and Translation


Dhvani is an important concept in Sanskrit aesthetics. It literally means suggestion. Anandavardhana, the greatest exponent of dhvani, maintained that it is the soul of poetry. What is meant by dhvani is the layer of meaning beyond denotation and connotation and often becomes the very essence of a work of art. This becomes a knotty issue in translation. The most famous example given by all theoreticians is ‘the village on the Ganga'. To readers who are unfamiliar with Hindu culture, it is a sentence that describes a village by a river. But for the Indian reader, there is a wide network of meanings that is associated with the Ganga. It suggests holiness and purity; how does a translator capture this resonance of meanings when s/he translates? As Sharma describes it, “it [dhvani] is the region of puns and polysemy, of personal allusions, esoteric symbolism, and indigenous myth, which often commune beyond words” (4). This is indeed difficult to translate unless you provide footnotes or extended explanations.

Sharma gives another example to illustrate dhvani. He uses the last stanza of Frost's famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. He points out that the desire to stop and watch the lovely, dark and deep woods is like a death wish. He resolutely shrugs off this temptation and sets his face to his destination which is miles away. Sharma says: “Behind this momentary fascination, there is the whole puritan history which highlights the sinfulness of man, and of nature which the puritans viewed with a sense of fascinated horror” (4). Indian readers who have not internalized this concept of horror of beauty that allures and destroys, will fail to get to the deeper resonances or dhvani of the poem.

These are the areas that the translator has to focus on, if he wishes to produce a good translation. But then it is justified to ask how this is essentially different from a western concept of translation. Instead of an obsession with meaning and equivalence, we think about dhvani and riti. Devy disagrees with this and argues that Indian theories agree with post-structuralist, especially Derridean concepts of meaning.