Two volumes that introduce the reader to the Who's Who of Oriya poetry.

Suppose we have two verses before us. One, from the medieval period, is universal in appeal and does not admit two opinions about its goodness. The other, from contemporary times, is not only of limited appeal but can entertain more than one opinion about its goodness. Now which of these two will work better in English?

One would be tempted to choose the former. But, in actual fact, translation may report more resistance from the taken-for-granted medieval poem than from the controversial modern poem. This seems to have been the case in the two new translations: one containing selections from medieval and the other from modern Oriya poetry.

Bereft of the metrical, musical and rhythmic resources of the original, the English translations from Sarala Das (the adi or first poet), Balaram Das (the bhakta or the devotee poet), Jagannath Das (ati badi or the very great), Upendra Bhanja (kabi samrat or the emperor among poets) and Baladev Ratha (kavi surya or the sun poet) seem pretty prosaic despite being done by acclaimed translators.

The renderings from the moderns — done by translators who are relatively new to the Oriya Literature in the English Translation scene — seem, on the other hand, to communicate with a greater sense of immediacy.

This may come as a surprise to lovers of Oriya literature who have always held that the modern is at best a footnote to the medieval.

Translator's dilemma

This reverse effect is not to be wondered at. Medieval poetry with its close ties to music, song, religion, philosophy and social rituals is an organic whole of many intertwined parts. Translating this unified and formally controlled verse into English is like putting it under the knife.

There is the additional problem of bridging a huge temporal gap when bearing something from an irretrievably lost world into the contemporary English idiom. The modern verse, with its freedom, diffuseness and presentness, is obviously more translatable.

This is not to refuse to translate the medieval verse which is exemplary in blending dharma and karma, aesthetics and politics. Nor is this to deny the cultural rootedness of the modern poem which stems from its local adaptation of the general experience of mobility, migration and mixture, not to speak of alienation and exposure. Besides, the openness of the modern to Western is another thing that cuts across cultural barriers, aiding the process of transfer into English.

Two different worlds are being posited then in these two collections and they come with their attendant problems and prospects, joys and difficulties of translation. The medieval world, mediated through 48 poems by 26 poets, is essentially religious. The poetry explores the human condition but within the preordained framework of the falsity of the world (seen as maya) which can be transcended through bhakti. The functions are parcelled out among poets. In Sarala the precise placing of consciousness is stressed; the falsity of the world of senses can be glimpsed in Achyutananada; in Banamali and Madhavi, the only woman poet from this period, faith and devotion are paramount. The medieval world also accommodates the erotic poetry of Upendra Bhanja and the rebelliousness of the 19th century tribal poet Bhima Bhoi.

Past and present

Coming to the modern world, mediated through 101 poems by as many poets, one notes its pervasive secular content and its appeal to empirical reality. The backdrop of a failed post-colonial nation and region is tellingly evoked in the opening poem “The Moon of Matiaburuz” by Sachi Routray. Thereafter is a retreat, in poem after poem, to a private island of love, loss and longing, which has become the mainstay of modern Oriya poetry.

Curiously enough, in the introduction, the editors of the modern volume have written rather lukewarmly about the poetry they have sunk their teeth into. If one is translating a literary work for reasons other than purely academic, it is because one finds value in it. Even utterly solipsistic poems like “Alaka Sanyal” of Guru Prasad and “Ahalya” of Soubhagy Mishra, the ones that exemplify the “rootlessness” they lament and deride, can be hauntingly beautiful and revelatory.

The poems are well translated and should have been seen for the tour de force they are. The editors of the medieval collection have steered clear of this sort of ambivalence, appearing to match their translating zeal with their zeal in expounding the poems in the foreword and the afterword.

Taken together the two anthologies do a good job of introducing the non-Oriya reader to the who is who of Oriya poetry and to the momentous shift from the devout to the vagrant that has occurred as we journeyed from darkness to light.

Medieval Odia Poetry; translated by Ganeswar Mishra and Paul St-Pierre, Vidyapuri, Rs. 60. Wandering Words: Modern Oriya Poetry Since Independence; translated by Sangram Jena and Aurobindo Behera, Sahitya Akademi, Rs. 200.

Keywords: Oriya poetry

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