Monday, July 20, 2009

Why 'Indian' poetry?

Just wanted to add my two-bits to Vivek Narayanan's piece on Indian Poetry in English and its quest for an audience (hat tip: Space Bar).

Overall, I agree with almost everything Vivek says in his piece, including his criticism of anthologies [1]. The one thing Vivek doesn't say, though, is that a "thriving, vigorous poetry community" needs not only a deep awareness of its own poetic history but also, and (I would argue) more importantly, a stronger engagement with contemporary poetry elsewhere in the world.

I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that the Indian poetry community at large is fairly limited in its reading, with a fairly sketchy awareness of what poets in the US or the UK are doing. Certainly the work I read in the few Indian journals I know of seems extremely narrow in its influences. Much of that is availability, of course; I'm keenly aware of how difficult it is to get access to contemporary poetry in Indian book stores (or, for that matter, in book stores anywhere). Still, I can't help thinking that the Indian poetry scene would be richer if a lot of the enthusiasm people seem to put into writing poetry (and trying to find an audience for it) were spent in reading more [2].

Greater engagement with *other* contemporary poetry communities is important for three reasons. First, it would help broaden the ideas and influences Indian poets bring to their writing, setting the stage for greater debate and conflict. If Indian poetry in English lacks "ferocious, voracious arguments, unending discussions, even intellectual fist fights or several rival aesthetic camps" (and I agree that it does, and I agree that this is a lack) I have to think that's in part because there aren't enough rival aesthetics to go around. Second, more links with the outside world would mean that the Indian poetry community would be less cloistered and less incestuous, and that would help set the stage for more frank and open criticism. And third, greater engagement with the international poetry scene would help keep Indian poetry more honest, because it would bring a set of external standards by which the poetry we produce would be judged, rather than just the standards we choose to establish for ourselves.

What makes this interesting and relevant is that the spread of online journals and an increase in paperless submissions provides Indian poets with an opportunity they never really had before. Ten years ago, the logistics of trying to publish in US or UK poetry journals (especially if you were just starting out) seemed staggering. Postage costs of mailing paper submissions to US journals were prohibitive, and access to leading journals was often hard to come by. Today there are dozens of exciting online journals publishing cutting edge work that are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection (some of them bookmarked in the sidebar of this blog) and most journals (even those that still print paper versions) have moved to some form of electronic submission. Which means that there's really no reason why poets living in India can't actively participate in a larger poetry community, reading the work of their peers across the world and trying to publish in a wide array of international journals. Yet somehow, I don't see very much of that happening. And I have to wonder why. If poets in India feel they don't have enough of an audience domestically, what's stopping them from reaching out to a wider audience across the globe [3]?

In his article, Vivek says that "there is no question at all that today, it is far easier to make your way in the world as an emerging poet than it was for figures like Jussawalla and Mehrotra in the 1960s and 1970s." I agree, but I can't help wondering if this is entirely a good thing. Obviously more opportunities for high quality work are always welcome, but if the greater ease of publication comes at the cost of lower standards, then the net effect is negative.

Look, publishing poetry is hard. But to an extent, the fact that it's hard is a good thing, because a) it winnows out those who are genuinely interested in poetry from those who just want to be 'poets' and b) it means that poets are constantly challenged, and therefore constantly growing. In the last 2-3 years I've collected dozens upon dozens of rejection slips. It's been brutal, depressing and frustrating. But it's also meant that I've been forced to revisit and question my own writing, and I have to believe that's made me a better poet than I was three years ago. And it's meant that when I've finally managed to get a poem accepted at a journal I value and care about, it's been a source of real satisfaction and pride.

None of which is to say that we should look exclusively elsewhere in our quest for a community. On the contrary, my point is that it's only by engaging more aggressively with contemporary poetry elsewhere that we'll be able to develop a vibrant community of our own. By focusing too much on 'Indian' poetry, we risk creating a community that is insulated, complacent and nepotistic.

As for the problem of readership - I think the problem is less the lack of an audience for Indian poetry but the lack of an audience for poetry in India. The real victims of poor readership are not, to my mind, the poets who can't get people to come to their book readings [4], but the potential readers who are missing out on all that poetry, as an art form, has to offer. But that's a whole other problem, and one that Indian poetry is a long way away from taking on. Our more immediate priority, as Vivek suggests, should be to make a more productive community available to our poets, and reaching out to a wider international audience for poetry is, I would argue, the way to get there.

[1] In general, I'm for anthologies - I think they serve a useful purpose, problems of unrepresentative selection notwithstanding, by making one aware of poets one may not otherwise know of. That said, I agree entirely that anthologies should not be the primary repository of poetry. Anthologies are good complements to individual collections, but poor substitutes for them. And the situation that Vivek describes - where anthologies become the only available source of a poet's work - is a troubling one. It's a bit like living in a world where cinema theaters show only trailers and no actual movies.

[2] Interestingly, my sense is that this was actually true for the generation of poets from the 1970's that Vivek discusses in his piece.

[3] Not that there's a massive audience for poetry anywhere else, but an audience of a few hundred, even a few thousand is better than an audience of a few dozen.

[4] Ironically, I suspect that if Indian readers did have a better understanding of poetry and were capable of closer reading, that would work against a subset of Indian poets.


equivocal said...

Thank you, F, for your timely addition. I agree and support most of what you say; it is, indeed, the flip side of the ground I was trying to cover. And I love your image of anthologies as trailers without the movie.

A couple things: Firstly, while Indian poets have less of an excuse for a head-in-the-sand approach than ever before, the problem is that it is still very expensive to buy world poetry collections off the net and libraries with good poetry collections are hard, sometimes impossible, to come by. When you, Falstaff, hear an interesting name, you pop on over to one of the UPenn libraries and check out all the books by that person, am I correct?

Of course the problem is that Indian (English) poets are also not deeply read, they often don't even really immerse themselves deeply in the work of a *few* poets, which is a shame. And they can be known to fiercely and proudly defend their lack of reading! A lot of contemporary poetry could be anticipated and absorbed just by hitting the collected Wallace Stevens, or the collected Auden, Larkin or whatever, depending on your inclinations.

Another thing: I think you do definitely romanticise the US and UK poetry scenes a great deal. There's a lot of dark stuff that goes on behind the scenes, lots and lots of nepotism, insecurity, shoulder tapping, power plays, winks to the wise. I don't think one ought to be treating impersonal rejection slips very seriously as an accurate judgement of one's work! These are not pure meritocracies by any stretch of the imagination, where editors sift patiently through the slush pile for its gems. More often interns read the unsolicited work, and decisions are made in ten seconds or less. Thus, it can help enormously to be living in or regularly visiting certain cities, to be part of certain circles, etc. Usually these would not be the only factors why your work would be chosen-- but they would help you get a closer, more complete reading for your poems, your book manuscript-- help you get on a shortlist. So even in these places, for a true evaluation of your work,you trust not in the system at large, but in the few friends and readers whose taste and honesty you can really trust and, above all, you hone and trust your own unshakeable instincts.

To make those friends and readers though, it does help to have a wider pool of reading you can refer to and discuss and argue outside of yourselves...

Falstaff said...

equivocal: Agree about the difficulty of getting world poetry collections - I haven't been in the US so long that I don't remember how frustrating that can be. That said, I did manage to assemble a fairly adequate collection while I was still in India, and while it was certainly less representative of contemporary poetry than my collection now (or the range I have access through the - now U Minn - library) it did include most of the poets I find myself going back to on a regular basis. So while it's certainly true that Indian poets have limited access to contemporary poetry than someone living in the US, I think there's a lot more that could be done living in India (particularly, as you suggest, just in terms of reading some of the sources that contemporary poetry draws on). And even if people can't get access to collections they could still read journals to get a sense for what else is out there.

On your second point, I wasn't trying to romanticize US publishing - I know there's a great deal of nepotism at work and I have issues with the whole MFA / workshop driven model (but that's a whole other post). Which is why I'm not suggesting that we discard the idea of developing a poetry community of our own and just join whatever communities are out there. We do need a community of our own, and journals of our own and so forth. I'm just not sure that too many people are even reading or trying to publish in US journals, and I think that's unhealthy. Rejection per se doesn't necessarily mean that your work is bad, but it does make you think more carefully about what you're doing and read more of what's out there to see what other people are doing, and both of those are, on the whole, good things. In other words it's a great motivator. And while judgments from US journals may not be a particularly reliable indicator of the quality of one's work, I think it's dangerous to assume that they're entirely irrelevant. Many rejections may have nothing to do with the merit of the work, but one has to make room for the possibility that at least some do. And if being an outsider to the system means the bar on acceptance is considerably higher (which I think it is), well, I'd rather we were setting ourselves an unnaturally high bar than an unnaturally low one.

Admittedly, part of this is because most of the journals publishing Indian poetry I've seen strike me as setting too low a bar, which makes me worry that too many Indian poets are getting lulled into a false sense of complacency. Which is why I think going through the process of submitting to and getting rejected by US / UK poetry journals may be a good learning experience for a lot of people. I know it has for me.

Cheshire Cat said...

Yes, that piece by Vivek is excellent. The question for me, though, is: why should an Indian poet writing in English identify himself/herself as an "Indian English poet"? Why care about Indian English as opposed to Chinese Spanish or Esperanto? There is no tradition of note, then why the urge to participate?

A poet writes, is compelled to write, in a language that happens to be at hand.

Falstaff said...

cat: I should really let Vivek answer that one. I suspect that the need to identify is secondary to the need for community - poets (or artists more generally) need other poets to discuss their work with, and virtual communities aside, that means interacting with people who live in the same geographic space.

Space Bar said...

Great post, Falsie. Since Vivek has already said much of what I wanted to, in response, I'll just limit myself to a few observations:

--I'd say we should be reading not just from the US or UK, but from the East, Europe, the other Indias, in tranlation. We probably know as little about, say, contemporary Telugu poetry as we do about Chinese. So what the heck? Our ignorance is limitless and we have to make whatever attempts we can to right that imbalance.

--I'm also not sure about "greater engagement with the international poetry scene would help keep Indian poetry more honest, because it would bring a set of external standards by which the poetry we produce would be judged,".

To the extent that external aesthetic standard help us understand our own, I agree. But if you're talking about it as a temporary, external imposition of a standard, then that just seems wrong. (though I'm also fairly sure you didn't mean it that way).

I'm also becoming more certain that unless we engage with the aesthetics of other contemporary Indian poetics, we will only ever remain half-decent IE poets.

--Submissions. I agree entirely. If a journal accepts my work instantly, or even accepts all of it, I'm deeply suspicious.

Vivek has tried often on Zest and elsewhere to get people talking about work that surrounds poetry - criticism, correspondence, lectures. It usually slips down the message list with no response (mea culpa.)

Falstaff said...

SB: Totally agree about poetry from elsewhere - and let's not forget Latin America.

On standards: I guess I was saying something in between, not just that external standards would help us understand our own but also that they might inform and alter our standards. It's a bit like the law, really. Obviously you don't want to impose some other country's laws or blindly adopt them, but you want to study other people's laws and figure out what you want your own laws to be.

Space Bar said...

Also to raise a point Vivek/Aditi/Monica made elsewhere: we lay too much stress on being 'properly' published, in book form. If we made and circulated chap-books, on and offline, we would at least be familiar with each others' work - enough, at least, to discuss it intelligently.

And it's not impossible to xerox and share what little we have of others' work, you know. (Provided, of course, we're not xeroxing and sending out Complete Works of this or that poet!) *Falsie, reminder.*

equivocal said...

Cat: That's a very good question and I'm not sure I can answer it completely, or convincingly, because I partly agree with you. Of course labels always come (or ought to come) after the fact-- a poet writes what s/he likes, in the language that comes to her ear, and that is that.

Three points to think on:

1) The diversity of languages makes it impossible for any given writer to know, or even think, Indian poetry as a whole. And let's be clear, it is language and not "culture" that is the basis of poetry, poetry is made with words. Whenever we speak of Indian poetry, we have to admit it cannot quite come into being, because it cannot be known or surveyed on an equal platform.

2)The figure of the nation, alas, remains persistent within English poetry, and not just for us. Why, for instance, do we still have "British poetry" and "American poetry" and "Australian poetry"? But remarkably, we do. The Brits did not get Williams for a long time, and only two or three years ago, Silliman said he did not get most British poetry. Why, there is new anthology of British poetry coming out this year! We are inching towards a global English poetry (read also: the decline of the dominance of American poetry) but it doesn't happen yet. And even a global English poetry, where everyone is reading everyone else, has to be informed by the local if it is going to have teeth. One tragicomic effect of "Indian" though: Pakistani or Sri Lankan poets writing in English are treated as if they lived on a different planet!

3) So let's say we do away with nation. We are still crossed between language and location, two separate axes of the imagination. This, to follow up on Sridala's point, is the great remaining hope of South Asian poetry written in English-- that it could open out to the world on one side and into/from the various languages; moreover that it could represent/make use of the fairly unique texture of everyday life in India, which is casually and calmly and intricately and thoroughly multi/trans-lingual. This is what we see in a Kolatkar or a Ramanujan, who can draw from so many different places that one "no longer knows what comes from where". But unfortunately, as a whole, this promise remains to be fulfilled, at the moment the project is an embarrassing failure. We could have made use of what we had, but the past sixty odd years have been stuck in complacency (on the part of some English writers), idiot polemics, linguistic bureaucracy and authenticity debates! What can be said, I guess this sort of thing takes time. They say the US took a hundred post-colonial years to found its own traditions of poetry.

equivocal said...

Oh yes, and I forgot to add, instead of tapping fully into global English and local languages, many IE poets have isolated themselves and been isolated from both worlds...

Aditi said...

Heh, I can safely say this is the first time I've read a discussion on Indian poetics except for the discussion at ZEST a couple of days ago, which didn't go too well for me.

Anyway, I agree with various sentiments expressed here, especially that we need to be more outward looking in terms of our reading.

Oh, also, if you will excuse the shameless pimping, I work as non-fiction editor for a Brit mag called Mimesis. We only publish poetry and poetry-related prose. We're trying to be as international as possible in terms of content; however, the poetry tends to come from more varied sources than the prose. If anyone is thinking of doing a bit on Indian poetics or an Indian poet, I'd be interested to know. In fact, you don't even need to be writing about anything Indian for me to be interested. I'm just looking for voices outside of the UK and US for the next issue.

If you'd like to check for quality, we have sample poems from the previous issue and the winning digital chapbooks from a past contest up on the site. The prose, well, you can always order a copy, but if it's too expensive and you're around Bangalore, I can lend you mine. : )


Oh, and super important, the link: Also, we're a print mag, but we more than welcome email submissions. Nasty thing, killing trees.

Cheshire Cat said...

Re. engagement with contemporary literature from other cultures, I suspect vernacular writers make a greater effort to do this than Indian English poets. I was recently reading the extraordinary Tamil writer Charu Nivedita (shamefully, in translation) - the promiscuity of his reading is
fundamental to his project.

This doesn't surprise me too much. Vernaculars have their pride - their commerce with other literatures is on level terms. Indian English writing, on the other hand, will always measure itself against the "true" English (or American English) writing - there is a sense of inferiority, of starting off as a disadvantage.
This is the case with Australian and Canadian writers too, perhaps, but at least English is their "mother tongue".

I am tempted to say that not only should we not feel obliged to weave our "Indianness" in our work,
but to do so is a guarantee of failure. I am ambivalent about poets like Ramanujam and Kolatkar and Mahapatra - they are exceptional poets, but their work in English still reads like it is in translation (just as Simic's work reads like it is in translation). In any case, it would be strange to imagine those poets as part of an Indian English tradition, as they all derive their power from their connection to the vernacular.

As for communities, I would ordinarily say that virtual communities are just as good as real ones - conversations by e-mail with our peers from Peru and Puerto Rico, conversations by ouija board and planchette with poets of the past. But I've been reading Bolano's "The Savage Detectives", and even for someone as savagely individualistic as I am, there is something seductive in the notion of a poetic cult.

equivocal said...

Yes, that Zero Degree book is nuts, isn't it? It finally reveals the deep perversity of the Tamil male mind. Tho despite its overtones of misogyny which, so I have been told, are not meant to be solely ironic. But I don't think one should assume that either the book or its range of references is typical. And don't forget that Nivedita reads most of his world literature in English.

About Kolatkar: there's an awkwardness of tone in the English, isn't there, which is something I'm grappling with in a review I'm writing. But there may be a lot more going on with this awkwardness than is first apparent; it varies in different periods of his work, and also from his poetry to his prose notes. So I'm not sure whether one can only read it (as generations of nativist critics have) as the translated indian language poking through because K is not fully at home in the coloniser's language. There's a deliberate pressure exerted on the syntax etc. and sometimes I can't help thinking he knows exactly what he's doing / exploring.

About Ramanujan: I wasn't a fan of his own poems at all until a young American critic, of all people, pointed me to his last collection, The Black Hen. Give it a shot.

I am definitely not saying we should weave in our "Indianness". But I am saying we should make full / better use of whatever materials are available to us, "Indian" or not.

Space Bar said...

Cat: are you talking prose, when you mention Charu Nivedita? Just asking, because peose is a whole other ball game altogether; I read Anand's Govardhan's Travels a couple of years ago it's an astounding piece of work.

I was saying to Aditi via mail, that our translators let us down enormously, because from everything my grandmother tells me, there's so much exciting stuff happening in Tamil that I am, alas, ever going to able to 'get'.

That's also an important point you raise about Kolatkar/Mahaparta etc sounding as if they've been translated. I wonder how much of it is conscious. I'm not sure it is - wouldn't it sound like they're playing us for suckers? Like all those saris and spices and mangoes we keep seeing in Anglophone prose?

Vivek: About "a deliberate pressure exerted on the syntax etc. and sometimes I can't help thinking he knows exactly what he's doing / exploring."

How would we do this? I'm really interested in knowing because it seems to me that to do so would be to frame an aesthetic that would be unique. Looking forward to that review.

Aditi: You clearly haven't been reading Falstaff's blog or mine for long. :-) many heated discussions have taken place (more or less between the people now writing!) at both places. Falstaff's posts are neatly categorised; mine aren't.

Aditi said...

@ Sridala

This is the first I'm seeing of Falstaff's blog, but I've subscribed now.

Falstaff said...

cat: Not sure I agree about Kolatkar. Like Vivek, I think at least some of the 'Indianness' is deliberate. With you on Ramanujan though.

That said, I don't know that 'sounding translated' is necessarily a bad thing, as SB's comment suggests one person's sounding translated could be another person's aesthetic.

My concern with the weaving in of the 'Indianness' is not so much that it's somehow less valid, and more that I feel it's already been done. What begins as an innovation ends up becoming a trait and then a bad habit. Is it possible to write compelling poetry in English that is informed by the vernacular? Yes - Kolatkar & co. prove that. To me, the question now is whether we can move beyond that. So while I don't agree that including 'Indianness' is a guarantee of failure at the level of an individual poet, I do think we would fail as a community if that was all we were able to do.

SB: Ya, ya, I remember. You'll get your photocopies. Eventually.

Falstaff said...

Aditi: Welcome. And for previous discussions on Space Bar's, see:

(see also the link to Rahul's post)

temporal said...

on a different note read an interesting article on a publishing house in india run by prof lal

Falstaff said...

temporal: Oh, I know all about WW, I even published a book with them half a lifetime ago, one that I'm now deeply embarrassed by, and which served to convince me that P. Lal will print pretty much anything.

Cheshire Cat said...

Equivocal: You know, I'd never thought of the "deep perversity of the Tamil male mind" angle, though it seems obvious in retrospect. Nivedita is clearly a nutter but I had the "Writers are nutters; Nivedita is..." syllogism in mind rather than the analogous one with Tamil males. But you're probably right in saying that he's atypical (of Tamil poets, not of Tamil males, needless to say).

I'll be very interested to see your analysis of Kolatkar, when you complete it. Did not know about "The Black Hen", will definitely look it up.

My point is that it's just not useful to have "Indianness" as a term in the discussion. Yes, it's hard being an Indian poet writing in English, there is the lack of a sense of community. But the solution to that need not (and perhaps cannot) involve a new "Indian English poetry".

Space: It's not the translators who are to blame, it's our education. I am deeply ashamed of not being able to read Tamil fluently.

It's true that I mixed up prose and poetry in the discussion. In Nivedita's case, it's somewhat justified because his writing is so hard to categorize. But in general, with regard to the question of an "Indian English literature", I feel there is a substantive difference. There is actually a tradition of Indian English prose fiction, with Narayan and Desani as the seminal figures. Since prose is a somewhat more neutral medium than poetry, it's possible for an "outsider" to use a language other than his/her first language effectively (Nabokov, Conrad, Beckett etc.). Poetry is more rooted; tradition is more important to it than to prose. Considering that the idea of India is itself quite new, and that our nationalism is a manufactured one, it's no surprise that the project of "Indian English" poetry has been a failure. These are somewhat vague arguments, but it would require someone with a greater depth of background than me in history and criticism to make them precise.

Falstaff: I don't think that sounding translated is necessarily a bad thing either, which is why I said I was ambivalent about it. In Simic's case, I started off being almost contemptuous about his inability to use the full resources of the language, but I've now revised that attitude. There's method and conviction to his simplicity, and it's not coincidental that there's a certain spareness to Balkan poetry (Popa, Salamun). I think of vernacular poetry as having a well-defined contemporary character which can be traced back through politics and history to a founding tradition. Just as each culture has a different creation myth (or myths), so too each vernacular has a completely individual tradition, which if of course inextricable from the nature and development of the language itself. With all the poets we've been discussing, there is necessarily a discordance between the structured template of the vernacular and the expression in an alien language. There's always an implicit negotiation, and it's unclear to what extent this is conscious.

I've often thought that poetry in translation is still almost poetry in the target language- what stops it (or saves it) is a sense of the uncanny, a sense of foreignness which is foreign to poetry itself. It is like a thing seen behind a veil - one senses it, and deduces all its essential qualities; one senses it, but does not see it, or one sees also the veil. And to tear the veil away would be to damage the thing itself.

Binu Karunakaran said...

Indian writers of poetry in English are not alone in this insularity.

There are very few translations from poetry in one Indian language to another. As someone who lives in Kerala I am completely out of touch with what is happening in Marathi, Hindi or Telugu poetry scene. There are occasional translations from Tamil because of regional proximity and limited cultural interaction. But then again it is too little.

A poet writing in Malayalam is therefore largely unaware of the richness of contemporary Tamil poetry which I believe is no way inferior to finest poetry written in any language. There are very few translations of world poetry happening here now and Indian English poetry is almost a taboo. If poets writing in English are dreaming of a wide and informed audience it should by all means primarily and ideally come from poets writing in other Indian languages. A live and engaging poetic community will not be possible unless poets writing in English shed their exclusivist tag and start a conversation. By conversation I mean the project of poetic translations, not the insular flotsam of online discussion threads.

A note on anthologies: Mehrotra once called anthologies graveyards and said the anthologist’s job is to see that only the best corpses get in. A ‘deathly metaphor’ he later regretted while editing an Oxford India Anthology.

equivocal said...

I agree with Cat about the Nivedita-- it's a strange and unusual text that I find myself thinking of equally as an experimental poetry book and a novel. I feel sad that my excitement about it was soured a little when I heard rumours / hearsay about the author; ideally one shouldn't let that affect one's reading, but it does.

It's true-- perhaps this is partly what you're saying-- that thus far there has not been a major Indian poet who has engaged as intimately with the sound and texture of the English language as, say, a Hopkins or a Bunting. Or even a Desani. Jussawalla has come the closest; Kolatkar, in moments, but awkwardly; De Souza, but only through dialect, etc. For the most part the emphasis-- and unfortunately also the preference-- has been on narrative.

So fair enough, that is the story so far, a story still turning in unforeseen directions. But I'm nevertheless nervous about your formulation of English as an "alien" language: it seems to echo nativist arguments that Indian poets write in English not because the words of the poem come naturally to them in that language--which after all must be the truth-- but because they cynically want a larger audience or are elites, and that they are somehow negating or suppressing or translating their "true Indian selves" to write in English. Such crudely formulated arguments are precisely the sort of thing that have kept a more dynamic synergy among all the Indian languages (including English) from developing.

Falstaff said...

Cat: I agree. As the title of this post suggests, I share some of your ambivalence about the project of 'Indian' English poetry. For me, though, that ambivalence doesn't extend to the work of the individual poets under that umbrella.

Binu: I'm a little confused. "Indian writers of poetry in English are not alone in their insularity" and the solution is that "poets writing in English shed their exclusivist tag"? Surely the point is that everyone, including Indian writers in 'Indian' languages, should try to be more receptive to other people's work?

As Vivek says, poets who write in English do so because it's the language they're most comfortable in (personally, English is and has always been my first language, and the only one I have anywhere near enough fluency in to write), and any conversation between writers in English and writers in other languages needs to start with an acknowledgment of the equal legitimacy of both projects.

That said, I do think there is some merit to the idea that translations, especially translations of poetry need to be undertaken by or in collaboration with, someone who writes primarily in the target language. If the plethora of miserable translations of Ghalib and Faiz out there demonstrates anything, it shows that translations by people who are expert in the source language but not particularly good at poetry in the target language are a bad idea. So if Indian English poetry is serious about engaging with work in other Indian languages we need to shift from bemoaning the lack of good translations to making translation a significant part of the overall project.

Partisan said...

"I was saying... that our translators let us down enormously, because from everything my grandmother tells me, there's so much exciting stuff happening in Tamil that I am, alas, ever going to able to 'get'. (Spacebar)

"So if Indian English poetry is serious about engaging with work in other Indian languages we need to shift from bemoaning the lack of good translations..." (Falstaff)

As a translator (of contemporary Tamil poetry and fiction), I am puzzled by such off-hand remarks because, obviously, the effort to read widely of what is available has not been made before passing such judgments. Or so I see it.

To get my own back (!), I am pleased to direct you to the following web-site where a large number of Indian language poets (along with a few Indian English poets) are featured:

I look forward to your substantive comments in the near future. If you already know of this site, don't let that stop you from reading:-).

Thank you.

Falstaff said...

Partisan: Thanks for the link, but I'm afraid Poetry International (which I had seen before) only serves to reinforce what I was saying. There are dozens of (potentially) promising non-English Indian poets listed on the site, but almost no book-length translations of their work. One cannot meaningfully engage with a poet's work by reading three or four poems. At best, what you've got there is an online anthology with a handful of 'representative' poems, subject to all the problems with anthologies that Vivek discusses in his piece.

Plus which, I have to be a little sceptical about the quality of translation. Here's a translation of Gulzar from the site:

On the marble edifice of silence
let us swathe ourselves in the sheets of darkness,
and ignite the twin candles of our bodies . . .
When dew arrives on tiptoe,
let it not discern even the whisper of our breaths

which is exactly the kind of clunky translation I was talking about. Or take this translation of V.K. Shukla -

the original reads: "Yeh chetavni hai / ki chotta baccha hai / yeh chetavni hai / ki chaar phool khile hain",

which is translated as:

"It affirms that there is a child / It affirms that a smattering of flowers is blooming"

Why the change in the structure? Why leave out the 'warning' and replace with the exceedingly bland 'it'? Why turn the delightfully specific four flowers into a smattering? And why change the tense from "khile hain" (has bloomed) to is blooming? And all that's just in the first four lines.

If Indian poetry in English is going to meaningfully engage with its non-English counterpart we're going to need more than a smattering of dubious translations to work with.

Cheshire Cat said...

Eq.: Echoes of nativist critiques? And here am I saying that Indian poets writing in English shouldn't be restricted to writing about "Indian" subject matter...

With regard to awareness of international poetry, I just think a deeper acquaintance with American poetry would help, leaving translation aside for the nonce. When I was living in India, I was aware of the work of several British poets, mostly mediocre ones (most of contemporary British poetry is mediocre), but of hardly any American ones. I didn't know what I was missing until I read Ammons, Ashbery, Tate, Edson, Grossman, Palmer, Armantrout, Hejinian etc. Maybe things have changed now, but if not, they should, given that so many high-quality online resources are easily accessible.

Partisan said...

"If Indian poetry in English is going to meaningfully engage with its non-English counterpart we're going to need more than a smattering of dubious translations to work with." (Falstaff)

Your dismissal of translations available on that web-site, based on the one example that you have cited, seems to imply that there are no good translations at all on that site. This is evidently not true.

It could be said that Indian poetry in English is just as uneven in quality as you might find English translations of Indian literature to be. Surely you know that any genre grows by the community's identification and encouragement of the best in it.

Prejudice, wherever it is found, can scarcely aid progress.

On a related note, why do most Anglophone Indians grow up monolingual in an obviously polyglot country, severing themselves thereby from diverse expressions of community life? Do you think it is from an attitude of dismissiveness, perhaps inherited rather than consciously adopted? In this discussion, that may well be the elephant in the room.

Finally, there was some discussion on the merits or otherwise of "sounding translated". As we might expect, this point has been addressed by great minds. Here is Walter Benjamin on the subject:

"All translation is only a provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages...It is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it sounds as if it had originally been written in that language."

"...[Translation] is an opportunity to allow a foreign tongue to influence and modify the language into which a work is being translated.'

Susan Sontag:

"There is the intrinsic value making known, across a linguistic border, an essential text. There is also a value in connecting with something that is different from what we know, with foreignness itself."

"To naturalize a foreign book is to lose what is most valuable about it: the spirit of the language, the mental ethos out of which the text emerges."

Vivek Narayanan, who says somewhere in this discussion that poetry is created from language, not "culture", might disagree.

Falstaff said...

Partisan: Whatever. In the two languages where I can follow the original the translations are mediocre at best - so I have to be at least a little suspicious of the quality of translations across the site. That's not prejudice. That's trial and judgment.

Maybe there are a few good translations among all the dross - I certainly wasn't implying that there aren't (if it "seems" so to you, that's your problem). But without any way of judging which translations are well done and which are not, we're left with a scattershot collection of translations that may have curiosity value but are of little use in seriously engaging with a body of work in a non-English language. Even if I assume (despite the complete absence of any corroborating evidence) that, say, a third of the translations on the site are decent - that leaves me with what - maybe one / two poets in each language for whom I can read 3/4 poems? That's pathetically little - and precisely the kind of scarcity that I've been talking about all along.

As for the argument that we've all apparently inherited an attitude of dismissiveness, well, I'm just going to dismiss that as unworthy of comment.

Space Bar said...

I'm not sure how else one is to judge the quality of translation except by how it reads in the target language.

If a poem reads badly when it's translated into English, I am going to call it bad, without necessarily condemning by implication, the poem in the source language.


I really don't get why one has to applaud the effort when the result is so average.

equivocal said...

Was that me being summoned? Was that my name hailed?

We cannot, alas, now confirm this beyond doubt, but I'm pretty sure that Susan Sontag would have agreed with me absolutely that poetry is, in the primary instance, made with words, and language, and not some vague notion of "culture" beyond that. In fact, isn't that what she is saying in the quote given, that it is not enough to simply carry across the ("cultural") content of the work, one must be able to give a sense (or equivalent) of the language itself? And that means, in a perfect universe, the sound, the tone, the rhythm, the syntax, the way a particular language in the poem structures thought. Of course, you cant separate language and culture so easily, but my point was that you have, in the first and last instance, stick close to the language.

So in other words I don't disagree with the old saws of Benjamin or Sontag, nor, can I really be bothered to disagree very much with all the old disembodied sayings and beliefs and claims and dictums and catchphrases that are, to this day, lobbied back and forth-- like a never-ending game of badminton-- in the name of translation theory.

None of that, in turn, can do very much to hurt the singularity of the achievement of any particular successful translation, nor help to defend a translation that simply does not live.

So let me suggest that perhaps the best way to conduct this conversation meaningfully is to not dismiss or applaud translation in its entirety or in the abstract: I think everyone here would agree with that. Why not rather take up more specific examples? Falstaff has indeed done this already, and rather devastatingly, but we could perhaps look into translations from Indian poetry that we consider more or less successful. I would vote, as I always do, for R. Parthasarathy's Cillapathikaram. Ramanujan yes, because he manages to somehow make the classical Tamil anthologies or the Alwar poets come alive in English, although the compromises he makes to achieve that are a great, great many, and I bet that Walter Benjamin, for one, would not be pleased. The problem is also that we've become complacent with AKR's thin translations and no one has been able to show a radically different way of doing Tamil in English. Dilip Chitre's Namdev, for it is raw and alive and thrilling and awake in English, despite apparently flattening out various registers and dialects, despite anything and everything you might say. Chidananda Dasgupta's Jibananda Das, although this will make the Bengalis in the room gag and spit and say, sacrilege, sacrilege, even Seely does a better job-- but no, again, for me as a non-Bong, Chidananda Dasgupta's versions are the ones that are truly alive, the body not merely re-assembled according to the map, but with a new tensile strength in the muscles, a beating heart. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Vinod Kumar Shukla-- lovely-- none of which, alas are on the Poetry International site, though perhaps he was an invisible third presence on the Daniel Weissbort versions, which are a little flat for my taste.

All in all, not that many.

Perhaps, Partisan, if you have seen any really brilliant individual translations on the PIW site, you could point them out, and we could take them up for detailed discussion? If you happen to have work up there, I would ask that you exclude them so that no one has any personal stake in the pieces we discuss. We could-- and perhaps should-- set up a separate blog for this purpose.

Then we could get into the meat of why a particular translation works or doesn't.

equivocal said...

Oh, and please excuse the terrible grammar / proofreading errors in my comments! Hard to check that in this little box.

Falstaff said...

equivocal: Actually, there's good reason to believe Sontag would agree with you:

"language is the enforcer of separateness from other communities ("You don't speak my language") as well as the creator of community ("Anyone speak my language around here?")"

Falstaff said...

equivocal: It's interesting that the examples of good translations you cite (of which I've only read the Chitre's Dhasal, and agree completely; and to which I would add Shahid's Faiz) all have in common the fact that the translators have a fairly high degree of competence as poets in the target language. Which is sort of where I was going with the whole translations by Indian English poets being the answer argument.

Of course, taking that argument to its logical conclusion would imply setting up a separate blog not just to discuss good and bad translations out there, but to actually undertake fresh translations that could then be subject to critical scrutiny.

equivocal said...

So you actually like Shahid's Faiz, eh? I haven't read it, but a lot of people seem to dislike that book.

Binu Karunakaran said...

I do not think translations of works by Salma, Kutty Revathy, Manushyaputhran is anyway representative of the multi-verse called contemporary Tamil poetry. The same goes with Veerankutty, Raghavan Atholi and P.P.Ramachandran from Kerala whose poetry you see in translation on poetryinternational. Greater efforts have been taken by Kerala poets/translators to showcase Tamil poetry, recently through Harithakam ( a hugely respected malayalam poetry journal edited by poet P.P.Ramachandran.

The web has empowered poets writing in Malayalam and there is strong online community of poets and readers. I don't know how significant is the presence of poet-bloggers in other Indian languages. A multi-lingual poetry website with space for poet-translator collaboration might perhaps help in creating a small but energetic community that Vivek writes about.

Fals: "poets writing in English shed their exclusivist tag"? If you want me to reword and call such acts mutually exclusive, I would gladly do it. In private conversations with poets I have always felt the intensity of contempt some of them have towards Indian English poetry. My point is that it should be the Indian English poets who should take the lead to reach out to regional language poets. The apologies for not knowing the local language well enough are easy to find in Indian English writing (Malayalam's Ghazal, Jeet Thayil). It shows how hard it is even for unapologetic writer-lovers of English to escape the feeling of guilt. I am not intending to say that such a project should be undertaken because of a sense of guilt. It should be borne out of conviction that good poetry can exist in any language and that poetry in English can only turn richer through such an enterprise.

equivocal said...

Excellent formulations, Binu. Why do I get the feeling there is more interest in serious Tamil poetry and writing in Kerala than in Tamilnadu itself? Why do I get the feeling Malayalees are more curious about Tamil writers than vice versa? These things also should be discussed in the open, rather than, as you say, making an easy villain of the English.

There are serious bloghands here so I will leave it to them to set up, administrate, gate-keep the blog, if we wish, if it is actually to happen, Inshallah.

I just thought I would suggest some wishful guidelines for whenever it manages to happen. All open to change / debate, of course.

--The blog is for the presentation, discussion and critique of translations of individual poems from and also, ideally, *into* the various South Asian languages. Don’t know how we would judge or discuss “into”, but just wanted to put it out there.

--The discussed piece could be a translation found elsewhere, or it could be a translation specially written to be critiqued on the blog. Translators may present their work under a pseudonym if they wish.

--Please try to put up /send in only really, really good poems. There’s no point in judging the translation if the original poem wasn’t that good in the first place.

--Poems should ideally come from a variety of periods—historical as well as contemporary, living as well as dead poets. Young, old. But good poems.

--Translators (especially those who are showing their own work) should be thick-skinned and open to critique! Ideally, open to making revisions as well. Translators should be open to critique from all kinds of readers, including those who do know the original language. These are, after all, the translation’s ideal intended readers.

--Readers should be given the opportunity to present their own, rival translations of the poem. (I know this is controversial because translators like to “own” their poet/poem, but if we can do it, how fascinating it would be! See PEN’s translation challenge:

--Each poem should appear in the following formats
(I know this looks like a lot, but it’s less work than it seems, and it really will help us to discuss the work closely, and help those who don’t know the language to be useful and enter the discussion):

1. Original
2. Original, but transliterated to roman script. This is for non-speakers to get a sense of the sound patterns, but also for those who have the language, or similar, related languages, but not the script.
3. word-for-word “trot” translation below each word in format (2). This is for those who don’t have the source language to get a clear sense of the word order (among other things) and see what is being done to it. Also good to see things that have been left out / condensed / moved around.
4. (If necessary, to clarify) Translation into prose.
5. Any specific comments / challenges by the translator about the poem.
6. (If applicable) Links to previous translations that have been done.

7. Verse translation.

--In the comments box, people write in their critique of the translator’s choices, rival poems, revised versions by translator.

I don’t consider myself a translator yet, I have a while to go to attain that, but I sure would like to see and applaud good translations, whether written specifically for the blog, or brought in from elsewhere to show off and share!

equivocal said...

Sorry again, please correct the above. I definitely meant to say, "those who do *not* know the original language".

Binu Karunakaran said...

Eq: In cultural discourse the Tamil has always been the (occasionaly)deified/ (often) derided 'other' for Malayalees. What attracts me to (the very limited)Tamil poetry I have read is the magical combination of poetic history and a post-avant garde sensibility. This is something I largely miss in Malayalam. A huge chunk of poetry and literature being churned out in this part of the world now is being shaped by political reaction to neoliberalism. Great. No complaints. Only that there's very little poetry.

On translaton interface: A Poetry Translation Wiki is likely to be better suited than a blog.

Partisan said...

First, a couple of denials:

Spacebar: I did NOT invite you to applaud anything on the site, I was merely pointing to it as a potential source of some good translations at least. If you think poorly of the material presented there, that's fine by me. Now I know.

Binu: I never said that translations of the three women poets represent the "multi-verse" of Tamil poetry. I was merely pointing...etc.

Falstaff: With due respect, I don't think knowledge of the original language is essential for reading and then judging the quality of a translation as a reader. Most readers of translations are in fact ignorant of the original language. I wish you had read more of the material before dismissing the entire repository of translations as "dross".

equivocal: Language is an instrument of community before it is anything else. Sontag talks of the mental ethos of a language, which cannot be independent of culture. I am of course surprised that you think "culture" is vague. It is anything but. In most societies, it remains a life-shaping force. I referred to it only to imply that the chances of Indian poetry in English becoming seamlessly a part of global English poetry - through a kind of transcendental internationalism based on a shared language - are rather bleak.

I am also surprised that you consider Benjamin and Sontag as passe.

Anyway, good translations do exist. It is up to anyone to find them.

equivocal said...

Aha-- nice rhetorical judo move, Partisan! I hope your misreading of what I said is deliberate-- cheers.

Falstaff said...

equi: Let's put it this way - I think Rebel's Silhouette is a fine collection of poems. I also think a lot of that is Shahid and not Faiz.

Also, well, a lot of my admiration for Shahid's Faiz is relative - every other translation of Faiz I've read is so awful that I have to admire someone who gets it mostly right. Do I think Shahid's Faiz is perfect? No. Do I think better translations of Faiz are possible? Yes. But I think Rebel's Silhouette is a translation worth taking seriously.

Will see what I can do about the blog (though I wonder if some other kind of forum - something more geared to multi-party collaboration - may not be more appropriate, as Binu suggests). Suggestions from other people on the technical aspects of this?

binu: Well said, and I agree entirely. I just wasn't sure why you felt the burden should fall mostly on Indian English poets, so thanks for clarifying that.

And do you have any experience with wikis? I agree that they sound like a better idea but I've never used one before.

partisan: As equivocal said, if you think they're good translations on the site, how about you point some (or even one) out to us instead of acting all holier-than-thou and cherry-picking Sontag quotes.

Look, if you're satisfied with a smattering of uncritiqued translations on a website somewhere, good for you. As should be obvious by now, the rest of us don't think that's enough.

Binu Karunakaran said...

Fals: Not a pro though I have had experience creating Wiki's as part of a workshop. And there are hosted free wiki srevices available.

A 2 GB space with unlimted users and pages comes free.

equivocal said...

Binu, I'm no expert either, but my only doubt about a wiki format is that, as far as I know, it tries to work towards a single, "best" version, with inputs from many authors, and suppressing "previous" versions or hiding them behind the scenes. That at least is how wikipedia is meant to work.

I don't think that will work here, since we won't be able to agree on which choices are better--anyway, we shouldn't the point is not the resolution but the arguments/discussion, and the diversity of versions, all kept with their own integrity. See again the link I gave to the PEN translation slam --

Binu Karunakaran said...

Pls check the sample wiki page that I have created using dummy text from the PEN poetry translation slam page.
Lost & Found

Wiki offers the advantage of a simple WYSIWIG editing. Any one can view but only members can edit.

Wiki helps create pages in a jiffy and you can have different pages for each version of translation. Unless members do reckless editing we will be free of chaos. Members like editors of Wikipedia will be notified of the changes made. We will not be working towards a single version, but several versions of a poem.

I believe Wiki is better than a blog when you think of the requirements of information architecture such a project requires.

Drop me a email so that I can add you as members. You can check the features.

Binu Karunakaran said...

Sorry I think I erred on the html. Here's the Wiki test page


Falstaff said...

binu: Thanks for doing this. Will look through the site over the weekend and mail you.

In other news, the Pakistan Academy of Letters has apparently just set up a translation bureau. Though the press release for said bureau does NOT inspire confidence.

Space Bar said...

Binu: your profile doesn't have an email.

Binu Karunakaran said...



Partisan said...

All right.

The only reason I intervened was to say that comments made here on translations of Indian language literatures were flaky and baseless. Our little experiment has only confirmed my opinion. The judgment here is evidently based on:

- reading very little of what you are judging
- the illiterate and/or dishonest notion that the reader must know the original in order to judge
- the equally unschooled view that English translation is more about the splendours of the English language than about the original text

The poetry international site is edited and maintained by a highly regarded Indian English poet, who does, month after month, the onerous job of identifying poets and translators for the site, editing the material and writing an introduction. None of you is likely to surpass her credentials as an editor anytime soon.

The fact is, there is a community of editors and translators which has been active for the past 15-20 years, bringing important works in the Indian languages to a more general audience in English. Many of these texts have been critiqued, if you like, and some of them have been selected as texts by universities in India as well as overseas, especially the US. You guys don’t have to come in now with your half-cooked ideas and become peremptory arbiters of what a good translation is. (Equivocal’s overly mechanistic Six-Fold Way is nothing but an idle fancy. We get along quite nicely without such twaddle.) Read, if you want to, and if you can’t, go back to your monolingual zone. Only don’t bad-mouth what you are mostly ignorant of.

Equivocal: I have not misunderstood what you have repeated several times in several fora. No chance. “Transcendental internationalism” is very much a central part of your discourse and even the current discussion. It is of course a fatuous idea, but if you want to roll it back, feel free to go right ahead. We all deserve a second chance.

As for rhetoric, equivocal, I have nothing on you. How grad-school-weary you had sounded about the “old saws” of Benjamin and Sontag! Sontag’s “old saw” was of course delivered during a 2004 lecture and published in a posthumous collection of her writings in 2007. Even presumption, it would appear, must cease at some point.

Falstaff said...

partisan: Nice. I notice you still haven't managed to point us to a single translation on that site that you consider good. Or to a single book that you consider to be a good translation of an Indian poet. For someone who claims to be 'educating' us you're pathetically short on evidence.

And just to be clear, I did not say (or imply, except to your illogical mind) that "the reader must know the original in order to judge". I provided two examples - one (the Gulzar) to show that the translations don't work in English and the second (the Shukla) to show that the translations, in addition to not working in English, are significantly disloyal to the original text. Ergo, they are bad translations. I could do a similar analysis for the translations of half a dozen other poets (contrary to your arbitrary assumption, I've read about 50% of the poems on that site, and consider about 15-20% of them to be even moderately effective), but what would be the point? It's not like you're actually interested in evidence.

Finally, on the highly-regarded editor in question - highly regarded by whom? Certainly not by me.

No more. As I said earlier, if you're satisfied with your complacent little site, good for you. Why not stop badgering those of us who want more? Either come up with a translation that you're willing to debate and defend, or stop wasting our time.

P.S. You do realize that your second and third bullet points contradict each other? If translations are about the original text, then how loyal they are to the text has to matter, and judging that requires a knowledge of both languages. On the other hand, if translations are to be judged without reference to the original language, then they can only be judged on the basis of how well they work in the target language, which makes it about "the glories of the English language".

Equivocal said...

"Transcendental internationalism"-- catchy, I kind of like that.

Where you are wrong, of course, is your claim that I think this has to entail the erasure of all local texture or content. No need to go to other fora to check that, just read back through all the things I've written in this very comment stream. Slowly.

Judging by your inability to provide examples, I bet that I / we have read far more of the PIW India site than you have, Partisan. I for one read each new edition of the India sub-site as it comes out, and have been for some years. I think that Arundhati does an excellent job of curating it, as well as seeking out at least competent translations where available. But at the end of the day, she can only work with what is out there. There are obviously some very good translations on the site; excerpts from Dilip Chitre's Namdeo that I already mentioned, for instance, are available there. However, even where the translations are competent-- by which I mean they carry the sense accurately and clearly, without silly, misguided, egotistical little attempts (by the translator as frustrated second-rate poet) to be overly poetic and even "improve" the original-- even among the competent translations, a great many lack any consistent sense of music.

If you want to be complacent about the achievements of Indian poetry in translation, that's up to you.

Cheshire Cat said...

Transcendental internationalism is indeed evil. I believe in international transcendentalism, which is quite a different thing...

equivocal said...

True, true, cat. And since I do think (as I said) that poetry should have teeth, it shouldn't be seamless or uniform, let me go further and say that I personally prefer transnational interdentalism.

(You asked for it--dont blame me.)

Falstaff said...

equi: Or Transylvanian Internationalism?

Puts a whole new spin on Ghalib: "Ragon mein daurte phirne ke ham nahin kaayil"