Rumpa Das reviews ‘Poem Continuous’ by Bibhas Roy Chowdhury (tr. Kiriti Sengupta)

Reading Kiriti Sengupta’s translations of Bibhas Roy Chowdhury’s poems is an exercise in self-introspection. It’s a journey that allows one to have experiences of translation, trans-literation and finally, trans-creation. For all functions of attempted translations are, in effect, a concatenation of all of these three modes. It is a kind of self-introspection because one discovers layers of embedded meanings of the poet’s self (here, selves) as well as relate them to one’s personal experiences. Reading Roy Chowdhury’s poems that smell of his thought-ridden soul – his anguished response to the holocaust of the Partition (in Bhatiyali), his painful awareness of a poet’s predicament in today’s society and refusal to conform to pre-conditioned roles (in Bibhas) or his interpretation of relationships as an intimate experience such as those of water-droplets  caressing the body while bathing (as in Ashram) – all these arouse us, his readers, as it possibly did Kiriti, to the intense thrill of a life beyond … of a life where every moment encompasses a myriad lives, some colored as dark as pain, and some as mysterious as evening rain. Sengupta’s bold attempts have not only succeeded in unraveling some layers of meaning Roy Chowdhury’s poems contain in themselves, but also compressed some meanings of his own in the process of reading, re-interpreting, translating and trans-creating some poems.

Why does one write poems? What dis-ease prompts him or her to trans-literate his or her thoughts? While penning down the thoughts, does a poet think about his intended readers? Is his or her act of writing a conscious artistry or is it something more organic? As a trans-literator of thoughts, as a person with poetic inclinations myself, I feel that just as no symphony is designed for the listener or no painting for the viewer, no poem is also written keeping in mind who would read them, and as such the poet is under no compulsion to cater to his or her readers, or explain him or her to them. A translator who attempts to translate a poem from one language to another, however, treads a more risky slippery terrain. Why does he translate – not a story or an essay but a poem or poetry? He is not imparting information encoded in the poems in another tongue, or merely trying to make available the essence of the poetry in another language, possibly for a broader audience.  Most importantly, if the translator is not a poet himself or herself, the translated work merely becomes an inaccurate testament of an inessential content. The translatability of a work connects the original with the translated text, which obviously comes later than the original.  In many ways, the translator’s work is problematized because the vitality of a work in its original can never be reproduced in the translated work, ostensibly because the original and the translated work are two individual entities. However, the translated work has a life of its own, a vitality and life of its own, and in a way, also enriches the after-life of the original. Walter Benjamin in an introduction to a Baudelaire translation in 1923 spoke of an investigation to grasp the genuine relationship between an original and a translation; it was his view that ‘no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.’ He believed – as most translators would, that words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process, and that in the renewal of life a poem undergoes in its translation, the original too undergoes a change.

 

I must admit that I am not very sure about either Roy Chowdhury or Sengupta’s personal connect with the humungous tragedy that the Partition of India unfolded, and my own responses are mediated through my grandmother’s narratives of her painful brush with history. Almost seventy years after the event, we still experience the intensity of the horror in every cricket match or diplomatic tightrope-walk with our neighboring country. In a book I recently edited on the Partition of India (Rethinking the Partition of India: Historical & Literary Perspectives, Avenel Publishers), I noticed how people’s responses to the Partition still perceive it as living, throbbing with pain and oozing tears that taste of blood. Roy Chowdhury’s Bhatiyali is a poignant response not just of a soul scarred by history, but also of an ardent wordsmith, a lover of dreams whose dreams know they are breaking apart. To translate these emotions to a language intricately associated with those who engineered this butchery of men and dreams needs a lot of conviction and courage. Sengupta wrote:

An eye in my heart … in the eyes of courageous Bengalis
Countless patriot camps along the alphabet list
So many broken banks … several lightning … much cyclone
Dream filled hearts and melodious Bengali tone.

Somewhere, the Bengali lust for the language in Roy Chowdhury’s lines has been transformed to the Bengali lust for courage in Sengupta’s lines, which I feel is also correct and possibly a post-modern evaluation of the quintessential Bengali lust for both language and courage, as we are the only people in the world who bled and died for our maatri-bhasha (mother tongue)!

Sengupta’s rendering of Bibhas as Illumined Expression is very close to my heart.  The stark refusal of the poetic self to register pain or insult or suffering on the canvas of poetry, and even more aggressive denial of any attempt to trade one’s poetic expressions in a few re-gurgitated praises or accolades (‘Aami toh noi mugddhotaay kena’) is as much Roy Chowdhury’s as Sengupta’s own.  The translated line “I have been the future-poem/ of much insult, and devastation…” rings of a rebellious voice, which keeps resonating in the mind long after the actual reading experience. In a way, this constitutes the after-life of a translation perhaps.

The English poet, John Keats, had talked about the concept of ‘negative capability’ in relation to the poetic self’s capability of ‘becoming’ what it perceived in Nature, negating the subjectivity of the self that perceived. In conversation with Sengupta, I discovered how close to Keatsian Romanticism was Roy Chowdhury’s “Jakhon ekla laagey, /Shunyo pokar kaachey jaai/boli, Utthey esho…aamar pata ti khao” became “Come here, eat my leaves,” and the fervent plea “Why couldn’t I become much lonelier?” The human desperation to be one with Nature is so touching, so personal that it almost resonates with the universal cry for oneness.

The anchor to our being in the social matrix is our family.  The loving yet inquisitive probe into familial affections as evinced in the original poems is maintained in the translated works as well, as is evident in poems such as Birth Of A Legend, Ma And Her Eldest Son, or my favorite True And False For My Father.  The mother as rain and the father remaining engrossed in monsoon is the tribute both poets pay to the almost elemental connection we have with the pillars of our lives.  The words from languages of the original and the translated tongue are not interchangeable, but the foreignness of English is hardly noticed when one reads “Mysterious rain arrived after a few days, but Ma never returned” bringing out the pathos Roy Chowdhury’s lines also reverberate with.

Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, whom I do not know personally, has been ascribed to be a private person who shies away from publicity, by the translator himself. Sengupta, on the other hand, is a media-savvy person. Possibly, somewhere in the translations, therefore, the intensely private emotions recorded in Roy Chowdhury’s poems get transmitted in the glaring glamourous arena of public attention that comes naturally for English poems. The acceptance of a poem like Lunatic in the United States as Sengupta informed me possibly is an index to this fact – its distinctly Eliotian preoccupation with metaphysical imagery and a ruthless honesty of expression must have enamored a readership who enjoyed an aftertaste in a Bengali poem that came filtered through an English idiom, much after Eliot. The modernist trend that he (Eliot) pioneered has left an indelible print on our collective unconscious, and may have touched sensitive personalities like Bibhas Roy Chowdhury and Kiriti Sengupta alike. As a reader, I do not presume to evaluate either the original or the translation – the fidelity to the original and freedom to be original both have, I believe trans-created the original poems. So, it’s actually, reading the translation that leads to a revelation of the original. It speaks volumes about the creative fecundity of both – the original poet and the translator or trans-creator of his works.

 

 

Dr. Rumpa Das is the Associate Professor and Head of the Department of English in Maheshtala College, Calcutta. With her research interests in Women’s, Post-colonial and Media Studies, she has bundles of publications to her credit.

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