Christopher Caudwell, in his Illusion and Reality, a Marxist dissertation on literature, says that while the qualities of great novels can survive translation, those of poetry cannot. The reason is not far to seek. Poetry is basically a style of thinking of the creative artist, for whom the manner of conveying what he wants to say is intimately connected with the genius of the language in which he writes. The genius of the language is largely determined by the historical, social, and cultural factors that go to shape it.
Any up and coming, conscientious modern Tamil poet has to contend with the initial embarrassment of being bamboozled by a long, rich literary antiquity. He not only needs to be suitably equipped for being a worthy follower of such a long tradition but must also be talented enough to violate or modify the rules of prosody without offending the soul-rhythm and nuances of the language.
Sirpi Balasubramaniam, one of the major voices in contemporary Tamil poetry, is well-steeped in the Tamil literary tradition, as an academic scholar, who has professed this language for nearly four decades. His poems are deceptively simple and deal with a variety of themes with great poetic sensitivity.
K.S. Subramanian is an eminent translator, belonging, perhaps, to the school of Edward Fitzgerald, in the sense his translations are immensely readable and easy-flowing reflections of what he has internally assimilated from an intense reading of the original. The translations are not ‘prosaically and mundanely literal', which would have made them trauttore-traditore as the Italians say, which means, ‘betraying the original'. On the other hand, Subramanian focusses on the thematic unity of the whole canvas and brings to bear upon the reader, the evolution of the poet by setting the poems in a chronological order.
The first poem in this collection was written in 1968 and the last in 2005.
What starts in 1968 (poem titled ‘Me') as a self-conscious attempt to announce the arrival of an humble poet “slaking the thirst like a gentle whispering brook,” ends in 2005 (‘The Body The Mind') as a confident loud human voice heralding that the best is yet to be, and this sums up the triumph of mind over matter echoing Satan in Paradise Lost, “what though the field be lost?”
This collection has many beautiful poems, which almost read as if they were written in English, thanks to good translation. One such poem is The Pebble. The pebble is a “meteorite's fiery rage”, slipped into the water and had its “hot anger tamed”, and “waiting across the time's boundary” to acquire “a sublime gleam.”
Memory of a distant past encaged in a silken rock. The last three lines of the poem shake us out of our romantic reverie, when the pebble says:
‘Trapped in this form
I have lost my self
Will you liberate me?'