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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

* Palki 9 published and Prologue to a Seminar

Read my poem "Love Pastiche" in Issue 9 of Palki at

The poem also appears at Anjuman.

Prologue to an International Conference on “Connecting Cultures: Translation and Texts”

The topic of next week’s conference (24th - 26th February, 2010) under the UGC-assisted DRS SAP III Phase II programme of the Department of English, Calcutta University, has urged me to write a prologue to it in anticipation of gleaning a rich crop of knowledge over the three days of the seminar. Additionally, my PhD thesis is on “The Indian Diaspora in Transition” and one aspect of transition is the cultural self-fashioning, which at some level can be interpreted as connecting cultures. Although translation is different from transition, it is the prefix “trans” that has come in vogue as the tool of critical exploration. According to Aihwa Ong, “trans” stands for both moving through spaces or across lines as well as changing the nature of something. In case of translation that “something” is the text and the change is the change in language or in medium (primarily into films) whereby cross-cultural connections are established.

The primary form of literary translation is from one language into another because without it, as the eminent translator Ketaki Kushari Dyson once said in a panel discussion on “Tagore in Translation” (2004-05), “communities do not get to know each other’s literary treasures.” Post translation what is produced is not essentially one text in two languages but rather two texts, albeit related, but having their own separate existence. The translated text should not merely correspond to the original text but should somehow dissolve the original text and attain a direct correspondence with what the original text represents or depicts. The French poet Saint-John Perse once wrote about Rabindranath Tagore’s translation of Gitanjali that it “is the only poetical work worth its name n English for a long time” (Ref. “Tagore and Perse” by Chinmoy Guha in Miscellany supplement of The Statesman, Kolkata, May 12, 1991). Perse, despite knowing that Gitanjali is a translation in English of Bengali original, took it as a poetical work in English. Buddhadeva Bose in his book An Acre of Green Grass acknowledged that “Gitanjali is more than a great work in English; it is the work of a great English poet.” Ketaki Kushari Dyson says that “every language is a way of looking at the world,” so in that perspective translations are the different ways of looking at the same world. But she also adds that “every language has its own culture” and hence while translating from one culture to another one has to “deal with references” and hence “some scholarly apparatus is necessary.” Otherwise pitfalls are there. As Ketaki Kushari Dyson recalls from her childhood how she used to break down the name Rainer Maria Rilke in Bengali as “Rhine nodir maria ril ke” to mean “dedicated to Maria Ril who dwelt on the banks of the Rhine.” Thus she illustrates her magical relationship with language.

According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a translator has to surrender to the text. True. But what if the author is the translator? Like Tagore. Tagore, instead of translating literally the poems of Gitanjali, transforms them. Hence “sravana thala” becomes “golden basket” and not “golden plate” because basket is a better visual image in English (Ref. Bose). “Nilaj nil akas” becomes “ever-wakeful blue sky” and not “immodest blue sky” because the associations of “lajja” cannot be conveyed by any English word (Ref. Bose). “Nibid megh” becomes “a thick veil” and not “spreading heavy clouds” because cloud begets different images in Bengal and England (Ref. Bose). Thus Buddhadeva Bose has written about Gitanjali: “as if the poem never suffered the grill of translation, but came straight from the poet’s heart.” Tagore had once commented that words are the daughters of affluent families; they bring along with them a lot of wealth – “artha” in Bengali means both wealth and meaning (Ref. Jharna Sanyal’s essay “Postscripting Modernity: Reading Tagore’s Punashcha in Context” in the book Tagore and Modernity, Eds. Krishna Sen and Tapati Gupta). Buddhadeva Bose says that minor poems translate well but great poetry is obstinate, maybe because the diction of the latter is rich with associations.

Tagore also translated some of his prose works. In Naukadubi (The Wreck) he appends in-line glosses at some places to convey the Bengali meanings in English. When Ramesh tells Hemnalini, “tell me that you will never distrust me,” Tagore adds, “It was the first time that he had used the “thou” of close intimacy in addressing Hemnalini.” Tagore had to add beside “Kayastha” the words “or writer caste, inferior only to Brahmans in Bengal.” He had to gloss beside “luchi” in brackets “fried cakes.” And when Kamala tells Sailaja about the golden bracelets she had given Umi – “You can have them cut up and made into a necklace for her,” (my italics) it sound rather silly. Bengali has a gamut of untranslatable words like “abhiman,” “biroho,” “kerani,” “dharma” etc. That is why Indira Chowdhury in translating Ashapurna Debi's Pratham Pratisruti (The First Promise) writes: “I have left untranslated all terms that do not have conceptual or material equivalents, relying instead on a glossary.” She adds that she has “chosen Indian English equivalents over British or American colloquialisms… Thus ‘ojha’, commonly translated as ‘witch doctor’ and reminiscent of the colonial vilification of indigenous systems of healing, is translated here as “folk healer.” A pithy comparison with Tagore gets to the point – Tagore uses the word “kedgeree” in his translation of Naukadubi whereas Indira Chowdhury uses the word “khichri” in her translation of Pratham Pratisruti and explains its meaning in the glossary. Perhaps their target readerships were different but therein also lies the cultural context.