The writer as translator

U.R. Ananthamurthy was responsible for bringing world poetry into Kannada literature.

September 06, 2014 05:03 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 12:04 pm IST

U.R. Ananthamurthy. Photo: K. Gopinathan

U.R. Ananthamurthy. Photo: K. Gopinathan

U.R. Ananthamurthy often said that he plunged into an intense reading of other poets when he felt that his writings failed to fully capture his own self and the world around him. This sometimes led him to translating the poets into Kannada. At their best, these translations at once provided him a fresh way of seeing the world and took him closer to his inner being.

That was how he brought poems of W.B. Yeats, Bertolt Brecht, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edwin Muir or the teachings of Lao Tzu to Kannada.

The Jnanpith Award winner was renowned as the author of novels like Samskara and Bharatipura , now canonised classics. He commanded attention as a candid public intellectual whose views on politics and society won him a legion of both admirers and enemies. But Ananthamurthy also left behind a small but interesting lot of poems and a fairly large body of poetry translations.

“Brecht feels like our own man. His works carry the political complexity of our times,” he had said in an interview in 2010. “He does not write in order to write beautifully.” Those were times when Ananthamurthy was growing increasingly anxious about the rise of the politics of the right in India. What endeared Brecht to him was also that the German poet was not one to give up hope in the darkest of times. Complete pessimism, said Ananthamurthy, is also self-indulgence.  

His love for Rilke, on the other hand, was linked to his metaphysical interest in the tension between dvaita and advaita . “Brecht reflects my political interest and Rilke reflects my metaphysical interest. One does not take away from the other,” he said.

Interestingly, his fascination for Yeats occupied both these realms. In his introduction to the poems of Yeats, he called him a poet “who wove together the voice of the community and the sceptical whisper of the soul.” He provided an erudite analysis of Yeats’  Easter, 1916 to illustrate how the poem perfectly marries these two aspects.

Ananthamurthy’s translations are — to borrow a phrase from the late A.K. Ramanujan who translated Samskara into English — “self-contained, faithful yet readable.” Ananthamurthy said that a translation should “become the other language, but not too much of the other language.” 

This was a difficult and intense negotiation in which he invested deeply, often leading to fascinating literary debates with other writers and critics. For instance, Ananthamurthy and critic O.L. Nagabhushanaswamy had long and fruitful exchanges on the translation of Rilke’s three-line epitaph, leading to several versions. Ananthamurthy’s guiding principle on the essential quality a good translator is that he/she should have great love and respect for the original poem, and a matching faith in what the magic of words in his/her own language can achieve.

Being a poet himself, there were times when the translations seemed to reflect more of Ananthamurthy than Rilke or Brecht. “For instance, I had made Rilke’s I Find You Lord in All Things in All so much my own that I had forgotten it was originally not my poem!” he said.

After translating Brecht, Ananthamurthy was trying his hand at translating some of the Romantic poets in 2010. “I want to translate William Blake, but it’s scary because I love him so much!” he said. “The simplest poems are the most difficult to translate” and went on to describe how despite attempting many versions of Wordsworth’s phrase “the little unremembered acts of kindness and love” none satisfied him.

Ananthamurthy believed that bringing another language and its experiences into our fold is an important exercise in giving power and mobility to our own language. While English travelled piggyback on imperialism to not only spread itself but also to bring new worlds of experience within its reach, translation is the only vehicle for regional languages like Kannada. Modern Kannada renaissance was, for instance, inspired greatly by the translations of Galaganath, B. Venkatacharya and B.M. Srikantiah.

The fact that this has largely been a one-way journey — since far fewer Kannada writers, including the greatest, have been translated into English — did not particularly bother Ananthamurthy. “That is probably the arrogance of a Bhasha writer!” he said.

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