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TRANSLATING POETRY

                                  Neela Padmanabhan

All poets are translating their imaginations and mental feelings-emotional as well as intellectual to their languages through their own characteristic form of diction or style. Just as a translator translates a poem from one language to another, every poet transforms his akam(inner world) to puram(outer world) as poem in a broader sense. To quote Jean Paris:

“I do think that a poet is at first a translator, the translator of an unknown world to which he gives tangible form, a sensitive expression. But it is clear that if we cease to mistake the poem for the secret order it more or less translates successfully, the translator finds himself in a similar position, and becomes the co-creator of the work of art, as the artist is the co-creator of reality.”

Translation from one language to another means introducing the culture of a language to another. We know plenty of words that have minute meanings in one culture have no exact equivalent in another culture or language. Hence all the translations are imperfect in the larger sense, but it is somewhat a necessary evil, which cannot be avoided, in a pluralist society like India. The P.E.N. Manifesto on Translation (in May 1970) described the translators as “the lost children in an enchanted forest of literature” but insisted that it is through them that one gains an access to other cultures and indeed, “without the lost children we are all lost”. However, literary translation is a cultural communication bridging cultures and civilizations.

Translating poetry is always difficult and problematic. Problems in between South Indian (Dravida group) languages, North Indian and European languages are different and divergent. All Indian languages except Tamil (of course, due to age old historical, political and social reasons) have no aversion for Sanskrit, instead they have an affinity for it like English has for Greek and Hebrew. Not only scholars, but also most of the creative writers-poets in those languages are fondly using Sanskrit words without a feeling of strangeness even they don’t mind to sacrifice oral and dialects in their languages. But Tamils are opposite to this trend, even from the age of Kampan(9th century, another version 12th century) who recreated Valmiki’s Ramayana in to Tamil(Kampa Ramayanam, 885 AD) . Kampan changed the name of ‘ Lekshmanan ‘as ‘Ilakkuvan’, ‘Vibheeshanan’ as ‘Vipidanan’, ‘Suparnan’ as ‘Uvanan’, ‘Akalya’ as ‘Akalikai’ or Aalikai’etc. He translated even some names into pure Tamil, for eg ‘Swarna Varnan’ became ‘Chuvana Vannan’ and ‘Kanaka Meni’ ,’Yakgna Viroodhan’ became ‘Velvippakainjan’. In this context it may be noted that ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam (3rd century BC) allows such practices as “tharsamam”-means words from Sanskript used in Tamil without any change in sound and “tharpavam” means Sanskrit word with altered pronunciation current in Tamil.

So, when one comes to translate a Malayalam creative work especially poetry which is rich with Sanskrit words and idioms into Tamil he has to change that word and find out an equivalent pure word, by which poetic beauty of the piece may be affected. I shall point out an instance from the famous Malayalam poet Ayyappa Paniker’s poem Mrithu Pooja.

His Malayalam lines read:

He mandha gaamini
Hemantha yaamini
Ghana syama roopini


In these lines we can enjoy the sweet poetic diction in between words: also there is a word play. First line He, mandha gaamini means Oh, slow motion beauty. Second line Hamantha yaamini means midnight girl of spring season. If translated these lines into pure Tamil without the Sanskrit letter he Tamil lines read as:

Ye methu nadaiyaale
Vasantha kaala kaarikaiye

wherein the poetic beauty missed a lot.

Orature(the medium of expression and communication of folk and minority cultures), dialects, urban and rural slang etc are now finding place in poetry today. The plurality of Indian languages and our cultural ecosystem begin to comprehend these poems like our country’s vast diversity of habitants and plant and animal life. Discovering the most appropriate equivalents in the target language for the new and revealing poetry being written in India by the vast underclass in the above mentioned oral tongue is a challenge while translating from the source language.

Translating poetry from the classical texts is a daunting task as the ethnicity tends to get diluted. Evoking the atmosphere is particularly difficult to bring to the target language. For overcome this, a creative collaboration between the creator and the translator should be very strong as in the case of A.K.Ramanujan who translated into English ancient Sangam classics of Tamil such as Kurunthokai; medieval devotional lyrics in Tamil and Kannada, such as the poems of Nammalvar and the writings of Virasaivites of Kannada. As S.Krishnan puts it on A.K Ramanujan, “ ‘to translate is to carry across’, and not merely from one language to another, but from one mode of thinking to another.”

As regards the method or technicality of translating poetry there is difference of opinion whether word by word translation or simply bringing the content of the source language into the target language purely by the target language’s way of expression and standard style. Every creative writer including a poet has his own style or diction and way of expression. The craft of writing is different from poet to poet, though the content may be the same. If one simply transform fluently into another language by that target language’s standard diction and metre or rhythm of course it may be readable and appreciated as the translated poem can be read like an original work of that target language. But, a poet as a creator possesses his own diction and way of expression after a long period of efforts, experiences and experiments. How can a sincere translator neglect this unique individuality of a poet and his or her poem? Hence, to bring not only the content and dimensions of the poem, but also the individuality of that poet’s particular diction and craft from the source language to target language, word-by-word translation is preferable, according to some genuine translators cum creators.

On the whole, translation and creation cannot be compartmetalised as both are equally serious and significant. In one angle, translation is more difficult. In original writing poet has his/her freedom, ease and joy, but in translation, it is not so. Bringing the inner world of a poet to another language by translation is indeed a different kind of joy and thrill being experienced by the translator, but the translator should be more careful and faithful to the original poet since all the credit will go to the creator-the original poet and discredit to the translator usually.
 

 


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