This is a guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY
“If the translation of poetry is impossible, then the translation of poetry is a genuine art.”
~Nasos Vayenas, Eight Positions on the Translation of Poetry
Translation is an act in the wake of literature. Both the languages – source and target – are variations on literary themes, with neither having priority. But translation depends on an essential paradox: a collision between restlessness and poise, detachment and recreation. In the best translations of poetry this paradox turns into a synthesis that must remain unfinished.
On the one hand translation is a deliberate venture in a certain risk; an endeavour to extend an elusive flavour. Jose Luis Borges, in a canny formulation, had stressed that “translation is a long experimental game of chance played with omissions and emphasis.” The best translations are indeed dedicated exercises in chance and experimentation. Incommensurability between two cultures is not an obstacle, but a stimulating possibility.In this sense a translator must transgress and detach himself from the original, solely relying on aesthetic qualities.
On the other hand translation is certainly an act of trust. Antione Berman had famously said that “translation is ‘a putting in touch with,’ or it is nothing.” It is a dialogue and an opening to and with the foreignness of the original. It is an ethnocentric enterprise. The translator reveals and manifests to the world a move, an argument, the intimate tone of a stranger. This revealing is an ethical act: a solemn pledge not only to recreate the tone of an original musical composition but also a whole culture.
Transference of the Poetic Bug
Why does a translator decide to pick up a particular poem for rendering? Because the poet’s original experiential spirit has been transferred to him and he is now guided by a poetic virus, which will anon turn into a poetic act of translation in order to convey that same aching to a different community of readers. With a hope that this new set of readers will be equally susceptible to the experiences of both the poets. The politics of hierarchy between languages notwithstanding, this mellow naiveté is the sine qua non of the translation of poetry. This belief in the purported collective is an other-regarding impulse, an impulse that draws on the idea that the poetic bug can and will be transferred to a new set of hosts. It means a bridge of trust is being carefully erected and an eventual zone of expected conversation being developed. The original picking up of a particular poem by the translator is always an individual decision but that decision is forced upon him by the dual power of the experience of the original poet and the urge to share that zeal in a more collective fashion.
At the earliest phase then, even before the actual translation happens, a curious thing develops in the poet-translator’s mind and soul. He begins to live the poem. This is the moment at which translation is initiated. The poem continues to disturb him in its entirety: its tone, diction, economy of expression, conceits and also a meaning, if there is one, begins to move him. But most importantly, the bug of experientiality eats the translator up. He is unable to sleep and take food unless that same experience is distributed and dispensed with a larger and different audience, which for the simple reason of inadequacy of language, is unable to partake in the same jouissance. May be in his aching joy the translator shares the poem with some of his close ones by reciting or copying the poem in the source language itself at this stage? The poem thus begins to grow in ambit. No pen or keyboard has yet been touched. But the contradictory collision between two divergent conditions has begun their work: a constant state of restiveness until the poem actually gets translated and an equally powerful inward spur to let the poem grow and build up gradually in the mindscape of the translator until the time is ripe. Our quickening sensuality and our reflective meditative vocations vie for primacy in the translator.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was alive to the possibility of the poet as translator. In his Defence of Poetry (1821), he offers a remarkable insight in suggesting that transfusing of colour and odour of a language into another means a new poetic venture: “The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower – and this is the burden and the curse of Babel,” he had said. Shelley is telling us that the only way Babel can be trumped is by venturing afresh with a new risk and daring decisions while translating, since there is no scientific way of translating poetry. The translator decides that he would simultaneously preserve the colour and the scent of the flower and express it in a completely new way, in another version with altered forms of sensuality springing from the original seed. Since direct experience is the only way for this most joyous and inward genre.
Much later Octavio Paz shall remind us, in a similar vein, of a ‘twin process’ involved in the act of translation, that the translator takes that object, dismantles the linguistic signs, and then composes afresh in his or her own language, producing another poem. Paz sees the task of the translator as an act of liberation, for the translator’s task is “freeing the signs into circulation, then returning them to language.”
A Spasm Courteous
One of the most incisive contemporary poetic and artistic voices in contemporary Hindi literature is that of Mahesh Verma, who writes and paints his experiences from Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh. Here is Verma rendering his experiential idea of the act of translation:
दरवाज़े के दो पल्ले अलग-अलग रंगों के,
दो आदमियों के बीच अपरिचित पसीने की गंध
और एक आदमी की दो पुतलियाँ
अलग अलग रंगों की ।
एक तहजीब में परिचय का हाथ आगे बढाते
तो दूसरी सभ्यता के अभिवादन से
उसे पूरा करते ।
शराब मेज़ से उठाए जाने से लेकर
होठों तक आने में
अपना रंग और असर
बदल चुकी होती ।
उधर से कोई ग़ाली देता
तो इधर आते तक
ख़त्म हो रहता उसका अम्ल ।
एक देश के सिपाही का ख़ून बहता
तो दूसरे देश के सिपाही के
जूते चिपचिपाने लगते ।
यहाँ जो चुम्बन था
वहाँ एक तौलिया ।
एक आदमी के सीने में
तलवार घोंपी जाती तो
दूसरे गोलार्द्ध पर चीख़ सुनाई देती,
यहाँ का आँसू
वहाँ के नमक में घुला होता
जो यहाँ के समंदर से निकला था ।
जो उस देश की ठँडी और धुँधली साँझ में शुरू हुई थी
दूसरे देश की साफ़ और हवादार शाम पर आकर
वहाँ का घुड़सवार
यहाँ के घोड़े से उतरेगा ।
यहाँ की नफ़रत
वहाँ के प्रतिशोध पर ख़त्म होगी
लेकिन लाल ही होगा ख़ून का रंग।
जहाँ प्यार था
वहाँ प्यार ही होगा
जहाँ स्पंदन था वहीं पर स्पंदन,
केवल देखने की जगहें बदल जातीं ।
दो संस्कृतियों के गुस्से की मीनारों पर
तनी रस्सी पर बदहवास दौडता रहता,
कभी रुककर साधता संतुलन,
पूरा संतोष कहीं नहीं था ।
Of two different colours the two panels of the door
Between two people an unexplored sweaty scent
The two pupils of a person’s eyes
Of two different colours.
If in courtesy one extends the hands of acquaintance
Then the other completes it
Through the salutations of civilization.
In the interval between being picked up
From the table and brought to the lips
The drink changes
Its colour and effect.
If someone thither abuses
Then by the time it arrives hither
Its acidity evaporates.
If a soldier’s blood from this land is shed
Then the shoes of the soldier
From the other nation turns sticky.
What goes by the name of a kiss here
Is a kerchief there.
If a sword is thrust into the heart of a man
Then his shrieks can be heard
In the other hemisphere.
The tears here are doused
With the salt there
Spawned in seas here.
Begun in the chilly and foggy dusk of a distant land
Comes to an end in the clear and breezy twilight
Of another land.
The horseman of that land
Shall alight from a horse bred here.
The loathing here
Shall end with the revenge there
But the colour of blood shall still remain red.
Where there used to be love
Shall love abide.
Where a spasm throbbed, a spasm remains.
Only the gaze alters.
Between the fraught minarets of two worlds
Walks a bewildered rope
Sometimes takes a pause to practice poise
Complete contentment there never ever is.
This is a poetic manifesto on translation. The poem itself is like the taut rope that is imaged in the concluding stanza. It throbs with the primal collision that we have been referring to. The original poet himself is trying to imagine the translator poet as an experiential state of existence and is trying to delve deep into his motivations and into the very act of translation. He is trying to imagine the intermediary impulses and vectors that drive the translator. Verma, however, also has a specific wish that he wants to impute to his kind of ideal translator. So the idea of the ideal translator collides with the indeterminacy of the very schizoid condition of the translator-poet.
First the manifesto: the reaching out impulses of the two cultures. Verma has unleashed a series of images in order to drive home the notion of the ideal condition of translatability. This poem achieves a certain density not by chopping logic or incantation, but by an overwhelming series of images that would gradually take us to an ideal condition of exchange between two systems of language. This is the cultural and civilization level that the poem operates on: the act of translation essentially as a serious goodwill gesture. The images rely on this hope, and impute benevolence and fair exchange to the poet and the translator alike. The colours of our pupils and the door panels may be distinguishable but once the willing hands of acquaintanceship arrive, the two cultures will talk to each other and complete the arc of a civilizational promise. Translation becomes a salutary act.
This initial promissory note is followed in the first stanza by four successive images of rancor and mistrust, which eventually are taken care of: cultural abuse, bloodshed, a literal sword-pike and salty tears. Each of these flare ups, the mutual distrust and skepticism between the two dividing linguistic worlds are doused every single time through an ethics of reaching out. The mistrust develops owing to a hiatus between the two domains but the acidity vanishes since both cultures realize that the four images are drawn from visceral and sensual human conditions that go beyond individual cultures. We notice the humane moves of sensitivity.
Further images are piled upon these initial ones in order to achieve an optimistic sense of the very possibility of the act of translation: the chief one being that of the horseman translator mounted on the translated creation, the horse—both travelling the distance coupled together. That along with mutuality, translation also may provide clarity is a secondary ideal that Verma harbours, for a journey begun in a chilly, dark dusk gradually turns comprehensible and lucid by the very act of travelling to another language and culture. Distance gives the translated poem a new beginning, as Shelley had hoped. The initial experiential moment of the original poem receives further clarity since the object itself means nothing, which remains the same: only the gaze alters. The idea of clarity and a collective experience is highlighted by relativizing the gaze of the successive new reader-discerner who is also the translator.
Sticky Blood, Shrieks and Spasms
But this serene hope for an ideal translated situation is undercut by a contrary anxious and agitated compulsion that runs under the skin of the poem like a throbbing vein. Right from the beginning the scent of the other culture and the translator is sweaty—which is clammy and dripping, inviting and threatening at the same time. This alien scent is alluring to the translator and yet he must overreach his own instincts to convey the senses of such a danger to a new audience. The drink changes both it hue and effect as the translated work comes into existence. There is an ambience of threat and precariousness running through the poem: shrieks and jabs and sticky blood, dank acidity, loathing and revenge lurk at the corners whence the two cultures meet. Love is also spasmodic.
The translator of poetry is particularly susceptible to this sense of incompleteness and peril at every turn. Roman Jakobson had long ago showed us that the ineluctable snags and crimps in translating the semantic density of grammar from one language to another are multiplied in poetry. That the best one can hope for is a kind of creative approximation. The real semantic difficulty in translating poetry is in translating the local features and images of signification that the poet adds to the already untranslatable features of the language in which they compose: “Syntactic and morphological categories, roots, and affixes, phonemes and their components (distinctive features) – in short any constituents of the verbal code – are confronted, juxtaposed, brought into contiguous relation according to the principle of similarity and contrast and carry their own autonomous signification.”
Verma, in spite of his idealizations, is richly aware of the lurking insurmountables. The final stanza brings us back to material bedrock of the act of translation. We are invited to a stupendous image of two fraught and angry minarets, each measuring the other with suspicion and vexation. The creative-translator has anchored the two cupolas with a rope and is running endlessly between them trying to maintain a most precarious balance. Now he runs from this minaret to the other, now he is in a median position and is trying to placate the two worlds. This act, above all, is matter of actual toil and extreme mental strain.The translator is therefore given to a secondary emotion: bewilderment. The culture warrior is not sad or worried at times difficult, but is simply stupefied by the tautness of the rope on which he walks.
So, the poem, constantly trying its best to work out the paradox with which we started, the one between restlessness and poise, detachment and recreation, finally realizes the supreme truth about translating poetry. And that truth can be only expressed through an epigram, a clinching coda to the poem: पूरा संतोष कहीं नहीं था –“Complete contentment there never ever is.”
The only way to transcend the many obstacles of translating a poem, we have noted, is to be suffused in the experientiality of the original impulse of the poet-creator. Yves Bonnefoy, that superb translator of Shakespeare and Yeats, underlines that the translator must bring his own voice and rhythm to the altered version. The meaning and sense might be someone else’s but the rhythm must be mine, he says: “I did not try to render in French the singular rhythms of Yeats and even less to trace – it would be so disconnected – the verbal music of Shakespeare. One must make this sacrifice to enter, or at least to try to enter, this place of invention we call poetry.”
This place of invention we call poetry Verma welcomes too. What he adds is that the idea of contentment in an act of translation is forever partial. One simultaneously is thrilled by optimism and is bewildered by the ever-receding incompleteness of it all.
(Both paintings are by Mahesh Verma)
[Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English Literature in the University of Delhi]
Berman, Antoine. (1984) 1992.The Experience of the Foreign, trans. S. Heyvaert. Albany, NY: SUNY Press
Bonnefoy, Yves. 1994. “Traduire les Sonnets de Shakespeare.” L’Oeil de Boeuf, Revue littéraire trimestrale, no. 4: 45–50.
Borges, Jorge Luis. 1999. “Homeric Versions.”Selected Non-Fictions, ed. and trans. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin.
Kristal, Efrain. 2002. Invisible Work: Borges and Translation. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press
Eco, Umberto. 2001. Experiences in Translation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Jakobson, Roman. 1992. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” Theories of Translation, ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, 144–51. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Paz, Octavio. 1992. “Translation, Literature and Letters,” trans. Irene del Corral. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, 152–62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. (1840) 1965. “A Defence of Poetry.”A Defence of Poesy (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and The Four Ages of Poetry (Thomas Love Peacock), ed. John E. Jordan, 25–80. New York: Bobbs Merrill.