Be they Bengali or Icelandic, the poems included in Sudeep Sen’s new book of translations are good but – perhaps even more important, for this particular work – also read well in English. The works of Mandakranta Sen, for instance, a bold young poet from Bengal, are almost oracular in tone, which would seem to be a difficult nuance to translate. “One who writes poetry in the middle of the night/ With hair undone is a witch,” she writes. But with subsequent lines this emerges as a poem of subversion, giving the female power a free rein. The poet has a streak of Sylvia Plath in her work, reminding readers of the cataclysmic power of reproduction with which a woman can be endowed: She has to be possessed to let poetry flow from her. The “dawn” finds her “conceiving … the sun”, and by noon she has reached the “full-blown advanced stage”. This poem, with its swift movements in the process of forging life, is an accomplished work. It is romantic in vein and marked by a freshness of idiom, making it contemporaneous with the other poems featured in Aria.
This collection is an unusual mixture of translated voices from around the world, something as yet uncommon in India. Prior to Sudeep Sen, two poets in India have succeeded in bringing foreign-tongue poetry into English, Dom Moraes and Vikram Seth, the former from the Hebrew and the latter from the Mandarin. Yet all three of them go about translation in a wholly different manner from the usual understanding of the process. In his introduction to his anthology of modern Hebrew ‘peace poems’, A Chance Beyond Bombs, Moraes made it clear that he did not know the language he was translating from; rather, he was given literal translations, voice records of the poems, and he sat with the renowned Hebrew poet T Carmi to translate the works. Aria highlights a cosmopolitan writer’s curiosity not just to regain his own past but to relate himself to the present, and so presents Sen’s translations of Bengali poems from West Bengal and Bangladesh; of Hindi and Urdu poems of such poets like Agyeya, Kunwar Narain and Kaifi Azmi; as well as of Korean, Persian, Hebrew, Polish, Macedonian and Icelandic poets. Needless to say, this is a staggering range.
But is it really possible, the reader inevitably asks, to translate poetry from a language one does not know, to bring out the subtleties and nuance? The only choice the reader is left with is to trust the given translation, perking up one’s ears to the individual rhythms of the verse. First off, though, in his introduction, Sen does make an attempt to dispel readers’ doubts. It all began, he writes, when he was participating, along with other non-Israeli poets, in a translation workshop in Jerusalem. “We, the participants, were given English literal translations of the original poems [of the Hebrew poet Avraham Ben Yitshak], background historical and cultural information, and other relevant reading matter. After we went through the materials in some detail, we were given a verbal introduction to the poet, and his poetry was read out in Hebrew.” After several sessions and the assistance of Hebrew scholars and poets, Sen says the participants came up with several working drafts of the poems – “accurate in terms of their content but not finished as poems. Then each of us took over and was expected to turn them into proper poems in our own languages.”
In Aria, Sen thus works as both a translator and collaborator, translating “with the poet”. Through each step of the translation process, he has worked on the given draft in English, closely following the poet’s voice, even tallying the visual shape of the original and, in particular, trying to retain the rhythm. The translator’s sole aim was to produce “a set of English translations that in the English language read like original English poems”, retaining “recitative qualities of the original poem”. Translating a poem felicitously into another language is not enough, seems to be the lesson, as a poem is as much an aesthetic experience for the eyes as for the ears. In order to achieve the desired effect, a practicing poet in the target language is also likely to do justice by bringing in ‘musicality’ to the translation. In this context, what matters most is to recite the original piece side by side with the translated version, in order to achieve the most judicious similarity to the original rhythm.
The pain of translation
How this all works out on the page is ultimately up to the reader to decide. Yet for the moment, let the theorists and translators have their own doctrines and, before that blinds us, we the readers will go our own way, taking the Italian proverb ‘Translators are traitors’ with a pinch of salt. In other words, since most readers will not have the scope to access the source language, they have to trust the given version, which is decided by the translator’s linguistic and creative capability and sincerity. Broadly speaking, the work should speak for itself, and in Aria the translated poems do exactly that. Take, for instance, Amir Or’s Hebrew-language poem “Archer”. Leaving aside the issue of fidelity to the translator, we as readers see how well this poem reads in translation:
My skin is swifter than the wind,
my arrow is swifter than my legs,
I strip my clothes off,
(strip off) my words, my face –
on and on. High in the sky
the hawk diving in the breeze
is too slack for me.
On and on, my life
Beyond my life.
Between the pinnacle and abyss
Into the void, into the windless quiet
seize my arrow between my own teeth.
This poem seems to be something of a feat of literary martial art, in which the poet’s imagination leaps to seize the arrow he shoots, and in the process we see his body becoming emblematic of speed and time.
A shorter but sharper poem from this collection is “There Lies”, by Ditte Steensballe of Iceland:
years gone by
in the night-sleep dreams,
like difficult children,
like animals – you.
This poem seems to adhere to the dictum, The less you say, the more you suggest.
While including these foreign-language poems, Sen tells us that collaboration is in fact “a fairly common practice in the contemporary poet-to-poet translation process”. It certainly has been in the US and Europe, though not necessarily in the Southasian region until now. Elsewhere, however, this collaborative process arguably began to gain its most significant currency during the 1960s, with the introduction of the impressive series of Penguin Modern European Poets, which introduced a whole new spectrum of non-English-language poets to English-speaking audiences.
Oddly, Aria’s impressive range notwithstanding, there is no clear criterion for selection of poems for the book, neither for the international poets nor those from the region. Sudeep Sen has included four poems from Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘nonsense verses’ in Khapcharra; six poems by Mithu Sen, a comparatively younger Bengali poet; and one from Pankajini Das, a writer unknown to this reviewer but described as a “poet, essayist and philosopher”. Either way, her single poem “Who Are You?”, with its traditional juxtaposition of body and spirit, does not impress.
Perhaps to make up for some of the more lacklustre works, Sen tops off the selection of Bengali poetry by placing a new translation of Jibanananda Das’s immortal “Banalata Sen” as the first work in Aria. As is the privilege of any classic – a single work attracting multiple versions – “Banalata Sen” now adds another translation to those already in existence. Let us briefly compare it with another version, by Sukanta Chaudhuri.
For a thousand years I have walked this earth’s passage
by day and night – from Lanka’s shores to Malaya’s vast seas.
I’ve traveled much – been a guest at Bhimbhishar and at Ashok’s court,
stayed in the distant nights, in the town of Bidharba.
I’m long worn-out…
(translated by Sudeep Sen)
I have walked the roads across the earth’s breasts for a thousand years
In the darkness of night, I have ranged far – from Ceylon waters
to the Malaya sea; in Vimbisar and Asok’s grey world
Have I been, and the still more distant darkness of Vidarbha.
A tired being am I…
(translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri)
There is much to be said about Sen’s ‘updated’ version. His contemporary idiom – “walked this earth’s passage” as against Chaudhuri’s “earth’s breast”, or his directness in “I’m long worn out” against the convoluted “A tired being am I” – coupled with an overall lucidity, are sure to win over new readers to this new “Banalata Sen”. Perhaps the same will be able to be said of some of Sen’s new translations of some of the lesser-known works in this volume.
As a poet-translator, Sudeep Sen could not help but include two of his own English poems in Aria, both dealing directly with translation. Oddly, however, the simply titled “Translating Poetry” ends with a note that could, if we strip its intended humility, undo what the poet-translator has been doing thus far. “A real poem defies translation, in every way,” he writes, a statement that would seem to leave no scope for the act of translation to be redeemed. But his other poem, “Aria’s Footprint”, in which the poet is left gaping at the “unfinished silhouette” and waiting for “the miracle/ of tabula rasa” for his translated version, one starts to understand the pain that any translator has to undergo – perhaps no less than the poet, writing the original.
~ Rabindra K Swain is a poet in Bhubaneswar.