Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, from A Code of Gentoo Laws, or Ordinations of the Pundits (1776)

The English merchants of the East India Company trading out of India in the eighteenth century came into contact with several rich extant bodies of literature. What works from India's indigenous literatures did the colonizing culture choose to translate, and why? Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1751–1830), the translator of A Code of Gentoo Laws (1776), >> note 1 offers up one pragmatic political view of the purpose of translation:

The Importance of the Commerce of India, and the Advantages of a Territorial Establishment in Bengal, have at length awakened the Attention of the British Legislature to every Circumstance that may conciliate the Affections of the Natives, or ensure Stability to the Acquisition. Nothing can so favourably conduce to these two Points as a well-timed Toleration in Matters of Religion, and an Adoption of such original Institutes of the Country, as do not immediately clash with the Laws or Interests of the Conquerors. ("The Translator's Preface," ix)

Halhed, a writer in the employ of the East India Company, openly states that he translates the Gentoo Laws in order to meld British and indigenous legal systems in Bengal, which in turn will facilitate Britain's occupation of India for the purposes of trade. Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India (1774–1784), encouraged Halhed's project.

Halhed writes that, stylistically, he prefers the most literal and unobtrusive of all possible translations. Only a literal translation, he suggests, will give the rest of the world a true "idea of the Customs and Manners of these People, which, to their great Injury, have long been misrepresented in the Western World" (xi). His own background in translation included a verse translation of Aristaenetus (with Richard Brinsley Sheridan), and studies in Arabic at Oxford, where he met William Jones. Halhed was the first English person to establish a press in India, and one of the first to study Sanskrit's affinities with other languages.

Halhed's texts are twice translated: originally written in Sanskrit, they were translated into Persian by a group of Brahmin scholars (to whom Halhed gives full credit in his preface), then into English. Halhed makes this process transparent for his reader by translating some examples of Sanskrit poetry in the introduction to A Code of Gentoo Laws. Each poem is shown first in its original script, then in a phonetic representation of Persian, and finally, in a word-for-word English translation, as shown below. "These Specimens," he comments, "give us no despicable Idea of the old Hindoo Bards. The Images are in general lively and pleasing, the Diction elegant and concise, and the Metre not inharmonious" (xxviii).

An ashlogue, according to Halhed, is a poetic stanza of four lines. A regular ashlogue has eight syllables in each line, usually (but not always) with a rhyme at the end of alternate lines. It is the metre, not the rhyme, that is most important to the ashlogue form, Halhed contends. However, as you can see by the descriptive title for the ashlogue below, the original eleven-syllable-per-line form of the poem has been lost in Halhed's literal translation.

An Ashlogue Cabee Chhund, or of eleven Syllables in each Line

On the Transmigration of Souls

[Click on image to enlarge] Wasamsee jeernanee yet, ha weehaye
Newane grehnatee nero peranee,
Ter, ha shereeranee weehaye jeernan
Enyanee sumyatee newanee dâêhee

As throwing aside his old Habits,
A Man puts on others that are new,
So, our Lives quitting the Old,
Go to other newer Animals.

Halhed adds this explanatory note about the subject of the poem: "Their Creed then is, that those Souls which have attained to a certain Degree of Purity, either by the Innocence of their Manners, or the Severity of their Mortifications, are removed to Regions of Happiness, proportioned to their respective Merits: But that those who cannot so far surmount the Prevalence of bad Example, and the forcible Degeneracy of the Times, as to deserve such a Promotion, are condemned to undergo continual Punishment in the Animation of successive animal Forms" (xlv–xlvi).

Here are three more examples of ashlogues translated by Halhed.

An Ashlogue Munnee hurreneh Chhund, or of nineteen Syllables

From the insatiable Desire of Riches, I have digged beneath the Earth; I
      have sought by Chymistry to transmute the Metals of the Mountains.
I have traversed the Queen of the Oceans; I have toiled incessant for the
      Gratification of Monarchs.
I have renounced the World, to give up my whole Heart to the Study of
      Incantations; I have passed whole Nights on the Places where the Dead
      are burnt. —
I have not gained one Cowry. — Begone, O Avarice, thy Business is over.

An Ashlogue Munnee hurreneh Chhund, or of twelve Syllables

The Night is for the Moon, and the Moon is for the Night:
When the Moon and the Night are together, it is the Glory of the Heavens.
The Lotus, or Water-Lilly, is for the Stream, and the Stream is for
      the Water-Lilly:
When the Stream and the Water-Lilly meet, it is the Glory of the Canal.

Three Ashlogues Aryachhund, or irregular, from a Collection of Poems

A good Man goes not upon Enmity,
But is well inclined towards another, even while he is ill-treated by him:
So, even while the Sandal-Tree >> note 2 is felling,
It imparts to the Edge of the Axe its aromatic Flavour.

[Click on image to enlarge]

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