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That elusive equivalence: Review of Wild Girls, Wicked Words

N Kalyan Raman

WILD GIRLS, WICKED WORDS: POEMS OF MALATHI MAITHRI, SALMA, KUTTI REVATHI, SUKIRTHARANI, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom, alachchuvadu Publications, 2013, 232 pp.


Although works of Indian language fiction in English translation are being published since the early nineties by the country’s major publishing houses, it is rare for these publishers to show the same enthusiasm for poetry in Indian languages. The market for poetry in translation has always been relatively smaller. Some poetry anthologies in translation have appeared occasionally, but collections of individual poets are rarer still. But this is changing, largely due to the efforts of smaller publishing houses. For instance, in recent years Navayana have published collections of Namdeo Dhasal (Marathi), Cheran (Tamil) and ND Rajkumar (Tamil) in translation. Namdeo Dhasal and ND Rajkumar are Dalit poets for whom caste oppression is a major theme. Cheran, an exiled Tamil poet from Eelam, now resident in Toronto, writes with great passion and militancy about his lost homeland and the condition of his people.

It would be fair to say that selection of works from Indian languages for translation into English is driven primarily by priorities of the English language context. In poetry, this has meant the primacy of certain niche themes like the Dalit cause and feminism/gender issues. The access to non-profit funding that these topics facilitate could well be a factor in their selection. The collection under review, Wild Girls, Wicked Words (Kalachchuvadu / Sangam House, 2013), an anthology of four women poets from Tamilnadu, comes to us with a similar thematic focus and by a similar route.

It is a focus that must inevitably leave out the broader context of contemporary poetry or even women’s poetry in Tamil. Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sugirtharani, the four poets featured in the collection, brought out their first collections of poetry in the period 2000-02, when they were in their late twenties and early thirties. As the introduction to the volume says, ‘Though each of the poets is unique in what she has to say in her poetry, there are some themes which are common to all of them, notably the politics of sexuality and the woman’s relationship to her body.’ When their ‘body poetry’ entered the public domain, it led to some degree of agitation and resistance in the Tamil literary milieu, and consequently, the poets were ‘condemned and vilified’. It not only speaks for the courage and spirit of defiance of the poets that they faced down such opposition eventually, but their eventual triumph also stands testimony to the solidarity with the poets shown by certain influential sections of the Tamil literary milieu and a sizable section of the public.

The four poets have achieved much over the past decade, and their accomplishments are detailed by Lakshmi Holmstrom, the translator, in her introduction. The poems in this collection are evidence of their impressive development as poets. Yet, that early phase of societal opposition appears to be the defining moment of their narrative. The title of the collection is evidently chosen to highlight that moment. This raises a question: how much of a back story does the reader of contemporary poetry need? On the one hand, we speak of the primacy of text, which holds all the secrets anyone could wish to uncover; on the other, we erode this primacy with our endless annotation, contextualization and, no way around it, promotion. It is not my intention to tilt at this particular windmill, but merely to point to its existence.

The poems are startlingly fresh and distinctive. Since all four poets come from subaltern/minority groups, their stance is subversive of tradition and the existing social order.

Malathi Maithri’s imagery is often ironic and militant. Salma writes poignantly about the moods and traumas of a woman’s existence. Kutti Revathi’s vividly imagined poems are focussed on the body and its centrality in love. For Sugirtharani, the body in her poetry “carries not only the map of a history; in its turn, it maps its own pleasures and pains, its surprises and turbulences.” For those unfamiliar with the work of these four poets, Wild Girls, Wicked Words, though misnamed, will be a fine introduction to a rich, new world in the making.

The collection is bilingual, with the entire text – 20-page introduction as well as 62 poems – being presented in both Tamil and English. This makes it convenient for anyone who wishes to review the translations. Just as there is no theory of images, there cannot be a theory of translations, according to Walter Benjamin. It means that translations can be experienced – and assessed - only as subjective experience. Having translated these poets myself over the past ten years, I do not wish to dwell on the subjective dimension of the experience of reading this collection.

That is best left to non-Tamil readers who come fresh to these poems. However, there are certain aspects of the process of translation which are not subjective. These have to do with words and meanings, the very stuff of a translator’s trade. In these translations by Lakshmi Holmstrom, an experienced and acclaimed translator of Tamil fiction, I found

two recurring flaws. First: Tamil words in the original are often mistranslated and therefore the meaning intended by the poet is distorted. Let me give a few examples. In the very first poem (“She who threads the skies”, p.53), pudir vilayaattu, puzzle game, is translated as ‘mysterious game’. Of course, pieces of the sky can only be joined, not threaded together, in a puzzle game. In “Swing” (p.59) ‘return’ is confused with ‘redeem’ because of a common root, Meel. In “Rain-river” (p.161), ‘make me lose consciousness’ becomes ‘make me lose my breath’, since the two Tamil verbs are phonetically similar to each other. In the same poem, what is obviously ‘the fleetness (vegam) of time’ becomes ‘the hastening’. Quite often, a wholly different word is substituted for the original, showing scant regard for the poet’s diction, a crucial element in poetry.

Sometimes, the literal translation does not work in English. ‘You cannot cleave water’ makes perfect sense; ‘you cannot tear water’ does not (‘My love’, p.175). In the same poem, ‘cloud-mass’ is used instead of ‘a train of clouds’ (Mega thiral). Similarly, in ‘Infant language’ (p.193), words can bruise, rather than wound, the tongue. These errors and infelicities take away a lot from one’s enjoyment of these translations.

“Verse translation at its best generates a wholly new utterance in the second language – new, yet equivalent, of equal value,’ says John Felstiner in Translating Neruda. This is at least what any translator must aspire to achieve. Successful translation requires not only a sure grasp of the original language, of the many layers of meaning that each word often contains, but also a feel for poetic diction and cadence in the host language. Only then can we come close to realizing that elusive equivalence. Our poets deserve no less.

Review published in The Book Review Volume 37, No 7, July 2013, The Book Review Liteary Trust, New Delhi


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