Do read the afterword.
Recitation of the Kannada original:
The Earth-Mother’s Firstborn Son
Have you seen
with opened eyes
the firstborn son
of the earth-mother?
The sky above’s
smiled a toothy smile,
all the crop’s
the turned up soil’s
been sown again!
a bath of sweat –
the water of tears
for the food of breath!
The stomach’s become
the back’s own back;
worry’s owl’s nestled
within the heart;
the squeals of a lizard
have cornered the mind;
the look on the face
is mocking death,
stuck through the throat!
and yet and yet
Yama* wìll not come;
with every breath
a life a death.
The threadbare bags
of the body’s chords
and have opened up;
inside of them –
a web of bones!
Having somehow come
and fallen in
the dark of the dark
that we call living,
is tossing and turning;
the sounds of its struggle
are of groaning and moaning;
when will it come
the light of death?
when just when
just when just when
is its mumble and mutter
in its turbulent sleep!
*Yama — the god of death in Hindu mythology
Recitation of the English translation:
(Translated by Madhav Ajjampur)
Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.
Like I say in my essay for ‘The Hindu’, a language is both a cultural and an aural vehicle. This is especially true of a language’s poetry.
What meaning do these two (intrinsic) characteristics of a language take on when they need to ‘transferred’ to another language? That is to say, what must a translation (or a transcreation) do in the context of the transfer of these twin characteristics? Is a transfer even possible?
There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions. Nor are there any ‘correct’ answers. Nonetheless, I will attempt to answer them – in no other capacity than as a keen translator-and-transcreator of Bendre’s Kannada poetry into English.
The specific context of this effort is this poem’s title and its cultural connotations, both implicit and explicit.
In the introduction to a book of his English translations of Tagore’s Bengali poetry, William Radice speaks of the “etiolation” of the English language. He attributes this etiolation – this feebleness, this loss of vigour – to the English language’s global spread and its status as the world’s language of commerce and communication. His motivation, of course, is to explain – perhaps even justify – his own approach to translating Tagore’s poetry.
I mention this matter not just because it introduced me to the word ‘etiolate’ (though I’m quite certain that is the reason Radice’s words have stuck with me) but because of ideas it kindled within me (in a mostly subconscious manner). I had already begun to transcreate Bendre’s poetry into English by the time I read Radice, but his perspective was thought-provoking and remained with me. I was reminded of it as I started to write this.
Even if we disagree with Radice’s claim that English is etiolated, there can be little argument that English is the language most closely linked to society’s rapid technology-driven modernization of the last century. A natural consequence of such a link is the modernization of the language itself; a process directly influenced by the growth and proliferation of new mores and the gradual obsolescence of old mores. In that sense, it would not be wrong to say that English is, at present, the world’s most modern language.
So – what is the character of a “modern language” like English? What does it possess (and lack) that other languages don’t? More specifically, how do Kannada and English compare? Is it possible to justify Radice’s claim concerning the ‘etiolation’ of English? Here are some thoughts, several of them generalized and speculative.
As I see it, the widespread modernization of English through the 20th century was responsible for severing any last ties of the language with its rural and agricultural (not to mention its pagan) past. In other words, English’s modernization was, in effect, its widespread urbanization. This, of course, meant the language had to ‘grow a new skin’, as it were, even as it shed the skin of its rural, agricultural, and pagan past – a progression that had begun as early as the Industrial Revolution of the middle-1700s but that had been kept in check by a counter-tide of literary Romanticism. Several of the Romantic movement’s ideas were pastoral (and pagan) – the idea of the earth as a nourishing mother (Gaia, Mother Earth, etc.), the anthropomorphism of nature and the natural elements (nymphs and fairies, for instance), and, of course, the great many gods of Greek (and Roman) mythology and of Norse mythology. The waning of the Romantic movement naturally rendered its ideas obsolete. Its ‘poetic conceits’ became artifacts frozen in time. They stood as pleasant reminders of an idyllic rural period that was lost (a period that had perhaps always been more wishful than true) and whose mores were now obviously antiquated and wholly unmodern.
Modern poetry in English, with its keen sense for the present and the changes it was bringing, eschewed the (often exaggerated) tropes and images of the Romantic period; using more familiar, tangible and everyday conceits instead. (Of course, the poetic quality of many of these conceits can be questioned.) By doing so, old pastoral paradigms – whether real or imagined – like Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Gaia, shepherds, nightingales, and fairies were discarded and rendered both irrelevant and obsolete. Now on, they could only ever be used self-consciously or mischievously (as part of a parody or nostalgic pastiche, say). They had lost any poetic cachet they may have previously possessed – and not without reason.
With everybody (except perhaps the Amish?) scrambling towards modernity, the fracture of the already-tenuous bond between man (used here deliberately instead of ‘human beings’) and his natural surroundings, and the rise of factory farming units, what were the chances that people continued to think of the ‘Earth’ as a nourishing ‘mother’ or the farmer as ‘a son of the soil’ or the moon as the ‘goddess’ Selena?
Kannada’s situation (at about the same time) stands in almost direct contrast to English’s. As the West (and English) were rapidly urbanizing, India and Karnataka and Kannada and their cultures were still overwhelmingly rural, agricultural, and pagan. Yes, an ‘urban breeze’ had begun to blow ever so slowly through the country, but its culture and its people were still pastoral (in a manner that even English Romantic literature never was).
Rural life – the village – and its dozens of traditions and inflexible (and occasionally flexible) social mores governed people’s lives and allowed them to live and think like their ancestors of centuries ago. Consequently: the land was a living entity that required care and nurture, the earth was a beneficent mother who bestowed her grace on her devoted children, the farmer was a respected and dutiful ‘son of the soil’, a good harvest was the blessing of the village goddess, a drought was a sign that Indra (~the rain god) was angry and needed to be placated, the flowing stream was an incarnation of the water-goddess, the cow was an integral part of the family, the crow on the branch was the reincarnation of a dead relative, the soaring brahminy kite was the mount of the Hindu god Vishṇu, the chattering lizard was a harbinger of infelicity, the slithering snake in the backyard was a member of the nāga tribe seeking milk, the strange noises heard within the forest were the hungry rumblings of a bloodthirsty rākshasa (~ogre), and the arc-topped stone on the village’s outskirts was a self-born shivalinga (a particularly-shaped stone considered, in Hindu culture, to represent the Hindu god Shiva).
Or put differently, the Kannada land and language of that time were full to overflowing with the cultural accumulation of not just centuries but millenia. Nothing had been jettisoned. The past was always present. It was not ‘an unknown country’ but ‘a familiar feeling’. Which meant there was nothing ‘romantic’ (especially not in the sense of European Romanticism) for a farmer to speak of his debt to or place his problems upon the shoulders of bhoomitaayi (Kannada for ‘earth mother‘) or for a mother to affectionately call her mischievous little boy “my Krishṇa” (Krishṇa being a particularly beloved Hindu god whose tales of mischief as a young boy in Brindāvan are much-loved and narrated all across India).
Da Ra Bendre was born within this wonderful richness of culture and tradition and language; a richness that he loved, respected, and let seep into every last cell of his being. His (and his people’s) reward for this open-heartedness would be his heaven-touched Kannada poetry, one of world-literature’s most luminous achievements.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll see that the goal of this exposition was to analyze the possibility and extent of translation (or transference) – both cultural and aural – between languages.
You’ll also have noticed that while the aural aspect has been left mostly undiscussed (though you can find a few of my thoughts here and in the notes to this poem) , the cultural aspect has been discussed in some detail. At the very least, it has been established that the cultural milieu that inspired (and also cocooned) Bendre’s poetry is often completely alien to the cultural milieu that produced (and continues to produce) modern English poetry. However, given the trikāla (past-present-future; timeless; all-time) and universal nature of Bendre’s poetry, what mode of transfer can possibly transform Bendre’s Kannada poetry into modern English poetry?
In my opinion, the emphasis on ‘modern’ is extremely important, in a twofold manner. Allow me to explain.
First – for the simple reason that Bendre’s poetry was modern for his time (though not just for his time) and any translation that does not retain this “modernity” must necessarily be a failure. In other words, it will simply not do to translate (or transcreate) Bendre’s poetry using the conventions of the poetry of the English Romantic period. (I mention the matter because, on the whole, that is what has been done to whatever little of Bendre’s poetry has been translated from Kannada into English.) Exceptionally ahead of his time in his use of the ‘(people’s) spoken language’ to create poetry, the only way an English translation can possibly do justice to the original Kannada poem is by being a fully contemporary 21st-century English poem.
Second – from a practical point of view, a contemporary rendering is the only way to bring the world’s attention to a translation from a language as greviously ill-known as Kannada (which is a real pity, seeing how Kannada is one of a handful of living world languages with a literary history that has remained unbroken for over a thousand years).
In the context of the poem above, I have chosen to translate bhoomitaayi as ‘earth-mother’ rather than Mother Earth, simply because of the (out)datedness of the latter form. I trust that, by doing so, I have conveyed the sentiment sans the sentimentality. As for the rest of the title, the ‘firstborn son’ (Kannada: ಚೊಚ್ಚಿಲ ಮಗ or chocchila maga) Bendre speaks of is the farmer. In his capacity as the (earth-mother’s) firstborn son, he is doing his duty (as dictated by custom not just in India but the world over) by labouring to provide for the other members of both his family and society. But the labour is backbreaking and, dependent as he is on the whims of nature and other people, the life he lives is nothing less than wretched. Growing up poor in Dharwad in the the early 20th century, Bendre was fully aware of the plight of the farmer. (It is worth noting that it is this familiarity Bendre had with the subject of his poetry that precludes the poem from being merely sentimental or nostalgic. In English poetry, a rare instance of this sort of familiarity with life in the village can be found in the poetry of John Clare.)
To end, I would like to thank my college friend, the poet, musician and lecturer Matt Shelton, for the feedback he gave me regarding my own English poetry and his advice to set aside a consciously ‘poetic voice’ for one ‘closer to how we speak’. The advice he gave helped me (in no small way) to see the advantage of contemporizing my translations (and transcreations) of Bendre’s poetry while giving me a framework to work within. More recently, it has helped me refine my ideas concerning poetry (whether lyric or non-lyric) and, as he intended, in creating new poetry of my own. Thanks, Matt!
© Madhav Ajjampur