Earliest Telugu Verse Translated into English

In the course of translating a few Telugu classics and publishing them, I have become inquisitive about knowing the very first verse from the language rendered into English.

Published: 31st May 2022 01:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st May 2022 01:26 AM   |  A+A-



In the course of translating a few Telugu classics and publishing them, I have become inquisitive about knowing the very first verse from the language rendered into English. C P Brown (1798–1884), also known as Brownu Dora, published The Verses of Vemana (1829), a bilingual book with 693 verses of the poet. Scholars consider the edition as a landmark beginning of translation from Telugu to English. It may, however, be noted that A D Campbell (1789–1857) in A Grammar of the Teloogoo Language (1816) had translated a few stanzas from the Sri Andhra Mahabharatamu of Nannaya (fl. 1051–1061), the first Telugu poet. A few stanzas that praise Rajaraja Narendra (r. 1019–1061), the Eastern Chalukya king, go as follows: “Affectionately protecting the inhabitants of his empire—receiving, with satisfaction, the tribute of foreign sovereigns, whose kingdoms had been subdued by him, and humbling the pride of those princes who haughtily withheld payment—illuminating the corners of the world with his commands…”

Abbe J A Dubois (1765–1848), a French-Catholic missionary who worked in Pondicherry, Madras, Srirangapatna and Mysore (1792–1823)—and also seems to have travelled to Puri in Orissa—was popular as Dobba Swami. He had rendered one verse of Vemana in French in his notebook, which was translated by Henry K Beauchamp as Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (1816). Vemana’s verse in it goes as follows: “It is water which causes mud, and it is water which removes it. It is your will that makes you commit sin, and it is by your will alone that you can be purified.”

A few years ago, I translated Gogulapati Kurmanatha Kavi’s Sri Simhadri Narasimha Satakamu of 108 Telugu verses composed in Sri Varaha Laxmi Narasimha temple in Simhachalam, near Visakhapatnam. A majority of the verses were composed in the nindaa-stuti or vyaaja-stuti (praise through blame) genre. Though my translation remains unpublished, one verse of Gogulapati goes as follows: “You are now helplessly looking at the women being forcibly abducted; how did you save Panchali from her disgrace? You have now been watching the slaughter of cows; how did you skilfully protect Gajendra? You have been just tolerating the sufferings of the twice-born Brahmins; how on earth did you protect Kuchela? You have been just looking on at the destruction of the country of the virtuous king; how did you place Dhruva in his elevated position? If you do not punish the wicked and protect the good, all the great fame you have earned gets nullified, and your title of ‘the great saviour of the distressed’ gets tarnished; O the swift vanquisher of enemies, Narasimha of Simhadri!”

Gogulapati had written the poem when lawlessness prevailed in 1753–54 due to various invasions in the region. On 23 November 1751, the Northern Circars (Guntur to Srikakulam districts) was given to the French of Pondicherry by Salabat Jang (r. 1751–1762) of Hyderabad, without taking approval from Ahmad Shah Bahadur (r. 1748–1754), the Mughal king. This had caused distress among many, notably, Pusapati Peda Vijayarama Raju (r. 1708–1757), the Gajapati Raja of Vizianagaram and Jafar Ali Khan, the Mughal Faujdar of Srikakulam. The English at Visakhapatnam had given protection to Khan’s family when he went to Aurangabad to talk to the Mughal king. En route, he encountered Raghoji Bhonsle of Nagpur and requested him for help. Later, many villages and temples, including the one at Simhachalam, were ransacked and plundered by soldiers.

Around the same time, Edward Thompson (c. 1738–1786) sailed from England to India, spent a few days at Visakhapatnam and elsewhere, and published the Sailor’s Letters (1767). In a letter (dated 4 August 1754, Vizagapatam), the sailor-poet says, “I am now in the midst of a Nabob’s seraglio—where three hundred chosen beauties are devoted for his pleasure… whose ages are from nine to fifteen … indeed these young beauties deserve our warmest pity… amorous Nabob is at Delly … I have been presented with a little ode written by one of his ladies on her rival—but the language is so difficult, and I am so little acquainted with it, I fear I shall not do it that justice so great a curiosity merits, but you shall have the sense of it.” The ode titled Zinzemerza to Calil Ullah goes as follows: “Zinzemerza can’t be gay, whilst her great Nabob’s away; Zinzemerza don’t forget her teeth of iv’ry face of jet; her silken robes, her shining hair, the jewel which her nose doth bear. O may the elephant you ride! Conduct you safe o’er deserts wide; may all the Pagodas of our land attend you o’er the burning sand; and Calil Ullah, may no face appear with Zinzemerza’s grace! O send your passions may withstand the beauties of that distant land! Kind Calil, gen’rous as the palm, gentle as summer seas when calm; brave as the lynx—great, glorious man, the sweetest prince of Indostan; O Calil Ullah, pray be true, here me—I swear—by great Vistnou, when you die, I burn with you. Deck’d in my most costly pride, will I mount the funeral pile! Bramins shall weep to see me smile, and tell the world how Zinzemerza died.”

The ode, which needs to be discussed further, especially in the context of Gogulapati’s poem, seems to have been written in Telugu for many apparent reasons; and the same appears to be the earliest known verse translated into English from the language. For now, I leave the topic here with a hope that the girl’s proper name, portrait picture and her ode in the original language would be brought to light, sooner or later.

Srinivas Sistla

Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam




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