David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: translation

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

J. Robert Oppenheimer famously spoke this quote of Krishna’s in the Bhagavad Gita in reference to the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. As a result, it is probably the most famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita in the Western world.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

Colin Marshall recently wrote a brief retrospective on Oppenheimer, the bomb, and the quote, which is Oppenheimer’s own translation from the Sanskrit. As with any religious text, the meaning of this passage is highly disputed, and so without commentary, here are two dozen or so translations (at least 273 English translations exist) of this famous passage at Bhagavad Gita 11.32.

I have intentionally interspersed sacred and secular translators, popular and academic translators, American, British, and Indian translators, and translators with wildly differing interpretations. The only ordering applied is chronology.

The most notable dispute is whether Krishna is Death or Time (or, occasionally, the Destroyer, and in one case, Doom), depending on how काल (kala) is translated. By overwhelming majority, Time has won out.

Two good overviews of translations are available at sreenivasaro’s and Erenow.

I am Time, the destroyer of mankind, matured, come hither to seize at once all these who stand before us. Except thyself not one of all these warriors, destined against us in these numerous ranks, shall live.

I am death, the destroyer of the worlds, fully developed, and I am now active about the overthrow of the worlds. Even without you, the warriors standing in the adverse hosts, shall all cease to be.

Thou seest Me as Time who kills,
Time who brings all to doom,
The Slayer Time, Ancient of Days, come hither to consume;
Excepting thee, of all these hosts of hostile chiefs arrayed,
There stands not one shall leave alive the battlefield!

Doom am I, that causes worlds to perish, matured and here come forth to destroy the worlds; even apart from thee not one of the warriors drawn up in ranks opposing shall survive.

I have shown myself to thee as the Destroyer who lays waste the world and whose purpose is destruction. In spite of thy efforts, all these warriors gathered for battle shall not escape death.

I am the Time-Spirit, destroyer of the world, arisen huge-statured for the destruction of the nations. Even without thee all these warriors shall be not, who are ranked in the opposing armies.

I am the mighty world-destroying Time, now engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without thee, none of the warriors arrayed in the hostile armies shall live.

I am come as Time, the waster of the peoples,
Ready for that hour that ripens to their ruin.
All these hosts must die; strike, stay your hand—no matter.

I am Time (Death), cause of destruction of the worlds, matured
And set out to gather in the worlds here.
Even without thee (thy action), all shall cease to exist,
The warriors that are drawn up in the opposing ranks.

Time am I, world-destroying, grown mature, engaged here in subduing the world. Even without thee (thy action), all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to be.

R. C. ZAEHNER (1966)
Time am I, wreaker of the world’s destruction,
Matured,—[grimly] resolved here to swallow up the worlds.
Do what you will, all these warriors shall cease to be,
Drawn up [there] in their opposing ranks.

Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you [the Pāṇḍavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.

KEES W. BOLLE (1979)
I am Time who destroys man’s world.
I am the time that is now ripe
To gather in the people here;
That is what I am doing.
Even without you,
All these warriors
Drawn up for battle
In opposing ranks
Will cease to exist.

J. A. B. VAN BUITENEN (1981)
I am Time grown old to destroy the world,
Embarked on the course of world annihilation:
Except for yourself none of these will survive
Of these warriors arrayed in opposite armies.


I am Time, the mighty cause of world destruction,
Who has come forth to annihilate the worlds.
Even without any action of yours, all these warriors
Who are arrayed in the opposing ranks, shall cease to exist

I am time grown old,
creating world destruction,
set in motion
to annihilate the worlds;
even without you,
all these warriors
arrayed in hostile ranks
will cease to exist.

W. J. JOHNSON (1994)
I am time run on, destroyer of the universe, risen here to annihilate worlds. Regardless of you, all these warriors, stationed in opposing ranks, shall cease to exist.

I am time, the destroyer of all; I have come to consume the world. Even without your participation, all the warriors gathered here will die.

I am death, shatterer of worlds,
annihilating all things.
With or without you, these warriors
in their facing armies will die.

I am the terrible destroyer of people. I am now about to destroy these people. Even without you, all the warriors in the opposing army formations will not exist.

I am time that has aged,
who makes the world perish.
I have come forth
to destroy the worlds.
Even without you,
these warriors
facing off against each other
will no longer exist.

I am Time, the world destroyer, ripened, and here I am busy crushing the worlds. Even without you, all the warriors drawn up in the opposing ranks will cease to exist.

I am time, mighty wreaker of the world’s destruction, engaged here in annihilating the worlds. Except for you, all these warriors arrayed in the opposing armies shall not be [alive after this battle].

I am almighty time, the world-destroying,
and to destroy these worlds I have arisen!
Those warriors arrayed in lines opposing
your men, even without you, will have perished!

I am Time. I make worlds die.
I have come here to annihilate worlds.
All these warriors, stationed in opposing ranks:
Even without you, they will cease to be.

I am all-powerful time that brings destruction to the world. My activity here is to put an end to these worlds. Even without you, none of these warriors assembled here in battle array will survive.

कालोऽस्मि लोकक्षयकृत्प्रवृद्धो
लोकान्समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्तः।
ऋतेऽपि त्वां न भविष्यन्ति सर्वे
येऽवस्थिताः प्रत्यनीकेषु योधाः
kālo ’smi lokakṣayakṛt pravṛddho
lokān samāhartum iha pravṛttaḥ
ṛte ’pi tvā na bhaviṣyanti sarve
ye ’vasthitāḥ pratyanīkeṣu yodhāḥ

“Obscene abuse of a randy old hag”: Horace’s Epode 8 in Translation

Coarsely abusive sexual language is an early iambic tradition.

Daniel Garrison

Besides being Augustus’s favored poet and composing immaculate and subtle Odes, Horace wrote some rougher-hewn pieces in his series of Epodes (30 BC). The most notorious are the eighth and the twelfth, which are both obscene, misogynistic brushoffs to an older female lover. (In the twelfth, she at least gets in a bit of a riposte at the end.) David Mankin summarizes the eighth as “obscene abuse of a randy old hag” and the twelfth as “further abuse of the old hag.”

Here’s Epode 8 in Niall Rudd’s Loeb translation from 2004, which I take to be a reasonably close paraphrase:


To think that you, who have rotted away with the long passage of time, should ask what unstrings my virility, when your teeth are black, and extreme decrepitude ploughs furrows on your forehead, and your disgusting anus gapes between your shrivelled buttocks like that of a cow with diarrhea! I suppose I am excited by your bosom with its withered breasts like the udders of a mare, your flabby belly, and your scrawny thighs perched on top of your swollen ankles! Be as rich as you like. May the masks of triumphal ancestors escort your cortege! Let no wife be weighed down with fatter pearls as she walks proudly by! What of the fact that slim Stoic volumes nestle on your cushions of Chinese silk? Does that make my organ (which can’t read) any stiffer, or my phallic charm less limp? To call it forth from my proud crotch you must go to work with your mouth.

Horace seems to be trying to outdo Catullus, but some of it reads like it comes out of a Shakespeare Dark Lady sonnet. The progenitor of this abusive tradition is the mysterious 6th century BC Greek poet Archilochus, who was promoted by Guy Davenport’s translation in 1964 (also see his introduction to Archilochus from 7 Greeks).

Because of Horace’s high profile, these epodes have necessitated being brushed under the rug up until a recent renaissance. In the 1960s, Eduard Fraenkel called them “repulsive,” while Steele Commager just ignored them altogether. The Latin students edition of 1896 omits them rather conspicuously (they’re numbered, after all), which presumably sent more than a few students to the library to locate the missing poems.

Translators, too, historically excluded the problem poems (8 and 12, but also the far less obscene but explicitly gay 11). After Henry Rider omitted them in his 1638 translation of the complete works, the first person to tackle them was Christopher Smart in 1756. (Also available on the web here.) Smart smooths out the obscenity rather cleverly, but still gets the vitriol:

UPON A WANTON OLD WOMAN. (Christopher Smart)

Can you, grown rank with lengthened age, ask what unnerves my vigor? When your teeth are black, and old age withers your brow with wrinkles: and your back sinks between your staring hip-bones, like that of an unhealthy cow. But, forsooth! your breast and your fallen chest, full well resembling a broken-backed horse, provoke me; and a body flabby, and feeble knees supported by swollen legs. May you be happy: and may triumphal statues adorn your funeral procession; and may no matron appear in public abounding with richer pearls. What follows, because the Stoic treatises sometimes love to be on silken pillows? Are unlearned constitutions the less robust? Or are their limbs less stout? But for you to raise an appetite, in a stomach that is nice, it is necessary that you exert every art of language.

(Fascinatingly, in Epode 11, Smart obscures the gender of the speaker’s male lover Lyciscus, while still leaving in the confession of attraction to both sexes.)

Philip Francis (1746) and Bulwer Lytton (1870) also omit the problem poems from their translations.

In his 1901 Latin edition, C.E. Bennett includes them but does not summarize or give any commentary, beyond the statement “The brutal coarseness of this epode leads to omission of an outline of its contents,” though by this point the gay content of 11 poses no problem. He did not translate 8 or 12 for his 1914 Loeb Library edition either, which relegates the Latin versions to an appendix after the other epodes.

In fact, I can’t find a single English translation other than Smart’s prior to 1960, when two appeared, by Joseph P. Clancy and W.G. Shepherd. Neither seems to pull any punches, though Shepherd goes more over the top with flowery language and a Beat-esque poser:

ROGARE LONGO (W.G. Shepherd)

That you, rotten, should ask what it is
that emasculates me, when you’ve
just one black tooth and decrepit age
ploughs up your forehead with wrinkles,
when a diarrhoeic cow’s hole gapes
between your dehydrated buttocks!
What rouses me is your putrid bosom,
your breasts like the teats of a mare,
the flaccid belly and skinny thighs
that top your grossly swollen shanks.
Be bless’d, and may triumphant lovers’
likenesses attend your corpse.
May no wife perlustrate laden
with fatter, rounder pearls than yours.
What though Stoic pamphlets like
to lie between silken pillows?
Illiterate sinews stiffen,
and hamptons droop, no less for that.
(Though if you hope to rouse up mine,
your mouth is faced with no mean task.)

Comparing to Smart’s translation reveals that Smart was quite ingenious with his adjustments. Shepherd also uses a wince-inducing racial epithet in Epode 12, which I will leave to others to comment on. (The American Clancy, in contrast to the British Shepherd, avoids any mention of race at all.) Notably, both are only coy when it comes to the male member (“sinew,” “rod,” Cockney rhyming slang “hampton”), though this is not the case with either translator in Epode 12.

More recent translations follow the same line but make the language a bit plainer. David West’s version (1997) is quite forthright, less self-conscious about the shocking content.


You dare to ask me, you decrepit, stinking slut,
   what makes me impotent?
And you with blackened teeth, and so advanced
   in age that wrinkles plough your forehead,
your raw and filthy arsehole gaping like a cow’s
   between your wizened buttocks.
It’s your slack breasts that rouse me (I have seen
   much better udders on a mare)
your flabby paunch and scrawny thighs
   stuck on your swollen ankles.

May you be blessed with wealth! May effigies
   of triumphators march you to the grave,
and may no other wife go on parade
   weighed down with fatter pearls!

But why do Stoic tracts so love to lie
   on your silk cushions?
They won’t cause big erections or delay the droop–
   you know that penises can’t read.
If that is what you want from my fastidious groin,
   your mouth has got some work to do.

Finally, there is classicist John Henderson’s translation. Henderson is noted for a punning deconstructionist critical style (for which he has been taken to task), and he has written a couple essays on Epode 8, though he is clearly wrong to say (a) that all pre-1980 translations were Bowdlerized and (b) that prior to that the two poems were excluded from virtually all Latin editions with commentary.


Ironically, by adopting a declasse anti-authoritarian patois closer to Shepherd than West, Henderson seems to be trying to recapture the original’s shock value by appealing to shocking standards of a past American era: the artful and self-conscious provocations of Shepherd, reveling in obscenity-as-rebellion rather than obscenity-as-ridicule. It’s a strange and anachronistic brew. I suspect that the blase, imperious ridicule of Rudd and West is closer to the original.

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