The Poet Who Translates Classical Tamil Texts Into English Sonnets That Move The Soul | Verve Magazine
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January 23, 2019

The Poet Who Translates Classical Tamil Texts Into English Sonnets That Move The Soul

Text by Preksha Sharma

While poets face the harshest criticism for emotions getting lost in translation, we speak to Chabria, who translates layered, dense and, at times, rapturously erotic poetry

During an afternoon feast at a literary event, a corner table was engaged in a discussion on translation. More uninhibited, frank and animated than the panel they were just part of. A doctor with notable literary skills and ambition, unsurprisingly, came up with a surgical analogy. “It’s like a transplant. A heart transplant,” he said. Then after some hesitation: “The beauty is, it’s a heart that clones itself. So, if you are able to reach it, it clones and you get a clone, exactly like the previous one.” (Full disclosure: there was a lot of wine.) “What about the blood…for a pound of flesh,” whipped a wisecrack, and the talk drowned in rapturous laughs. Later, in the sombre winter evening, the poet from the group caught hold of me and said, “Unlike our anatomical bodies, languages separate and allow access to seeker. There is blood, and sweat, but dear god! There is no violence. No cutting please.”

Translation is a human need, in practice since centuries. It’s a necessity for religion; it spread when scriptures were translated. It is how cultures communicate. Perhaps it is this existential quality that makes translation a fertile subject for philosophers. French philosopher Jacques Derrida put a daunting question mark on translation by stating, ‘In a sense, nothing is untranslatable; but in another sense, everything is untranslatable….’ Thus plaguing an already insecure artiste’s mind with the idea of the impossibility of translation. (Derrida has also published a 28-page paper titled What is a “Relevant” Translation?) What is it about a translator that incites intense arguments, and emotions, from the most well-composed academics and writers? And who are the people employed in this sublime impossibility? Do they live unfulfilled lives — in despair of what is being lost in translation? Or are they nonchalant, good-humoured beings happily navigating rivers of two (or more) languages?

François-Xavier Durandy, the French subtitler of Bollywood films who speaks Hindi more chaste than our average mainlander; Priya Sarukkai Chabria, the poet who translates classical Tamil texts according to the changing cultural idioms of our time, and Shahnaz Habib, the JCB Prize for Literature-winning translator, talk to Preksha Sharma about the joys and perils of translation.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Readers and writers talk about the translated word with pain — it’s called an art of loss, of sorrow. Poets face the harshest criticism. Rethinking poems in another language is akin to building a new world that often seems distorted and untrue to the lovers of the original language. Are renderings of original poems in other languages an act of violence, or are these intense actions of rebirth? How do poets navigate the rivers of two languages while they dive deeper, and deeper, into the essence of a poem? We ask Priya Sarukkai Chabria, poet and writer, and translator of layered, dense and, at times, rapturously erotic classical Tamil poetry.

Of all the forms of literary translation, most reservations are expressed for translation of poetry. Why is this?
If only people remember that they become poets when in love! Everyone has texted a few verses to their beloved, haven’t they? They instinctively turn to poetry because it offers heightened enchantment and intensity — like the feeling of being in love. Perhaps people think it’s doubly difficult with translated verse. But why? Why not see the connections instead?

Here’s a segment by Mannikkavacakar, ninth-century Tamil mystic, on love’s bewitchment:

Like cobras copulating move her dazzling hips.
Her flashing eyes — pure lightning. She pins
me with her blinding beauty. Double
is her power: she’s cause and cure of my disease.

What drew you to the songs of the Tamil mystic Andal?
Being a poet myself I’m enthralled by Andal’s intense, incandescent bhakti poetry, and her legend of rapturous passion. She was just 13 when she composed the devotional hymn Tiruppavai/The Path to Krishna. Her rarely translated Nacciyar Tirumoli/The Sacred Songs of The Lady, of unbridled eroticism and spiritual yearning, were composed when she was 16. Today, women are still supposed to be discreet in stating desire. Yet Andal, singing more than 10 centuries ago, displays unrestrained anger and intimacy. She wants to be Krishna/Vishnu’s bride in every way; hers is a no-holds-barred love. She says:

If I see Krishna, the thief who mauled me — I‘ll maul
my breasts. I’ll uproot their round mounds from
my body, uproot my love and fling these at him.
If he won’t caress me what use is this howling tenderness?

But being Tamilian, Andal’s legend is part of my consciousness. She’s a cult in South India, regarded as a saint and an emanation of the earth goddess. Her songs are still sung; her worship has spawned a flourishing cultural industry. Women adore her courage and take pride in her beauty. They love her for crossing feudal norms; for not being a ‘good girl’. Andal is desirable; she’s a teen icon. With her young body maddened by love for a beauteous god, Andal sang divine songs. When she was almost wasted away with longing, she fused with the divinity that dwelt within her. Andal is, for me, grace manifest. Her words to Krishna — Hear my prayer/Fill my being /With your being also are my words to her.

How should classical texts be translated?
Two different approaches are possible: does the translator attempt to take the reader to the author’s era or bring the author into our time?

I wish to share Andal’s imaginative verses and attempt a poetics of transcendence in fervent, colloquial English to connect with contemporary readers. I needed to research extensively on the period’s history, on the flora and fauna of the time, travel to her places, consult scholars on word meanings, read about poetic conventions, become a small storehouse of mythology myself…. While translating sacred texts, translators tend to privilege philosophical overtones over the poetics, which I don’t do. And, as there’s no way to check back with the author, one must be cautious and truthful to the text.

Finally, translating a mystic like Andal meant letting go of such theories. For she runs on the edge of the imagination; she’s in an elevated zone. Here, she addresses Vishnu in his fierce man-lion avatar, Narasimha, in which both his ripping paws and caresses are sacred:

engorged with anger
nails extending he kills
plunging wrists in blood

from these very hands I seek
gather in my swollen ripeness

as spilling nectar
my body’s bloodflower

While dealing with works created centuries ago, how are contexts set in place, and how are the music, rhythm and rhymes translated?
In general, introductions and endnotes are useful. But there is no fixed approach; one needs to adapt to the urgencies present in the work. Andal, for instance, wrote complex, compact verses, layered with significance. Translating her is like peeling open a lotus bud to discover layer after layer of beauty and wisdom. The Tamil rhyme schemes cannot be duplicated in English but, hopefully, the music is heard. In the extract below, she addresses Vishnu’s conch which she envies as it is kissing his lips.

Camphor aflame? Or budding lotuses? What is
the scent of his sacred breath? White Conch whirled
from the ocean of time, like you I long to sip
from Madhavan’s coral lip.

How do you start translating poems? Is there a process you follow?
Translation is a process of melding and recreation. I employ different strategies to translate different authors because each one’s voice is unique. The process, for me, is meditative: subsume yourself in the author’s verses till they become part of your being and breath. When ready, the words that emerge will be both, the writer’s words and yours, in a single poem. I do multiple drafts, each time, working towards exactitude. Imagine you are admiring an exquisite piece of embroidery. Now imagine turning the embroidery over to examine the reverse side. That’s an intimate view, an insider’s view. You’ll notice a mesh of differently coloured threads — scarlet, yellow, cobalt, emerald, etc — that show how they are connected. Similarly, I first get the broad pattern, the motifs. Then I unpick threads to discover
how the pattern is made, catch the allusions, the references. At some point, I intuit, ‘unselfing’ myself in the writer. That’s glorious.

As a translator and poet, how is your relationship with the two languages you work with?
Classical Tamil isn’t spoken or read today, except by scholars and priests, therefore the power structure between this and English is unbalanced. I have an ease with English that I don’t possess with classical Tamil. To be honest, some years ago I had a curious experience with Tamil. A personal trauma virtually wiped out the language from my memory. The sound, the songs, the script. All of a sudden I found I could not understand it, leave alone speak it. It was as if I were in a room of aural distortions, hearing a strange tongue swirl around me. Or as if the entire living room with my friends and me had sunk underwater. A terrible time! I could only recognise the chants of Andal, as if these were echoing upwards from a cavern. Then, equally suddenly, one afternoon, on a drive from Mumbai to Pune, I slipped in a CD of Carnatic music — and heard it, enjoyed it. Over the last few years the language has returned to me, like an asylum seeker.

There has been a resurgence of poetry in recent times. Does that tell us something about the times we are living in?
What can I say about poetry without sounding like a preacher? Or a pop-up urging: sample for free? Try it. Read one poem a day, for two weeks, and see what happens. Poetry is like dew: a ‘product’ of sparkle after a long night of mediation. Like dew, it is condensed, and capable of reflecting the world in a very small space.

In this age of social media, when we immediately react to everything thrown at us, poetry insists on response after consideration. As a form, it resists manipulation so one hopes a finer degree of truth is sieved by it. When we are surrounded by fake news, fabrications, etc., reading poetry can be like the breaking of dawn; it has, historically, been our first response to intense emotions and elation. We turn to poetry for love or longing, celebration or loss, or when reality is too intense, brutal, or inattentive to contain rumination. We turn to poetry for distillation, to touch another with precision, exactitude and song. Poetry doesn’t provide answers, but provokes questing.

Read part 1 (François-Xavier Durandy) here.

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