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Updated: October 6, 2012 17:13 IST

No song here

K. Srilata
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Selected Poems (Subramania Bharati), translated by Usha Rajagopalan.
Selected Poems (Subramania Bharati), translated by Usha Rajagopalan.

The translator presents a disappointingly prosaic Bharati, says K. Srilata

Reading a bi-lingual edition of a work-in-translation is akin to living on the border between two friendly nations. You can hop from source text to translated text, making up your mind along the way about several things at once.

Translated by Usha Rajagopalan, this special bilingual edition of the Tamil poet Subramania Bharati’s poems carries that lovely promise. And yet, despite that promise of readerly delight, the volume is a disappointment. The poems in translation don’t fly. There is nothing of the fire, the energy and the verve one associates with Bharati. The work of a poet as hugely iconic and significant as Subramania Bharati requires a certain kind of translating imagination, a playfulness, a sense of “being in conversation with” the poet himself.

In other words, it is not easy. One needs much more than line-by-line meticulousness with poetry, especially of the Bharati variety. As Walter Benjamin says, “Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence something inessential.” This is especially true of translations of poetry where there is little “information” but lots of intangible stuff.

Translating poetry calls for a different sort of translating imagination altogether, an imagination which, for instance A.K. Ramanujan displays in his translation of Bharati’s poem “Wind, 9”. What Usha Rajagopalan has used is a certain Orientalist idiom that has sometimes been employed to translate poets like Aurobindo.

Monotony strikes

The translations of “Kuyil paattu 1 and 2” can only be described as monotonous, lacking in play:

“To the nectar squeezed from the fruit of poetry/ Brahma added the essence of song and drama.” (Kuyil paattu 1)

“In the ancient chants of women as they grind corn,/ In the country notes of those who powder limestone,/ In the catchy little ditties of women working in farms…” (Kuyil paattu 2)

If the translation of “Kuyil paattu 1” is staccato, that of “Kuyil paattu 2” sounds like a ballad gone wrong.

In “False or True?” (Poyya? Meyya?) as well as in “The goddess of beauty” (Azhagu deiyvam) the translator lapses completely into the prosaic, right down to the unnecessarily elaborate dialogue tags in the latter:

“We believe in what we see. What we don’t see is conjecture./ Transcending the seen and the unseen is the/ eternal Shakti.” (“False or True?”)

Can Time surpass wisdom? I wondered.

Time is but a tool for the intellect, she answered.

Will desires on earth be fulfilled? I then asked. (“The goddess of beauty”)

In the original “Azhagu deiyvam”, Bharati, while retaining the use of dialogue tags right through the last stanza, keeps it simple, preferring the use of “endren” and “endraal”. The rhythmic effect of that is hard to miss. “Wondered”, “answered” and “asked” doesn’t quite work.

In a small subset of her translations, however, Usha really lets go and thereby almost gets Bharati’s voice. “To the Sun” is one such example:

O Sun! What have you done to darkness?

Driven it away? Killed it? Swallowed it?

Have you smothered it with your embrace,

Hidden it with your light ray hands?

Other translations which do reasonably well are “To the Wind” and “Clarity of mind”. “Kannamma, My Beloved” very nearly works, marred only by the “alas! alas!” of the closing lines.

Usha is clearly a great admirer of Bharati’s work. This is apparent from what she says in her introduction. Translation, much more so than other forms of writing, is a thankless job.

The bard does it

Often, the best thing that can happen to a translator is that she is not noticed, her name having dropped off the book’s cover page as well as reviews of it. In this case though, it will be hard for Usha to disappear. Her name appears quite prominently on the book’s cover and reviewers will write about her. Bharati has already earned for himself the love of his readers. Anyone who sets out to translate Bharati will feel a million pairs of eyes trained on her.

In this sense, Usha has our sympathies. The trouble though is that she has thrown poetry and song out of the window, choosing to fashion a strangely timid and disappointingly prosaic Bharati.

Selected Poems (Subramania Bharati); Translated by Usha Rajagopalan, Hachette India, Rs.350.

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