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Translator's Notes: The Sheets

by R. Parthasarathy


Sanskrit erotic poetry is best appreciated if the reader has some familiarity with the conventions of the erotic mood spelled out in such texts as Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra (third century). “The Sheets” is from Amaru’s One Hundred Poems (seventh century), an influential anthology of erotic verse.

The word “sheets” has long been part of the euphemisms for lovemaking. Social conventions, however, prohibit the poet from describing the various positions. He gets around the prohibition by describing the traces left by the woman, who was probably a courtesan, on the bedsheets during lovemaking. The telltale marks on the bedsheets bear witness to a night of wild lovemaking by the couple. By concentrating almost entirely on the background, the poet forces the reader’s attention on the foreground—the couple’s lovemaking in “every position.” One of the commentaries on the anthology identifies each of the telltale marks with a specific position: the “betel juice” with the “position of the cat”; the “aloe paste” with the “position of the elephant”; the “splash of powder” with the “position of the cow”; and “lacquer from footprints” with the unorthodox woman-on-top position. The Kamasutra offers the classic description of these positions. The poem is a feast of olfactory delights; it recognizes the erotic possibilities of scents such as aromatic herbs and perfumes in lovemaking. It is a textbook example of the Sanskrit poet’s use of indirect suggestion (dhvani). Each reader completes the poem in his or her own mind.

The sense of total abandon with which the couple made love all over the bed is brought home by the insistent repetition of the adverb “kvacit” (here). The entire poem is one sentence wherein the subject, “the sheets” (pracchadapatah), is deliberately withheld till the very end to add to the suspense. The poem is an erotic masterpiece.

English does not have a tradition of erotic poetry comparable to that of Sanskrit or Greek. Therefore tone becomes of utmost importance in communicating the erotic mood of the Sanskrit poem. It has to be carefully modulated to sound right to an English ear without being offensive. In translating from Sanskrit into English, one translates not just the text but an entire culture and worldview which remain hidden like so many roots beneath the text.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2006

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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