Author Usha Rajagopalan has fulfilled her childhood dream of translating Tamil bard Subramania Bharati’s poems into English. Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati will be launched in Thiruvananthapuram on October 13
An idyllic childhood, a clutch of favourite authors (Roald Dahl, P.G. Wodehouse, James Herriot, Ernest Hemingway, Subramania Bharati), writing columns for children, a ‘Do It Yourself’ book… are some elements that have added the zing to writer Usha Rajagopalan. As Conservator of Forests, her father used to bring home orphaned, abandoned or injured animals before sending them off to the zoo providing “a lot of excitement in our growing up years, which has given me enough stories to tell.” A.S. Aiyer, her grandfather, and later her uncle, A.S. Balakrishnan, both professors of English, identified and nurtured her fondness for reading and writing. An independent writer who moves from writing for children to translating Bharati’s poetry, Usha’s interest in Bharati’s poetry “was fuelled by hearing his songs sung by all ranks of singers”. Her Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati is set to be launched at the Government Women’s College on October 13. Usha talks about her varied interests…
“Now I eat, drink and live Bharati,” was how you described your experience translating Bharati’s poems. How did you develop this interest and pursue this dream project?
It certainly was a dream project, which I had nursed for most of my life. I’d grown up hearing Bharati songs and loved them even though I didn’t quite know the meaning of the verses. When I was perhaps 10 or 12 years old, I decided that some day I would translate them into English for my own understanding. The catch was that though Tamil is my mother tongue and I speak the language at home, I never learnt it formally. I got someone to teach me the basics and gradually improved. When finally I began translating Bharati’s poems, beginning with my favourites, I became absorbed with the process and the challenge.
What was the learning like, both by way of enriching your understanding of the poet? , as well as, the take away for the translator?
Other than knowing that the songs I liked had been written by Bharati, I knew little about the poet. When I began translating I contacted his granddaughter, Vijaya Bharati and her husband, P.K. Sundara Rajan, who helped with books on the poet and through them I got to know the man behind the poems.
He was a person way ahead of his time. He was brilliant, a prodigy who lived for poetry. He loved his family, wrote many poems with his wife, Chellamma, as his muse, was short tempered and while working did not brook any interruption whatsoever. Yet, he was also forgiving, big-hearted and keenly aware of his failings as a human being. A staunch votary of women’s rights, he condemned caste divisions and was patriotic to the core. He chafed at the thought of India fettered and the inability of fellow Indians to join hands and free the country from the British. He had every hope that it would happen some day, though he did not live to see it.
And the take away for the translator…
As a writer, I had thought that translating was easier than creating one’s characters and bringing them to life. I was wrong. The challenge is far, far more for a translator. One has to be faithful to the original text and yet bring out all its qualities in another language with its own inherent limitations. Passion for the text can help the translator overcome a number of problems for the simple reason that he or she will try to raise the translation to the same standard as the original. In other words, revision is the key to quality translation as well.
From stories to translating Bharati’s poetry for children. It is a very broad canvas. How different and difficult was the latter?
Very different and very difficult. I discontinued my column in an English daily after a year because I found it difficult to switch between humour and poetry. I tend to get fully immersed in whatever I write, and am unable to change mental gears.
What keeps the child in you alive that helps you to write for children?
Since I was writing from experience, it was not difficult at all. At that time we didn’t know what a privileged, unique childhood we had. I realised this while bringing up my children and telling them these stories. My son begged for a pet saying, “You had monkeys and rabbits, can’t you at least get me a horse if not a tiger?”
Get Published is your manual for aspiring authors, how did such a book take seed?
At the time, we were living in Anand, Gujarat; a small town that had hardly anyone else writing in English. I was publishing articles, short stories and poems in newspapers and magazines and thought I should start something bigger, more ambitious. I didn’t have anyone to guide me on how to write a book so I decided to write one for people like me – a guide book for aspiring writers in small towns. I wrote to the best known names in the different genres with a request that they write the lead article. Some of them agreed. To those who didn’t, I sent a questionnaire and based on their responses, wrote the article myself.
What was the experience like at the University of British Columbia (UBC) as an Andrew Fellow?
Residencies give uninterrupted time to focus on one’s writing and I make the most of such opportunities. While at the UBC, I wrote the first draft of my novel Amrita (Rupa & Co., 2004). During three weeks at the Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland I translated some poems and finalised the manuscript of Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati. While at Sangam House on the outskirts of Bangalore last January, I began translating Bharati’s Panchali Sabadham and completed it during a residency at the British Centre of Literary Translation, University of East Anglia, Norwich in March and April 2011. This epic poem titled Panchali’s Pledge is to be released later this year.
Why have you chosen Thiruvananthapuram for the launch of the poetry anthology? Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati?
Along with my English translation I thought it appropriate to present his poems in Tamil through song and dance. This is what has been planned for the release of Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati. It also fulfils another deep wish of mine – to have my book launched in the College, which has moulded me so much as a person.