Vol. 4 Num 61 Sat. July 26, 2003  

On Translating Bengali Poetry into English
Barisal by the Bay

The following review was published almost three years back, a year after Fakrul Alam's book of translations of Jibanananda Das's poems came out. Amazingly (for a book of translated poems, that is) that first edition sold out, and a second edition - with a smaller, more pleasing font, with the addition of some more translated poems like Knowing How These Fields Will Not Be Hushed That Day and I Stay in the City All the Time, and with a few poems reworded, as in Life's Transactions Have Closed Again now is Life's Mart Has Closed Again - is now out. All of which merits a reprint of the original review, specially for those readers who missed it on the first go-around.

Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology, and Glossary, translated by Fakrul Alam (The University Press Limited, Dhaka-1000; 1999; Taka 290).

Every summer for the last six years I and a friend have been going biking through wildlife sanctuaries on Maryland's Eastern Shore, right by the Cheasapeake Bay. It is an immediate and exhilarating experience, to pedal through tidal marshes and grassland beneath a vast sky, to pump legs on trails past hickory, beech, pine and white oaks, glide past saucer magnolias and black-eyed susans. On any given ride, we spot ospreys, herons, wood ducks, plummeting sea hawks, wading egrets. Turtles, the striped muds, the yellowbellied sliders and diamondbacks, sense us and freeze. Returning at evening, overhead we see Canada geese ("them honkers" as the locals term it) in V-formation on their migratory Atlantic Flyway routes.

It was then, headed for home, with the bay's waters a lonely, hopeless indigo and golden eagles circling in the dying light, that long-forgotten lines of Jibanananda Das kept coming to me unbidden. Lines from poems in Ruposhi Bangla and Banalata Sen, about Dhanshiritir teeray, about rivers and dew, about hawar raat. Upon hearing all this my sister sent me Abdul Mannan Syed's volume of Das's poems, complete with appended essays and the stunning photocopy of the poem Abar Ashibo Phiray in the poet's own hand. Since then I have always packed the book on my cycling trips. A vanished Bengal comes alive with Jibanananda Das gently elbowing me in the ribs:

"Look, an owl."
"Oijay. Lokkhi pecha."
"Tai to."
"On a shimul tree branch."

In Ruposhi Bangla it is his specificity that I delight in: that particular owl in that particular tree, the "neel shoopori'r bon," the utterly Bengali music of "kochi kochi shaympoka" in Aashin's crop-shorn fields. In Banalata Sen it is the fusion of the themes of mortality and death with metaphors of birds and rivers. With the aid of a trusty Samsad Bengali-to-English dictionary, I have ventured further, more tentatively, into the despairing later works, into Bela Obela Kaalbela and the uncollected poems. Into Buddhadev Bose on Das.

I also read Clinton Seely's 'A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das: 1899-1945'. It is an amazing work, a hermeneutic effort by a Westerner who lived in Barisal and steeped himself in local people, language and natural surroundings. Then, due to the vagaries of mail couriers, almost a year after it was published, my sister sent me Fakrul Alam's translations of Das's poems into English. Aha, I thought to myself, what hath the man wrought?

But first things first: I am no poetry critic. Though I have been reading poetry fairly constantly for the last ten years and count among my favorites poets such as Mary Jo Bang, Seamus Heaney and Vijay Seshadri, though I know what is spondee and simile, there is far more between trope and tetrameter than I can ever hope to know. But even more crucially, I have to confess that I have no idea what would constitute rhetoric and mode, or pre-Dasian intonations, in Bengali poetry. Though I can hear its music, its full syllables, I wouldn't know how to scan Bengali poems. A technical analysis, therefore, of Fakrul's book of poems I'll leave to minds more capable than mine. What I write, I write as the wildly enthusiastic, the avidly partisan, reader of Jibanananda Das.

Translations are a finicky, delicate, punishing matter. Dr. Johnson growled that "Poetry indeed cannot be translated." So what, as the revolutionary once wrote, is to be done? Do you do the literal word for word and thereby introduce the poet's world in the most unmediated, direct but "unpoetic" way, or do you choose a richer, but perhaps more dangerous and difficult, rhymed verse? What is it to be, content or style? Fakrul goes for the latter. As he puts it in his scrupulously-worded introduction, he has aimed for "recovering something of the poetic qualities of the original, in transmitting the tone of the poet... for distinct traces of the poetic signature." 'Tis, my friends, is a heavy burden to lift in the context of a poet as uniquely Bengali, as individually gifted, as Jibanananda Das.

The result is predictibly of varying success, something Fakrul Alam himself acknowledges implicitly. Of the eighty poems translated, thirty two are from Rupashi Bangla and Banalata Sen, a fortuitious choice since these contain the poems that a nonBengali should be introduced to. His best efforts are supple creations, aided by a felicitous vocabulary. For example, Abar Ashibo Phire, which was the first poem I turned to, thankfully translated as Beautiful Bengal, not I Shall Return (thereby raising the specter of, say, General MacArthur in the Philippines) works for me. On the other hand Biral (The Cat), that caress of feline fur by Das, does not. I can't quite pinpoint why. Perhaps it is the line:

After its success somewhere in stripping a few pieces of fish to the bone.

Maybe it is that muddled "success," and the thoroughly unsatisfying filler of "somewhere." I did read each poem in the book, sometimes going with the poems in the original, sometimes against translations in my own head. I like An Orange (Kamalalebu), An Overwhelming Sensation (Bodh), the dusky image of:

Like a gray owl spreading its wings in Agrahan's early winter darkness

in The Conch-Garlanded One (Shankhamala), the fact that Fakrul rather cleverly wove in all the Bengali names of trees and bushes in Because I Have Seen Bengal's Face (Banglar Mukh Ami Dekheyachi). Windy Night (Hawar Raat) billows. In fact, I like all the translations of Dhushar Pandulipi and Rupashi Bangla, though it beats me how "ranga megh" became "barred clouds." I agree with the logic of keeping Das's dashes, smile with pleasure at the pointing out of Yeatsian echoes. I am less impressed by some other poems. The principal thing that mars a small number of them is what Anthony Burgess termed the "arty translation," the overwrought reworking that sinks the line, dooms a stanza. There are clunkers too. For example, for me Fakrul's Banalata Sen (the poem itself, not the whole book) was ruined by the word "transaction," which does not at all have the startling effect, the sudden intrusion, of the vernacular "layn dayn," (with its echo of Larkin's "intricate, rented world" in Aubade). It disturbs the mood, as if supply-side economics, not the give-and-take of daily Bengali life, our fish markets and our rickshaw fares, slipped into Das's riverside brooding on time. I hate to say it, but here I prefer Seely's Banalata Sen, the literalist's approach, his line:

All birds come home, all rivers, and all this life's
tasks finished
to Fakrul Alam's version, his line:

All birds home--rivers too--life's transactions close again.

I don't get that "all birds home." Does it mean homing in? And that "again" just to set up a rhyme with "Sen" doesn't make sense, since in the original it is life's unceasing transactions coming to a close this one, final time. Though when I thought about it, I couldn't come up with a better word than "transactions." Nor with a better line. See, dear readers, the hellish nightmare of translation!

The glossary is both necessary and a delight. I quarrel only with the definition of the krishnachura as "a colorful tree which blooms in spring." That's it? Where is its crimson blaze, its scarlet flowers? Jibanananda Das, a poet of almost clinical exactitude when it came to nature, would, I feel, agree with me. The other caveat I have is that a certain defensive note creeps into the Introduction when Fakrul declaims lines like "I have never taken the kind of liberties with Das's poems..." or "will show that I was right in opting for..." It is too much the didact's wagging finger, the hyperalert translator assiduously tending to the potential breaches in his lexical ramparts.

He needn't have fussed. Fakrul writes that he feels "happy" about his translations "because they gave me almost always the feeling that I was involved in the poetic act." That is indeed an endearing confession, since it means that he followed, via the "poem as a ghostly map" (Mary Kinzie's words), the many paths not taken by the author, was able to see the provisional nature of a poem in the making, discern how Das hovered above the abyss as he combined and recombined elements of orthodoxy and the experimental before conjuring up the finished product. It means that Fakrul Alam approached his task with sensitivity, and that should be defense enough. So the introduction, especially since it is meant for nonBengali readers, should have been a little less studied, should have lofted itself up with a tad more charm and helium.

Aah, but I quibble too much. I should not, but I can't help it. It is one of life's small, but distinct, pleasures to bicker with a translator about a favorite poet and his poems. Fakrul Alam's is an original effort. Every line in it is his own. It is not rehashed material, mimetic exegesis culled from works already existing in Western libraries. For that alone he should be commended. Fresh translations, attempts like Fakrul Alam's, revive Das as a living, breathing poet, force us all to look beyond the entombed figure in the mausoleum busily being erected by the Bengali literary establishment. Fakrul writes that Professor Seely "has done his translations out of his love for the poet." He himself has done no less. His book should be on the shelf of every reader, Bengali and otherwise, of the poems of Jibanananda Das.

And here in the United States summer has crinkled to fall (that's Americanese for autumn) and it is time to dig out the heavier tackle and gear (Hopkins anybody?) for bicycling in cooler weather. We have to hoist our bikes and my well-thumbed copy of "Jibanananda: Kobita Shomogro" into a pickup truck and head out for the wooded trails, for egret feathers and a sea hawk wiping "the sun's smell from its wings," for my private, my Das-gifted, my very own, Barisal by the Bay. And who knows, perhaps the shy ghost of a reclusive poet, our beautiful, our bright Jibanananda Das, will nod at me from the shadow of an oyster boat or from behind the bole of an American tree as I read his words out aloud into the sunny, chilly October air.

Beautiful Bengal

I'll come again to the banks of the Dhanshiri - to this land
Perhaps not as a human - maybe as a white-breasted
shankachil or a yellow-beaked shalik;
Or as a morning crow I'll return to this late autumnal rice-harvest laden land,
Wafting on the fog's bosom I'll float one day into the jackfruit tree shade;
Perhaps I'll come as a girlchild's duck - her bells on my red-webbed feet,
My days will pass floating in the fragrance of the aquatic kalmi plant;
I'll come lovingly again to Bengal's rivers, fields, farmlands,
To the green wistful shores of Bengal lapped by Jalangi's waves.

Perhaps you'll look up and see the evening breeze blow gloriously;
Perhaps you'll hear an owl calling in shimul branches;
Perhaps a little boy will be scattering parched rice in some grassy yard,
In the muddy Rupsha river some boy will be rowing a boat
with torn white sails;
Perhaps the white stork will be breasting the barred clouds
As it heads home in the dark; look for me and you'll find me in this throng.

(translated by Fakrul Alam)