lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Across the pale parabola of joy

Many critics, no defenders,
Translators have but two regrets:
When we hit, no one remembers,
When we miss, no one forgets.
That pithy and prolific writer, Anonymous.

Translation is a tightrope walk. The question that lies before a translator is always whether to follow the spirit of the work or the exact text. Voltaire says that literal translations, by rendering every word, weaken the meaning.

To translate, one must have a style of his own, for otherwise the translation will have no rhythm or nuance, which come from the process of artistically thinking through and molding the sentences; they cannot be reconstituted by piecemeal imitation. -- Paul Goodman.

Then there is the question of idiom and syntax. What works in one language will sound awkward in another. 'All over the sky lay strewn comparison to your laughter' reads perfectly awful, whereas akashey akashey aachhilo chhadaano tomaaro haashir tulanaa is beautifully evocative. How does one translate 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' Metaphors sometimes can't be carried over. Summer's day won't work in Indian languages, as it evokes sweating and sweltering. Coolness is the same as aloofness, distance, being formal, in English. In Telugu coolness is nice, not nasty, being pleasant and benevolent and more. Different climates produce different idioms, and different cultures shape the languages.

Cultural references and classical allusions are hard to translate. How does one translate జీవితవైతరణి jeevita vaitaraNi? As it was my own poem, I translated it as 'the Styx of life', but would I have approved if somebody else did that? What does 'generous as Karna' mean to readers who didn't grow up with the tales of Mahabharata?

If prose is difficult, translating poetry is even more fraught. There are always layers of meanings, and the same word can have several meanings in Indian languages.

When I wrote about the songs in Malleeswari, I'd said that I wouldn't even attempt a translation of manasuna mallela maalaoogenE. Garlands of jasmines swayed in mind, is the literal translation of that line. It is metaphor for idyllic bliss. Does one translate the sense or the text? Will a faithful translation of that languid imagery evoke the same sense of joy and elation?

A couple of days ago, a reader who happened to come across my blog searching for pilachina biguvaTaraa wrote to me, sending his translation of the two songs. An interesting discussion ensued, as he chose to interpret 'vEnuvu savvaDi' as sound of wind in bamboo shoots rather than sound of flute. While I agreed with it, I quibbled at his rendition. If one can manage to translate in approximately the same length and word order, always excepting grammatical considerations, it is better to follow the original as closely as one can; he didn't.

The pleasure of translation lies in picking and choosing the words, dithering over word order, looking up exact meanings and finding the best way to render the original into another language. So I had a wonderful couple of hours with the song, once I yielded to the temptation to translate the untranslatable.

Do I say garland or wreath or chaplet or lei? Is festoon better? Is bratuku life or existence? Is haayi peace or comfort or happiness? Can galagala be rustle or should it be chuckle? Is kolanu a lake or a pond? Past tense sounds awkward in English, should I make it present perfect? Present continuous? panduTa is to ripen but it means completion, so how do I say it?

Such are the pleasures and perils of translation. And here is my version of 'manasuna mallela' that brilliant lyric of Devulapalli Krishna Sastry.
మనసున మల్లెల మాలలూగెనే కన్నుల వెన్నెల డోలలూగెనే
ఎంత హాయి ఈ రేయి నిండెనో ఎన్నినాళ్ళకీ బ్రతుకు పండెనో

కొమ్మల గువ్వలు గుసగుసమనినా రెమ్మల గాలులు ఉసురుసురనినా
అలలు కొలనులో గలగలమనినా దవ్వుల వేణువు సవ్వడి వినినా
నీవు వచ్చేవని నీ పిలుపే విని కన్నుల నీరిడి కలయచూచితిని
గడియయేని యిక విడిచిపోకుమా ఎగసిన హృదయము పగులనీకుమా

ఎన్నినాళ్ళకీ బ్రతుకు పండెనో, ఎంత హాయి ఈ రేయి నిండెనో

manasuna mallela maalaloogenE kannula vennela DOlaloogenE
enta haayi ee rEyi ninDenO enninaaLLakee bratuku panDenO

kommala guvvalu gusagusamaninaa remmala gaalulu usurusuraninaa
alalu kolanilO galagalamaninaa davvula vENuvu savvaDi vininaa
neevu vachchEvani nee pilupE vini kannula neeriDi kalayachoochitini
gaDiyayEni yika viDichipOkumaa egasina hRdayamu pagulaneekumaa

enninaaLLakee bratuku panDenO, enta haayi ee rEyi ninDenO

Garlands of jasmines sway in my mind
Moonlight shimmers in eyes.
What sublime peace suffuses this night!
After so long, this existence fulfilled.

When doves murmured on boughs
Or breezes sighed in sprigs,
If waves gurgled in the pond
And distant woodwind sounded
Thinking you arrived, hearing only your call
I looked all round with brimming eyes.
Don't leave me now, even for a moment
Lest this exultant heart break.

After so long, this existence fulfilled;
What sublime peace suffuses this night!



Anonymous Ash said...

George Steiner says, "beautiful translations are like beautiful women, that is to say, they are not always the most faithful ones." You have proved that false. Bravo, Lali.

7:39 pm  
Anonymous rajesh said...

emsnweqz Lali this is getting worse. You post a great poem, this is the third go but I don't know if this comment will be up. Lovely song, lovely poem you made out of it. RA is behaving itself?

12:31 am  
Anonymous e said...

Useful this one. I wish to translate too, like Fitzgerald...better in fact. Let's see.

9:06 am  
Blogger dipali said...

One of the most difficult of literary tasks, Lali- good translation.
Anon said it very well:)

12:29 pm  
Blogger Sivaram said...

Pakka Bhaasha Idiomsu, Pakka daaba meeda Vadiyamsu saadhinchadam kashtam ....

Have you read the translation of Meghadootam by Dr. Maheedhara Nalini Mohan ? With full maatra-Chandassu !! Wow!

I think by far the most difficult to translate is 'Nonsense verse'.
I read the 'Tenth rasa', but sorely disappointed. Superior was the "Select Nonsense" of Sukumar Ray.

12:31 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ash- What, no quibbles? The mind boggles.

Rajesh- Look, I hate it too, but it stays. Atleast, until I get a decent lot of real toughies so I can post about it. RA is okay.

e- Hmm.

Dipali- Yeah, that little verse really touched a chord.

Sivaram- I haven't read the Meghadootam translation. Any idea where I can acquire a copy? About idioms-u and vadiyams-u, and such nonsense-u here is some-

ఆఫీసు మూసేసినా ఉంటాడు బంట్రోతు
ఆఫీసరు గుర్రం; అతగాడు రౌతు
అవ్వాలా నీ పని అవకుండా జాప్యం
అయితే పెట్టు ఆ చేతిలో రూప్యం
which I translate thus:

even when closed, the office has a lackey
the officer's the horse, this gent the jackey
if you want your errand without delay to proceed
into that hand some cash you must concede.

Talk about reverse/reverse Ogden Nash-ing, are your teeth yet gnashing?

1:01 pm  
Blogger M S said...


1:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

O, from what power hast thou this powerful might, with insufficiency my heart to sway...who taught thee how to make me love thee more, the more I hear and see just cause of hate?

Brilliant, considering you said it can't be done.
Secret admirer

8:11 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Why existence rather than life, Lali? Surely there is a reason you used it particularly?

Since you miss my quibbling here is one quibble.

9:34 pm  
Blogger Alien said...

Learning a foreign language presently and that makes those thoughts even more relevant...!! :-)

7:54 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

MS- Blue? If you get the reference and all? Thanks.

Anon- Stop quoting the S of A at me, no? And get a name.

Ash- Um, this takes some explaining how I thought it through. She existed, without meaning or purpose or aim, until her love came back, only then she came alive. That is how the song moves me, because life without purpose is just existence.

Alien- ET, you can say that again. Once more, with feeling!

11:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

pathetic. you should leave some on the back-burner. stick to original poetry you are a good poet.


10:20 pm  
Blogger Sue said...

Lali, I'm going off at a tangent here but I wonder if you know a good Carnatic teacher? I used to sing a long time ago and will probably need to start from the basics all over again, but I realise that my training is almost completely lost by now.

Incidentally, what a perfect title for a post on translation!

11:51 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Anon- Dear John,
Heh. I always wanted to write a dear John letter. I've seen the other comments you have left on other posts. It's clear I've got under your skin, and you are having trouble making up your mind if you like my blog or hate it.
Thank you for sharing. Are you the same Anon who asked me if I was dumbing myself down? If so, thank you for getting a name (what a name!) so I could reply.

Sue- I have absolutely no musical contacts here, dear. The Tamil clubs have music classes, that I do know. If you are going to start all over again why not switch to Hindusatani? K is not involved in the music scene these days either, but he could find out.

I'd been dying to use that as a post title. Rimi stole a march on me using Granny Weatherwax's 'I aten't dead' line sometime ago, so I was keeping it close. :-)

9:33 am  
Blogger Sivaram said...

And now a word for the 'translated' ----
'It is worth saying a word too about the condition of a writer who finds himself being translated. Being translated is neither an everyday nor a holiday activity, indeed it is not an activity at all. It is a semi-passivity, similar to that of the patient on the operating table or on the psycho-analyst's couch, rich however in violent and contrasting emotions. An author who is confronted by one of his own pages translated into a language he knows, feels in turns - or at one and the same time - flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, planed down, violated, embellished, killed. One rarely remains indifferent to a translator, known or unknown who has poked his nose and his fingers into your viscera; you would willingly send him, by turns or at the same time, your heart - suitably wrapped - a cheque, a crown of laurel or one's seconds.'

1:22 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Sivaram- Who said this? While it is very true, I wonder what the author would have said about translating oneself.

2:08 pm  
Blogger love and squalor said...

20 years in teluguland and I never once realized that guvva meant dove till this day. I mean, it is such a common word, I jus assumed it was a bird I'd never seen. tragic.
also. tried finding fault with the translation for dolaloogene, but considering, I din know what doves were called in telugu, I must say, good job.

1:20 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

L&S- Hi and welcome.

You see, while I translated the first line exactly, I changed tack for the vennela dOlaloogenE because the repetition wouldn't have sounded right in English. Too, 'moonlight played on swings in my eyes' sounds awful. Going by the film,(there's an image of moon reflected in the pond) I used shimmer in the sense of moonlight rippling on water. Sorry for the long explanation. :-)

5:57 pm  
Blogger kuffir said...

chala bagundi..a great effort. but perhaps there is something to what the reader you referred to says. your blog is a great find for me- what can one say? i'll be digging through the archives the next time i am here.

2:07 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Kuffir- Thank you. Do drop in again, and let me know what you think.

2:26 pm  

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