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I have had the privilege of translating R. K. Singh’s poetry. That effort was rewarding for me as it was done under the keen presence of the poet himself. I had the benefit of reading my own translations, or – to use the metaphor of Raji Narasimhan – using ‘translation as a touchstone’ to understand the original. Indeed, translation – as they say – is the most intimate interpretation of the original text. This paper is an attempt to situate Singh’s poem in its cultural and critical tradition and reading them with the help of my own translations in Hindi.
Key Words: Poetic representations, translation, cultural differences, textual and contextual problems, emotional and cultural contents.
R. K. Singh’s poetry is apparently simple in its first reading but reveals itself when you show patience. Anything beautiful and meaningful will demand that from you. You can’t order a sunrise or a sunset. You must have the patience to see the sun come up or go down. Similarly, Singh’s poetry demands that you choose your spot and allow the spirits to conjure themselves up.
R. K. Singh is realistic and tries to present facts in his poems. The themes of spiritual search, an attempt to understand inner self and the outer world, social injustice and disintegration, human suffering, degradation of relationship, political corruption, fundamentalism, hollowness of urban life and its false values, prejudices, loneliness, sex, love, irony, intolerance are prominent in his writing.
Ezra pound once said that “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”, and it is the same with the poems of R.K. Singh. The compressed language Singh uses in his poetry gives the readers complete freedom for interpretation. His style contains certain key aspects such as – manipulation of language to a special effect, lack of punctuation marks, practice of giving no titles, use of erotic metaphors, and depiction of the painful realities of the Indian society. He explores and reinvigorates traditional forms and styles with eclectic understanding of creativity. His poems create an intrinsic effect on the reader’s mind that is long lasting. In the words of R. K. Singh:
“Poetry is an art, a verbal art, which when effective, generates some physical, emotional or psychosexual sensation, stimulates some sensuous, spiritual or exalted pleasure, or provokes some mood or aesthetic sentiments, feelings, thoughts or ideas. It is also subjective expression of a social vision, reality or protest and an extension of the poet’s self (Flight of Phoenix 09).”
In an interview with me, Singh pointed out the complexities of understanding of his own poems. He says:
Sometimes when I re-read my poems and find that I am not able to understand it myself as a reader, I try to rewrite it, or discard it. I do ensure that I don’t put out a poem which is not sensible to me. Sometimes certain images and metaphors may be challenging, but I do enjoy writing poems that may be “ambiguous” and/or allow more meanings than one. For example, since I hardly use titles or punctuation marks, the lines can be read differently to derive different meanings. Then, there is the use of enjambment (one line passing to the next with full period or question mark etc at the end) just as there are instances where first word of the next line plays a double role both at grammatical and semantic levels. The readers do need to be sensitive about these features of my poetry that make it simple and complex at the same time. This has been my normal style, posing difficulty to readers…. I am not writing prose as poetry! (Reviews).
Flight of Phoenix
Published in 1990, R. K. Singh’s collection of poems, Flight of Phoenix, dominates itself with intense sensitivity of eroticism and expression of inner-self as well.
Translation: An Intimate Reading
R K Singh’s Flight of Phoenix is an important work in his oeuvre. My experience of translating his poems in the collection gave me an opportunity to understand the poems in an intimate way. Let us take poem number 18 as example,
Each day I construct
myself in new desires and
end in emptiness
a hollow shadow
I move in dust and rest in
stony webs of haze
Roz banaataa hoon khud ko
Nayee tammannaon mein
Aur simat jaataa hoon
Thothaa saya saa
Firtaa hoon dhool mein
Aur tham jaataa hoon
Gubaar key pathreeley jaalon mein
In this poem the poet presents some majestic images such as “hollow shadow” and “stony webs”. As a translator it was my first job to read the poem through these images and try to find its equivalent in the target language that is Hindi. However, we must understand the context of these images and phrases used in the poem. If hollow shadow and stony webs can be translated as “thothaa sayaa” and “pathreeley jaal” one was very conscious of the fact that they must be able to carry the negative connotation of the phrases in the original. The process of translation did not only open up the possibilities of meanings in the poem but also alerted me to the possible equivalences in the target language. This is what I call translation as an intimate reading. With more examples from the book, I will try to drive home the point. With the help of the translations of poem number 4, I will illustrate the point. With the original, I provide two possible translations to understand the close reading the process of translation entails.
When sleepless poetry
fails to negotiate night
I wait for white dreams
Translation – 1
Jab beyneend kavita
Haar jaati raat sey samjhautey mein
Main berang sapnon ka kartaa intezaar
Translation – 2
Jab rahoon beyneend
Aur kavita haarey samjhautey mein
Tab raat karoon main intezaar
Berang sapnon kaa
In the first attempt of translating this poem it can be seen that it is the poem becoming sleepless, which is not the implied meaning and thus incorrect: whereas, in the second translation it is the person who has become sleepless, and thus it is the correct translation. This is basically a transferred epithet, which requires keen observation of the translator for a better result.
The compressed language in Flight of Phoenix is its most dominating and impressive aspect providing rhythm and tone to the poems as well as leading towards the textural issues in translation. This aspect of the book can be seen as another big challenge for a translator. Poem no. 24 is a perfect example situating the issue of compressiveness in the poems of R.K. Singh.
Is it the heat wave
or stupor that I see
shadows in the dark and call it vision?
Kya hai yah
Taptee tarang yaa madhoshi
Jo dekhoon main anderey mein saya
Aur pukaaroon usey kalpana
The poet does not use any punctuation mark in this poem except a question mark at the end. This describes the compressive nature of the poem and thus becomes a challenge in translation. Similar problem is encountered in all the poems Flight of Phoenix.
As discussed earlier, that, compressed language provides a variant tone to the poems of this collection, poem no. 26 would be a suitable example describing this issue of tone in translating verses.
The colour of night is the same everywhere
what if my identity is not known
let’s fuck the moment and forget the place
The tone of this poem is negative, where the poet is talking about darkness and his unidentified identity. In this situation, any kind of carelessness or incapability of the translator may lead toward misinterpretation, as resulted below:
Raagini ki rangat har taraf ek si hai
Toh kya, agar main anjaan hoon
Chalo is sthaan sey virakt ho
Is pal ko hum shikast dein
Here, the poem has resulted as over translation and has become a romantic piece, which is not the original tone. A better version for this poem would be:
Raat har taraf ek si
Toh kya agar meri pehchaan chupi
Bin fikra key ab jagah ki
Jee lein hum yeh pal abhi
As it is known that translation is not only a linguistic procedure, it is a cultural process as well. A translator has to face numerous issue related to the culture, as one has to take care of the emotions, values and traditions of two cultures – i.e. the culture of the original text as well as the culture of the target language. Poem no. 16 from Flight of Phoenix is a better example providing the cultural issues in translation.
Winter is caught in
waves of narrow discussions
under the blanket
fingers move by nipples erect
without sensing consummation
tarangein tang baaton ki
ungaliyaan stan ko chooti
ab bin ehsaas koi
It was essential for me to take proper care of this piece as the poem carries certain element of eroticism in it and the erotic sensibility goes handy with each culture differently. The expressions and sentiments of two different cultures cannot be same, they vary from each other; therefore, careful understanding becomes an essential requirement otherwise the poem would die in the hands of the translator. Similar problem is noticed in poem no. 19 as well.
Bones of levity criss-cross
at the bottom of silence
there is no shape in the mind
Shareer utaavaleypan ki
Zehan mein rahey nahin
Fir aakaar koi
Present translation makes it clear that a slight deviation by the translator may lead the text towards a negative cultural impression, and may hurt the sentiments of the target readers.
Some other examples of the erotic elements which create cultural problems while translating this collection are:
Poem no. 59
I smell my boneless
semen under the pillow
weaving legends in
half-dream along her
hips as I curl like rainbow
dying winds splash down blots
Poem no. 56
Like a woman’s mind
resides between her thighs joy
man’s love and hatred
concentrate on the crevice
though he watches face
she laughs when I say
love and beauty is nothing
but sabre and sheath
Poem no. 52
The split in cypress
is vulva I know the roots
call it Yin and Yang
our basic sex, lingam and
Like lotus rising
from the depths of lake through mud
My focus has been on retaining the sense of the poems, rather than the mere verbal meaning, even as the basic problem was faced related to the cultural transformation of expression from English to Hindi. Words substitute and sense substitute for erotic words and sense had to be found out in Hindi, which was a major cultural challenge, as it was important to find the equivalence in Hindi of images created so often and evocatively in English. For instance, words and images such as, ‘scratching between his legs’, ‘tending the blouse’, ‘boneless semen’, ‘unzips her skirt’, ‘lingam and yoni’, ‘Yin-Yang’ etc. were difficult to transfer in Hindi; yet an effort was made by translating them as: “khurachtey paavon key beech”, “choli sarkaatey”, “beyasthi veerya”, “utaarti vo kapdey”, “ling aur yoni”, “yin-yang” . Here, it may be relevant to quote R. K. Singh, from one of his essays:
“The problems of translating metaphors, alliteration, collocations, puns, word play, proper names, neologism, cultural words, eponyms (like Gandhism, thacherism), no equivalent words (like jaunty), acronyms, imagery, symbols, and even problems of a given text are genuine just as finding an exact ‘communicative equivalence’ across different languages is challenging (280).”
One faces another kind of cultural implication while translating the title of the text – Flight of Phoenix. Phoenix is basically a Greek mythical bird, the only one of its kind; hence, it becomes a challenge for the translator to find out a suitable equivalent for Phoenix in Indian culture too. After some research “Garud” comes as the Indian mythical bird, which is considered the only one of its kind and very much similar to the nature and features of Phoenix. As a result, the title Flight of Phoenix becomes Garud ki Udaan in Hindi.
At last, it becomes necessary to say, that, there are many more dominant ingredients that constitute the art of R.K. Singh’s poetry and if the translator misses them, then a major constituent of Singh’s poetry is lost. A literary translator, therefore, needs to use his/her art and craft “with responsibility to capture the spirit of the original” avoiding both under-translation and over-translation.
Translating the contemporary poets writing in English, especially, for an international audience poses a greater challenge than poets writing for the home audience. The difficulties multiply if the poetic sensibility entails both Indian and other cultural ethos. A complex of personal understanding and wider sensibility is called for in handling the textual and contextual problems, too, especially in the poetry of a collection like Flight of Phoenix. Possibly, more and more exercises in translating an Indian poet in an Indian language may help in negotiating the emotional and cultural contents more effectively.
Singh, Varsha. “Translation of Flight of Phoenix: Some Linguistic and Cultural Issues.” Dissertation, Indian School of Mines, 2011. Print.
Narasimhan, Raji. Translation as a Touchstone. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2013. Print.
Singh, R. K. Flight of Phoenix: A Collection of Poems. Berhampur: Poetry Time Publications. 1990. Print.
Singh, Varsha. “Interview with Dr. R. K. Singh.” Reviews, Vol I, Issue II.
Singh, R. K. Teaching English for Specific Purpose: An Evolving Experience. Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2005. Print.
About the Author:
Varsha Singh, an Independent Researcher, Poet, Translator and Reviewer from Jharkhand, got her Ph.D from Vinoba Bhave University for her thesis entitled “The Midnight's Grandchildren: Articulating the Postmodern Spirit in English Fiction of India”, which was followed after her M.Phil from Indian School of Mines (now IIT - Dhanbad), with a dissertation titled "Translation of Flight of Phoenix: Some Linguistic and Cultural Issues.” Her published books are- Deluges: A Collection of Poems (2014), Unbangled and other Poems (2015) and Bhor - A Collection of Hindi Poems (2016). At present, she is Managing Editor of Reviews. She can be contacted through e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.