Thu, Aug 09 2012. 07 00 PM IST

In verse proportion

The market for poetry in translation is small, but its literary influence is outsize
By Supriya Nair

Translation is a fraught act in every culture. Sometimes, as last year’s fracas over A.K. Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples And Three Thoughts on Translation showed us, even talking about translation is a fraught act. Ramanujan’s essay, which investigates the complex relationships between a story and the discourse of and about that story, was dropped from a list of prescribed reading for the University of Delhi’s undergraduate history course following protests which claimed, with deplorable inaccuracy, that the essay was blasphemous.
photoThe affair of the Three Hundred Ramayanas indirectly highlighted the outsize influence translation has in a multilingual country, with much of its folk and classical corpus told, written and read in verse. That verse forms the main body of English poetry translations published in India today. But while classical translations still make up most of the books in this market, the impact of contemporary poetry in translation is more variable and less easily understood.
“We’ve never really published contemporary poetry, by living poets, in translation,” R. Sivapriya, managing editor, Penguin India, says. “The classics, largely pre-19th century work, tend to come from long-existing classical languages.”
Analysing poetry in translation by market numbers might prompt us to quote Mahmood Jamal’s translation of a Bulleh Shah kalaam: “You have learnt so much/And read a thousand books./Have you ever read your self?” An independent project like Delhi’s Pratilipi, a bilingual, often multilingual, literary journal which recently began a Pratilipi Books imprint, finds it sensible to publish about 500 copies in an initial print run. A big publishing house like Penguin has an average run of 2,000, “though it might be more sensible to do 1,500”, says Sivapriya wryly. A publishing event, like Penguin’s recent publication of William Radice’s translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, might merit a print run of 3,000.
“It’s good not to be corporate in some ways,” says Giriraj Kiradoo, translator, editor and publisher of Pratilipi. Pratilipi Books has put out books like Home From a Distance—an anthology of Hindi poets in translation—as well as a Hindi translation of poet Nirupama Dutt’s Punjabi verse. “We have no target, and our magazine is bilingual and often multilingual. We don’t sell too many copies, but we are a hit on the Internet. Our books, too, aren’t mainstream.”
photo“With poetry, I guess you have to stop talking in terms of number of books sold (and) rather in terms of influence and impact,” says poet, translator and activist Meena Kandasamy, who writes in English and translates both poetry and prose from Tamil. “Political poetry—whether it is Dalits writing poetry, or Eelam Tamils giving vent to their cry for freedom, or feminists articulating their struggle—always is going to have resonances when it is translated into English. It will reach a wider audience, it will open up space for debate.”
Kandasamy wrote eloquently about the dilemma of translating, especially into English, in “Words Across Borders”, an essay published in The Hindu in 2008. “English translations of Dalit poetry put the caste struggle on the map of international literature. Viewed in this perspective, translation is...an emancipatory device in the quest for identity.” But also, “because English is ensnared and held captive by those who are already powerful, if not oppressive, one has to address these questions: What kinds of texts get translated into English? What is their liberatory potential?”
photoFor years, the simple question of what gets translated was answered, officially, by the Sahitya Akademi. Kiradoo explains their system: “The Sahitya Akademi recognizes 22 Indian languages, including English. Each year, they award one book in each language, as well as one book by a young writer. Each of these 44 books must then be translated into each of the other languages.” In theory, this would lead to a robust number of translated books in circulation every year, but in truth, few reach the shelves, and almost none to a casual readership. “They have a good constitution and a good mandate,” Kiradoo continues. “But the translations and the speed at which they arrive tend to put people off.”
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Pratilipi’s bilingual editions are a highlight of their publishing, both in print and on the Internet, and point to the way forward. Mustansir Dalvi’s Taking Issue & Allah’s Answer, translations of Urdu poet Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa, published in May under the Penguin Modern Classics imprint, is interesting not just for Dalvi’s supple, restrained verses. It is printed in transliterated Urdu as well as English, each poem printed twice with the Urdu and English on facing pages.
“Who is my audience?” Dalvi asks. “We are multilingual in many parts of India. I wanted those who would be familiar with Iqbal’s language to get the sound of Iqbal, even if they couldn’t read the Urdu script. I took a very long time after translating the poems, to transliterate them.” Dalvi focused on readability for an audience that was comfortable reading Hindi, Urdu or Hindustani in the Roman script, and left out the diacritics and other phonetic marks that form such a major part of academic transliteration. As a result, “you can read them”, he says, “much like you would read Hindi film titles”.
photoHowever, a discussion about publishing the original poems in the Urdu script petered out. While bilingual projects like The Murty Classical Library of India, whose first volumes of translated ancient Indian texts will be published next year, are cause for celebration, Sivapriya, who edited Dalvi’s book, sounds a note of caution. “Publishing bilingual editions means two sets of typesetters, two proofreaders, and adds to the bulk,” she explains. “It does increase costs, but that isn’t the only problem. We don’t work in a publishing tradition any more where we have unlimited time.”
photo“The trick is to produce quality poetry volumes both in the original and in translation in simple non-expensive paperback format, price them modestly, and there will be a lot of takers,” says poet and translator Sudeep Sen, editor of the just released The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry. His book of translated poetry, ARIA, was published in the UK in 2009.
But production and publishing cannot ultimately tell us how writers come to produce the sort of work that broadens our literary horizons (or, conversely, spawns protests and bans). Poets have rarely spoken for a majority. Translators, on the other hand, often speak to a majority. Caught in this small but fluid demographic, poet-translators find themselves in the cross hairs of two sets of literary challenges. In his introduction to I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, Ranjit Hoskote, who spent 20 years working on his English translations of the vakhs of Kashmiri saint-poet Lalla, wrote: “My long apprenticeship to Lalla has...honed my receptivity to the challenges of engaging with different realms of experience... The translator is always humbled, broken and remade in the act of translation.”
“I haven’t gone down to analysing it,” Kandasamy says. “But I do believe that what I write clearly points to all the angst of being a Tamil-woman-writing-in-English-that-she-learnt-at-school. As a translator, I know that there is no limit, no boundary, no specific style guide to poetry—that you are free to experiment, that you are free to find your own voice, that you are free to flounder and also free to fail once in a while, because all this happens all the time when you translate.”