Last week in The Sunday Guardian, my review of Usha Rajagopalan's flawed translations of Subramania Bharati's poems.
Selected Poems: Subramania Bharati
Translated by Usha Rajagopalan
Hachette India. Pp 151. Rs 350.
About a century ago, two poets were writing transformative verse in languages other than English. In their own ways, these two poets changed the way people read and spoke about poetry. One was Rainer Maria Rilke and the other was Subramania Bharati. While Rilke’s poetry has been translated into English many times, it’s incredibly hard to find an English translation of Bharati’s work.
As a child growing up outside Tamil Nadu but immersed in Carnatic music, I have always had a frustrating relationship with Bharatiyar’s poetry: I know it only through song, both classical and filmic but I cannot read his poetry off the page and have always needed someone to translate his verse for me.
It was with delight, therefore, that I began Usha Rajagopalan’s translation of Bharati’s verse. It seemed to me a necessary project, to bring this poet who sang of ships and minerals as joyfully as he sang about Krishna and Shakti, to the notice of the Anglophone world. I was even more thrilled to read that Rajagopalan’s journey through his work also began via song.
It helps that this is a bilingual edition as, I think, all translated poetry should be. Unfortunately, this is as far as the good news goes. The risk in a bilingual edition of course is that for those who can read the source language, the shortcomings in the translation are inescapable and apparent. Every translating decision is laid bare on the page and the translator’s only defence – if it can be called that – lies in an Introduction.
This translation of Bharati’s poetry does not have an Introduction. It has a list of important dates and an account of his life that very briefly outlines his engagement with the Independence movement, his political writing, his subsequent escape from British India and his life as an ardent spiritualist-nationalist. But there is nothing from Rajagopalan on what her approach to translating his work was or how she engaged with the very different kinds of poetry he wrote: the spiritual/love poems and the rousing nationalist verse.
Not all translators need be scholars or even be in a position to contextualise a poet’s work and place it in the broader framework of the times in which s/he lived. The Selected Poetry of Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell, for instance, has a comprehensive and intelligent Introduction by the American poet Robert Hass. If it was beyond Rajagopalan to write an Introduction that examines Bharati’s poetry with the care it deserves, surely someone else could have been commissioned to write one?
For a reader who is not already familiar with Bharati’s verse, this plunge into the deep end of his work is very disorientating: the first poem is an invocation, which is all well and good. It is followed by a poem that Rajagopalan titles ‘A Special Song’ but in the Tamil is called ‘Ammakannu Paatu’. Even for someone whose Tamil is as workaday as mine is, it is apparent that ‘Ammakannu’ is a term of endearment and ‘Special’ in no way conveys the tenderness and affection of the title in Tamil. The poem itself is a barrage of trochees that assault the ear: The hand opens a lock,/Wisdom opens the mind./ Melody makes a song/A woman makes a home happy. For a poem that is called ‘Song’, it is singularly unmusical.
There are many such instances through the book and it would be unnecessarily cruel to draw attention to more of them. Let us admit that poetry is not easy to translate. When it is done well, it is a cause for celebration.
But when a translation of poetry does not read or sound like poetry, I would imagine that those involved in the project would do anything rather than put the work out into the public domain. They could, for instance, have had two translators: one who knew the source language well and the other who knew the mechanics of poetry in the target language well.
Here for instance, is Stephen Mitchell translating Rilke:
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
(‘You Who Never Arrived’ from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke)
And here is Usha Rajagopalan translating Bharati:
If I can forget Kannan’s face,
What use having eyes at all?
(‘Kannan, My Lover – I’)
Someone who knows nothing about Subramania Bharati, who cannot even struggle through the Tamil on the page or have someone read aloud the original Tamil so they can absorb the beauty and power of the sound – if not the sense – of the poetry; someone whose first and only encounter with one of 20th century’s greatest poets is through this translation is absolutely sure to ask what the fuss is about.
Bharatiyar’s poetry is in no danger of being forgotten in his native land. It is a great pity that our definition of ‘native land’ must be more narrow and parochial than his own expansive one, at least until a better translation replaces this one.