I love poetry. And I think it would be the best way to put it, if
I can say poetry is my life. I spend most of my time with it. I
am engaged in writing, translating to and from Bengali and mostly
reading as many books, both poetry and prose, as I can. I read awfully
as if a dog eats food after starving for days. I believe, to write
a good piece, one has to be engaged in poetry for twenty-four hours
a day, as Ezra Pound puts it. I try to do the same. I guess there
is no other way out. If I want to get something out of poetry, I
then have to devote my whole life to it.
I also spend my time editing poetry for Shabdaguchha, the Bengali
poetry journal I edit and publish.
As I recall, the great French poet Charles Baudelaire says,
it is obvious that a poet would turn himself to be a good critic.
Although I do not like to consider myself as a poet, I amazingly
notice that I want to fulfill my critical job towards poetry by
editing it sincerely. Since I write in Bengali, editing and thinking
about Bengali poetry is easier to me. And when I look back to the
history of Bengali poetry I become surprised to see the depth and
wideness of it. The glorious input by the great poets of the past
makes me passionate. I
then start 'drinking' the juice of poetry, as if it is the most
expensive wine of the world.
As far as I am concerned, translating poetry is the most difficult
job. The person who translates it from one language to another has
to be a good poet of both the languages. Especially, it is important
for the translator to be aware of the recent changes of the language
in terms of how poetry is written. Like many other areas of arts,
the form, rhythm, techniques and the style of poetry always move
ahead. Moreover, understanding the tone of poetry written in one
language and converting it into another require a tremendous amount
of effort. And the most important thing is, the conversion should
end up with a good piece in the new language.
While I translate form Bengali to English or from English to Bengali,
I try to understand the poem first. To do that, I read the poem
over and over. Sometimes, I read it for months and years. Once I
think that I have understood the poem as the poet illustrated while
writing, I start translating it. Well, I may not get a chance to
melt myself with the poet's original thought, but I sort of elaborate
my own imagination to draw the picture in my mind which could be
the basis of the poem. Then comes the translating part, which is
still a lengthy process to me, although it varies form poem to poem.
Sometimes, it can be quicker also. Most of the time, after finishing
the first draft in a few sittings, I leave it for a while. When
I get back to it, I do not look at the original at all. I try to
see if the new piece sounds like a piece of poetry in the language
in which it is converted. If it does not, I make the necessary changes.
While I am sort of satisfied, I get the original and read
both the translation and the original keeping them side by side.
Here, I again make some changes to the translation. Still, the process
of changing never ends form my side.
The method I discuss above works well while I translate from English
to Bengali, since I have more confidence on the latter language.
I know how to play with Bengali in order to write a poem. Therefore
I believe I did a good job translating Wislawa Szymborska, Nicanor
Parra, Stanley Kunitz, Gerald Stern and others. Although the first
two poets do not write in English, I actually translated them from
the English version. But translating Shamsur Rahman, Al Mahmud,
Shaheed Quaderi and my own poetry into English was much difficult.
Sometimes, it even took me two to six years to translate a poem.
For example, I started to translate a poem of mine, called Closer
to Me, six years ago. I sent it to a contest after I had worked
for two years on it. The poem was accepted and published. But I
was not satisfied. It seemed to me, I could not come closer to the
original work through translation. So, I kept on working, and recently
I revised it again. Still, I am not satisfied. But it is interesting
that I wrote the poem with an effort of ten minutes. The poem was
published in my first book.
Since it is difficult to translate, someone may ask why then even
bother with it? But
the truth is I have read the wide variety of good poetry through
translation. There is no other way to reach the readers of the world
without being translated. So I have to agree with Thomas Transtromer
that whatever we write has already been translated. Our writing
becomes possible by translating our brains. So nothing is lost in
translation, although there is a lot that is left out.
A lone man sits quietly penning poems
With the ink of sunlight.
(The Internal Sunlight/ Shamsur Rahman)
In the second line, the 'ink' was needed while we, Stanley Barkan
and I, translated the poem into English. There was no such word
in original Bengali version. But it was implied that the man was
writing poem not with a pen but with the sunlight. To translate
it, we had to break the barrier of the language. What could easily
be said in Bengali might not sound the same in English.
So, come addition and subtraction. As a translator, I need
to keep that in mind.
She locked his name
In the deepest cabinet
And would not let him out,
Though I could hear him thumping.
(The Portrait/Stanley Kunitz)
Here, 'locked his name' and 'deepest cabinet' are the smartest use
of language that could elicit different meaning to different readers.
A poet could do that only if he/she has a tremendous hold on the
language. Translating this kind of a poem seems to be very easy
but might be misleading in the other language. In Bengali, 'deepest'
means 'Gavirtamo' which is very inappropriate with the under lying
meaning of the poem. So, I had to use 'nirvarjaggo' which implied
'safest.' Whereas 'name' sounds like 'namdham' refers to the existence
of a person, if any.
Lovers will eventually make love with partners,
Yet they will never be happy, never, never, never…
(Improper meeting/Shaheed Quaderi)
The meaning of the original poem is open to the readers. It does
not say whether the lovers will 'make love' with partners, or 'just
meet' them. But whatever the meaning the readers grab, it makes
sense in Bengali, because the poet mixed the long history of folk
poetry with the unease of modernism. To convert this into English
I could not find other way of saying it. Moreover, in Bengali 'pramik'--means
lover--is masculine and 'pramika'--with the same meaning--is feminine.
But there is no such word in English that could represent these
two groups separately except he or she. Therefore, I had to use
'partners' for the other gender even though the gender classification
was not clear. But after translating the poem, I talked to Shaheed.
He agreed that it might be the best way to translate it in English.
I accepted his comment happily because he has been living in the
US for more than 20 years and he is well acquainted with English
poetry since his boyhood.
When I read the book, Gitanjali--a book of songs, for which Tagore
was awarded Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, it is hard for me
to find the originals from his collected work in Bengali. That is
because Tagore took so much freedom to translate those songs. The
lyrics became nothing but a beautiful prose. As a result, the text
was easier to understand, but it was difficult to get the connection
between the originals and the translations. Still, the English readers
have been enjoying the songs for almost a century.
W. B. Yeats wrote in the introduction, "An innocence,
a simplicity that one does not find elsewhere in literature makes
the birds and the leaves seem as near to him as they are near to
children, and the changes of the seasons great events as before
our thoughts had arisen between them and us."
So, it is clear that there was no problem at all to appreciate
the richness of the songs, even though the translation was an innovation
of Tagore's own writing. Probably, Tagore had to do this in order
to avoid the conflict of the language, because his use of Bengali
was classical and somewhat experimental.
While I translate my own poem, I also enjoy 'freedom,' but not as
Tagore did in Gitanjali. For Instance, to translate the following
sonnet I gave up keep the rhyme, and the original rhythm. Moreover,
the translation sounds almost like a prose.
I've heard the noble sound of your footsteps my love.
Come, come closer, and open your heart.
The fragrance of your lovely breasts.
Let the door
Be closed. Embrace
me with your gentle hands,
And set your lips on my own.
Smile my love.
Keep crawling through my body to find my heart
That is as vivid as the ocean, trembling in ecstasy.
Take off the boutique Shari and raise both hands
To untie your hair, and sprinkle them on me like petals
Of flower. Without
you I am lonely as if invaded
By the dark. Implant
the eternal light in me.
Don't bother yourself to make the bed tonight,
Rather suck the worm of my tense, topical body
Spreading the purity of your own on it.
(Swatantra Sonnet -77/Hassan Al Abdullah)
To write the sonnet I use Akkerbritha, Bengali rhythm, which guarantees
me eighteen syllables in each line. I believe this rhythmic style
is only possible in Bengali.
Most of the cases, I also break the meter to get the language
moving, although traditionally there are only two meters used in
each line. The rhyming pattern I use is abcdabc efgdefg, which is
different from both in Petrach and Shakespeare. Above all, mixing
the classical tone and using the language of everyday life I try
to keep the text as simple as a person is talking. Obviously, it
is not easy to keep all of these in translation. So I have to enjoy
some sort of freedom. But anyone who knows both languages will be
able to find the original after reading the translation. That means,
I do modify the poem if necessary, but I do not change the phase
Recently a bilingual book of mine, Breath of Bengal, was published
by Cross-Cultural Communications. The publication would have not
been possible, if the poems were not translated. Thanks to Nazrul
Islam Naz, a British-Bangladeshi poet and translator, who made a
tremendous effort to do the job.
Also, I like to thank Stanley H. Barkan, the poet and publisher
who patiently read all the poems and drew his suggestions. Obviously,
the book was a product of a group work, which included only 20 poems.
But Naz took almost two years to translate them. Often he called
me from London to clear up some views, and the under lying meaning
of the images that confused him. After translating each poem, he
then e-mailed it to me. I replied with my opinion. The translated
version then got another revision by Naz. Finally I sat with Stanley
who read all the poems in front of me and asked me to clear up if
there was still some confusion. Referring to the original, I described
the poems in simpler English translation. Since Stanley is the editor
of the book, he also suggested some changes. The whole work then
went back to Nazrul for his final modification. This is how the
book came into existence. Definitely, it is a work of three poets,
although many of my original images, alliterations, and obviously
the use of rhythmic vibrations are missing. For example, I used
Mandacranta, Bengali rhythm, to write the following poem.
Foreign hands at the rescue of beaks
-Third world’s armpits are trembling-
Judgment stranded at proxy janaja.
Groups and grouping’s bookish behavior
Poets and folk physicians busy in huge conspiracy
Both legs stranded in a single trouser.
(Blind/Hassan Al Abdullah)
Mandacranta, came to Bengali from Sanskrit, gives a musical vibration
to the text as cuckoo's song. Clearly, the translation does not
reflect this, because of the differences between the two languages.
Moreover, there is no repetition in the original like 'stranded.'
One the other hand, the freeness of the language is well
illustrated in the translation. And sometimes Naz added excellent
alliterations also. Such as, "
…in rows of roses,/Lie plenty of thorns (Thorny Household/Hassan
Al Abdullah). 'Rows of roses' sounds very good to me.
I have already mentioned that the book is a group effort. But, to
write those poems originally I did not have to go through this kind
of group project. Therefore, I think writing poetry is a poet's
innate necessity, but translating it is the requirement that can
be done to reach the wide range of readers. Obviously the latter
is applied, and therefore, it is difficult.