Updated: June 1, 2010 09:19 IST

An elegant translation of Sangam poems

P. Marudanayagam
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Shelly's famous statement about ‘the vanity of translation' notwithstanding, the art of translating poetry from one language into another continues to flourish, and translation as an academic discipline has outdistanced both Linguistics and Comparative Literature which were once patronising it. Robert Frost may have said “poetry is what is lost in translation,” and Noam Chomsky may say “translation is like squaring a circle or circling a square.” But as Derrida points out, all great works like the Greek tragedies, Virgil's Aeneid, and Dante's Divine Comedy, have to survive only through their translations. Now that Tamil Sangam poetry has won a place alongside these world classics, it is imperative that it should get translated more and more into the leading languages of the world to sustain its status.

A challenge

Only certain kinds of poetry that rely too much on wordplay and the sound of words will resist successful translation, but poems primarily depending upon profound imagery as well as aphoristic utterances will come through without much difficulty. Characterised as they are by concision, striking imagery, and rolling rhythms, Sangam poems do pose a challenge to the translator. Yet, where translators have failed, the reasons will have to be sought in their own shortcomings such as poor acquaintance with the original and wrong choice of the idom.

Though numerous native scholars and western aficionados have attempted to render in English select poems from Sangam anthologies, G.U. Pope, A.K. Ramanujan and George L. Hart represent three types of translation, each with its own idiosyncratic features that accounted for their merits as well as limitations. On his part, Pope contents himself very often with paraphrases. It is his fondness for rhymes that lets him down and, at times, even forces him to introduce a descriptive phrase or a metaphor not found in the original. As for Ramanujan, he scrupulously avoids Victorian English and chooses today's English, which remains his forte. It is largely through his efforts that Sangam poetry acquired a global reputation. His characteristic style is to break the poem in accordance with the ideas conveyed and the objects described and, then, to indent one part or two parts, depending upon their relative importance. But if his readers are not acquainted with the original, they may be misled into believing that some of the typical techniques of modern poetry employed by him are of the Sangam pieces.

Hart and Heifetz consciously defined themselves against Ramanujan as they valiantly attempt to recapture the rhythmic grandeur of the original Tamil pieces. Being a poet, Heifetz (with whose collaboration Hart has done the work) knows that, “Tamil language runs like a river — long words, rapid speech, accumulating syllables.” And their translation, therefore, attempts “to communicate the feel of these rolling rhythms,” although “sometimes straining against the bounds of English syntax.”


This scenario was clearly set for the advent of a translator, who, apart from being a home-grown scholar, is himself a poet and a seasoned translator of poetry so that he could fully comprehend the meaning/import of a word or a phrase and capture the image of a Sangam poem. The author of Love Stands Alone, M.L. Thangappa eminently fits the bill. In this book, he has provided the English rendering of over 160 select poems. Take, for instance, a poem by Maarpitthiyaar wherein the poet expresses, with a touch of psychological realism, her wonder at the transformation of a young man, who, once capable of captivating the hearts of young women by his charming words, has become an ascetic and is seen drying his hair after bathing in a mountain stream. And Thangappa's translation runs thus: Look at this ascetic/who wears matted hair/which has acquired the colour of thillai leaves/with frequent wash/in the waterfalls/picking the thick thali leaves/Once he had been a hunter/of sweet young girls/from many a home/catching them in his net of words.

This is nothing more, or less, than what the exquisite piece says in elegant Tamil. Pope in his rendering mentions “his stately palace-home,” whereas there is no hint in the original that the character was a king-turned ascetic. Ramanujan's translation, though superb, leaves us in doubt about his understanding of the hunter-related metaphor; he pictures a strange hunter who catches the peacocks that wander into his house in a net of words! Hart almost narrates a short story about the past of the protagonist of the poem and asserts, without any warrant, that the hero — not at all a womaniser — played the role of a hunter with a net of words only once, and that too to catch the maid who has now become his wife!

Anyone who has been impressed with the translation of Sangam poems by Pope or Ramanujan or Hart would do well to turn to Thangappa whenever they would like to know what exactly the original says.

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