Poetry at Sangam




The Tentative Figure of Translation

The figure of Sita has been variously translated within different cultures: victim, resilient woman, divine presence, epitome of feminine virtue, symbol of female strength that reveals itself either in unwavering fidelity or in a quest for freedom. Sita’s sense of fidelity puts her in a quandary; the most she can do during the agnipareeksha is attempt to uphold her self esteem by willing the earth to open itself and swallow her. However, on the other side of Sita’s suffering is the claim for her release from the clutches of authority. Freedom, fidelity’s glorious alter ago!

Sita who suffers in the name of fidelity/freedom seems an apt figure to understand the puzzling question of translation, for inherent in both the above readings is the vision of Sita as a figure of masochistic behaviour, which many of our translators too seem to exhibit. Perhaps, the time has come to see if there is any means to negate the charge of masochism that has long plagued Sita’s, and the translator’s, tentativeness, and to recover their dilemma as an essential condition of human existence.

There have been attempts both to idolise Sita’s masochistic sticking to the concept of fidelity and counter attempts to free her of the control of her tradition. In rediscovering Sita as a metaphor for the act of translation, I attempt to explore the possible ways in which Sita, her cultural tradition, and her freedom may co-exist. Rather than a teacher of a course in Translatology, I take my experience as a practising translator, who looks for the ‘truth’ beyond the verbal construct of the ‘text’ in both the source and target languages, as a reference point here. To illustrate the seemingly impossible task of the translator, I use the example of my translation of a poetical work of the renowned Twentieth Century reformist poet in Malayalam, N Kumaran Asan, done primarily for an American Student audience. Asan’s long poem, “Chintavishtayaya Sita” (Sita Immersed in Reflection), which is largely a monologue by Sita, presents a critique of the justice in Ramarajyam, even as she sees herself as a part of that kingdom.

In order to discuss the question of translation, I privilege Asan’s Sita over many other works that read her either as a victim or as a potential site of freedom, because Asan’s poetic vision allows the simultaneous participation of conflicting voices in Sita. It points to the fact that when one is seeking a resolution, one must attempt to churn the present and harmonise contradictory features. So, in “Sita Immersed in Reflection”, as in most of his other poems, Asan permits antipolar points of view. One sees a reversal of mood in Sita’s repentance at the end of the poem. But on close reading, it can be seen that this reversal “does not at all invalidate her earlier righteous indignation, but only assimilates her sense of anger into a deeper feeling of compassion and love”. Evidently, such paradigm shifts that Asan makes within a single text is reflective of “his appreciation for the inherent tentativeness in all human beings. He captures his characters at such critical points in their lives that contribute to the evocation of such tentativeness, which allows his text to remain a continuum beyond the end of the poem on the page” (Raj 151-53).

The essential connection that I am drawing between the figure of Asan’s Sita, torn between her freedom and fidelity, and the tentative act of translation is better understood with a contemplation on the functions of the verbal construct that forms the manifest narrative of an abstract textual continuum, the ‘never-ending truth’ of the text.

The truth of the text is obviously beyond the author’s verbal construction, the fullest possible signification of which no reading, too, can possibly grasp. The reader of the verbal construct certainly participates in the process of the writer’s creation, by imagining the ‘text’; she writes the text even as she reads the verbal construct that the author has made and given to her. In all media other than the word, the author’s text is presented for one’s sensory perception, thus limiting the imagination of the sahridaya at the time of her encounter with the form. There is a pre-determined design to the aesthetic construct presented by a visual or performing art, a certain flow of the text conditioned by the materiality of the medium. The sahridaya has little control over the movement of the performance. This dis-engagement has paradoxical implications: it can lead her either to an overindulgent faith in the author’s construct or to sheer passivity.

It is here that the medium of the word is mooted as a special site, wherein a visitor (reader) can control the pace at which she is engaging herself within the above site. In other words, with the open possibility of a reader returning to any point in the narrative at any time, her freedom is revealed in her act of receiving the verbal construct before her. For the same reason, she cannot perform the act of reading without her volition. The reader’s choice to engage herself in the act of reading thus involves a greater application of the faculties of the mind than in the case of other arts. This aspect of reading recovers it as the most engaging intervention in which a human being can be involved. The word, even if unfamiliar to the reader, will call out to her to imagine its significations based on her previous reading experiences and as per the given context. This is her participation in what Spivak calls “the performativity of the cultures as instantiated in the narrative”.

Coming to the issue of translation, the mirage-like quality of the textual truth, which the translator chases (with limited success), will be apparent if one considers a reader’s (the translator is first a reader and then a writer; her work of translation is born between her avatars as reader and writer) participation in the (re)creation of the text given to her. For instance, when a reader encounters the word “apple’ in a given verbal construct, the image of the apple that she constructs in her mind will not be the same as the author’s own picture of the said apple. Here, the reader turns into a translator, and stands in front of the verbal construct in the guise of another writer, capable to creating another set of meanings with the same verbal construct. As all ideas about the colour and size of an apple are relative, the apple that the reader/translator/writer constructs in her imaginary is split between her sense of freedom and her anxiety about the question of faithfulness. An obvious Sita-situation!

At this point it might be worthwhile to dwell more on the crucial difference between the medium of the word and other creative media—an issue that was mentioned earlier in this paper. The reader/translator constructs her own ‘sensory’ signifiers from the verbal signs presented by the (original) writer, in contrast to the visual and performing arts that directly present the sahridaya with the sensory signifiers. In the case of the verbal creative medium, the signification is offered not by the sign of the word, but by the sensory signifier that the reader creates with the given verbal sign.

In this context, it must also be remembered that the written word appeared in a later stage in the history of human civilisation. The word as the sacred sign of a greater truth is the most prominent idea in all reformative religions that attempted to free the human mind from the gross materiality of the models of worship rooted in ritualistic performances. While the materiality of the medium recovers performance as the most crucial fact of human life, the subtlety of the medium reveals thought as most vital. This paradigm shift happens through the progression in time of a certain culture to subtler levels of apprehension, and is reflected in the way the said culture constructs itself theoretically in aesthetic as well as scientific spaces. It is here I would like to privilege literature, especially poetry, as the most subtle of human expressions, for it would certainly be retrogressive for any modern culture to overlook/underestimate the textual possibilities of the word

Considering this word as a cultural signifier, one cannot but see it as a site marked with numerous impressions of centuries of human use. Every reader/translator/writer is aware of the dhvanis that a word is capable of offering her. Interestingly, she does not ever have to leave the word itself to apprehend the dhvaniac dimensions of the narrative. The word here acts as a swing that would raise her to subtler aesthetic experiences. The possibilities of interpretation open the aesthete to the sweetness of the unheard melody, the unuttered word. The reader/translator/writer has now to surrender herself to what my poet friend Anvar Ali calls “a zero degree reading”, and open her entire being to receive the predictable as well as the unpredictable (Conversation with Anvar Ali).

Nevertheless, such a zero degree reading is seldom practical, as no experience of reading/translating/rewriting can exhaust the dhvaniac potential of a word marked by ages of political, cultural, socio-religious, and stylistic encounters with the human mind. This is the point at which the subtexts of the humanities, social sciences and sciences become relevant to the reader/translator/writer of the literary word. It is exactly here, I would propose the replacement of the myopic vision of Literature as a self-contained area of study with the more tenable study of Literature as a discipline that would open itself to accommodate the tools and methods of other branches of knowledge with a view to make possible a more fruitful study of the literary texts and literary cultures of the world. This model of Comparative Literature will bring our academic enterprises closer to an educational vision that will not divide people and systems of knowledge, but will bring them closer together in a holistic continuum.

Here, I would like to bring back the tentative figure of Asan’s Sita to discuss my topic for the day: the act of interlingual translation, the second Jakobsonian category. I use my translation of Asan to illustrate the insight that I derive from his Sita.

When Ramayana Scholar Paula Richman of Oberlin College approached me to get Asan’s work translated into English, for a book featuring South Indian creative writings based on the Ramayana, I was faced with a great challenge. Asan’s metrical composition exploits to the maximum, and in the most enchanting manner, the clustering of Sanskritised words characteristic of Malayalam vocabulary. An earlier translation that attempted to simulate this clustering, we could see, had miserably failed in making any sense in English. Richman was clear that she should be able to read this poem to her American students in a comprehensible manner. This convinced me that if my translation was to bring a resolution here, I had to attempt to harmonise the apparently contradictory features of fidelity and freedom. This led me to see the word as a verbal construct that transforms a reader into a translator and then a writer. So in the first stage of my translation, I read in Asan’s verbal construct, an embedded demand for my intervention as a translator to find the unuttered parts of its never-ending text. Word as Intimation. Asan’s word opening itself for me to plumb its depth of dhvaniac possibilities.

In the second stage of the act of translation, I restructured Asan’s poem using the tools available in the target language, English. I could see that the metre and other stylistic devices in Asan contributed much to the poetic world of “Chintavishtayaya Sita.” Another major problem was the cultural ambience that the poem presented, which I saw, would appear strange to the American students. As regards the first problem, I decided to restructure the ‘text’ in a form acceptable to the receiving culture. The example of the earlier translation had already made it apparent that a simulation was futile. Instead, I decided to tell the ‘tale’ in free verse, concentrating on the natural rhythm of contemporary English. In that attempt, I also found that the English language offered me some stylistic devices which helped me tell the tale in a way different from Asan. For instance, here is a passage where Sita tells us of her wavering mind:

At times like a bead of mercury,
or in the vein of a popping grain of rice,
my mind shifts incessantly,
O, now mightily, now lightly!

The rhyme in the last line is a possibility only in English; it was not present in the Malayalam original. The sense of shifting that one gets from this line is an exclusive part of my restructuring of Asan’s text. There are numerous examples of such restructuring in this translation, which may be considered in the light of our earlier discussion about the nature of the verbal construct and the endlessness of the text.

The third stage in the translating act is the incorporation of the ‘newly constructed’ form into the target language and it appropriation by the receiving culture. We studied how the American students received this poem. They found it different from any poem they had read before. They had no difficulty in understanding the tale the poem told and the ideas it conveyed. But the poem also told them that they are encountering a culture that was different from theirs, which they had to take time off to study because it was interesting and new. This poem offered them a dynamic means of understanding a new culture, and hence they received it and incorporated it into their studies.

I guess, that was what. Richman wanted as a teacher and as an academician – to generate deep interest in her students of newer cultures beyond their immediate reach. What I have always striven as a translator was also achieved in this effort: I have always wanted to make a reader feel the incompleteness of her own language and culture, and set her out on a pursuit of the many worlds beyond her own. In my own experience, this is a quest, the outcome of which is uncertain, but this twin-edged life of mine as a reader/translator/writer, and its reverse writer/translator/reader, constantly reminds me that I am a Sita immersed in reflection, that I am a tentative figure of translation in this world of seeming opposites.*

* The references are to my translation of Kumaran Asan’s long Malayalam poem “Chintavishtayaya Sita” , “Sita Immersed in Reflection”, in Ramayana Stories in Modern South India edited by Paula Richman and published by Indiana University Press (2008)