Click back to see Part I and Part II of this series. Or you can enjoy this post all on its own!
The translation of the language of things into that of man is not only a translation of the mute into the sonic; it is also the translation of the nameless into name. It is therefore the translation of an imperfect language into a more perfect one, and cannot but add something to it, namely knowledge.
— Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”
In my previous posts I discussed the dangers of reading Asian encyclopedias by discussing two fictional representations of Asian systems of knowledge. Today, I return to reality by looking at a very real, very dear-to-me Indian encyclopedia, the Mānasollāsa of the 12th century South Indian king Someśvara III. It is the first general accounting of the various forms of scientific knowledge we find in pre-modern India. Topping 8000 verses, it is monumental, true to Aude Doody’s definition: “a grand-scale reference work with retrieval devices.” Because of its massive scope, it has not yet been fully translated into English or any other language (though sections have been translated into Kannada).
When last we left off (read part I here!), I was discussing an imagined translation of an ordering system devised by a (fictitious) king of Siam in the mind of the (very real) W. Somerset Maugham. This time, I will jump to a different author.
Jorge Luis Borges, like Maugham, takes us once again to a land East of Eden, more precisely, somewhere East of Suez (where the best is like the worst, where there aren’t no Ten Commandments). In his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” Borges introduces us to “a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’” that was discussed by one “doctor Franz Kuhn.” Borges writes:
In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
A few weeks ago, I sat down to write up a few thoughts I had been having regarding a twelfth century South Indian encyclopedia called the Mānasollāsa. I’ve been reading from this encyclopedia with much guidance from Dr. M.A. Jayashree, who is currently leading up a massive translation and critical edition project. The encyclopedia itself is massive: much of its scholarship gives up halfway, and the translation project still has a long, long way to go.
Somewhere in the translation process, I picked up the rhythms and cadences of king Someśvara III. What was initially supposed to be a short blog post morphed into a bizarre trip down many (partially fictitious) orientalist caverns, eventually reemerging somewhere in what is now known as Karnataka. The editors at Asymptote followed me down the rabbit hole, offering guidance along the way, and together we decided to split up the piece into a series of more digestible fragments. Hang in there! I hope you all stick along for the ride.
In the opening chapter of his Sanskrit masterpiece, the Vikramāṅkadevacarita, Bilhaṇa, a Kashmiri poet living in 12th century Karnataka, writes:
Where is the fame of those kings who do not have eminent poets on either side?
How many kings have come and gone from the earth?
Nobody even knows their names!
When Benjamin reached over for a guitar, the last thing I expected to hear come out of his mouth was a Hank Williams song. You see, Benjamin grew up and learned how to play music in a small town in Nagaland, the region in the northeastern periphery of India that is considered isolated and remote from the rest of the continent. (It requires special permits to visit.) Benjamin sat back slowly strummed the guitar and played some of the most haunting renditions of American country-western songs I have ever heard.