Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

Long before Jagjit Singh was singing a soulful ghazal about the lost childhood of paper boats and even longer before paper boat was a quirky, new-age brand with attractive packaging, Da Ra Bendre was writing a sonnet about the paper boat. Not a run-of-the-mill sonnet, mind you, that merely romanticized the innocence of his childhood days – but rather an image-rich oct-sestet (ಅಷ್ಟಷತ್ಪದಿ) that even now stands out for what Bendre himself described as “the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

Given the strangeness of this twist – its ಚಮತ್ಕಾರ (chamatkāra (n): ~ wonder) – and the various interpretations it allows for, I think this a good time to say something about what it means to translate poetry like Bendre’s — poetry that is not just remarkably euphonic but frequently rich in meaning, in suggestion, in allusion, in metaphor, in native imagery.

Like I say in the About section, my translation (or transcreation) has always looked to avoid the trap of “literalness” and offer, instead, the spirit of the original poem. But what if that spirit itself is one of mystery or elusiveness or ambiguity or complexity or all these things at the same time? Does “literalness” gain importance then?
Well, in such a case, I’d say the duty of the translation or transcreation becomes to retain, to the extent possible, the poem’s qualities, with the caveat that it never (deliberately) stretches past the original’s own reach. (An example of stretching past the original’s reach to create a kind of “fusion” is Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. He is said to have taken so many liberties with the original that his immensely-popular work is often referred to as the Omar-Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald apparently called his work a “transmogrification”.)
The retention can be effected in different ways: by seeking to understand the poem’s nuances of meaning and suggestion and using that learning to create a translation that is itself nuanced, though perhaps in a different way; or, in the case of a poem that challenges the translator’s understanding, by offering a translation that challenges its reader in equivalent fashion.

This particular poem is one whose “strangeness of twist” I cannot claim to have “fully understood”. Consequently, I have tried to present a translation that retains – as literally as possible – the imagery of the original. After all, like I have said before, my reason for translating a Bendre poem is often my own desire to better understand the poem.

Kannada Poem Recitation:

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

I will set sail these paper boats,
Like one would do in boyish play,
Until the cloud-hid sun shines forth again;
(The scrap of home will be its load.)
Within this mud-watered-unity
That marries the culvert and the lake,
Let the current chart its destiny:
What is a flimsy boat against a crazy rain-and-breeze?
Let the books account the profit and the loss;
What I praised in wonder-dance is here.

The heart, like cloth, crumples and fades,
The breath is dimmed by hunger and by thirst;
Building varied fairied lands, making channels
Flood happily, cutting and sniff-scattering
The jasmine-of-the-skies, and breathing life
Into the pictures of the mind, 
comes forth
A heaven that has birthed itself.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

The slow-paced step is slower now, within doe-
Eyes’s about to sprout an anxiousness;
(The fresh-greenness of the body’s faded now.)
Its youth undone, the blood’s red-freshness’
Quickly turning old. Coquette who wished to
Count the feathers of the flying bird! Your
Heart’s as desolate as an empty temple’s show;
Sweet murmurs can be born no more;
Now grown, you stand past outstretched hand.

Sister, let the day’s fatigue just fade away;
May the soaring hawk not swoop this way
Or boy-wind tie you up in impish play.
Don’t visit here, you bee who steals the flower’s
Scent; let come spring’s desired-success-shower;
Above, may your moon-star give you cover.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

I remember being at the 2016 Ranga Ugadi organized by Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru’s best-known theatre space. The year’s theme was Bendre and the centerpiece of the second day’s festivities was a reading session of his poems by various well-known Kannada cultural figures. One of them, I recall, prefaced her reading – of the poem ‘ದಶಾವತಾರ’ – with her description of Bendre as a man with a “ಮಹಾ ಹೆಂಗರುಳು” (mahā heṅgaruḷu), or in other words, “a great woman-like sympathy”.
The poem “ದಶಾವತಾರ” – the ten avatāras – is part of a series of poems called “ಕರುಳಿನ ವಚನಗಳು” – or “words [born] of the gut” – written from the point of view of a mother that relate her various happy and spontaneous exclamations at her beloved infant’s ways and plays.  To those who know about Bendre’s growth as a poet, the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Crescent Moon” on these poems is obvious. (Speaking for myself, the poems in “The Crescent Moon” are some of the most exquisite poems I’ve ever read.)
If the incident mentioned above is relevant, it is because this poem too exemplifies the ಹೆಂಗರುಳು Bendre possessed. While a deep sensitivity characterizes all great poets, Bendre’s sensitivity was (for a male poet) unusually “female directed”. A number of his early lyric poems are either written from a woman’s point of view or are sympathetic responses to a woman’s various life experiences.
It is notable that this is another oct-sestet – one that rhymes this time. You’ll notice that the translation has, in spite of my trying, 15 lines rather than 14. Its rhyme scheme too is different from the original’s. Then again, that’s the reason I prefer to think these poems are as much transcreations as they are translations.
P.S: I think it worth reading this poem in conjuction with this one.

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

The literature of the Navōdaya period (that began in the early 1900s) in Kannada literature was inspired by the emergent literature of the Bengal Renaissance as well as by the Romantic tradition of English poetry. This inspiration extended to the verse forms of the Romantic tradition and included the sonnet.

As the foremost lyrical poet of Kannada’s Navōdaya period, and an inveterate seeker (and inventor) of new poetic forms, Bendre’s experiments with the sonnet began in the early 1920s. However, it was in his 1938 collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ (Uyyāle: The Swing)” that the sonnet-fruit swelled forth in all its fullness. Naming his avatāra of the sonnet the ಅಷ್ಟಷಟ್ಪದಿ or the oct-sestet (and, by doing so, choosing the Petrarchan form over the Shakespearean), Bendre says in his introduction that “the new qualities [of his sonnets] are their lack of rhyme, their unpredictable use of enjambment, and the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

As a translator, I will admit that the sonnets of “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ” have provided respite of a sort. In particular, Bendre’s (deliberate?) eschewal of his famous, near-ubiquitous (end) rhyme has allowed the translation – or transcreation – to stretch its limbs a little bit more, to spread itself with a little more freedom in its attempt to emulate the various ways and plays of a Bendre poem. Conversely, this eschewal has often been (more than) compensated for by a denseness of thought and language! In any case, I have looked to approximate the technical dexterity of these poems using what may be called a rhythmic “free verse”. (Bendre may have chosen to forego rhyme but his preternatural sense for rhythm and aurality remained.)

Here is a sonnet from the collection that illustrates some of what was said above. While the English word bugbear works as a translation for gumma, I have retained the original for its flavour.

Kannada Recitation:

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

Keep quiet, kanda, the gumma’s come; oh my, what
Are those eyes of his! How red his tongue – like embers
In the darkness black! Faking slowness, he comes (and
comes); keep quiet, kanda, don’t you cry! He might just
Come here if he hears your wail; Oh my oh my!
Shut your eyes tight, just fall asleep, don’t ever see
His misbegotten face; here he comes, oomph-hmmphing,
Stay calm, kanda, don’t even peep, the gumma nears.

Don’t come, gumma, he’s gone to sleep; this is mira–
Culous! Like fish gulped in to a water-whirl,
His mind’s at rest; his breath is like a baby-breeze
Swirling through the leaves; it’s acting crazy now –
With what dream-girlfriend’s breathing is it twinned;
There too, gumma, make sure that kanda is not scared.

English Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ (Question)

There is almost always, in a great poem, that line that stands out, that so impresses itself on the reader that it serves as the focus for the reader’s every feeling about the poem (and poet even).
     It could be a metaphor so completely new as to astonish, a delicacy of feeling so exquisite as to overwhelm, a play of language so buoyant as to delight, a commonplace presented so novelly as to rarify.
     Bendre’s remarkably prolific poetry is full of such lines. Often written as Ambikatanayadatta – the Kannada-speaking daimon within – his greatest poetry is a melodic melding of, in Shankar Mokashi’s words, “the intellect and the heart.”
     In this particular poem – Bendre’s Kannada adaptation of the Petrarchan sonnet – the last line of the octave is what struck me immediately (“ಬೆಳಕೆ ಬೆಳಕಿದ್ದು ಕತ್ತಲೆಯು ತುಂಬಿತು ಹೇಗೆ?”) – I even think I tried right away to translate it. The rest of the translation came later – and not without some effort. (The sestet was particularly difficult – given its cultural references and its original character as an almost “single-breath” denouement.)
     Like I often do, I have, in some places, eschewed a literal translation for a more fluid transcreation.

As is usual – here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

Question (ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ)

My mother would tell me of the way
I played all day with the other boys;
Played from when the morning rose
To when the twilight came; the summer’s
Heat to me was just a moonlight game.
(I had not yet learnt what hunger meant.)
So engrossed in games of play, I’d forget
To eat all day; then eating in the darkness
Of the shed, I’d hear the elders talk and say:
“With light on light outside, how did the darkness fill?”

From deep within the divine heart of the
Man of the vaidic age; upon each one
Of the trembling tongues that crumbled as they
Lost-and-won in search of happiness;
Within the throats of man and wife grasping for
Their share of love beneath a flood of tears –
Is rising the very question that those elders asked.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

Here’s my recitation of the translation.