The crucible of translation

Agenda: An Anthology
November 20, 1998

For Shelley, "it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language to another the creations of a poet." Among no groups is the untranslatability of poetry so regularly affirmed as in those impelled to persist in the doomed enterprise. None can be more acutely aware that poetry arises from the ambiguous interstices between words and meaning, or that the production of new meanings is governed by linguistic and cultural specificities that, at every turn, resist precise equivalence. And yet the constant reinvigoration of native literatures through the procedures of translation has a pedigree that seems to guarantee the relevance of the translator's art even when exercised on such intractable material. In guest editing this issue of Agenda, Anita Money has used the 50th anniversary of their independence as an opportunity to focus on translation into English of the poetry of India and Pakistan.

In recent years, there have been a number of discussions on the difficulties of translating from Indic languages in conferences and in special issues of journals. But rarely are such problems raised in a comparative context. One of the virtues of this Agenda anthology is its juxtaposing translations from Indic languages with those from Eastern Europe and the Middle and Far East. The question of metrical form illustrates the point. The ubiquity of vers libres in contemporary British and United States poetry can create the impression that metrical complexity is a peculiarly "oriental" characteristic. Lakshmi Holmstrom, in an accompanying note to her translations of the modern Tamil poet Pasuvayya, speaks of the "highly codified system of metricsI prosody (and) rhyming techniques" in classical Tamil poetry. But as Mark Hutchinson points out in his review article on the late Joseph Brodsky, there is a comparable persistence of classical forms in modern Russian verse.

At first sight, only the slenderest of threads appears to link this major focus on translation with the miscellany of poetry and critical comment that comprises the rest of the anthology. This includes articles that mark the 125th anniversary of Walter de la Mare's birth. I was, however, struck by an unexpected congruence between Rachel Trickett's reading of de la Mare ("Other voices") and the traditions of South Asian poetics. Trickett's recuperation of verse that "appealed to the ear as well as to the imagination" and her animadversion towards that which is insensitive "to rhythm, prosody or simple sound" is apt to sound reactionary, but these are undeniably the qualities most prized, for example, in the Urdu ghazal. Ralph Russell's concise introduction to this genre and his translations of Ghalib make this point, while Debjani Chatterjee, who has, in collaboration with the author, translated some modern ghazals by Basir Sultan Kazmi, cautions against "the artificial - even comic - result" of attempting to reproduce the rhyme schemes of Urdu verse. This pitfall is exemplified in the opening quatrain of Ahmed Ali's translation of Mir Taqui Mir: "My heart's afflictions and its pains/ Could not be cured, I tried in vain/ Useless were all remedies,/ And futile were the potions that I drained."

Though, it is fair to add, the poem improves after this.

Bengal, as befits that most literary of nations, is well represented. William Radice's new translations from Tagore, "Particles and sparks," though small in scale, have a freshness and vivacity and show the author at his most teasing. Chatterjee has produced a convincing translation of Nazrul Islam's "The Rebel", though her contextualising note is still required to remind us of the irrecoverable impact of the original. Andrew Robinson discusses a quite different kind of translation: from text to film. In a sensitive and searching analysis of Satyajit Ray's creative response to Rabindranath Tagore, Robinson shows how a Tagore short story and a novella are visually interpreted by India's greatest film director. Krishna Dutta's article, "Modern Bengali in English translation", is an exemplary and illuminating piece of practical criticism that compares variant translations of individual poems, looking at the possibilities of translating the culturally specific, and the need for the translator to make informed choices: "Careless selection exposes a good poet to unmerited humiliation and offers a mediocre poet undeserved attention."

It is only possible, in the scope of a short review, to rigorously select. This one has concentrated on the South Asian component of an issue that was actually much wider in scope. Some of the poetry was of a kind that demands unabridged quotation rather than critical prose. In the same spirit, I would have liked to have quoted the whole of Mimi Khalvati's marvellous "Villanelle". Agenda, which will be 40 next year, is invariably worth reading.

Ronald Warwick was formerly literature officer, Commonwealth Institute, London.

Agenda: An Anthology: Poems, Essays, Translations

Author - Anita Money
Editor - Anita Money
ISBN - ISSN 0002 0796
Publisher - Agenda
Price - £10.00
Pages - 260

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