Penelope in India: Brough’s Spurious “Translations”

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit (1968) is one of those old Penguin Classics worth picking up in a second hand shop. I bought the book when I was an undergrad and enjoyed it immensely–and I had little idea that I would one day be reading Sanskrit in the original. Since then it has been a way for me to look back at the past, and to (re)turn to the originals of poems that I have not looked at in a long while. The translations are taken from across the spectrum of Sanskrit literature, but Brough’s emphasis is on “secular verses from Classical Sanskrit.” By this I suspect he meant something along the lines of, “poems that don’t have a clear religious theme (or that do not explicitly mention any divinities). The result is a vibrant anthology of poems, most of which were then unknown to readers without Sanskrit. For more background and extracts you can turn to this old but cool blog post (lots of the best poems from the volume are posted in helpful categories there, making it an interesting remix of Brough’s own volume).

The collection is in a sense a meta-anthology. As Brough explains in the Introduction, the poems translated were anthologized themselves in antiquity, in books that collected subhashitas (Sanskrit सुभाषित; literally, “something spoken well”). As such this volume is accompanied with a detailed index that, alongside with the comments in the Introduction, make it possible for readers to trace poems back to various “original” contexts.

But the subject of this blog post is not the anthology itself, nor its favorable reception. Instead, I want to focus on two poems from the collection, numbers 93 and 94.

When I read 93 I knew there was a problem. Penelope? Café? Doesn’t sound like India to me–maybe there’s some complex literary play going over here. After all, Brough is well-known for having translated Sankrit poetry con gusto, making it sound and feel like exciting English poetry. I thought this might have been one of his more experimental attempts to make an original make sense to his Anglo-American audiences. But there were several other things that made the poem feel “off,” including its tone. 

So, I flipped to the index in the back of the book to find the source for 93. 

References were not lost for any other verse. I began to suspect I was being played. My first instinct was to think of the Homeric connection implied by the similarity of the name Amaru to that of Homer. Further, both of these “authors” are merely names attributed to works. Indeed, Brough explains as much in his Introduction: “The appearance of the name Amaru, for example, simply means that the verse in question occurs in one of the recensions of the Amaru collection, or, if it does not so occur, that it is attributed to Amaru by an anthologist” (p. 17).

To this evidence we can add the fact that Brough was quite the poet himself, and that he dedicated this collection to his wife with the following verses, in which he makes explicit that she inspired his translations. 

Perhaps this solves one mystery. Brough cheekily inserted two of his own compositions into the volume. 

But there is something more we might reflect on here, as his poems and his apparatus play out a rather specific scenario–that of being seen by the other. 

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