Nov 18: Indian Poetry: In Translation and in English

On Nov 17, 2015 Hawakaal Publishers conducted an event on “Indian Poetry: In Translation and in the English Language” in Santiniketan Tourist Lodge (Santiniketan, West Bengal). Eminent professor Somdatta Mandal shared her brilliant thoughts on Translation of Indian Poetry in relation with the book entitled Poem Continuous - Reincarnated Expressions (expanded second edition) by the celebrated Bengali poet Bibhas Roy Chowdhury (translated by Kiriti Sengupta), and published by Inner Child Press, Limited (New Jersey, USA) in association with Hawakaal Publishers, Kolkata. The entire event was moderated by Bitan Chakraborty, who is the founder of Hawakaal Publishers.

Poet & writer Gary Robinson (Canada) was also present in the event, and launched the poetry book Heights of Life by Tanmoy Bhattacharjee. 

Here is the text of Prof Somdatta Mandal's speech:-

“At the outset let me thank Hawakaal Publishers, the organizers of this program for inviting me to speak here and share my observations regarding the status of contemporary Indian poetry in Bengali and its translation into English. Let me also admit that my approach to Indian poetry in vernacular Bengali and in English translation is merely through the eyes of an academic and not a creative writer. So the poets sitting here in the audience might not agree with everything that I want to say. My observations are based on pedagogy. To begin with, this occasion of releasing Bibhas Roy Chowdhury’s book of poems, Poems Continuous: Reincarnated Expressions translated by Kiriti Sengupta actually brings us to certain basic problems of translation from the source language to the target language.

“Way back in 1932, Walter Benjamin had mentioned in his famous essay “The Task of the Translator” that translation is ‘second life’. He had particularly used the term ‘afterlife’. The idea itself is quite thrilling – something that is situated on the verge of death regains new life through the translation.  In 1974, the American poet James Merrill had written a poem called “Lost in Translation” which suggested that what you have omitted during the process of translating a poem is the actual poem. Though translators did not appreciate his idea, the poem and its idea was appreciated by poets. Again we find a poet like Octavio Paz who had literally scolded people who claimed that poetry cannot be translated at all.  There are other theorists who opine that while translating a poem one has to pay due attention to the form and the rhyme scheme as well. So once again the translator becomes the villain. Does that mean that translating poetry will disappear from the world? Herein lies the paradox. The answer is, not at all. Translation is now a full-fledged industry which is thriving quite well.

“One of the questions that perplex the reader of a translated poem is whether it is able to retain the culture specificity of the source text. Regarding translation of poetry in the Indian context it is often believed that poetry cannot be translated at all. The ‘Indianness’ gets lost in the maze of the Queen’s language. According to the poet “Subodh Sarkar, it is often believed that after a lot of brain storming what the translator produces is a watered-down version of the original poem. Though this is true, it is also not wholly true. Let’s say fifty-fifty. There is risk on both sides. Take for example the sixteen translated English versions of the eponymous poem “Banalata Sen” by Jibanananda Das. Till today scholars who can read the poem in original Bangla have been left dissatisfied with each of these translated versions including the one that was done by the poet himself. Some go on arguing about the loss of the onomatopoeic rhythm of “Chul tar kobekar ondhokar bidishar nisha”; others feel the scent and smell of rural Bengal landscape in the poem cannot be recreated in English; while there are others who go on arguing that “danay roudrer gondho muche fele chil” is simply untranslatable. Let alone the metaphor, the argument arises even with the simple nomenclature of the bird ‘chil’ – is it vulture, eagle, kite, hawk, or kestrel? Different translators have used each of these words and so who is closest to the original remains a million dollar debate.

“Under such circumstances, can we therefore remain satisfied with the age old idea that Indian poetry written in non-English languages suffers due to the dearth of good translators? Even Rabindranath Tagore was unlucky to have not found good translators and made a blunder by translating his own poetry. If we get ten great translators like Clinton B. Sealy who translated Jibanananda Das quite well, Bengali poetry can potentially dazzle the world as did Latin America in the last fifty years. Extraordinary poetry is written in Indian languages but it cannot travel out of its linguistic boundary. Thus we have to agree that translation, (albeit good translation), or as what Professor P. Lal had called ‘transcreation’, that does not negotiate the nuances and niceties, is the only way out. 

“Coming to Bibhas Roy Chowdhury’s own opinion regarding translation (which is appended after the poems and which facilitates the readers who are unfamiliar with his work) we are therefore hardly surprized at his reluctance and lack of faith in translation. In an interview given to Kiriti Sengupta he states:

I don’t believe in translating poetry into other languages. A poem not only belongs to the poet, it belongs to the language as well. The language that a poet uses to write his/her thoughts, feelings, and reactions, has its own characteristic features like flexibility, rigidity, lyrical quality, etc. All these affect the construction of a poem. During translation the language changes, and as a result the translated poem differs from the original poem. Yes, the thoughts are conveyed to some extent!           

“Later of course he also admits that translating poetry facilitates exposure and accessibility of the poet and of their poems across the globe. ‘Honestly, this is an appreciable task’ the ‘Krittibas award’ -winner of 1997 declares.

“I want to conclude with a few words on the translator of this volume. Kiriti Sengupta has been writing poems in English for quite some time now. So his poetic sensibility has definitely facilitated the translation and he has definitely done a yeoman task of making Bibhas Roy Chowdhury’s poetry familiar not only to a pan-Indian readership but even to readers in the West. Frankly speaking, I am pretty sure that even many Bengalis might not be very familiar with his poetry, the reserved and reticent person that he is. For a poet who is not seeped in metropolitan culture (and hence not Kolkata-centric) but whose poems tell us about a migrant sensibility and of living and growing up in a semi-urban region in a Bengal district, this translated version will definitely help in disseminating his poetic sensibility which would otherwise remain unappreciated by a large section of readers. And this is exactly where the significance of this book lies. It is really refreshing to read poems on boats, Bhatiali – the song of the boatmen, the lighthouse, the soil, the monsoon, and on simple and yet cardinal familial ties between brothers, sons, daughters and parents. Honestly, the poems do not read as translated verses! In a nutshell, Bibhas’s poems bring in a breath of fresh air in our over-polluted lives.”

Somdatta Mandal is Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English and Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. She did her graduation from the University of Calcutta and then received her MPhil and PhD degrees from Jadavpur University, Calcutta. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, Charles Wallace, Rockefeller Residency, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally.

(Report by: Bitan Chakraborty, Founder, Hawakaal Publishers, Kolkata, Nov 18, 2015)

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