Our February Poet of the Month, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, recently published (in collaboration with Ravi Shankar) a series of translations from the songs of Andal, an 8th-century Tamil mystic, as ‘The Autobiography of a Goddess’ (Zubaan, New Delhi and University of Chicago Press, 2016). In conversation with The Missing Slate’s Pratyusha Prakash, Priya Sarukkai Chabria explores the process of translation and the appeal of moving between the present and the distant past, and suggests why Andal’s writing retains, after more than a millennium, “a palpitating nowness, [a] pulse of blood” which resonates with contemporary readers.
The poetry of Tamil Nadu is extremely sensual and rhythmic, with an interior music of its own. Its uniqueness isn’t always easy to convey, but it’s reflected in your translations of Andal. Do you find that the music — distinctively that of Tamil Nadu — seeps into your writing? Or does translating that music involve a conscious effort?
Thank you, Pratyusha. Yes, you’re right, cen or Old Tamil poetry is dense as an enchanted forest with sensual textures, assonance and alliteration, rhymes and rhythms. However, Tamil is a di-glossed tongue. So in its spoken variant, it’s the voice of my grandmother narrating stories and counselling me, the aura of Carnatic music and dance, the sound of comfort, of my mother’s voice when her love overflowed. I now live in western India where Marathi is the first language. When I overhear a snatch of Tamil at the airport or cinema hall, my heart lurches. It’s as if I’ve been hit — which of course I have, hit by a part of myself. It’s the hit of homecoming.
But I’ve been touched and torched by Tamil Sangam era poetics which I’d read in translation decades before I began translating, and this has seeped into my own poems. Its vision is irresistible. Those ancient bards combined emotional inscapes and external geographies to sing of love, loss, violence; imagination was inclusive and expansive. They often used metonym to leapfrog over simile and metaphor. This abbreviation, as it were, of language, suggests the closeness between lovers — which includes the poet and her words. Moreover, Sangam era poems could be read like riddles as each poem embedded three levels of significance. Like all riddles, they had the reader/listener in their thrall. This strategy playfully points to its postmodern resonance as well.
Here are a couple of my early poems (from ‘Dialogue and Other Poems’) that draw on Sangam poetics.
She says to her girlfriend:
He said to me: Keep faith.
So I kept a stubborn faith in him that grew
with every obstacle.
Swollen, taut, ready
I held this close within myself
feeling his absent presence
fill me full.
this small spill,
for him a little thing.
His rapid pulling out of me
peels away my very skin.
I’m earthworm worming
in the red slush
to flaming skies.
She says to her lover:
I’ll tell you this in advance —
You who will be enclosed in my flesh, your rhythms
mine, our hands like a thousand comets descending
towards pleasure, your sweat becoming my skin,
listen: All this I want, and more.
Yet in your passion, do not scar me.
Do not split my lip, nor stifle speech.
Do not force my cervix out of shape
nor ram my individuality.
I am parched. Riven
by longing, caked by the long dust of denial.
Yet I’ll come to you as the first rain,
fragrant and trusting.
Translating classical Tamil poetry seemed a natural next step. However, I initially found this simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, as in a dream of one’s ancestral home, intimate yet full of surprises. This was a trifle unsettling. But a different kind of perception and a different mode of reflection are sometimes made possible, as if one is reading musical Braille. Perhaps this was also because of the fact of translation: I was embodying another’s voice through my body.
So yes, this Tamil music, its bloodbeat and breath, has seeped into my work for a long time.
But then again, one doesn’t need to ‘belong’ to a culture to sing its music. Mono no aware, sabi and tabi, the sense of effervescence and broken beauty of medieval Japanese court poetry too thrum in my veins. When an aesthetic possesses you, you equally possess it.
Would it be correct to regard Andal’s poetry as subversive? She exalts and celebrates female sensuality and sexuality. She seems unapologetic in her approach. Would you consider her a feminist poet, or do you think that would be a form of retrospective appropriation (imposing our own ideologies on the past)?
I’m delighted you asked this question. But no, I don’t think it would be correct… From the beginning I’ve argued against pigeonholing Andal as transgressive or subversive. As you’ve have suggested, it becomes a form of retrospective appropriation: it’s merely easy, not true of her. The mystic inhabits an aura of her own.
To my mind, Andal was a wild, intense, loving mystic who tore the tapestry of societal norms of her time not as an act of rebellion but because she didn’t see them. They didn’t hold validity in her vision.
Also, there’s a danger of limiting her to the margins by labelling her as a subversive. She calls for cosmic harmonies to pervade her, she sings so we too align with this if we so choose, she sings because her hormones pulse in synchronicity with the heavens.
Classical poetry is sometimes shunned because the language has changed, and because cultural references and beliefs have evolved. Sappho’s poetry recently enjoyed a re-emergence when Anne Carson translated her work in ‘If Not, Winter’. What are the complexities involved in translating classical poetry for a modern audience? How do you choose what to keep and discard?
Ah, Anne Carson’s stunning translation! ‘If Not, Winter’ weds irrevocable loss to the elation of discovery: our rapture at Carson finding the perfect form for Sappho’s fragments. She ‘made it new’ by being utterly truthful to the work and trusting her readers with her inventive adventure. By doing this, she leapt over the hoary problematic of translation: is one primarily faithful to the spirit of the work or the literal accumulation of words?
But yours is a large question to which I provide partial answers, like fireflies going off. Because there’s no single way of translating classical poetry. How one chooses to translate depends on what is being translated, on its breath, movement of emotions and energies, underbelly of philosophy, the surround sound of its culture. One shouldn’t, for instance, use the same language, grammar and form to translate the Pali Therigatha hymns of the first Buddhist women and Hildergard von Bingen’s Latin chants.
Translating is as visceral a process as writing poetry because one is attempting to mesh one’s voice with the author’s to create a twinned song. Though we dispense with the idea of the invisible translator, I think it’s important to hold the author’s voice as primary and attempt to recreate the throb of her imagination…
An aside: there’s a unique aspect to translating poems of mystical experience. Though one reads the words repeatedly, the experience is largely unknown to us. So one has to let go of previous strategies of translation and improvise as her/our voice commands. Whether the results are successful or not is not the immediate concern. Is it truthful, is. The rest may follow.
How is the parrot tamed? Clip its wings. This doesn’t apply.
What you’ve used in your Andal translations is free verse, and yet it’s extremely constrained, taut — like the bowstring that you mention. When it comes to translation, particularly translation from classical poetry, how do you decide on form and structure?
Since sacred verse has many layers of meaning — for instance, sacred verses in Hebrew have four — one needs to excavate the poem as it were. My method of working helps me cut to the kernel. Once I have this, I let it grow. Here’s the tech-talk.
I walk around the poem. I literally walk and walk, with the poem lost somewhere in the back of my mind that’s occupied with birdsong and green and a straggly line of stray dogs that want to be fed. This is in the morning. I spend time with the poem before an afternoon nap. I sleep on it. This is equally important. The logical mind is limited, and must shut off. Intuition is called for, and dreamscape, where the translator’s sense of ‘I or me’ is not predominant, rather the author’s presence is. You meditate on her. The author has a poetic strategy that unlocks the poem and one needs to find the key. When I wake up there may be a clue. Most often one enters the poem through its strongest emotion: if it is love, what’s its precise shade and smell? How far can one push this emotion? What is revealed, what submerged in this process of prayer as you submerge yourself in her song? At other times it may be the sudden opening up of a word Andal uses — maybe a particular name of the god she woos as supreme lover — and discovering this word’s resonance subtly surfacing with variations in verse after verse. This points to structure, to the form — as understood in one’s heart-cave.
Once the dreaming and gut work is done, the slog begins. Draft after draft, just as one works on one’s own poem. Make it — to the best of one’s ability — resonant drumskin and laser cut, make it roomy as a prism that refracts multiple shades. When translating a poet as intense, divine and complex as Andal, it’s imperative to invite the reader to create their own significance. This also offers the translator freedom, and with freedom comes surety. We are an integral aspect of the work we do, be it as writers or readers.
But you’re also asking about the problems of contemporizing archaic and often ornate verse in a colloquial idiom. On the face of it, yes, I agree the time-space distances seem unbridgeable. But let’s look harder. One chooses to translate because one discovers in a particular voice from centuries ago, singing from a specific culture that’s virtually imagined, an alignment with cosmic harmonies and a palpitating nowness, pulse of blood, jugular throb of living. This is the lodestone. You carry it in your palm. So this begs the question: how much have we ‘evolved’ and in which ways? How ancient is the human heart within its brittle ribcage? Translating classical poetry could then veer towards becoming an ontological enquiry. It should remain with the practice of poetry. I also believe my readers — like you, Pratyusha — are imaginative, intelligent, hardworking, expansive. They will make the leaps, move with the spirit, equally be the tow that pulls the poem into their being.
You’ve previously suggested that writing styles across the world are beginning to look similar, due to the proliferation of net journals. This leads to a conflict between homogeneity and individualism — but does Indian writing assert itself as truly unique from its foreign net journal counterparts? Or do we, for the first time, see a truly global style beginning to emerge?
Perhaps it’s useful to think genre.
Protest poems from city and ‘small town’ India are most often sharply local, as are those from the largely marginalized hill states of the North-East, which are filled with the lilt and loss of habitat and language. Do bilingual and multilingual poets differ slightly yet crucially in their use of language, nuance and form? As I remember, yes, but this must be further investigated and honoured. Do I see affinities between Indian poets from our metros and their global counterparts? Yes, increasingly. Does this indicate that a pan-Indian writing style along Western lines is aspired to in our poetry in English? Probably. Does the work of Indian origin poets abroad differ from those who write from here? As I mentioned earlier, the sprinkle — with ease and grace — of words from our other Indian languages in their poems invokes what’s missing. How has this impacted terrain here and, perhaps, globally? It signals acceptance of these words in our own writing, and opens the area for Indians writing from here. Are we in a state of flux where whose who were relegated to the margins are suddenly finding the sweet spot? Yes, possibly this too. Is there a new thematic running through poetry in the English in India? Yes, a small stream — contemporary bhakti poetry, updated versions of singing the sacred. And a larger stream that’s reinterpreting myths. Should such generalizations be made? No. Convenience shouldn’t mask subtleties. Especially with poetry. Especially as poetry is discontinuous transmission. What kind of poetry is dearest to me? The experimental, the sacred. Do I think I’ve done justice to this question? No. I should sing name upon name — from every genre — of poets whose work thrills me. (Though I don’t like applying the term ‘genre’ either.) Then why don’t I? Pratyusha, I have an international flight to catch in a few hours. Does that seem like a lame excuse? Yes.