You can hear it here
Did not spend a cowrie or a quarter of a penny, did not pay a price
Bought Shyam, lady, I bought Shyam
Some say this must be theft, some feel a borrowing
As many times as breaths in a whole life, I counted the name of Hari
Child cowherd on the Yamuna, black slave in the house of saints
He only is Tuka’s Vitthal and Das’ Sri Ram
As many owners so many names, so many hearts are his towns
Yet no one recognizes him poor, lordless, nameless
This beautiful devotional song starts with the shocking statement that the singer has purchased Shyam.
Shyam, which means dark complected, is a name of Krishna, which means black.
The singer spent no money on this surprising commercial transaction but instead counted the name of Hari [another name of Krishna] as many times as there are breaths in a full life.
Krishna, the child cowherd, is described as the slave of those who realize him, the object under different names of true seekers, and the resident in the hearts of devotees who pay the price of a lifetime of breaths to own him. While accessible to all, yet no one recognizes him in his humble forms.
Apart from this devotional sense and an intimacy with the divine alien to English, the other difficulty is the word “bai” or “lady”. Here it is addressed by the singer to herself. It is used as an indicator of surprise or incredulity, as if the singer has got away with something.
The key to translating this poem is to find an apt expression for counting a lifetime’s breaths uttering the name of Hari because that is the signal sacrifice needed. The rest of the translation will turn on the expression found for this devotion.
Poetic Translation (in ten syllables per line)
Not a penny was spent, no price was paid,
My Shyam I possess — O, the sale was made.
Some say I borrowed, some that I lured,
In each breath of my life his name endured.
Cowherd on the river, slave of the saint,
Vitthal and Ram and names many and feigned,
Named by his owners, their hearts are his homes:
Meek and nameless, incognito he roams.
Please read the comments below for an organic discussion of this translation, or read the “finished” version of these translations here: (pdf).