Ten distinct voices in the contemporary Hindi poetry brought together for the first time in English, in a unique experiment in translation by a group of eminent translators.
RAGHUVIR SAHAY, KUNWAR NARAYAN, KEDARNATH SINGH, VINOD KUMAR SHUKLA, PRAYAG SHUKLA, RITURAJ, MANGALESH DABRAL, ALOK DHANWA, ASAD ZAIDI AND GIRDHAR RATHI
I shall always be grateful to the Sahitya Akademi for having sponsored and Girdhar Rathi for having organized the ground- breaking translation workshop in New Delhi, in January 1990, which brought together ten Hindi poets, translators, and scholars, for the purpose of assembling an anthology in English translation. I, the one foreign import in the midst of this splendid array of native talent, was to be instrumental in carrying the translations across into Anglo-American English, it being widely held that much literary translation, especially of poetry, done into English in the subconti- nent by native translators failed to engage the interest of English readers abroad. Whether or not this belief is, in fact, still justified is problematical. In any case, a number of highly contentious issues raise their head here and some of these are discussed in Harish Trivedi's essay and my response, printed as appendices to the present volume.
Professor Trivedi and I both agree, however, that the experi- ence of the workshop was a most memorable one. Indeed it can be truly said to have been electrifying! This was not, I think, just because ten fine poets, spanning three or four generations, were gathered 'together in one room for a fortnight, day in day out, morning and afternoon, to explicate their own work and comment on that of their colleagues. It was the translational focus that gave these meetings their special charge. As Goethe remarked some- where, no one can be said to know his own language who has not translated into it! Translation obliges one to take an inventory of, to scrutinize and assess, the linguistic means at one's disposal, to test also one's own language's frontiers, its apparent or conventional limitations. I think that to translate or to be involved in translating out of one's own language, too, concentrates the attention wonder- fully - on sound, sense, on intent. Perhaps a. certain universalization takes place, when one begins to act as a sort of ambassador or, an interpreter not just of one's own work, but inevitably of the culture of which one is part. That is, suddenly that which has been nurtured in the warmth, the darkness or privacy, so to speak, of an indigenous environment, finds itself under a kind of arclight. The question then is how to preserve its identity, its specific character, how in short to prevent homogenization. The special status of English, furthermore, not only in the world, today, but in the subcontinent itself, complicated matters for us immeasurably.
It is these implicit pressures which no doubt partly account for the extraordinarily energetic, insightful, adventurous discussions that took place in the course of our two weeks of encounters. The critical analysis or appreciation of the poems was enormously heightened, too, by the group attention each one received. But the approach was not coldly critical or analytical, nor was the apprecia- tion unqualified. Rather, we journeyed within and with each poem, sharing its uncertainties, provisionalities, agonizing with it, rejoicing with it. The poet was for once companioned in his passage, even if in retrospect! For most it was a highly emotional experience, a loneliness temporarily shared. In other words, the poet was not called no to explain himself, but further to join with others in exploring his own work.
What helped to make this so positive was that all could co- operate in seeking ways to improve the English rendering. The original, while aspects of it were disclosed in the process, remained inviolate. But the translation, the unfixed, unstable translation, be- came a kind of index to our developing evaluation of the work. It functioned both as the means of registering or tracing this, and as a record of our engagement. It was a dynamic embodiment of hopes and expectations. It was, in more senses than one, the crux of this whole affair. As I said at the time, what we attempted to do, in a way, was to discuss the poetry from one language into the other. In short, the impulse to translate the work, as it were, collectively, was implicit, even if it was also a given that I would take away with me the results of our deliberations and supply that glossy finish which we hoped would make it visible and marketable in the world En- glish language literary marketplace!
Clearly there is, as Professor Trivedi points out, something of a contradiction here, though I do not think that, under the circum- stances, we could have been expected to see this. We were advanc- ing pragmatically into relatively little known territory and it was only in the process that we were able - because of the openness of our forum - to disinter a number of juicy bones of contention. It remains problematical - though the King James Bible translators, for instance, would seem to contradict this - whether literature can be translated even by committee. Perhaps, in the end there has to be a single individual (or maybe pair of individuals?) who, however, multiply informed, is responsible for the version as it enters the world of letters. It is doubtful, furthermore, whether that individual can function (be relied upon to function?) simply as the agent of a group. In other words, you cannot have your cake and eat it!
If we brought these issues more into the centre of the debate, which is where they ought to be, we were not, as I have suggested, in a position to resolve them. As for the translations themselves, they inevitably - and properly, I think - represent a compromise between at least two forms, modes, manners, or versions of English. I happen to believe that the exchange (clash!) has been a productive one and that the translations are the richer for it. The reader, of course, will be the final judge, although it has also to be said that the reader may judge variously, depending on his/her English language background!
As for myself, I must end as I began this brief preface, by paying tribute to the true initiator and inspirer of the workshop Girdhar Rathi. There always must be a single individual behind such an enterprise, or nothing at all will happen. But above all I wish to express my admiration for, and convey my thanks to the poets in the workshop: the much lamented Raghuvir Sahay, Kedarnath Singh, Kunwar Narayan. Prayag Shukla, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Rituraj, Mangalesh Dabral, Asad Zaidi, Alok Dhanwa, Girdhar Rathi again and the translators, many of them poets in their own rights: Anil Saari, Pragati Saxena, and especially Balu Rao, alini Taneja and Ajit Khullar. My personal thanks go to my old friend the poet, translator and scholar Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who helped accli- matize me to my surroundings, in the wider as well as narrower sense. and I should like also personally to thank Harish Trivedi. with whom I enjoyed a plethora of stimulating conversations and who has left me with more than a little food for thought. I think we were all astonished as well as delighted at what transpired, at the intensity of the group experience. I hope that some of this creative energy will have been conveyed, via this anthology, to the reader. Most certainly the muses, too, were present in the halls of the hospitable Sahitya Akademi.
Let it be stated that the present anthology only partially 'repre-
sents' the Hindi poetic scene, with its rich variety of themes, styles,
diction, attitudes and so on available to any reader of any sensibility.
As one reads it today, however, one finds the contemporary Hindi
poetry in a reflexive and reflective mood. Past the nationalistic
passions of late 19th and early 20th centuries epitomized by
Bharatendu and Maithilisharan Gupta; past the ambivalences of
colonial confrontations, religious identities, and delvings into the
glorious past and oppressive present; past the Romantic overtones of
a special Indian kind in Nirala, Pant, Prasad and the mystic devo-
tional Mahadevi Verma; past the ecstacies and agonies of personal
lives vividly articulated in Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Balkrishna
Sharma Navin, and others; past the fiery rhetoric of the Marxist
variants in the Progressive, Janavadi and Navajanavadi movements,
represented by Sheel, Kedarnath Agrawal, and at times even by
Dinakar, Nagarjun, Sharnsher Bahadur Singh and Trilochan; past
the various experiments looking up to Eliot and the West in general,with high hopes pinned on the city, on the age of machines
and science and technology as in Girija Kumar Mathur and others,
on the individual shell of the self as in Agyeya (Ajneya); past
the tortured visions and undefined utopias of Muktibodh; past
the mythical, uncanny rumblings heard in Vijaya Dev Narayan
Sahi; past the juxtaposition of terror and the absurd delineated
by Srikant Verma; past the vast thematic, stylistic and linguistic
terrain traversed by Raghuvir Sahay - the poetry in Hindi now is
poised at a mature, colourful and bustling moment. Lest the listings
.above are construed as rejection of them all, it should be pointed out
. that most of the names represent various peaks, so to say, and
passing a mile-stone does not obliterate its presence, not in literature at least.
One can safely state that anybody picking up a representative
selection of Hindi poetry over the past fifty years, or even just the
last ten years, will only be richer aesthetically and spiritually. The
newest poets may not have broken new grounds in a spectacular
way, yet they show the command and the promise available only to
those steeped in their multiple tradition with an intelligent and
talented eye for the distinct.
The mood today is hot expansive but reflective. The poet has
neither love lost for revolutionary utopias, nor any nostalgia for golden
pasts, imagined or real. The social and the personal for him are
inter-twined. He has been, and has seen, through the phenomenal
rise and fall of political, social and moral stances over the last one
hundred years. Though ideologies have played some positive role in
the process, the poet now is searching within rather than without, for
his or her answers to almost intractable questions. It is largely a
poetry of negation: it rejects the present which is tortuously disturb-
ing; it rejects vain hopes of a golden future; it rejects nostalgia of all
kinds. Yet, quietly, it is deeply moral. Without professing aloud any
big ideals, the striving of the pining heart is quite clear. It's a poetry
of moral anguish aspiring to freedom, equality, justice, beauty, and
new equations between man, nature and society. It negates the
negative, amoral stance all too evident in the various phases of
modernism and post-modernism. It names not the values, perhaps
because it is not too sure of the prevalent and available nomencla-
ture. Yet the orientation towards values is unmistakable. The best way [0 describe the poetry in Hindi today would perhaps be the
way of our ancient seers. While describing the First Principle,
they usually took shelter in the ineffable, 'Neti, Neti' - Not this,
Poetry in all Indian languages has passed more or less through
identical phases, but the crossing of the barriers has been timed
differently: nationalism, search for identities in confrontation with
alien powers, romanticism, didacticism, revolutionary rhetoric,
Eurocentric experimentation, amoral scepticism, even cynicism,
etc., etc. Hindi seems [0 have dared more and ventured farther
afield. The Hindi language has seen immense playing around with
itself, yielding infinitely novel moulds that the poets were able to
But all translation is by nature Janus-faced - none more so than
poetic translation. What becomes available even as the best
possible, eminently readable and appreciable piece of a poem in
the "target" language, invariably invites the reader [0 look over at
the other side, where numerous subtleties and nuances in the origi-
nal might still be lurking to be discovered for enchantments or
shocks all of their own. Insofar as the translation is also a process of
transformation, the attempted verisimilitude tends to get thinner in
direct proportion to the distance between the two cultural-linguistic
grids involved. One is aware of the dissatisfactions expressed with
regard to the translation within broadly the same grids, e.g., Euro-
pean/Indian/African. It has been said, for example, that neither
Pushkin nor Pasternak nor Blok have ever been adequately trans-
lated into English. Or, for that matter, Brecht and Rilke in English
rendering do not quite satisfy the fastidious native German. Yet, the
"double labyrinth" that the translation process is, as Daniel
Weissbort aptly names it, at times it becomes quite impenetrable
when the nature of difference between the two languages is much
more than linguistic.
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