Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.3 - Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, translator

Arvind Krishna Malhotra


AKM is a poet and translator of poets. He lamented that his book, The Absent Traveller : Prakrit Love Poetry From The Gathasaptasati Of Satavahana Hala, is no longer in print in India. All the poets are male, but there is no aspect a woman's sexuality that these poets do not cover.

The poetry is stark and spare, laconic even, but has the ability to surprise like haiku. Take this for instance:
                Her anger's a fistful of sand
            Slipping through fingers
        When she sees him. 
Note the compression, as though the poet has said as much as he needs to say and leaves the reader with an image sufficient for further understanding.

 KumKum gets a book signed

Mehrotra confesses he does not know Prakrit, and makes no apology for it. He noted that we translate very differently in India than in the West, where faithfulness to the original is cardinal. Joe commented that someone said, the worst translation of poetry comes from poets who want to make the translation a vehicle for their own new poem.

To read a full account click below ...
AKM is a poet and translator or poets. He lamented that his book, The Absent Traveller : Prakrit Love Poetry From The Gathasaptasati Of Satavahana Hala, is no longer in print in India, though he knows of several hundred copies lying in a godown. Today there is no profit in cheap poetry books, the publisher explained. The original poems are from the 1st century AD in Maharashtrian prakrit, which Mehrotra does not read. All the poems are in a woman's voice and they talk about sexuality frankly, but in subtle ways. All the poets are male, but there is no aspect a woman's sexuality that these poets do not cover.

The poetry is stark and spare, laconic even, but has the ability to surprise like haiku. Take this for instance:
                Her anger's a fistful of sand
            Slipping through fingers
        When she sees him. 
Note the compression, as though the poet has said as much as he needs to say and leaves the reader with an image sufficient for understanding.
And this:
                Distance destroys love,
        So does the lack of it.

        Gossip destroys love,
        And sometimes

        It takes nothing
        To destroy love.

How lovely it would be to hear this in the original! Indeed all of the poems below, but Mehrotra confesses he does not know Prakrit, and makes no apology for it: “I do not want to know Prakrit. Not knowing the language is an advantage.” “Dictionaries, cribs, and tutors will do,” he says.

Poem 1.
At night, cheeks blushed
           With joy, making me do
        A hundred different things,
           And in the morning too shy
        To even look up, I don't believe
           It's the same woman.  

Poem 2.
After a quarrel,
           The breath suppressed,
        Their ears attentive,
           The lovers feign sleep:
        Let's see who
                      Holds out longer.

Poem 3.
                 The deft bee,
            His weight held back,
        Endues the bud and sucks
                       The white jasmine's nectar.
[ experienced woman teaches a sexual position to a man keen to make love to an under-aged girl]

Poem 4. 
Hair like ruffled feathers,
            Half open eyes
        The body in tremors needing rest:
            Having played the man,
You know how we suffer.
[the heroine, having chided her man for being a poor lover, takes his position and is soon 
exhausted.  For once, this gives him something to talk about. ]

Poem 5.
                The way he stared,
           I kept covering myself,
        Not that I wanted him
                      To look elsewhere.
[Indian men stare shamelessly, and have been doing so for centuries]

Poem 6.
As the traveller, eyes raised
           Cupped hands filled with water, spreads
        His fingers and lets it run through,
           She pouring it reduces the trickle. 
[Describes a common sight in hot weather in N. India when a woman may sit with a gada under 
a tree and offers a drink to travellers on foot. The gesture is of the man opening his palms, and 
she reducing the stream to a trickle …]

Once when Mehrotra was sitting with Arun (Kolatkar, that is) he was reading a book edited by 
Joglekar and read this poem to him from the Gathasaptasati in Marathi and translated it for 
Mehrotra's benefit:
                The lamp-oil finished,
            The wick still burns,
        Engrossed in the young couple's
            Copulation.

Upon further inquiry and research he found the poems had no translation in English. And that 
was the beginning of Mehrotra's work. He has a rather cavalier attitude to translation. 
“I want to ease where Tukaram's poem ends and my work begins,” he said. 
He noted that we translate very differently in India than in the West, where faithfulness to the 
original is cardinal. That's why we have 300 Ramayanas and a multiplicity of traditions. 
Gyaneshwar in 1300 said similar things. “At some point I forget the original and it is of no further 
use to me when I'm absorbed in the English translation. Indians have never lived under the 
tyranny of the original,” he said.

Mehrotra is on first name terms with Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, and others. He noted that Arun Kolatkar translated into American English rather than British, because for Indians it is easier to speak colloquially in the former; so Mehrotra said, though I disagree with both notions. Indians speak colloquially in their own version of English, which is a mongrel of several other Englishes and the local Indian language. But he said the motivation to translate comes from the urge to share your excitement with other readers. “The timbre of your voice will be reflected in the translation, and that is its strength.” Mehrotra's attitude is further bolstered by the fact that his job did not depend on adopting any particular theory of translation. “You cut out the crap,. Leave out the flab, the repetitive stuff … then you get to the images and that's what interested me,” said Mehrotra. When I translated Kabir I created another version of Kabir.”

Joe commented that someone said, the worst translation of poetry comes from poets who want to make the translation a vehicle for their own new poem, rather than a translation that pays homage to the original and tries to render it as well as possible, keeping accuracy and felicity in mind at the same time. Mehrotra replied that he would rather the reader remember his translation and forget the original. “I want to destroy the original.”

"I think of translation not as loss, but as gain, since I bring as much as the original brought.” To the question, “is most love poetry about absence?” Mehrotra answered there is love in union and love in separation. Longfellow said: “The greatest of all fallacies in translation is to give not what an author really says, but what you suppose he would have said, if he had been writing in your language.”

1 comment:

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