A friend suggested this more than seven hundred year-old poem by Dnyaneshwar. It has layers of significance, and several interpretations of it are readily found.
How to preserve its simplicity, sweetness, and significance in translation?
You can listen to the song here:
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGyvZ1R8kec (with subtitled interpretations in Marathi and English)
The jasmine has flowered, the jasmine has flowered
While picking the flowers a prime has come to the buds
A wee sapling planted at the door
Its vine has gone up to the sky
From the mind’s tangle have woven a shawl
On father mother-lady-Rakhu to Vitthal offered
The jasmine has flowered, O the mogara sublime
As the flowers are taken the buds increase into prime
A mere sapling that was planted at the door:
Its vine has now reached the sky in a soar
Of the mind’s tangle a fabric is woven
Laid on my parents, to Vitthal is given
The white kiss of the mystical jasmine
Settles into peace and multiplies
A seed at the door open within
Took root in the soil, grew into the skies
The untangled strands of the mind are the weft
On the warp of my stock, to the Eternal left
Notes on the Literal Translation
- The — should it be “the jasmine has flowered” or “jasmine has flowered”? The poem refers to a sapling that has grown into a plant. Because of this particular instance of jasmine, the “the” is chosen.
- jasmine — could be left as “mogara”, but “jasmine” is the direct translation and is more accessible in English.
- has — should it be “the jasmine flowered” or “the jasmine is flowered” or “the jasmine has flowered”? “Is” gives a sense of a proclamation or of a singular occurrence of flowering rather than of a natural observation. Given the repetition of the phrase, there is a sense of wonder and emphasis or new discovery. “Has” gives it the required freshness.
- flowered — “flowered” is repeated and “flower” is used again in the next line. Alternative could be “blossomed” and “blossom”. Since the word in the original starts with an “f”, “flowered” is chosen for consonance.
- picking — “picking” is the direct translation. Alternatives like “selecting” or “choosing” (which does not finish the act by possession) or “culling” (which connotes a reduction or elimination) do not fit as well.
- prime — the original word (for buds blooming) is derived from the season spring, and “prime” signifying both fullness (of blooming) and spring (primavera, printemps) is chosen.
- has — should it be “has come” or “came”? The buds come into prime as the flowers are picked (while picking), hence “has come” is chosen.
- wee — the original has the diminutive of tiny, tiny-like or tiny-so. “Wee” is chosen for consonance and to signify the diminution.
- planted — the original is most closely translated as “applied”. “Planted” is chosen for the act of “applying the sapling” which is its planting.
- up to — “until” in the vertical context of the sky
- sky — could be “sky” or “heavens” for the psychological connotation. “Sky” is the direct translation of the original and is apt in the setting which is of nature (plant growing) rather than of psychology.
- shawl — the original is a relatively narrow and long cloth used across the shoulder or on the upper body. Could be a “scarf” but not a “tunic” which is tailored or tied. “Shawl” is chosen for fit and consonance.
- Vitthal — proper noun which, unlike jasmine for mogara, is without a direct translation in English. Any indirect translation such as “Preserver”, “Enterer”, “Receiver of the downtrodden”, etc. will bring in distracting interpretation.
Notes on the Poetic Translation
- The repetition in the first line is lost, and the second part of it has been redone. One of the reasons is to find the rhyme; but there are other. The repetition doesn’t give the sense of wonder in English as it does in Marathi. Hence the “O” is added. Due to the “mind’s tangle” later, there is a psychological significance to the jasmine, and that is brought out by calling it “mogara” which will alert the English reader to something different, and by calling it sublime.
- The “gone up” has been changed to “a soar”, with some minor changes such as “mere” and “reached”. These are not significant, just devices for meter and rhyme.
- The “shawl”, which can be exotic, has been changed to the more general “fabric”.
- “Father mother-lady-Rakhu” has been changed to the more general “parents”, partly for meter, but mostly because “parents” is more personal to the reader than the specific parents of the poet. Yet, this is a biographical point that makes the poem deeply personal for the poet as well as universal for readers, for the parents’ suffering can be universally understood.
Notes on a Free Translation
- The mogara blossoms are inner powers that have opened in the poet, and as he lives in them other powers open up for a more complete realization. The “kiss” gives it wonder and intimacy, its “white” relates to the clarity of mind to come later in the poem as well as to the quality that turns into peace, “settling into peace” indicates the picking, or the exercise or effect of the realized powers, and “multiplies” indicates the buds of new inner powers.
- The door is an opening in his self to universal forces, and the seed of seeking planted there grows rapidly through the different levels of his being, from the “soil” which is the body to the “skies” which are the high reaches of the mind.
- The poet’s mind is clarified by untangling its threads which are then woven into a fabric that gives peace to his troubled parents, generalized here as ancestors (and even more generally the human condition), who are also on the grand loom as a part of the weave. Vitthal, the benevolent universal power that pervades creation is here called “the Eternal” for its closeness of sound.
Note independently that the original poem’s imagery covers the physical body (door with the implied wall), the life force (vine), the mind (untangling), and beyond — individually in the picked flowers and universally in Vitthal.
The traditional interpretation of the jasmine as illusion, the picking of its flowers as enjoyment, and its buds as the recurrence of desire is not entirely satisfying because the sapling appears to be willingly planted or accepted, and its upward growth to the skies seen as a positive development. If this illusion interpretation is taken, then the clarification of the mind will need to be a radical act (cutting of the tangles) rather than a natural progression (untangling and weaving).
Please read the comments below for an organic discussion of this translation, or read the “finished” version of these translations here: (pdf).