I was on a bus. A 5 year-old relationship had just come to a painful end. Being in transit felt therapeutic. Riding in a vehicle driven by someone else, I was not responsible for my own life. I could do little more than look out of the window. The landscape was in flux and I had nothing but my thoughts to lose. It was oddly freeing. Someone posted Auden’s The More Loving One on Facebook just then and the lines “If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me” caught my attention. It was as deep as it was rhythmic. I sat with it for a while and the following Kannada lines came to me:
saadhyaagadalli ond samanaada bhaava
nannadey aagirali hecchina jeeva
These lines were in the middle of the poem but with them I had managed to transpose the meaning and the music. I began translating from there and the rest of the lines lent themselves willingly to be led across the linguistic bridge. I did the whole poem on the bus and read it to my mother when I reached home. She cried.
Translating literature has always been a deeply personal endeavour.
I have written elsewhere about how translation as a serious engagement began for me: from writing the subtitles for a Kannada film for a class at university, to being asked to translate some stories for an anthology, to being commissioned essays for journals, to translating plays, a novel etc., it has steadily become an integral part of my life. But what I love translating most is poetry. In that lies the answer to why translation is important for me.
Poetry, whose definition is greater than the sum of all its definitions, speaks to me more than other kinds of literature. Its refractive quality, the multiplicity of experience and subjectivity of assimilation some poems offer, their capacity to draw me in with suggestions of familiarity allow me to inhabit them and make me feel at home in it. In being an act of sublimation, translation is a lot like poetry.
Translation, if I may dwell a little on my understanding of the primariness of it, is coincidental with the learning of a second language when definitions for words in the second language are basically corresponding words in the first language (‘Water means neeru,’ ‘Yes, teacher’) and the lack of equal words is driven home by the need to use closest equivalents (‘Bread stands for chapatti.’ ‘What? They look and taste nothing like each other.’ ‘But they are similar. Both are made from wheat.’ ‘That is not enough. One is leavened, the other is not. One is rolled out, the other is sliced from a loaf. One is baked, the other is roasted on a pan.’ ‘That’s all we have to go on. Shut up and memorise: bread stands for chapatti’ ‘Yes, teacher’). We are taught the concept of cultural disparity and we are taught how the gap can be bridged. We are taught to create equivalence. In other words, we are taught to translate.
But come to think of it, translation predates second language learning. In fact, it begins with first language acquisition. When we learn to associate sounds with objects (stone, tree) and later intangible ideas (sky, love), we are translating images into sound. It is possible that this Saussurean concept is refuted by someone very clever. I don’t know. I do not do linguistics. I translate.
If we might pursue this line of thought, however, we see how important the role of consensus is in the idea of language – and by extension, translation. Meaning is made not just by associating a word with an image, but also by assuming a general acceptance of this association. The efficiency of language lies in the fact that this assumption is largely not misplaced. And its beauty lies in the fact that sometimes it is. In translation, the consensus is doubly contentious and hence imbued with the qualities of poetry – and the ‘poetic license’ becomes all the more pertinent. When perceptions may vary by contexts, moods, whims and fancies within one language, the added factor of cultural difference on the bridge to a second language makes a translator’s life worthwhile. It is in the gaps and cracks formed by linguistic fallibility that she must find her voice. For me, it is a most joyous adventure.
I believe translation is an act of creation. But that needn’t translate (pun intended) as unfaithfulness to the original. On the contrary, it is a way of keeping the love alive with happy surprises. And this I endeavour to do by focussing on the intent and the mood more than the word. Words are ephemeral. Moods are ethereal.
The spectrum of possibilities for the translation of a work is wide and ranges from ‘literal re-creation’ to ‘inspired retelling’ and the outcome of each exercise of translation is highly subjective.
The intent and ideas, the rhymes and rhythms of the text will provide the scaffolding, and the translator must decide the beauty of the new construction by the appropriateness of the envelope she pushes in choosing the material to (re)build it with.
And this needn’t be strictly applicable to poetry thought of as literature with line-breaks. When I was translating the novel A Handful of Sesame by Shrinivas Vaidya, the challenge was conveying the dryness of the North-Karnataka sense of humour the text was replete with. This tongue-in-cheek paragraph, for instance, talks about the limited world of the inhabitants of the village and how the pace of their lives was the antithesis of haste. I could almost see the author, a grandfatherly gentleman, sitting on an armchair telling me the story with a deadpan expression albeit with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. It was important to retain that quality even as I hugged close its idiomatic shenanigans. The last lines describing the women’s preoccupations were not as rhyming in the original but I felt it important to insert them—whilst retaining the references—to bring out the intended mirth.
The people returned to their busy routines of asking each other in the mornings if they were up, and turning their faces to the skies in the afternoon and saying “What do you know? There’s not a hint of rain yet”. They went back to sitting on the knoll near the Lalgade temple until darkness stepped in, and until the concluding strains of raag Bhairavi of Magdum’s band rehearsal became thin air, they discussed such pressing matters as the ghost in the tamarind tree beside the Sankawwa pond, or the yard-long wheat-hued cobra that had slithered into the rock cluster before the Taluk office, or the Hallad-matha’s Sire’s persistent cough, or Mamlatdar’s minor wife Mandakini, or the plague mice falling dead in Hubballi, or Bal Gangadhar Tilak. After ruminating over these never-ending topics, they would hasten home to eat their evening meals and shut their doors upon the darkness outside and turn in before the wicks in the kerosene lamps in their respective homes went off with a phut. The womenfolk kept themselves busy with hearth, childbirth, and a little mirth of water’s worth on their way to the pond. Once in a while, they created their own entertainment with gossip and slander and quarrels – scold this one, taunt that one or mock another one.
An example of what I call inspired retelling is my manoeuvres with Da Ra Bendre’s ever-so-intriguing poem Naku Tanti. The magic and mystery of the words notwithstanding, for me it is foremost a song where meaning follows music like an afterthought. I was listening to it on loop one day, sung by my friend M.D Pallavi and the English words tumbled out as follows:
As calving halves coming together
In cowed crowds – you and I
Cowering in this song of creation
Are but creators of utter joy
What are birthing pangs
For earthlings as me and you
When all of life hangs
In the throes of what we do
Our four-pronged verses
Throng with resonance
As the quartet traverses
Quatern strings with elegance
Smitten or bitten we are
By this pleasure bug
Where boundlessness by far
Undoes limits with a shrug
What is the wall – the backrest
That our world leans on
But birth and nourishment at the breast
And upon it a reflection
Under the star’s gaze that sharp rain
Hurls a pearl into open oysters
‘O my son, now, are you slain?’
Then call out fate’s twin daughters
Of pa and ma the world is child
It’s mother’s egg and father’s egging
As his yoke on her yolk is tied
I, their infant love come legging
You and I and creation’s sigh
Plucking on the spirit nigh
Are all the more four strings
Where the core of our being lies
It is infused with the humming
Of the mounted indentured god
The glorious General of all creation
Made archer by the nod
Joining together meaning and motion
And goals that the soul's eyes trod.
I will translate anything from a popular Bollywood song to a classical play as long as it touches me deeply. Sometimes, the most lauded of literature fails to reach me; sometimes a common meme of popular culture grabs my attention. I know a couple of languages and sometimes a significant experience in one may give me a strong urge to experience it in the other.
The songdil to baccha hai ji from the film Ishqiya in Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s razor-sharp voice accentuated by the percussion that emerges from a subdued space to beat like a heart suddenly remembered urged me to pay close attention to the lyrics. I thought of it as follows in English:
It’s hard to disentangle gazes that are wed
And teeth cannot bite through fine silken thread
Time has rained down; I’m wizened for wise
Still, dark clouds of youth are afloat in my skies
Oh god, the heart has quickened its pace
Like winds in a hurry, the colours flee my face
The heart is a wee child, sir; on the years it’s still mild, sir
It is afraid of sleeping alone in its place.
Translation, however, is not the same as publishing. While the latter can be associated with the former in many cases, translation, I believe, is an independent activity. If we must think of publishing, copyrights and other ethico-legal matters come to the fore and the lay of the land tells us we must respect the law of the land. And we must. But nothing need stop us from enjoying translation as intimate reading – and sharing the joy of our creation with the ones closest to us.
Publishing as a translator is a greater responsibility. One is representing the author in a new linguistic terrain that comes with its own literary traditions and must be constantly willing to hold up their weight on one’s shoulders. Therefore, it is not just a linguistic-aesthetic activity but also a personal/political one. And for that, I am particular about what I choose to work with, and hence, remain non-prolific.
While what I said so far talks about why I translate, the following poem says how I think it should be done:
Translating a Poem
When translating a poem, consent is the most important thing.
Not as much the poet’s as the poem’s. Well, the poet’s too, if you are old fashioned. But it’s more ceremonial than real as poets are like fathers: vestigial after creation. Dead poets are the best.
Ask the poem and it will tell you if the poet’s blessings are needed. The trick to a happy translation is making it all about the poem.
If the poem is holding on to its language like fidelity to a past lover, stubbornly unwilling to be swayed by your words—however beautiful—don’t push it. Ask it if it would like you to get it something (A glass of water? Another cushion? Close the window to shut out the critics perhaps?) and withdraw kindly and respectfully. Wish it well. Do not maul, do not rant.
Translate only if it lends itself wilfully and happily.
Before translating, you must get to know your poem well. Sit with it. Hold it. Hear its story. Ask sympathetic questions. Even the happiest poem hides a sad past. Cry with it. Laugh with it. Let it know you love it by the way you breathe.
If it teases you with an occasional challenge (Tight rope between cadence and metaphor? Will you still translate me if I grow fat with meter? Think I’m easy because I’m free verse?), take it. It will be worthwhile and immensely satisfying.
Translate only if your translation is a poem too – like you are giving it a makeover, dressing it in new clothes; clothes that fit and compliment.
Better even if after intense meaning-making together the poem wakes up in your clothes. They will automatically fit. Believe me, nothing can be a more dreamy translation.
If your translation is not a poem, it is mere annotation – rags. It will not want to be seen in them. Then, you must return its old clothes right away, get out through the back door, burn those rags, and enrol for an MBA in HR.
Issue 96 (Mar-Apr 2021)