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The Stephen Spender Prize 2020 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2020 booklet
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Read the winning entries from previous years

Oliver Fallon

Conception of a New God (verses 1.33-47)

As they spread rosiness at every step
From toenails lifted up, her feet appear
To have unfixed and taken to themselves
The loveliness of land-bound meadow flowers.

It seems the geese taught her their swaying gait
As she walked with her playful lilting steps,
And greedy for instruction in return,
They sought to learn the sound her anklets made.

Smoothly tapering and not too long,
Her calves were each so beautiful that God,
It seems had struggled for the elegance
He needed to complete her other limbs.

Because the trunks of elephants are rough
To touch and plantain stems, though smooth, are cool,
Despite their both being round, they're each, as types,
Excluded from compare with her two thighs.

The beauty of the hidden place on which
Her girdle rests can be inferred by this:
Shiva's lap to which it would be lifted
Up, no other girl would even seek.

A slender line of downy hair shone as
It ran into her deep-set navel's cleft:
A ray of light that had transgressed the girdle
Knot in which its dark sapphire was set.

Her waist, as slender as an altar stone,
Bore on its middle three soft folds of skin,
As if a ladder placed there for Desire
To climb, constructed by Fresh Youthfulness.

This girl with lotus eyes possessed two pale
And swollen breasts with darker nipple faces
Contending with each other such that there
Was hardly room for lotus thread to pass.

I think her arms, more soft than petal wreaths,
Were actually a noose advance-prepared
For Shiva's neck by Kāma, though by then
His body would already have been burned.

The scoop her neck makes rising from her breast,
And her pearl necklace as it loops back down,
As each engenders loveliness in each
Seem both to be adorner and adorned.

Radiance is fickle: when in the moon
She can't enjoy the lotus' loveliness,
And in the lotus finds no lunar light,
But then delights in both in Uma's face.

If white flower buds grew on a fresh pink shoot,
Or pearls appeared along a coral branch,
Then they would imitate her pure white teeth
As they shine bright between her two red lips.

When she is talking in her high-born voice
In tones that seem to flow like nectar streams,
Even the female cuckoo's calls are harsh
As mistuned strings to a musician's ear.

When with wide eyes she gives a trembling gaze
not different from a wind-ruffed lotus flower
We cannot say she stole it from the deer
Or that these forest does took it from her.

When Kāma saw her eyebrows' charming curves,
As if constructed with a brush and kohl,
Boldly about to play, he gave up all
The pride he had in his bow's loveliness.

Translated from Sanskrit by Oliver Fallon

अभ्युन्नताङ्गुष्ठनखप्रभाभिर् निक्षेपणाद् रागम् इवोद्गिरन्तौ ।
आजह्रतुस् तच्चरणौ पृथिव्यां स्थलारविन्दश्रियम् अव्यवस्थाम्॥१.३३॥

सा राजहंसैर् इव संनताङ्गी गतेषु लीलाञ्चितविक्रमेषु ।
व्यनीयत प्रत्युपदेशलुब्धैर् आदित्सुभिर् नूपुरसिञ्जितानि॥१.३४॥

वृत्तानुपूर्वे च न चातिदीर्घे जङ्घे शुभे सृष्टवतस् तदीये ।
शेषाङ्गनिर्माणविधौ विधातुर् लावण्य उत्पाद्य इवास यत्नः॥१.३५॥

नागेन्द्रहस्तास् त्वचि कर्कशत्वाद् एकान्तशैत्यात् कदलीविशेषाः ।
लब्ध्वापि लोके परिणाहि र्ऊपं जातास् तदूर्वोर् उपमानबाह्याः॥१.३६॥

एतावता नन्व् अनुमेयशोभं काञ्चीगुणस्थानम् अनिन्दितायाः ।
आरोपितं यद् गिरिशेन पश्चाद् अनन्यनारीकमनीयम् अङ्कम्॥१.३७॥

तस्याः प्रविष्टा नतनाभिरन्ध्रं रराज तन्वी नवलोमराजिः ।
नीवीम् अतिक्रम्य सितेतरस्य तन्मेखलामध्यमणेर् इवार्चिः॥१.३८॥

मध्येन सा वेदिविलग्नमध्या वलित्रयं चारु बभार बाला ।
आरोहणार्थं नवयौवनेन कामस्य सोपानम् इव प्रयुक्तम्॥१.३९॥

अन्योन्यम् उत्पीडयद् उत्पलाक्ष्याः स्तनद्वयं पाण्डु तथा प्रवृद्धम् ।
मध्ये यथा श्याममुखस्य तस्य मृणालसूत्रान्तरम् अप्य् अलभ्यम्॥१.४०॥

शिरीषपुष्पाधिकसौकुमार्यौ बाहू तदीयाव् इति मे वितर्कः ।
पराजितेनापि कृतौ हरस्य यौ कण्ठपाशौ मकरध्वजेन॥१.४१॥

कण्ठस्य तस्याः स्तनबन्धुरस्य मुक्ताकलापस्य च निस्तलस्य ।
अन्योन्यशोभाजननाद् बभूव साधारणो भूषणभूष्यभावः॥१.४२॥

चन्द्रं गता पद्मगुणान् न भुङ्क्ते पद्माश्रिता चान्द्रमसीम् अभिख्याम् ।
उमामुखं तु प्रतिपद्य लोला द्विसंश्रयां प्रीतिम् अवाप लक्ष्मीः॥१.४३॥

पुष्पं प्रवालोपहितं यदि स्यान् मुक्ताफलं वा स्फुटविद्रुमस्थम् ।
ततो ऽनुकुर्याद् विशदस्य तस्यास् ताम्रौष्ठपर्यस्तरुचः स्मितस्य॥१.४४॥

स्वरेण तस्याम् अमृतस्रुतेव प्रजल्पितायाम् अभिजातवाचि ।
अप्य् अन्यपुष्टा प्रतिकूलशब्दा श्रोतुर् वितन्त्रीर् इव ताड्यमाना॥१.४५॥

प्रवातनीलोत्पलनिर्विशेषम् अधीरविप्रेक्षितम् आयताक्ष्या ।
तया गृहीतं नु मृगाङ्गनाभ्यस् ततो गृहीतं नु मृगाङ्गनाभिः॥१.४६॥

तस्याः शलाकाञ्जननिर्मितेव कान्तिर् भ्रुवोर् आनतलेखयोर् या ।
तां वीक्ष्य लीलाचतुराम् अनङ्गः स्वचापसौन्दर्यमदं मुमोच॥१.४७॥



Translation commentary

Sanskrit poetry (kāvya) is its own world: 'kāvya-land' a bit like Bollywood, an enhanced reality, almost psychedelic in its strange similitudes. If we are non-Indian readers, we have to learn what happens here. This passage gives us a chance to do that with Parvati, a diva deity about to launch into the drama of her life, each verse a glittering, moving jewel to show a different part of her.

The verse form is the upajāti, four eleven-syllable lines, strictly metrical, arranged in two pairs. The formality is part of this poem's meaning, giving a precise, almost crystalline syntax, which free-verse translation would lose. I chose the iambic-pentameter quatrain as the closest English form to this. Rather than being restrictive, I found it useful as it forced me deeper into the meaning and sound world of each verse in search of a solution.

The greatest difficulty is to get the complex structure into elegant English. This often necessitates turning a relative or absolute clause into the main clause or switching passive, active or impersonal voices. There are also culturally specific tropes which have to be conveyed without being explained: it's tempting to translate "she walks like a goose" which sounds absurd, into "glides like a swan," but there are no swans in India and this would miss the point of the figure, which is that her walk is stately but also in her pre-married state, definitely flirtatious. I was able to get that sense by adding 'playful' to 'lilting walk'.

This extract is part of a 600 verse narrative poem presenting the cosmic harmony of Shiva and Parvati as thrilling romance. I would love this to be better known, to be made into an anime, an opera, a video game. I'm translating the whole poem in hope of making it so.

Oliver Fallon