To the Extent, It Can
It is often said about translation that a translator, while recreating the contents of a piece of literature in a different language, can go only to an extent. So, the end-product has to be intellectually limited and emotionally superficial, for there is always an element of "transmission loss" in the process. Quite true, it could be definitely so if we are talking of poetry.
Let's take an example. "आखिर कवि बनने के लिए सिर्फ़ दो ही चीज़ चाहिए, नारी व डिक्सनरी '' Its English rendering would appear something like this: At the end of the day, a poet needs only two things--a woman and a dictionary. Here, don't we lose the internal rhyme which is the essence of the line? This is just one of the ways "transmission loss" could occur.
A poem is not merely the sum total of the words it contains; there has to be something unwritten about it. And that is the first thing in a poem to stand out, something that invites readers to take a closer look, to suss out, or even to internalize. Let's call that the soul of the poem. Is it always easy to connect with that soul? No, perhaps not. More often than not, it is difficult to be at one with the thinking of poets who give shape to their intimate feelings through their poems. Genuine poetry flows out of creative impulse, not just by deliberate tweaking. Aren't the poets themselves surprised when they come to revisit their own creation after lapse of some days?
Poetic creativity is a process: emotions emulsify and then get sieved through the honeycomb of words to take a form, a rhyme, a layout; sometimes they are experimentally unique and sometimes banally repetitive. Fine, a statement of universal truth is always language-neutral, ever apealing and enduring in its impact. But then very few poems these days deal with universal truth in a straightforward manner enabling their easy translation, say "A thing of beauty is joy for ever" or "The music in my heart I bore, Long after it was heard no more" or even "Men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever". To an extent modern poems are meant to be complicated, echoing the reality of the comtemporary living, and they are to be understood even before knowing the literal meaning of the words used in them. Maybe its internal rhyme or the power of imagery or maybe its akinness to the life and dream of the readership--something very special about a poem finally goes to impart readability to it. It is that speciality one must capture to be truthful to the contents one seeks to translate. When it is difficult to fathom the very depth of feeling from where poetry emanates, how can one translate it without losing its content and emphasis?
And what if the poet himself starts translating his own work? The feeling he has expressed in his poem should guide him to translate his own work from one language to the other and as such it is expected that there should be no gap whatsoever in expression of its poetic essence. But actually that does not happen. Despite everything, it is often difficult to transfer the soul from poem to poem across the linguistic nuances. I have a personal experience to share here. Only last week I was called upon to contribute a poem to the Souvenir my alma mater is going to publish on the occasion of its Golden Jubilee. Since the primary school is set in a rustic setting and since the readers would be comfortable in my mother tongue Oriya, I chose to compose a poem in Oriya and on a theme that would touch them. The poem I could ultimately give shape to is full of colloquialism: there are special words to imply special objects, special recipes, local flora and fauna, typical habitat and clime and while composing that I felt that the way I chose was the best one to go about it. I had no other objective than writing something good that would apear readable and comprehensible while keeping to the form that modern poetry allows. And this is how I would self-translate the first two stanzas of my poem:
Let's Sleep Wide Awake
To vanish into thin air
It's not a phenomenon new,
Like they all did it as they left us
The yellow bird and the crow, the vulture and the sparrow,
Like we left the carts and palanquins far behind
So far behind that they're now out of sight,
Broth of rice morsel, rice water kanji
And patuaa roasted in sal-leaf parcels--
All the recipes are now lost from the canvas of mind
Like those forgotten dreams of last night,
The jackel has slept for good gnawing the fibrous palm fruits
Now the poor sonless soul has none to lit his pyre
Everything is lost now, vanished into thin air.
The water, red in colour, oozing down the thached roof
Will merrily flow down to merge in the Ganges
It's our mini Ganga with eddies swirling
Helter-skelter under the logged bridge,
There's no distinction between a fish and a frog
Floatsams and foams, god only knows where do they come from
They will flow down the stream,
Lily will blossom and fish will frolic
The snake of water will go across to take rest
Under the cool shade of weeds in the swamp--
Are these really going to happen ? or will they go away
And vanish into thin air, before us, we the luckless?
A. N. Nanda