Untranslatable poetry, part 2: show, don’t lecture

Painting of a Bengali beauty by Jamini Roy (1887-1972)

part 1 is here

Dance with the language. There’s a saying that “The English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors.” Those ancient storytellers were drunk on words. … For encouragement, I would naturally suggest you look to Irish examples.

Frank Delaney, Irish novelist, in the Word Craft column of The Wall Street Journal, March 2012  

A. A. — not the do-gooder organisation but a poet of rare gifts and post-Gutenberg’s most supremely articulate friend — emailed this reply to a request for his reaction to last week’s excerpts from a debate about poetry in translation:

I feel disinclined to join this fray, going on at least since the Battle of Hastings (more archers!), where, it could be argued, The Translation Question first enters history on English soil. For the record, though, I am, I suppose, innately suspicious of what we might call The Proprietary Position, always couched in some preposterous notion of accuracy, or worse, fidelity, that any real artist would find objectionable. All poetry is inaccurate, in a sense, to begin with — its bewitching power of distortion, revealing deeper truths by traducing apparent ones, being the very reason for which Plato denied poets a place in his Republic: their ability to undermine by subversion and misrepresentation.

In any case, no poet worth his reduced sodium could forget that even the word translate is a metaphor: carried across. So, if “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle … ” is carried across, delivering something like, “When you are old and grey, and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire…”, I’ll sign for the package.

We answered that we did not disagree with him,

… except on the question of who is guilty of bullying from the Proprietary Position. It’s the self-appointed Authorities in academia and other parts of the literary establishment, like C.A. …  There is such a thing as direct translation … ‘La plume de ma tante,’ … no ambiguity whatsoever about an object belonging to an ink-stained aunt. … If literary translation could be universally understood as galaxies removed from that straightforwardness and even better, if it were to renamed, called something like ‘approximation,’ that would be the infinitely preferable truth.

In a perfect world, poetry would never be taught – we mean, garotted — in any classroom. There might be poets on tap, willing to supplement published appreciations — as opposed to academic deconstructions — by answering questions from, say, a reader intrigued by the difference between Shakespearean blank verse and John Donne’s (controversial) version of it in one of his masterpieces, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. But there would be no one laying down laws for interpretation, no pompous pontificators on language as idiosyncratic and – as A.A. says – subversive, as poetry.

Anyone seeking to introduce a poet across cultural borders could stimulate an instinctive and intuitive grasp of a poem’s intentions by interweaving, rather than explaining – that is, showing its lines threaded into a reader’s stream-of-consciousness. It is the happy fate of all the best verse to become woven, subconsciously and unconsciously, into our depths. But who can demonstrate this special capacity of the form? Do it, for instance, for the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore – about whom, as our last entry demonstrated, critical opinion in the English-speaking world is still divided, a whole century after the Swedes gave him their famous literary prize?

A good novelist might be up to the task — a wordsmith capable of transcending the language gap. For instance, Sunetra Gupta, writing in English in Memories of Rain (1992) about the doomed love affair of Moni, a young Bengali woman, and Anthony, an Englishman visiting Calcutta that her brother introduces into their family circle. In a scene that made post-Gutenberg wish Satyajit Ray were alive to adapt the book for the screen, her brother embarrasses her with a halting reading to their guest of impromptu translations of his own short stories, through a long night rent by relentless monsoon winds and rain. Years later, in England, where she is now unhappily married to Anthony, who is besotted by his new English lover, her recollection of Tagore is enlaced with remembered details of their romance’s first chapter:

… From such a land Anthony had rescued her, a land where the rain poured from the skies not to purify the earth, but to spite it, to churn the parched fields into festering wounds, rinse the choked city sewers onto the streets, sprinkle the pillows with the nausea of mould, and yet the poet had pleaded with the deep green shadows of the rain clouds not to abandon him, the very same poet who wrote,

You, who stand before my door in the darkness

What is it that you seek?

It has been many years since that spring day, when there came a young wanderer

And immersed my parched soul in an endless sea of joy;

Today I sit in the rain-filled darkness, in my crumbling shack

A wet wind snuffs my candle, I sit alone, awake;

Oh, unknown visitor, your song fills me with sweet awe

I feel I will follow you to the depths of uncharted dark.

But it was not this song, not yet, that ran through her rain-ravaged mind as the grandfather clock in the living room struck two, interrupting the awkward flow of her brother’s translation, the grammatical mistakes she shivered at, why was his English so terrible, and she stood in the bathroom, splashed icy cold water out of the drum onto her feet, she caught a ghost of herself in the cracked mirror, and a sudden embarrassment overcame her, she switched on the lights and took in the cracked plaster, the dilapidated water closet, long since choked with lime, suspended over the Turkish toilet, the cracked mirror, the shelf cluttered with bottles of coconut oil, toothpaste tubes, rusty razor blades, and she compared it to the bathroom at Amrita’s, where she knew Anthony was staying, marbled to the ceiling, with Western commodes and bathtubs, he cannot be used to any of this, she thought …

Tagore on rain again, in a later passage, in which Moni wakes from a dream about death and marigolds – and in this one, his lines taker her soaring above earth-bound domesticity:

… [H]ere she found a deeper silence than even the quiet before a tropical storm,  the still rushes, the frightened birds, once, she had lingered, in a field of mustard, in the windless core of a storm, in such an hour, a dark village maiden had lifted her ebony eyes to the poet,

like black clouds gathering at the corners of a May sky

like soft black shadows descending upon June forests,

in this way the mirth of a July evening fades suddenly away.

The rain whipped around her as she fought her way back to her aunt’s house, inside, rivulets of water forced their way through closed shutters, trickled through the whitewash to collect in chalky puddles on the floor. She watched the heavy hips of her aunt as she bent down to mop up the rainwater  … And, shivering with sweet sorrow on that fateful winter morning, Moni had wondered, as she studied the wooden grace of her aunt’s arm sweeping in complicated arcs across the red floor, what she had gained by leaving a home, an indifferent husband, a cruel mother-in-law, to live alone, among the blunt banyans, to sit in her bamboo rocking chair on her veranda and read endless novels, did she not, on some still summer evening, lift her eyes to a glorious sunset, and feel, like the poet

If you did not give me love

Why paint the dawn sky with such song

Why thread garlands of stars

Why make a field of flowers my bed

Why does the south wind whisper secrets in my ear?

If you did not give poetry to my soul

Why does the sky stare like that upon my face

And why do sudden fits of madness grip my heart?

I set sail upon seas whose shores I know not.

Sunetra Gupta’s prose veers frequently into shades of deepest purple, but her emotional intensity, dial turned up all the way, perfectly fits Tagore’s. This really is quintessentially Bengali. In cultures that prefer strict emotional continence, this form of extremism is often frowned on as a sign of stupidity – of giving irrationality permission to take over.

But intense emotionality and exemplary analytical intelligence are hardly mutually exclusive. Consider what this novelist does today, in addition to writing fiction. She is a professor of Epidemiology at Oxford, where she describes her work on the site of the Department of Zoology.

My main area of interest is the evolution of diversity in pathogens, with particular reference to the infectious disease agents that are responsible for malaria, influenza and bacterial meningitis. I use simple mathematical models to generate new hypotheses regarding the processes that determine the population structure of these pathogens. I work closely with laboratory and field scientists both to develop these hypotheses and to test them.

Post-Gutenberg did not know that she existed until a postman delivered in the mid-‘90s a catalogue of remaindered books whose offerings included  Memories of Rain. Why has this author had less attention than other writers of Indian origin — Salman Rushdie, Anita or Kiran Desai, or Jhumpa Lahiri? We suspect, for part of the explanation, that she writes first to please her own sensibility, rather than Western literary tastes. See an earlier entry on this blog: ‘Gatekeepers I: in defence of Rachel Cusk — let cross-cultural flowers bloom in simultaneous international e-publishing’.

For gatekeepers alarmed about so-called ‘multi-culti’ — appreciating foreign cultural traditions — corrupting the mother-culture, does enjoying the Gupta-Tagore duets by this novelist diminish in the smallest degree a passion for the great works in the English canon? Of course not. Here is John Donne feeling exactly as Moni does, by the end of Memories:

Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite ;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love, can love no more.

Poetry, another word for untranslatable; Rabindranath Tagore — and is rain happy or sad?

Moghul girl-as-poem: is she translatable?
Photograph: firozjuma.com

part 1; part 2 is here

‘That day, the sun rose in the west.’

Fogeyish old media hacks in every age bracket — for instance, Mic Wright of the Telegraph, who looks as if he might be waiting to turn twenty-one — treat as equally unreal the idea that reader-commenters on newspaper sites can offer rare, crucial insight. ‘Comments are the radioactive waste of the web,’ the Telegraph blogger said.

Do these bigots ever stop to consider that because commenting on the web crosses national and cultural borders it has become an innovation no thinking person would want to live without? That is one reason why the logistical impossibility of also maintaining a comments section in this spot has been cause for real grief, at post-Gutenberg.

To experience the high-wattage illumination that spontaneous, trans-continental commentary can supply, consider the subject of poetry in translation.

An email notice from The London Review of Books the other day about a series of translation master-classes in honour of International Translation Day (30 September) gave us an excuse to re-read a four year-old debate in the comments about a blog post on the site of a London newspaper.

The commenters’ fight began with opinions about the appeal of Edward Thomas, the World War I poet, whose emotional restraint and sparing use of adjectives and adverbs had been lauded in the post. Later, joining the discussion, the post’s author implicitly compared the Welsh sensibility of the poet’s ancestors with her own English cultural tradition. In tones of thinly-veiled disapproval, she characterised as ‘typically downbeat’ the two Thomas poems about rain to which her text was an introduction.

The critic is an academic of strikingly conventional views whom we will call C.A. in highlights of the discussion that we are featuring below.

A particularly incisive commenter we will refer to as S.A. took exception to the assumption that painting in emotional pastels was necessarily a virtue. He insisted that this preference should be acknowledged as an English cultural bias — of which C.A. appeared to be oblivious. Furthermore, rain — he argued — was not universally perceived as depressing: far from dampening spirits, in hot, dry regions in the tropics, it is experienced by those who live there as poetic.  To that, post-Gutenberg would add that its associations in India with romantic love and passion are easy to see in the many Moghul miniature paintings on these themes in which thunder and clouds appear in the background of pictures depicting lovers, or maidens lost in romantic reverie.

S.A. went on to make a series of comments on the rain poems, their author, and his academic critic on the newspaper’s site that were far richer and more engaging than any literary criticism post-Gutenberg had read for years. He offered, for comparison, a snippet of ‘Varsha Mangal,’ verse about a monsoon deluge by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most revered poet — who has, in his native Bengal, the same standing as Shakespeare does among English-speakers.

S.A. was known by regulars among his fellow-commenters as a descendant of English and Central European stock, but born in South Africa.  He said that he and his Mexican wife enjoyed listening to recordings of Tagore reciting his own verses – even though neither of them spoke, or was literate in, Bengali.

He was challenged, in this commenters’ debate, by I.P., our initials for an Irish writer of minimalist, experimental poetry. Arguing from much the same academic orientation as C.A., I.P. endorsed virtually all her prejudices.

Among C.A.’s and I.P.’s opponents were two debaters offering no biographical information, whom we have renamed M.W. and S.E.. After S.A. playfully posted a re-translation of ‘Varsha Mangal,’ omitting its many adjectives, the proudly chauvinistic C.A. said that she much preferred the stripped-down version as a serious, not just larky, translation – to M.W. ‘s horror.

M.W.  What you propose would be like rewriting Joyce to read like George Orwell. Both excellent styles and writers — but ridiculous, no? The verbal excessiveness and flourishes you mention are quintessentially Bengali.

S.A.  Is simplicity of language an English Reformation thing. Is it Calvinist, I wonder. Were British poets more rococo before the reformation? Perhaps in eschewing the florid we are just scared of the Epicurian.

C.A. Oh dear, I rather liked the pared-down Tagore. The elaborate language, however fine and right it is in Bengali, is heavy-going in English. I always avoid him.

I.P.  Would Edward Thomas have cheered for England or Wales?

C.A.  I think he’d have supported Wales before 1914, and England after. […] Perhaps relevant to the ‘which side would Thomas have supported’ question: ‘I do not believe in patriotism, in times of peace or war, except as a party cry, or the result of intoxication or an article in a newspaper, unless I am in Wales.’

[ A commenter posts an impish parody of Thomas’s verse – in the spirit of S.A.’s doctored ‘Varsha Mangal’. C.A. turns livid. ]

S.A. You didn’t mind simplifying Tagore, whereas I am sure had my wife read my smudged Tagore, she would have been really pissed off too.

C.A.  No, the Tagore simply altered the adjectives, nothing in the contents or context. I defend Thomas’s right to believe in what he believed in and not have it re-written by silly twats.

M.W. Since we’re on the subject of comparisons, do you have any basis for comparing your understanding of how Tagore’s poem should read with the translation [S.A.] posted originally — which retained the poet’s ultra-Bengali adjectives? Do you know enough about Bengali literature to pronounce those adjectives dispensable?

You’ve spent a lot of posts analysing what a foreigner might consider sub-microscopic distinctions between Englishness and Welshness, even if we know exactly what you mean. Don’t the differences between the equally distinct cultures of India – and between any of them and Englishness — deserve as much respect? . . . And while we’re discussing criteria that might be anachronistic, how about reflecting that Tagore won the Nobel prize in 1913 when flowery prose had many more admirers everywhere?

… Sorry if I’ve over-interpreted you, but you have argued more than once — apparently in earnest — for turning Varsha Mangal into Varsha Mangle.

C.A. The Tagore was a translation … It’s accepted that translations will be of many degrees of fidelity. There’s one big proviso, of course, which is that the translator explains honestly what he or she is doing with the original and why. […] I believe it’s important to create versions of foreign-language poetry that work in modern English, at least if you really care about that poet and want to introduce new readers to the work. […] Perhaps it would win Tagore more readers if modernised versions of his work made by contemporary poets were available.

The whole point about translation is totally missed in your notion that you have to stick to the quintessence of the language you are translating from. You must stick to the quintessence of the language you are translating into, be it English, Bengali, Russian. [post-Gutenberg’s emphasis]

M.W. Ah, yes. The results of what you propose are perfectly summed up in this remark by the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang in today’s Observer:

‘[O]ne composer said to me, ‘I want Bach meets tango, and hip-hop meets Beethoven’ – both great ideas, but then I heard the music. Where’s the Beethoven? It’s like fusion food: mix French and Chinese dumplings – and it tastes like cat food.’

[ A wicked commenter ]  French ‘dumplings’ are called quenelles. Let’s show our Gallic friends some respect.

M.W. I certainly agree with you, … but if you follow [C.A.]’s rules for translation, I suspect that both dumplings and quenelles become meatballs.

C.A. If I wanted to make quenelles but couldn’t get (let’s say) the right kind of fine flour or oil in my benighted English village, I might well end up making meat-balls.

I.P. I’d suggest that the Joyce/Tagore comparison is one of the clearest examples of the Nobel crowd getting it very, very wrong. Personally, I find Tagore (in English at least) unreadable, almost a joke. Is anyone here qualified to comment on the Bengali originals or the fidelity of the “original” translations?

As an aside, I’m not sure that respecting the author’s intentions should be an ambition for the translator of poetry, or at least not when translating anything more than, say 50 years old. Translation works best, I think, when it is an act of renewal. [post-Gutenberg’s emphasis]

S.A. But it was an Irish poet, Yeats, who made Tagore internationally. He is the one who gave Tagore, in translation, his poet’s baptism.

The key here, I think, is the word “international”. Try and translate Joyce’s wordblends impressionistic syntax into another language and maybe you can understand why the Swedes didn’t get it.

I.P. I remain to be convinced that Tagore’s writings demand anything like the same degree of respect that Joyce’s do.

M.W.  Who are you to judge? You don’t read Bengali.

‘I’m not sure that respecting the author’s intentions should be an ambition for the translator of poetry, or at least not when translating anything more than, say 50 years old. Translation works best, I think, when it is an act of renewal.’

Just FIFTY years. Really? Time to renew/rewrite Joyce, then? — so that he’s accessible to, say, people who text more than they read or write?

S.E. [ a commenter pretending to be a Spanish-speaker struggling to communicate in English ] The Tagore’s Bengali should be retranslated perhaps into another Baroque version, that would mean more fidelity to the Baroque quality of the Bengali original… I think Juan R. Jimenez and wife retranslated Tagore into Spanish with huge success, since these versions keep been republished.

M.W. This is genuinely interesting.

It could be that Bengali is deeply incompatible with English but much less so with other languages — and there might be even a particular sympathy between Spanish and Bengali. I was trying to find a book of Octavio Paz’s on my shelves to quote … , so wasn’t surprised to find him on this wiki list of scribes apparently influenced by Tagore:

‘D.R. Bendre, André Gide, Yasunari Kawabata, Kuvempu, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz’

. . . not a single writer in English among them.

S.E.  I mean, translating Tagore is regarded as a greatest challenge, as worth of merit as Finnegans’ [sic] Wake.

[ … A few days after her ferocious defence of a translator’s right to chop off Tagore’s verse at the knees, the academic authority on poetry returned to the subject. Surrendering to her opponents, she announced a grand mea culpa. ]

C.A.  Just quickly on translation again – it was (in connection to [S.A.]’s re-write) the use of the word ‘translation’ that confused the issue (shame on me – for falling into a lexcial gap). I liked the piece of writing that [S.A.] produced, based on the Tagore translation, would have been a more accurate way of expressing it. I couldn’t and shouldn’t judge it as a translation of Tagore’s original, not knowing Bengali, but I can judge is as a piece of writing in English, and that was all I intended to imply.

How much more did that delectable scrapping about Tagore enlighten readers than the standard Western regurgitations of his poetry’s defects – judged by Western standards?

Even the instructor learnt something, and had the grace to admit as much.

In our next post, we will demonstrate an even better — not remotely scholarly — tack for demystifying part of Tagore’s appeal to discerning readers of Bengali literature.