Our ancient humor deserves an audience: Translator ET Haksar

As a career diplomat and former ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia, words were his stock in trade. Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel or AND Haksar now handles words in a different way. Since retiring 30 years ago, Delhi-based Haksar, now approaching 90, has spent hours translating Sanskrit works into English, to make them accessible to more readers.

He translated Hitopadesa (1998), Narayan Pandit’s collection of fables compiled around 850 CE; the Simhasana Dvatrimsika (2000), 4th-century tales of King Vikramaditya, compiled around 1200; Subhashitavali (2007), a verse anthology compiled by Vallabhadeva in 15th century Kashmir; and Chanakya Niti (2020), aphorisms by the 3rd century BCE strategist and philosopher, among other works.

His most recent translation, Anthology of Humorous Sanskrit Verses (Penguin Random House India; May 2022), features 200 hasya or humorous verses drawn from various works of Sanskrit literature ranging from the millennia-old Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata to compilations from the 13th and 14th centuries.

“Sanskrit is primarily associated with religion, philosophy, myths and legends, and other educational materials. But it also has other dimensions, like ancient humor, which deserve a wider audience,” says Haksar. Excerpts from an interview.

Haksar, now approaching 90, has been translating Sanskrit works into English for 30 years, with the aim of bringing them to a wider audience.

How did you get interested in translation?

I had free time once I retired in 1992. It was then that I decided to revisit Sanskrit texts that I had studied in school. In order to master the language, I started translating books. My first translation was Tales from the Panchatantra (1992) which I enjoyed very much. I then decided to undertake other more complicated ones.

Why Sanskrit?

Sanskrit literature does a remarkable job of depicting the blending of cultures. Several stories and fables also go back to the roots of Arabic, Persian and Middle Eastern folklore. For example, Kathakautukam (A Tale of Wonder; translated by Haksar in 2019) is a Sanskrit adaptation by the poet Srivara in 15th century Kashmir of a Persian poem which tells the love story of a princess called Zuleikha and Yusuf , who is a well-known prophet in Christianity and Islam. Suleiman Charitra, by the 16th century Hindu poet Kalyana Malla, is a retelling of the biblical story of David and Bathsheba, and brings together Hebrew and Arabic tales.

How did you put humor at the center of your last book?

I am fortunate to have a valuable collection of about half a dozen compilations of ancient Sanskrit literature, which I keep returning to from time to time. During the pandemic, I was confined to my home for several months. It was these humorous bits that kept me entertained, so I thought, why not share them with the world? I started looking for humor in Sanskrit texts from Kashmir to South India, and was surprised to find so many verses that reflected the earthy humor of medieval poets in the most subtle way. The project has kept me both busy and at peace during these difficult times.

How difficult was the translation process?

Translation is a stimulating and challenging process. Finding words that convey both the literal meaning of the words as well as the poetic content is not easy at all. You have to focus on conveying both the spirit and the flavor of the text. As with most Sanskrit works, there are heavy layers of embellishment that must be navigated to get to the essence of the piece, which takes time, patience and sometimes multiple rounds of drafting and reworking. .

What are you going to work on next?

I want to follow the eight rasas or feelings evoked in Sanskrit theater and poetry, to create other such anthologies. After hasya, I want to explore raudra (rage), shringara (erotic), bibhatsa (horror), vira (heroic).