UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

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Translation and the Aesthetic Experience of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam

Translation and the Aesthetic Experience of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam

By Pranati Parikh

This paper situates itself in the intersection between phenomenology and literary theory to explore the translation and experience of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam by Kālidāsa. How does the experience of a text, articulated by Wolfgang Iser in The Reading Process and Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception, undergo change when the text is translated? Kālidāsa’s text is a telling case study because it, in its original form, uses both Sanskrit and Prakrit (Sanskrit for male dialogue, stage instructions, and translation of female dialogue, and Prakrit for female dialogue). Innately, the drama exercises intricate workings in translation intratextually, and is still historically lauded as an exemplar in its exhibition of erotic rasa or aesthetic experience. What, if not the literal language of the drama, is the source of this experience? A close reading of passages from the classical Sanskrit drama in conjunction with passages from Iser and Merleau-Ponty shed light on the question. The reader’s expectations, imaginations, and perspectives, I argue, in addition to the text’s reinvention as a translated site of experience, constitute aesthetic experience. This active participation on the part of the reader is unique to each reader and not dependent on the text but in fact supplementary to it, as an aesthetic world which grows as the text unfolds to include both the reader and the text. Therefore, aesthetic experience can transcend language—defined restrictively as a cultural system of syntax, semantics, and script—and instead become an active, ongoing process of the reader’s involvement in a given text. This paper contributes to broader discourses in translation studies, invoking perennial concerns about what makes a translation viable, what constitutes the role of the translator, and how a reader can approach and experience a translated text.


Translation, on the whole, is a fraught enterprise. Scholars argue about the definition of translation itself, since transferring material from one language to another by means of purely linguistic technicalities does not fully capture the endeavor. The question of whether or not a text in translation is new, by virtue of this rather nebulous endeavor, is a common concern of scholars. Such a question is warranted, but incomplete. It ought to be considered how the text is new. Along which axes does the original text grow or diminish in translation? By considering aspects of a text singularly and contextually, broad-stroke claims about translated texts and their identity, adequacy, or literary merit can be avoided. For the aesthetic experience of a text, analytic questions such as those about freedom, fidelity, and transaction recede into the background, since in question is strictly experience of text. We therefore focus uniquely on the experiential axis of text and translation. For the experiential axis of translation, relevant questions become phenomenological ones such as those that Iser raises in The Reading Process: What is the world of experience that the reader, through engagement with and response to a text, constructs? How does such an aesthetic[1] world depend on the language of the text? In a discussion about translation holistically, these questions about the reader’s engagement with the text and the world it constructs lead to insight on how the transferring of a text from its original language to another affects that experiential world. As supported by Wolfgang Iser in The Reading Process, and by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception, the aesthetic experience in the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, a Sanskrit drama by Kālidāsa, is produced by the reader’s engagement with and participation in the text, independent of literal language. Therefore, translation, in this case from Sanskrit to English, has little effect on the aesthetic experience of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam.

Kālidāsa’s drama, the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, is a dramatic adaptation of a story found in the epic Mahābhārata and is a telling case study for such an examination for two reasons. First, as a function of the Sanskrit literary tradition, the female characters speak only in Prakrit. “Prakrits” is the plural term used to encompass any language deviations from the elite Sanskrit in India’s classical period (mid-first millennium BCE). In the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, Kālidāsa writes the female voice in Śaurasenī, a kind of dramatic Prakrit. For readers of the written text, the Sanskrit “translation” of the female voice is provided in the chāyā, or “shadow.” The chāyā is simply provided in parenthesis following the Prakrit, and readers unfamiliar with Prakrit have the opportunity to pass over it directly to the Sanskrit shadow. The experience differs in drama. The play is written to be performed and, before the printing of scripts, was consumed exclusively as a live production. There is no provisional chāyā after the live delivery of lines. Traditionally, connoisseurs of Sanskrit drama, although being men and speaking only Sanskrit, also understood Prakrit. But, the irony is that the play concerns Śakuntalā, the titular character. When the most central repository of erotic aesthetics—Śakuntalā—is spoken to and about in Sanskrit and yet only speaks Prakrit, we can imagine the task of translation both implicit in and imperative for the aesthetic experience centering around a female figure. In both media of interaction with the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, the holistic aesthetic experience is still conferred despite the fluid exchange between Sanskrit and Prakrit, with readers and viewers experiencing Śakuntalā herself in a language only morphologically related to Sanskrit, and in the end, in a new language whose basis is the reader’s own relationship to Śakuntalā. With the primacy of literal language ebbing in comparison to the basic structures of the reader-text encounter itself, the Abhijñānaśākuntalam takes into account the dynamics of translation.

Second, despite its innate translative workings, the Abhijñānaśākuntalam is still typified in broader Sanskrit dramaturgy as the epitome of aesthetic presentation. Of Śakuntalā, the garden maiden, Edwin Gerow writes, “No other heroine in Sanskrit drama is so profoundly enhanced as the object of aesthetic gaze” (26). Being both the titular character and the key protagonist of the play, it is unsurprising that Śakuntalā would serve as a point of convergence for plot-point focus and audience identification. However, unique to Śakuntalā as a heroine of Sanskrit drama is the degree to which she is experienced aesthetically despite the dynamics of Prakrit and Sanskrit. The aesthetic language which readers associate with and construct around Śakuntalā are historically recognized. For instance, literary descriptions of Śakuntalā in both languages drip with suggestive secondary meaning. Though she is virginal and protected by the asceticism of her sage father, she is described with the fructifying sexual promise of the garden world, hidden away from the kingdom and its conceptions of duty. She is the symbol and source of the play’s erotic sensibility. The idealized connoisseur audience member is to access and experience the same entrancement as the King Duṣyanta does when he meets her for the first time. In this way, the aesthetic-erotic entrancement within the structures of the play itself spills beyond the stage and into the audience, where viewers (or readers, in some cases) close the distance between them and Śakuntalā as a mere object of aesthetic gaze and undergo entrancement as if the affect between Duṣyanta and Śakuntalā is palpable to them, too. And yet, there is no explicit mention of language as singularly facilitating this degree of aesthetic experience in existing scholarship. In fact, language is extraneous. What makes this aesthetic experience possible is neither the language used to describe the character of Śakuntalā, nor the cultural literacy for concepts like dharma, or duty, in kingship and love—both of which are specific in some ways to the Sanskrit literary tradition of which the play is a part. Rather, the experience is accessed through the aesthetic world constructed in the interaction of reader and text. What constitutes the aesthetic world, if not language? According to Iser, the world is constituted by three elements: the reader’s expectation, the reader’s imagination, and the reader’s perspective. All three elements seem outwardly to pertain singularly to language, but we will consider each in detail in relation to the play. Doing so reveals that each—the expectation, imagination, and perspective of the reader—are beyond language. We will then consider Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on “speaking speech,” which corroborate Iser’s point that reader engagement can revitalize, and therefore transcend, language.

First, Iser claims that the reader’s expectation figures in the constitution of the aesthetic experience. The reader’s expectation is tied to sentences, not as demarcations in the structure of language, but rather as units of thought. In reading, we become “immersed in the flow of Satzdenken,” or sentence-thought, and each sentence-thought secures meaningful connections with its previous sentence (284). How does it do so? Securing a meaningful connection, Iser emphasizes, depends on the idea behind the sentence and not the language through which it is conveyed. A “flow” of sentences requires that ideas cohere with one another as they present themselves. For the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, this is especially telling, given that ideas are presented in alternating Prakrit and Sanskrit. But, Iser recognizes that “literary texts are full of unexpected twists and turns, and frustration of expectations” (284). A reader is only a passive recipient of a flow of ideas if it is unimpeded, whereas a periodically interrupted flow of ideas gives readers “an opportunity to bring into play [their] own faculty for establishing connections” (285). Kālidāsa opens the Abhijñānaśākuntalam with a significant interruption, which is meant both to frame the rest of the play and to awaken readers’ faculties for establishing connections. When the curtain is drawn, a stage manager is speaking to one of his stage hands about which play they are going to present. Then, there is a seemingly incoherent exchange between the two of them. The stage director instructs the stage hand to make preparations to present the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, and then instructs her to sing about the summertime, which has just begun. In response,

Stage director. Madam, well-sung. Oh! The whole stage seems to be drawn in a picture, with hearts bound up by the melody. Hence now, which composition shall we take up for pleasing of the audience?

Actress. Indeed you have already commanded that the new play known as Abhijñāna Śākuntalā should be put on boards.

Stage director. Madam, I have been fully reminded. It was forgotten by me for a moment. For—I was unwittingly captivated by the ravishing melody of your music like this King Duṣyanta by the fleet deer.

The reader expects that the stage director, having given the instruction himself, will remember that the Abhijñānaśākuntalam is set to be presented. The reader is also reading, in the first place, the text of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, inside of which is this nested play structure. Such an introduction seems initially jarring. Still, as Iser notes, such an incoherence is an opportunity for the reader to register the hint of foreshadowing, since, even for those unfamiliar with the story of Abhijñānaśākuntalam, the stage director’s comment conveys an integral piece of information—that the King Duṣyanta will be unwittingly captivated, and that he will forget something because of it, like the stage director. Having set this expectation, the reader directs her attention to the deer that comes bounding onto the stage, watching the character of the king come after it, unwittingly captivated, with new awareness. What do these hitches between initial expectation, reality, and revised expectation return to the reader in terms of aesthetic experience? In Iser’s terms, expectations of the reader scaffold the aesthetic world. The reader now expects to engage with a text that reveals the king as unwittingly captivated and then again as having forgotten. The reader is prepared, in creating even the barest of scaffolding structures, to concretize those expectations through the textual experience. Crucially, the expectations which the reader posits and continuously reevaluates, as the flow of sentence-thoughts continues, are not dependent on the literal language. Rather, the expectations are generated in the signified. That is to say, expectation relies on language in order to evoke connection to the signified concept, but the concept transcends linguistic labels and is what ultimately drives the expectations of the reader. The king is hiding behind the trees when Śakuntalā speaks aloud her longings for a husband regardless of the Sanskrit, Prakrit, or English words which articulate the image, and the foreshadowing expectations of irony and incipient love still exist.

Merely bare scaffolding, nonetheless, does not constitute the fullness of the aesthetic world which the Abhijñānaśākuntalam creates for the reader. Even while the reader is dynamically adjusting patterns of expectation within the text, she is also “uncovering other impulses which cannot be immediately integrated” (Iser 290). What are these other impulses? The other impulses are, as Iser argues, imaginative impulses that are not explicitly integrated within the text’s literal content. They are impulses to build layers of imaginative detail unique to the reader’s own engagement with the text over the scaffolds of expectation. Iser writes, “A literary text must therefore…engage the reader’s imagination in the task of working things out for himself, for reading is only a pleasure when it is active and creative” (280). Iser argues that the reader gladly constitutes the experiential world by “filling in” the scaffolding of expectation with her own material—resonant, applicable, and private to the reader in ways that the author cannot predict. As this element of the aesthetic world is constituted, so too is the dimension of the text that the reader constitutes of her own volition. “No author worth his salt will ever attempt to set the whole picture before his reader’s eyes,” writes Iser. Rather, the reader completes the picture, forming the “gestalt” of the literary text (288). Iser makes an important distinction: the gestalt is “not the true meaning of the text; at best it is a configurative meaning” (289). This is to say, the reader’s responsibility in her engagement with the text and the erection of an aesthetic world is not to examine the language and essentialize it. Rather, texts are conducive to the configuration of an aesthetic world which the reader actively generates in accordance with her own imagination of the text.

The imagination of the reader plays a particularly important role in the Abhijñānaśākuntalam in descriptions of Śakuntalā, for the majority of them are metaphorical. It becomes the reader’s task, as the author leaves it up to her, to relate those metaphorical images to Śakuntalā. An example of such a description is as follows:

If this personality, rare in the harem, is possessed by the folk that live in the hermitage, indeed the plants of the garden are thrown far low in qualities by the creepers of the woods.

These words are the first that the king utters in verse to describe Śakuntalā. It is significant that this is the first verse describing her, since, though the moments during which characters are moved to speak in verse seem at first random, reading attentively reveals a pattern to the appearance of verses. Verses are preceded by illustrative phrases such as “for instance,” “accordingly,” “besides,” and “rather”; the sense is that verses are meant to mark points in the text at which there is a relevant illustration to be made and an opportunity for the author Kālidāsa to utilize poetic embellishment to do so.[2] It is therefore significant that Kālidāsa’s first prosodic choice of description is a metaphor requiring the engagement of the reader’s imagination. The verse contains no literal or physical descriptions of Śakuntalā, since ordinary descriptors of beauty cannot capture Śakuntalā’s form, but the reader is invited to imagine what the metaphor means—thereby further personalizing Śakuntalā’s form for the reader. The metaphorical device meant to aid this imagination is the evocation of a pronounced disparity between kinds of plants, namely, groomed garden plants and wild creepers. The king means to convey surprise that a maiden living in the forest is as aesthetically refined as Śakuntalā is, and that she far surpasses the women in the kingdom who have the privilege of courtly cultivation. But, the reader is not given any explicit information about how Śakuntalā is more refined; the reader is first given the scaffold-expectation that Śakuntalā will captivate the king, and now the free rein to imagine how that might be the case—equipped with the images of the garden plant and the forest creeper. It would inevitably happen that several different readers imagining different garden plants and forest creepers would consolidate distinct images of the figure of Śakuntalā. The succession of verses evokes different metaphors, and each reader builds gradually upon subsequent images to imagine her own figure of Śakuntalā. The only figure of Śakuntalā that is thoroughly intelligible or visible to the reader is the one that she herself has imagined. The literal literary descriptions of Śakuntalā in the original Sanskrit text, then, only aid in making such an imaginative picture more robust; however, the imaginative ether of Iser’s experiential world far surpasses what is “said” or “written” in the text or translation of text for each individual reader. That images and the reader’s imagination both transcend language is also noteworthy.

The third component of Iser’s experiential world which is especially relevant to the Abhijñānaśākuntalam is the perspective of the reader. If expectation is the scaffolding of the aesthetic world, and imagination is the ether which fills it, perspective is its orientation—the direction it faces and the velocity at which it moves in that direction. On perspective, Iser writes, “In the course of a novel, for instance, we sometimes find that characters, events, and backgrounds seem to change their significance; what really happens is that the other possibilities begin to emerge more strongly, so that we become more directly aware of them” (293). Iser describes the concept of perspective in terms of being able to organize the emerging possibilities in a text. The reader takes in both the extant and emerging possibilities within the details of the text and orients herself in a particular way to that situation; that orientation requires a mental organization of the possibilities. To concretize this abstract directionality and perspective, we consider an excerpt from the Abhijñānaśākuntalam. Śakuntalā and her friends are casually conversing in the garden around the hermitage where they live. They discuss a creeper that has wrapped itself around a mango tree, and how the mango tree deserves such an affectionate partner. Later, when Śakuntalā cries out in annoyance that a bee is harassing her, both friends say in rhythm, smilingly, “Who are we to save? Cry out for Duṣyanta. Penance-forests are in fact under royal protection” (11). The reader is immediately struck by a sharp irony. The irony is that the king Duṣyanta has been listening to this conversation and observing the maidens as they interact all along. Immediately, the possibilities, the emerging plot points, are organized by the reader in order to construct a particular perspective of irony: on both sides of a curtain of trees, characters make converging projections. The maidens are somehow aware of their connection with the king, while the king is aware of his desire for Śakuntalā. In support of Iser’s point, the characters change their significance as they gain both literal and figurative proximity to one another, and the reader marks that change by a shifting perspective. It is as if the opening garden scene in which Śakuntalā and her friends make ostensibly small talk about trees gains meaning by the knowledge that the king is listening. We can now reorganize the conversation about the creeper and the mango tree within the scene to present a much different meaning:

Anasūyā. Friend Śakuntalā, this is the self-chosen bride of the mango tree, the Navamālikā whom you have named Vanajyotsnā. You have forgotten her.

Śakuntalā. If I forget myself. (Approaching and looking at the creeper) Friend, at a pleasant season has taken place the union of this creeper and the tree…

Priyamvadā. Anasūyā, do you notice Śakuntalā looks keenly at Vanajyotsnā?

Anasūyā. I do not follow you. Be explicit.

Priyamvadā. Her idea is—Shall I too get a suitable bridegroom just as Vanajyotsnā has gotten a tree suited to her?

Beyond the fact that the friends are engaged in playful mockery of Śakuntalā for being of marriageable age, we cannot help but reorganize two specific impetuses which bring about the reader’s perspective shift: first, the king is in the vicinity, though Śakuntalā does not know it, and will eventually be Śakuntalā’s husband. Second, recall that Śakuntalā has already been likened to the creeper in the very first verse—she is like a creeper of the woods, and the nearby king is like the cultivated plant of the royal garden. The reader organizes this information, orienting the aesthetic world of the text around her perception and assessment of the information contained within the text. With scaffolds of expectation, an imaginative substance, and now a continuously calibrating orientation as the text affords emerging possibilities, the aesthetic world is complete.

A theoretically phenomenological perspective offered by Maurice Merleau-Ponty which supports Iser’s theory on the reader’s participation is that of the distinction between “spoken” speech and “speaking” speech. Merleau-Ponty’s theory brings the task of translation into the picture of expectation, imagination, and perspective. According to Merleau-Ponty, “spoken” speech consists of words that are sedimented in meaning. They exist as part of a constituted system. For instance, spoken speech is that which is rote, inauthentic, copied, or uninventive. On the other hand, “speaking” speech is an act of expression. It is an invention of speech, speech that is participatory, recreative. It is not necessary, Merleau-Ponty claims, that the words be different or more complex to categorize them as “speaking.” Rather, Merleau-Ponty says both “the first speech of the child and the speech of the writer” are speaking speech, signifying in the former a matriculation into the life of a communicative being, and in the latter an intellectual labor of love and deliberate articulation (203). Speaking speech is an assertion and a participation with an active and ongoing task as its name suggests, while spoken speech has only a finite, mundane import.

Translation is a form of speaking speech. Because it is also Merleau-Ponty’s assertion that “speech accomplishes thought” (183), we can think of a written text as a thought awaiting a second-order accomplishment. The written text becomes over time spoken speech, and though perhaps while being written the text is speaking, it awaits an act which will render it speaking again. The Sanskrit word commonly used to mean “translation” is anuvāda and incidentally means more literally “said again.” Within this theoretical framework, it is as if the translation of a text is an extension and reinvention of it, and the reader’s participation in it yet one further. Although Merleau-Ponty’s framework utilizes language more heavily than does Iser’s, it is clear that it does not matter in which language the text is written, or in which language the text is read. Keep in mind, after all, that the close readings of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam in this paper are in English and not in either Sanskrit or Prakrit. What matters is the kind of meta-language, or expressive medium, which readers use through their expectations, imaginations, and perspectives to access Śakuntalā and the aesthetic experience that is tied to her. The translator and the reader, in the end, co-participate in making aesthetic sense of the text, in ways that are intertwined and correlative.

It must be acknowledged that the Abhijñānaśākuntalam is a drama, with many more sensory dimensions than a text bound by a book jacket. The characters in the Abhijñānaśākuntalam are played by bodies in flesh and speak the drama’s text in voices with inflections and passions that are silent to the solitary reader. We can only speculate about how much of the aesthetic experience historically attributed to the Abhijñānaśākuntalam hinges on a specifically dramatic production of the text. However, Iser’s directives for the reader’s imagination compensate for parts of the dramatic experience of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, since the translated text includes all stage guidelines. It is simply that the drama takes place on a private stage in the reader’s mind. The argument of this paper must also be distinguished from the claim that a text and a performance of drama are exactly the same—the concern is not one of general equivalence, but about whether experiencing a text in translation can induce the same aesthetic world which a single reader would otherwise create for herself when engaged with the text in its original language.

Ultimately, it is not so much the case that the aesthetic world is extricated from language as it is transcendent with respect to it. For the aesthetic world, constituted by expectation, imagination, and perspective, language plays an ancillary role according to Iser. The entire text of Iser’s The Reading Process contains the word “language” exactly zero times. This is perhaps not a statistical marker of the predominance or lack thereof of language within Iser’s argument, but it certainly underscores how the primary emphasis is instead on how the text comes into experiential existence by the reader’s engagement with it as opposed to its linguistic particulars. While language makes the concepts and innate structures within the text intelligible, the reader’s engagement with the text is not restricted by language. For Merleau-Ponty, too, language is not a system confined to the particular syntax and script of a culture, but a medium of active expression, which translation can facilitate as readers and translators co-participate in making meaning. Aesthetic experience is the reader’s immersion into the world of that meaning as it is “said again.”

It remains for us to consider how, through the process of translation, the aesthetic experience might be altered. Iser implies that the text in translation, although new and imbued with non-original nuance, would create for a single reader the same experiential world. This is because, first, expectation, imagination, and perspective depend heavily on the subjectivity of the reader. Expectations are derived from the social and cultural contexts of the reader, imagination from the reader’s vision, and perspective from the reader’s orientation and assessment of details. At the same time, the text contains innate structures—concepts and details—that exist independent of language, which only makes them intelligible. A translation would serve the same purpose, since, even around a translation, each reader constructs her own aesthetic world in relation to the innate structures of the text. Second, the translator of a text is simultaneously a reader who constructs a single aesthetic world that encompasses both texts, the original and the translation. The repeated reading of a text, which a translator inevitably does through “speaking” speech, induces a fuller world, a synthesis of aesthetic experiences from the same text which was previously “spoken.” Iser remarks on this final apotheosis of experiential world: “Even on repeated viewings a text allows and, indeed, induces innovative reading…we have the experience of a world, not understood as a system…but as an open totality the synthesis of which is inexhaustible” (286). We can infer that the system which Iser disavows is a spoken, linguistic system. Iser prefers, over demarcated systems of communication, the open totality of experiential synthesis in reading—whether the original text, the translated text, or both. The process of reading is thus the renewed and renewing holistic construction of holistic worlds of which we are momentarily a part.



Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History, vol. 3, no. 2, 1972, pp. 279–299.

Kanjilal, Dileep Kumar. Abhijñānaśakuntalam. [Saṃskṛtamahāvidyālaya], 1980.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, and Donald A. Landes. Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge, 2012.

Śaṅkararāma Śāstrī, Sī., and Kāṭayavema. Abhijñānaśākuntalam. Sri Balamanorama Press, 1947.



[1] We equate in this paper words such as experiential, aesthetic, and phenomenological for the purposes of staying true to both Iser’s literary theory and also the Sanskrit literary theorists such as Abhinavagupta, the latter who, in referring to “aesthetic experience” refers to much the same concept as the experiential or phenomenological.

[2] Sanskrit prosody is never free-form, and its metrical formulation requires a level of intentionality even from the most proficient poet.