Wednesday, October 14, 2009

AJ on About another matter


Literary historians tell us that Sri Lankan Tamil poetry has a distinctive tradition which begins from the Sangam Age, and the name Eezhaththup Poothanthevanar has been cited in this regard.

This tradition continued uninterrupted during the period of the Jaffna Kingdom circa 12th century A.C.

While this tradition continued uninterrupted, one should also bear in mind that the hegemonic poetic conventions of South Indian Tamil poetry did have a great impact on the Sri Lankan Tamil poetic tradition and conventions.

Modern Sri Lankan Tamil poetry had its beginnings in the nineteen forties, with the self-styled renaissance. In the nineteen sixties, the Progressive Writers’ Association launched a movement to stress the ‘Ceylonness’ of Ceylon Tamil Literature. In Ceylon Tamil poetry this took the form of the speaking voice, rooted in the rhythms of speech, verse drama etc. In the nineteen eighties, responding to the political travails of the Tamil community, Ceylon Tamil poetry began to speak of the loss of life, the destruction of property and the anguish of displacement. Thematically, ethnicity began to supersede class and caste, and there are poems which searingly indict state terrorism and barbaric military operations. This phase also throws up armed militants, especially women who also wrote poetry. Translations from English to Tamil and Tamil to Sinhala add a further dimension. This, in brief, is the context in which Sivasegaram’s transcreations should be viewed. (I am indebted to S. Pathmanathan for helping with this contextualisation).

This collection of Sivasegaram’s transcreations is political in the best sense of the word. He is a fluent bilingual who is equally at home in English as in his mother tongue, Tamil. His characteristic tone is a withering sarcasm and his poems go straight for the jugular.

As a committed Marxist, he can see the integral connections between tyranny and oppression in different countries; they are all manifestations of the same phenomenon. He writes (About another matter):

It is true that

when I speak about one thing,

it seems to be about another.

It is hard to avoid one

while speaking of another.

Writing about Pinochet is

also writing about Suharto, Marcos and Hitler.

The man who went missing in Chile

remains buried in Chemmani.

The mass graves in Mirusuvil and Sooriyakanda

were dug as one pit.

And the crowbars that demolished Babri Masjid

were forged in the fire that engulfed the Jaffna Library,

the heat of whose flames

blasted the statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.

The poem The killing hands refers to the same phenomenon:

The very hands that buried young boys at Sooriyakanda

buried young men at Chemmani.

In God bless America, the poet dons the person of an American citizen caught in the inferno of 11th September who addresses the President of the United States of America:

Your Excellency the President

of the United States of America,

I, an American citizen,

speak from a room in a burning tower

where lights suddenly went off

following the impact of an air plane

that struck like a thunderbolt.

The poem is a scorching indictment of America’s crimes against humanity, beginning with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima:

But my vision pierces through the darkness and

the walls of the building:

half a century of history unfolds before me.

I see bloodstains on the military hands

that uphold American domination.

The poem does not confine itself to a mere expression of righteous indignation. It ends in a note of hope:

I do not lose heart,

for the liberation of America is interwoven

with that of the world.

Let the collapse of this tower be a symbol

of the fall of a terror

that made America the enemy of the world.

Let it be the beginning of the end

of a goddess of evil bearing the trident

of exploitation, oppression and war.

This powerful poem concludes on an ironic note:

Your Excellency the President

I love America

more than I love my life that will soon depart:

not the America that you seek to save,

but the America that strives to save itself from you –

an America that the whole world would love.

God bless that America!

If I have given the impression so far that Sivasegaram is obsessed with America, today’s sole hyper-power (In Castro’s vivid description), I must correct it. If America looms large, it is because that is \today’s political reality; it is the sponsor and fount of global state terrorism today.

A poignant poem like The prison focuses on gender oppression and suffering:

I attained age.

Eggs, head bath, sari, imprisonment,

broker, donation, dowry, thaali.

I ended imprisonment at home

to be imprisoned elsewhere.

Did not my mother know?

Did not my sisters know ?

Did someone forget

to tell me something?

These lines bring home to me the nugget of truth in the cliché: the personal is the political.

His poems on the Trincomalee Harbour and the Kelani River do not dwell, as conventional poems would have done, on scenic beauty, but link them up, respectively, to people waiting for days on end to travel by ship to the North (at a time when the A-9 highway had been closed), and to the bodies of youths killed during the 1987-1989 insurgency and thrown into the river.

Sivasegaram’s is decidedly a Third World Voice, the voice of the oppressed and the downtrodden everywhere clamouring for justice and freedom. His poems do not play hide-and-seek with the reader, who knows immediately where the poet stands.

A.J. Canagaratna

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Presenting a long tradition of Tamil poetry: problems of translation

Presenting a long tradition of Tamil poetry: problems of translation

S Sivasegaram*

The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry. (Ed. Lakshmi Holmstorm, Subashree Krishnaswamy and K Srilatha), Penguin-Viking, 2009, pp. 222 + xxvii, Indian Rupees 499.00.

Precision of translation and faithfulness to the source have always been important to the translation of poetry. A translator, as AK Ramanujan once argued, could be re-creating a poem. There are, however, limits to the liberty that a translator may take with the source for the end product to be called a fair translation. Ambiguity of meaning in the source, difficulty in translating idiom, usage and phrases unique to the source language and culture are real issues; but they are bad excuses for purposeful omission, introduction of extraneous matter, distortion of meaning, and plain bad translation. The translator, when dealing with apparent ambiguities, could, rather than take liberties with the poem indicate uncertainty by the use of quotation marks or explanatory notes as necessary.

A number of translators, once convinced of their interpretation of the meaning and the message of a poem, tend to drive home their point by introducing matter that is alien to the source. Some even deliberately misinterpret phrases, downplay their significance or even omit them. Such subjective approach can be as harmful as, and at times more harmful than, poor language skills.

The reader is kindly asked to note that capitalisation is used to distinguish between long vowels from their shorter counterparts and to indicate retroflection in consonants in the transliteration of the titles and text of poetry given in italics in the paragraphs that follow.

Before commenting on the translations themselves, I should say that it is rather strange that the anthology starts with a song of praise of Visnu from paripAdal, which according to the late Vaiyapurippillai, highly regarded as an objective scholar of Tamil studies, as well as other serious scholars, belongs to the late Sangam period when the Brahminic religion had made inroads into Tamil society. Whatever the intention, this stands in contradiction of the fact that the earliest extant Tamil poetry is secular, despite the various pre-Brahminic forms of worship and rituals that existed in Tamil society. Also, selections from cilappatikAram and rAmAvatAram tend to over-represent the praise of ‘Hindu’ gods, which constitute a tiny fraction of the two essentially secular works.

The translations of Sangam poetry in the anthology are by AK Ramanujan, a much reputed poet in his own right, to whom the world of Tamil literature owes much for his translations of Sangam literature into English. But he too has displayed a weakness for over-emphasis. For example, he uses the term ‘king’ to refer not only to the king kiLLi vaLavan but also to the ancestors of his intended victims in (puranAnURu 46, p.14 ). The source does not have the word ‘king’. Although kiLLi vaLavan’s lineage is stated in the source, the pedigree of his adversary is in terms of the generosity and sharing practiced by the ancestors. The use of the term king to the latter is probably due to Ramanujan’s reliance on existing commentary. Again, in puranAnURu 187 (p. 17), nAdu (country, countryside) is translated as “field”. Also we have “(Earth,) you are only as good as the good young men in each place”, whereas the source does not qualify the men as good or young. These are minor flaws, but avoidable since they do not in any way add to the poetic value.

There is also the frequent substitution of names of plants with ones familiar to the reader in English, which would not harm the translation, except where the pant itself has some significance by way of association with various moods, and that does not seem to be a major problem in this volume. A more serious flaw, and seemingly the only one of its nature in Sangam translations, concerns a literal translation of the Tamil phrase cen nAp pulavOr as red-tongued poets (puranAnURu 107, p.15 ), whereas the term cen nA refers to erudite speech, as the word cem also means good, pure etc., as in cen tamizh, implying proper Tamil.

A serious mistake, rather uncharacteristic of Ramanujan, occurs in puranAnURu 192 (p. 20): “So, we are not amazed by the great, and we do not scorn the little”, whereas it should have been “So, we are not amazed by the great, and even less do we scorn the little”.

Cilappatikaaram has been translated with considerable care by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Yet in Canto 1 (p. 21), the translation uses the term king, which is absent in the source, to indicate that the reference is to the Cola king. Using it in the first stanza is acceptable although not essential; but its repeated use in the remaining stanzas seems unnecessary. A more serious flaw concerns the translation of “kongu alar thArc cenni” (referring to the head wearing a garland spreading fragrance) as “(the Cola king whose) garland is covered with pollen”. The latter may be imaginative translation, but the former seems more characteristic of the style of the author. There are several such avoidable defects which, however, do not seriously harm the essence of the poems. But, translating “thaLai avizh naru malarE” (meaning “good/fragrant flower breaking its bonds” i.e., the opening out of the petals released from the binding sepals) as “flowers just beginning to shed their petals” (Canto 7 verse 16, p. 22) and “muLai vaLar iLa nakaiyE” (bud-sprouting tender smile) as “teeth like tender buds” harm both meaning and poetic sense. Translating “mata annam” (Canto 7 verse 23, p. 22) as “artless swan” is inappropriate since the word “mata” means beautiful, tender or young in this context and not “artless”, although the term “matavan” means “ignorant man”.

The language of the thevAram period is closer to what we know as Tamil today than is the language of the Sangam and post-Sangam periods. Indira Peterson’s translations of the thevAram are remarkably faithful to the source, with the occasional slip like translating thOdu in “thOdudaiya ceviyan” (Sampanthar, book 1, hymn 1, p. 39) as “woman’s earring” is incorrect since the ornament became associated with women alone rather recently. In fact, wealthy men wore ornamental earrings until a century ago. Also in the same stanza, the word cudalai (cremation ground) is translated as “burning ground” which alters the meaning considerably. Norman Cutler’s translations of Kaaraikkaal Ammaiyaar are among the most impressive Saivate poetry in the volume.

Translations from the tirukkuraL by PS Sundaram are weak and often distort the meaning of the source without adding any poetic value. Translations of Maanikkavacakar’s verses in pp. 42-45 are flawed in terms of choice of words as well as omissions and fail to do justice to the source. Also, the translations of the Siddhar poems (pp.68-73) seem imprecise in several places.

I do not quite consider Sekizhar’s verse (pp. 48-51) poetry. The translation could have done without any pretence to verse and been written as a passage.

Translations of Nammaazhvaar by Ramanujan are perhaps the most beautiful of religious literature in the volume. In translating Aandal, names like Madhusudanan and Narayanan Nambi are transliterated in their Tamil form while Madhavan, Govindan and Madurai take a Sanskritised form. Preference for Sanskrit persists in the translation of Kamban too, who, interestingly, Tamilised several words with Sanskrit origin so that the link of the words to their foreign source was not readily evident.

In the translation Goplakrishna Bharati’s songs of Nandan the phrase ‘inta nandan upacAram collavO?’ (meaning “May this Nandan greet you?”) is rendered as “Untouchable as I am, may I not serve you?” I seriously doubt if Goplakrishna Bharati ever used the term “untouchable” in his work, especially in the speech of Nandan.

The tendency to take liberties persists in the translations of modern Tamil poetry. For example, in Subramaniya Bharati, the phrase “nINda pozudAka” (for long) is rendered as “eternally”. The line, “vEndum poruLaiyellAm manathu veRutthu vittathadi” (My heart rejected all things that I desire) is rendered as “denying my hearts desires”, which distorts the meaning.

What needs to be pointed out at this stage is that Tamil poetry since its early Sangam period relied strongly on its metric rhythm. Powerful rhythm added strength to many poems well into the last century. Subramaniya Bharati’s poems dealing with the national struggle and even some of the ‘religious’ poems drew much of their strength from their rhythm. The absence of any sense of rhythm in nearly all the translations loses something for the reader without compensating the loss in any way.

The flaws in the translation of traditional Tamil verse with which I am familiar made me doubt the precision of a considerable number of modern poems with which I am less familiar. I am unable to comment on the quality of the translations where I do not have ready access to the source. But some of the selections themselves raise questions about the understanding that the editors have about what poetry is or what Tamil poetry should be about. I give below a few of the selections that very much disappointed me.


No point in blaming the waves,

so long as the sea exists.

Nakulan, (p. 95)

Which came first?

Nobody loves fear

and nobody fears love.

–But which of these came first?

(Si. Mani, p. 106)

(I have come across a number of Indian and Chinese proverbs that sound more poetic than these ‘poems’.)

Perfect pitch

A stack of betel leaves

betel nut



water to gargle.

A flask of ice.

A bottle of brandy.

Matchbox, cigarette

ashtray, and

you my friend,

to chat with.

In such a death too

a kind of bliss.

Nakulan (p. 97)

(This verse seems at best a mediocre parody of Omar Khayyam’s lines translated by FitzGerald:

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!").

Unless the intention was to include poems that represented the worst of Tamil poetry, I cannot understand how these lines could find their way into a serious ‘book of Tamil poetry’. There are cleverer and even seemingly poetic imagery which have passed for poetry in Tamilnadu at a time when free verse was poorly understood by the ‘new poetry’ movement.

Despite the ease with which many of them could be translated to English without gain or loss of meaning or poetic sense, the temptation to add meaning seems to have been strong. There are other problems relating to insensitive or reckless translation. I will give a few examples from some poems with which I have been very familiar.

The line “inRennum kalth thuLikaL vizhuvathanal” by Pramil have been translated on p. 114 as “Because of the hurl and fall of Today’s stone flakes”. A lot of meaning has been lost in this much acclaimed poem of Pramil. The lines mean “because of the fall of stone droplets called Today”. (Besides, Pramil intentionally violated Tamil grammatical rules about ‘junction’ in kalth thuLikaL which should strictly have been kaRRuLikaL). The imaginative phrase ‘droplets of stone’ (‘droplets’ of a solid rather than a liquid) has been substituted with “stone flakes”, defeating Pramil’s intention.

Nuhman’s poem titled “Last evening, this morning” in translation (pp. 122-123) has a number of poor substitutions.

akalvathu (leaving) is translated as “going about their business”

kAkki udaiyil thuvakkukaL thirinthana (Guns clad in khaki walked about) is rendered as “Khaki clad men patrol, guns held aloft”.

manitha vAdai (human scent) is translated as “smell of human beings”.

ivvARAka/ inRaya vAzhvai/ nAngaL izhanthOm/ inRaya malaiyai/ nAngaL izhanthOm (Thus, we lost today’s life, we lost today’s evening) has become “and this was how / we lost our evenings / we lost this life”. There is a clear shift in emphasis which robs Nuhman’s lines of their subtlety and in the process alters the meaning.

In “Buddha murdered” (pp. 123-124), the phrase “yAzh nUlakatthin padikkattarukE/ avarathu cadalam kuruthiyiR kidanthathu” (his body lay in blood, besides the steps to the Jaffna Library) has been translated as “He lay upon the steps of the Jaffna Library drenched in his own blood”. This seems, once again, to be a result of the translator’s insensitivity to the restrained style of Nuhman. Also “ninety thousand books” in the source become “ninety thousand rare books”. This is uncalled for interference in a process of adding ‘colour’.

There are also instances where common phrases are translated literally with loss of meaning. Devadacchan’s phrase (p. 141) rendered “when the current failed” uses the term “kaRant / karantu” (current) referring to electric power in much of Tamilnadu and in Sri Lanka, where the term “laiR” (light) is also used. The use of “current” in place of “power” is perhaps due to overestimating the significance of the term “current”.

For some unclear reason, the place and date (Jaffna/10-11-83) of the letter forming Urvasi’s poem (p. 146) have been omitted. They are important since they identify a place and period in whose context the poem acquires much of its meaning.

There are a number of errors of carelessness which could have been avoided in a short anthology of this nature with help from a competent editor or someone familiar with the sources and having a sense of poetry.

A recent reviewer who hailed the anthology had commented that the translations of some of the modern poems were dull. The poems referred to were from Tamilnadu, and I suspect that much of the dullness comes from the source.

The main weakness of the translations seems to be that, like the compilation, several of the translations have been rather hasty, especially since there are some commendable translations of poems old and new and there is no major evidence of linguistic incompetence.



Writer of poetry and literary criticism in Tamil, and retired Senior Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka