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.