Book Review: Selected Poems by Subramania Bharati (trans. Usha Rajagopalan)

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There must be poets all over the world whose work thrives only in their native tongues, the quality of whose writing we must take on the word of those who are proficient in those languages. The politics and reasons as to why some make it into the English language, arguably the one with the most far-reaching sphere of influence in the modern world, while other don’t are worth lengthy discussion. But the truly exasperating travesty is when a poet whose work has undeniable eminence is insulted not by being ignored, but worse, through poor translations.

Subramania Bharati, the 20th century’s preeminent Tamil writer, is one such poet. Born in 1882 and living only till the age of 38, he pioneered a renaissance in Tamil poetry and fought through his life against colonialism, caste and the oppression of women. To date, no significant English translation of his poetry has done justice to either his persona – romantic, radical, a genius who in the manner of the true artist engaged completely in his own context while being far ahead of it – or the writing itself. Usha Rajagopalan’s new collection of translations makes only slight inroads of improvement: while the book fortunately lacks the cringe-worthiness of prior efforts, Selected Poems, right from its very titling lacks inspiration and imagination – keywords that the very mention of Bharati ordinarily summons among those familiar with the poet.

These translations suffer most of all from a sense of restraint. Bharati was the quintessential fiery artist, prone to being overcome by fits of grandeur, tormented by personal demons, and always redeemed by a profound oneness with the world as a theatre of triumph. This is not mythologizing: all of these attributes are evident in his original writings. Line by line conversion, without fluidity, cannot achieve this effect. Selected Poems, while rarely clumsy, often lacks inventiveness. Words like “Alas!” are used; there is no attempt to contemporarise the sentiment. But the worst offense would be the reduction in “A Baby Fire” of the culminating line, “thath tharikitta thath tharikitta thith thom” – a stunning onomatopoeic flourish that captures both a spitting fire and a visceral rhythm also found in classical dance and music – to “Whoosh, crackle, snap, sizzle.” Elsewhere, these flourishes are retained in translation – an inconsistence that isn’t justified.

This happens not infrequently. In “Aspirations” (which also takes Bharati’s “Om Om Om Om!” and turns it into a decidedly meeker “Om… Om… Om… Om…”), the word “viduthalai”, which can be interpreted straightforwardly as “liberation”, is instead rendered as “unfettered” – imagery that sabotages the original’s spirit. In “In Search of Answers”, a modernist hymn in which he addresses the deity Sivashakti, he uses the demand “solladi”. The nuanced Tamil conversational suffix “di” indicates an entitlement complicit in the relationship with the female other being spoken to. It is an entitlement that is by turns intimate and insolent; Rajagopalan’s explanation of “solladi” as “pray tell me” is stripped entirely of these subtleties.

A handsome bilingual edition, this book would serve beginner and comparative purposes well, but for any reader seeking sheer beauty, it falls short. For the next translator, who picks up the torch from Rajagopalan, one suggests greater license with syntax, less liberal usage of exclamation points (which have fallen out of favour in the language of translation), an academically sound set of footnotes and a more variegated vocabulary.

A volume of selected writings cannot possibly include everything unless the writer in question is one of limited prolificacy. Still, that Bharati’s most iconic poem, “Suttum Vizhichudadar”, is not represented in this collection is baffling. Once again, the idea of a translator as an executor comes into play: to what extent are they obligated to the author’s estate, which includes facets of character and legacy, at large? Absences, sometimes more than inclusions, raise questions.

In this regard, the introductory note is expected to shed light. Rajagopalan’s is mild, almost taking for granted that the reader is familiar with the poet, and taking no pains to introduce him and the ethos of his work to a new audience. The poet who comes through in this introduction as well as in these poems is anachronistic rather than maverick, religious rather than spiritual, perhaps even over-rated – the antithesis of the reasons for which he is beloved to this day. Rajagopalan’s translations are cleaner, less bombastic, and generally better than what has been available in English of Subramania Bharati so far. But, unlike the poet, they are deeply inhibited. An inhibited Bharati, as anyone who has ever been moved by his originals on the page or in song knows, is no Bharati at all.

An edited version appeared in DNA.

 

 

 

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