Into the afternoon it led me
When I didn’t even know how to call out
When crying was calling out
As green as it is red.
– Alok Dhanwa (translated from Hindi)
Some nights, I imagine what it would be like to live without a particular poem, without its bruise on my mind, what it would be to dream without it, what it would be to live in a world where words so necessary to my life did not exist, or worse: where they exist, but not for me, forever locked in a language unknown to me. I wonder, then, how much poetry is hidden, accessible only to people who know its secret code of language. If all poems existed in all languages, how many lives could have been saved, and how many murders prevented? Not many, but perhaps many. At least a few.
Who then gets to decide what and what doesn’t get translated, who gets to select and thereby erase certain voices from certain languages?
We all talk, read, and think about translation and its political and academic need, how important it is to know about diverse voices, and “other cultures”, but we often forget to talk about its poetic need. In this chaotic, terrifying time: none of us have enough poetry in our native tongues, so we borrow and lend, we need more, as much as possible: to live, to forget, to remember.
I have fond memories of reading almost everything in Hindi growing up: Bangla stories, Ukrainian folk tales, Stoker’s Dracula, poems by Mayakovsky, Cela’s Pascual Duarte, and many, many more books. Not to mention, literature, especially poetry, written in Hindi. That’s why maybe most nights, certainly not all, the poems I return to are written in Hindi – and yet, when I sometimes want to recommend a poet to someone who is not comfortable with the language, I cannot.
It seems like publishers and readers are now, more than ever, engaged with the question of translation and its importance, and mainstream English publishers in India now translate much more. Hindi prose is represented, in problematic fragments. (Is it because novels are easier to sell, or they represent a more conventional form, or because most of the selected titles depict an India easier on Western palette? I don’t know.) But Hindi poetry remains dubiously missing from the newly translated titles.
A quick Google search will reveal how even the established poets of Hindi literature have very little, if any, representation in English.
There are stray poems to be found in the vagaries of the Internet: personal blogs, Facebook posts, a quick translation on the discussion forums, academic translations by professors, but very few books, and most of them now unavailable. And those that are available, via the Internet or a resourceful friend, are virtually unreadable.
A few years ago, I remember reading an article on the various possible translations of Albert Camus’s The Stranger’s first line: Mother died today; Maman died today; Today, mother has died; Today, Maman died. I wonder then, how, say, the title of Muktibodh’s seminal work Chand Ka Munh Tedha Hai should read in English? The Moon Wears A Crooked Smile (as it is translated); The Moon’s Face is Crooked; The Moon’s Face Is Bent; The Moon is Askew.
But we don’t have this dialogue, maybe believing that certain languages are to be grateful for having been translated into English at all. But why this insistence on English? After all, there are many languages in the world, in this country alone. And does it mean that Hindi poetry cannot survive without translation, without a warmer acceptance from the more elite literary circles? It has and it will, and we have to let go of the misplaced idea that translation is a nod to the worth of the original (the eternal question: who decides and why?) – there are many, many beautiful books that lie untranslated, and as many which have never even been published – but it is important because absence of Hindi poetry into English means that not only is it inaccessible to most of the world, it is also inaccessible to most of the country, which is divided by many languages, and is united, unfortunately perhaps (who is to say?), by only one: English.
We also cannot, however much we want, forget that Hindi is the language of the less-privileged, who are made fun of by the elite because they can’t quite differentiate the ja from the za, etc. – which is also why, despite its being similar to Hindi, and being generally marginalised in India, Urdu enjoys a higher literary position owing to our memory, imagined or real, of its sophistication and its closeness to Farsi, the former court language; and also perhaps why much more poetry from Tamil and Bangla is translated, for these languages supposedly belong to the “culturally rich” and hence are worthy of attention.
I talk about Hindi because I know the language, but all of this is also about all the “other” languages and dialects of India, recognised or not. The need for translation is both political and poetic, as political as it is poetic.