SCULPTING LANGUAGE, ALTERING TONGUES, INTONING ARIAS
Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is a translation of another text. No text can be completely original because language itself, in its very essence, is already a translation.
— octavio paz, ‘Translation of Literature and Letters’
Works of translation from languages I do not understand have had as deep an influence on my own writing as works I can read in the original.
— vikram seth,Three Chinese Poets
Translation does not happen in a vacuum, but in a continuum; it is not an isolated act, it is part of an ongoing process of intercultural transfer. … Translation is not an innocent, transparent activity but is highly charged with significance at every stage; it rarely, if ever, involves a relationship of equality between texts, authors or systems.
— susan bassnett&harish trivedi, Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice
One of the privileges of growing up in India is that you are brought up in a genuinely multi-lingual society. You have your own mother tongue, then the languages spoken in your immediate socio-cultural milieu, the school language i.e. the primary language medium of teaching, plus additional languages you might have learnt.
In my case, I was brought up in a Bengali household in New Delhi. The other dominating languages of this cosmopolis are Hindi and English, languages I use daily. By osmosis, and due to various other factors, I also picked up more than bits and pieces of Urdu, Hindustani, Sanskrit, Punjabi, Haryanvi, Rajasthani and Gujarati.
But effectively, I feel that I have three mother-tongues. My choice of language usage depends entirely on who I am with or what context I am in. Often I switch happily between Bengali, Hindi, and English — on some occasions I even use more than one language in the same sentence. So quite unbeknown to me — I was married to a language, a language that is tri-lingual, a language-culture that is truly plural.
The act of conscious ‘literary translation’ for me began in 1997 — it was quite an accident actually. Vikram Seth (a very fine translator of Chinese poetry himself) and I were invited to represent India at the Jerusalem International Poetry Festival that year. The festival was superbly organized — and apart from the formal readings that took place in the evenings, there were ancillary literature-related events during the afternoons, as well as cultural outings for the poets and their accompanying partners. Additionally, there was also a festival-long poetry translation workshop for about four or five hours every afternoon.
Some of us decided that we would skip a few sight-seeing trips and sit in on the workshop, largely inspired by the fact that it was being co-directed by celebrated poets and translators,among others: Yehuda Amichai, the director of the festival; Daniel Weissbort, co-founder with Ted Hughes of the Modern Poetry in Translation magazine; and the American poet and publisher Stanley Moss.
It was my very first time in a formal translation workshop and I was naturally tentative and diffident about it, especially at the prospect of being with professionals who did it for a living. I had by then made friends with a fellow participant — the Macedonian poet, Zoran Anchevski. He was a seasoned translator and a companionable person, so when he said that he was planning on attending the translation sessions, I decided to go along with him.
The poet the workshop was focusing on was a very interesting and unique Hebrew poet called Avraham Ben Yitshak [1883-1950]. He had written only a clutch of poems in his entire life time, but we were told that they were extraordinary and important as far as Hebrew poetical and literary history was concerned.
The workshop included participants from varied backgrounds — practicing poets of various languages; linguists; literary theorists, editors, scholars and publishers; and most importantly, Hebrew scholars, poets, and language experts. We, the participants, were given English literal translations of the original Hebrew poems, background historical and cultural information, and other relevant reading matter. After we went through the materials in some detail, we were given a verbal introduction to the poet, and his poetry was read out in Hebrew. All along we followed the Hebrew rhythms against the English literals we had in front of us. With the cooperative aid of the Hebrew scholars and poets over various sessions, we came up with several working drafts of the poems — they were accurate in terms of their content but not finished as poems. Then each of us took over and was expected to turn them into proper poems in our own languages. My friend was turning them into Macedonian and I into English.
I produced draft after draft in English, and after each one I asked one of the Hebrew experts to read the original aloud so that I could take their notations and beats down, check against the trigonometric-graph rhythms of the original poems, whether in fact the cadence of the English ones I had produced compared favourably with the Hebrew originals. Of course, I had my English versions cross-checked by them to make sure that I had not misread or misinterpreted anything of the original poems. As a final result, I produced a set of English translations that in the English language read like original English poems. We all read out our translations and commented critically on each others’ versions. And I was pleased and encouraged at the positive response of the experts, fellow translators and poets at my fledgling efforts.
So this is the story of my first experience with formal translation, albeit translations of poems from a language I do not know. This in fact is not as ironical as it may seem at first; it is a fairly common practice among contemporary poet-to-poet translation process.
Why did I choose the poets and poems that feature in this book in the first place? Some were professional commissions for literary festivals, translation workshops, magazines, journals, anthologies, and books. Others emerged from a spontaneous and mutual desire among fellow poets I know wanting to translate each other’s work. The latter of course was purely for pleasure and driven by a deep interest in each others poetry.
On many different occasions over the past dozen years, I have translated poems from various languages I may not know first hand, but have worked collaborately as part of a team with poets who have a more than a working knowledge of English and mastery over their own language. I have realized that the best translations are often done by two or more poets working together who have a feel for each other’s languages. And also as poets they do justice to the translated work because both feel similarly about the way a poem is constructed, revised and shaped as an artistic object that breathes with the pulse of a living language.
In almost all instances — whether it be Hebrew, Icelandic, Korean, Macedonian, Polish, Persian, or Spanish — I have worked closely with poets of the source language themselves. They would do literal translations of the original poems in very raw prose. Once I got down the contents in an accurate version, I would then enter the process more proactively and often singularly to sculpt and revise the jagged prose texts to give it a poetic shape in English. After every revision and draft, I would ask the poet to read aloud the poems in their original tongue, so that I gotdown the rhythm, rhyme, and the cadence correctly — getting them as close to the original as is possible. Once both the poet in the original language and I as a translator were happy with the versions we came up with — which happened through several working sessions over extended periods of time — we would let go of the poems in their new avatar, in a new language.
Of course, with Bengali and Hindi, it has been much easier as I know both the languages well. And in both these cases, most of the poets I have translated are poets whose work I like inherently, and some of them I have had direct access to to verify my versions.
I strongly feel that the translated poem, from whatever source language it may be, ought to read as a seamless poem in the target language. So I strive hard to get my English translations to sound as if they might have been written as English poems, as opposed to turgid translations that are produced by some scholars and academics because they may not have the same feel for the inherent music of poetry as practicing poets do.
Whatever version of English or Englishes one is working in — ultimately translation for me is all about reshaping metaphors, sculpting language, altering tongues, realigning speech, making old new and new newer — without ever losing the soul, music, and heart of the original piece of creative text, especially poetry.
A note on my use of square brackets. The text within these parentheses are insertions that I have made to make the English versions syntactically sound. In other instances, the addition of extra syllables make the pieces scan better as English poems.
The basic purpose and aim of translation for me is very simple — to render accurately both the content and form of the original. I do not subscribe to the school of translation that happily and voluntarily leaves out words and phrases to make the resultant poem “read” well in English — that is only one element of translation. That may be an idea of translation but I would question its sense of fidelity. Also the concept of ‘transcreation’ is a close ally to the above theory — and while it may produce readable versions of the original, they often do not have the efficacy of a poem that was first written by the poet in his or her original language.
Many have asked me what my translation procedures are. I have largely kept to the method that I had first used for the Hebrew poet in the 1997 Jerusalem International Poetry Festival translation workshop. Since then however I have refined the process, fine-tuned and made it more exact. For the subsequent poets I’ve translated, I have employed this methodology.
The process I follow, in further detail, is fairly logical and uncluttered — first mathematical, then oral, aural, tonal, and finally using a near invisible soft charcoal I fill in the subtle undertones, texture, depth, and recitative qualities of the original poem. Mathematically, I first transfer the exact metre of the original poem onto my worksheet; scan it to jot down the iambs and dactyls as it were. Then I read, or have someone read out to me, many times over, the poem in its original tongue — this further updates my notation taking. Thereafter I would make a glossary of all the possible meanings of difficult words and phrases, and try and see which English ones match most closely to the meanings of the original text. If the poem follows a certain rhyme scheme, then I attempt — a sometimes almost impossible task — to find words that best suit the end-rhymes without making it appear contrived or sound like a staccato-stumble stutter. Then follows draft after draft of what the translation would or should be. When I feel that I am nearing and closing in on the final versions, I take the same soft charcoal sketch stick to shade in the transparent quiet qualities, and if the final product retains more than ninety-five percent of the original content, feel, mood, and musicality — then I let it free to fly out of its nest.
But all along, the important thing for me is that the original poem must retain the poets’ original and dominant voice, and that my own tone as a translator ought to be as invisible to the naked eye or ear as possible. Often this tends to be the other way around with many translators, and that seems rather self-indulgent on their part. Perhaps my process may seem conservative, but at least it is true to the tenor of the original poems — and that I feel is the best way of showing respect to someone who, in the first place, inspired and moved you to undertake the translation of his or her work.
Here, I want to quote my Indian compatriot at the Jerusalem festival where my love for translations first took root all those years ago. I entirely agree with and relate to what Vikram Seth stated in his introduction to Three Chinese Poets: “Works of translation from languages I do not understand have had as deep an influence on my own writing as works I can read in the original. In some cases the translations have so moved me that I have tried to learn the original language of the work. In others, the form or the spirit of the writing has served as a template for my own inspiration.”
After more than a dozen years, I feel that translating poetry for me has become another intrinsic side of my poetry life. It is one thing writing my own original poems, albeit a very satisfying one, but the process of translating others’ work is such a parallel pleasure that it positively complements and enhances my own artistic practice. Being a translator, I feel vastly enriched as a writer in the English language. I translate because I love the process of organic transformation; a slow motion moulting that retains the DNA of the original skin-graft but makes subtle shifts in the cell structure as it bridges the transcending of tongues. I translate poetry from other languages simply for the joy, beauty, and magic that language inherently provides.
I have deeply relished the journey and the process of reshaping metaphors, a process that has allowed me to creatively realign speech and highlight subtle inflections that intone arias.
I hope you enjoy reading these translations as much as I have done doing them. If they read as English poems to you, I would be most delighted. But simply the fact that I am able to share with you some works by writers whose poetry I have admired, would give me much pleasure.
Also, read I Left My Home & Other Poems by Rahma Nur, translated from the Italian by Pasquale Verdicchio and Loredana Di Martino, and published in The Antonym: