Winter 2001


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NECESSARY ART: On Translating and Bengali Poetry
By Hassan Al Abdullah
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.  Spread
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 of it.

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.

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