Defying translation – a Review of Sudeep Sen’s Aria/Anika

Sudeep Sen’s luminous collection Aria/Anika brings together poets from across the Eastern hemisphere, translated from multifarious languages with craft and imagination.

Sen’s record as a poet and translator is formidable: his poems have achieved international acclaim, he has edited several major anthologies, and his list of honours and scholarships is as long as the praise and endorsements that splash the cover and inner pages of the book.

In his latest work, his award-winning collection of translations Aria is counterpointed by Anika, a compilation of his own poems, which themselves have been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

The poems of Aria are usefully divided and subdivided by region and language, then by poet. This approach results in headings such as “South Asian Poetry (Bengali, Bangladesh, India)”, which brings together poets as diverse in age, language and style as titan and Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore, modern bards like Ashok Vajpeyi and the elegant Bangladeshi romantic Fazal Shahabuddin.

Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

The arrangement’s attempt at precision is one of its most striking aspects, and helps to bring a strong sense of cohesion to a work that can cross so many boundaries in space and language over the span of a few pages.

Any act of translation automatically revives the same old conflicts and conundrums: between loyalty to the original and the aesthetic value of the new; between the sense of the piece and its original form.

Untitled

Sen falls on the side of fidelity, and makes every effort to reproduce all aspects of the poems’ originals in English. It’s an admirable approach, but at times leaves the poems hanging in some in-between place, written in a sort of English “translationese” that hampers the final effect.

This is most glaring in the translations of Tagore’s nonsense verses, Khapcharra. I found myself wondering why Sen was at such pains to reproduce the sense of the words in poems that are written to have little sense.

Still, this is not at all the overriding feeling of the collection, which on the whole teases beauty out of the space between languages. Jibananda Das’ “Banalata Sen”, for instance, is a glorious piece of work.

Birds return home, so do the rivers; as life’s trade – its give-and-take – ceases.

Only the dark stays. And as it remains, so does sitting by my side,

face to face, my own Banalata Sen.

It’s enough to make you want to learn Bengali, and whether the poetry has been translated from Hindi, Persian, Polish, Macedonian, Korean, Hebrew or Urdu, the quality is similarly high.

As for Sen’s own poetry, it bears all the hallmarks of its author’s art. Thoughtful and poised, they act as answering voices not just to the poems in Aria, but also to the questions of the reader, to the process of translation itself. As Sen writes in Translating Poetry:

A sheet of glazed emission

emerged, words on an unsuspecting tray

a real poem defies translation, in every way.

Sen is preoccupied with feet, and steps – with the states of water, and the rhythms that roll out from between each language. This is translation as an experiment, as play, and it’s a collection of writing I’ve returned to over and over again.

UntitledAnother poem, “Aria’s Footprint”, tells us something about the engagement that a work of translation involves:

the block of text

I tirelessly worked on…

your new step

like miniature ice-bergs

refusing to melt

Poems follow afterward like falling fruit: “Banyan”; “Bhopal Light”; “Eating Guavas Outside Taj Mahal”. One shimmering standout is “Bharatanatyam Dancer”, the rhythm and rhyme-scheme of which reproduce the beats infused in the traditional dance popular in Tamil Nadu: ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta.

Overall, despite its preoccupation at categorisation and precision, Aria/Anika comes across as a mishmash, a casting of sticks all higgledy-piggledy, a complex arrangement, but at its best it is a work of startling beauty and will add lustre to the career of one of international poetry’s guiding stars.

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