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Translating a Tamil poem - Lakshmi Holmström

2nd December 2013


Lakshmi Holmström

We are pleased to be working with Arc to present a series of blogs on translated poetry. In this first piece, poet and translator Lakshmi Holmström discusses translation from Tamil, and how a translation can stand up on its own...

The poem beneath was originally published in MPT Series 3 No. 6, ‘After Images’.

Interested in Tamil poetry? You might want to listen to our podcast with poet and translator, Shash Trevett.

Literal translation of R. Cheran - ‘I could forget all this...’

        Everything can be forgotten;
        this life, wretched and helpless,
        refusing to abandon,
        with an instant’s spark of hope
        along Galle Road
        while all the compass points,
        and with the compass points, (my) heart too,
        shook, as (I) hastened

        from an upturned burnt out car
        a protruding thigh bone,
        between the earth and the sky
        fixed on a spot somewhere
        a staring eye,
        without an eye, within the eye socket
        caked blood,
        on Dickmans Road
        instead of black heads
        blood red, split open,
        six men,
        escaping the fire
        a piece of a sari,
        losing its partner
        as well as its watch
        lying alone
        a left hand (or arm),
        from the burning house,
        a cradle
        unable to carry, (yet) carrying it out,
        a pregnant Sinhala woman,

        all these,
        everything can be forgotten

        where you hid your children
        under those tea-bushes
        which clouds descended and concealed,
        that late afternoon,
        when, after many days,
        putting a little rice in a pot
        to cook, you waited, hiding,
        for the pot to boil,

        plucked and flung away, my girl,
        the broken pot,
        and scattered on the ground
        the parched rice,
        how to forget?


This is an almost line-by-line, literal translation of a famous poem by the poet Cheran, about a terrible event which happened in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in 1983. Briefly, soon after 13 Singhalese soldiers were killed in an ambush by the militant group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTEs, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers), one of the worst pogroms against the Tamils broke out in the capital where there was an almost systematic massacre of Tamil families. The violence then spread throughout the island, targeting Tamil civilians, including the tea-plantation workers. (The tea plantation workers are Tamils who came to Sri Lanka during the colonial period, to work on the tea estates: they are distinct from the Jaffna Tamils who have lived on the island since earliest times; they form a small minority amongst a predominantly Sinhala population.)

Structure of the poem

Almost the first thing that any translator of poetry from Tamil into English must take into consideration, is the difference in sentence structure between the two languages. Tamil sentences achieve their own logic and density because of the way all subordinate clauses are arranged in order of time or sequence, usually leading to the principal finite verb which comes at the end. Often the sentence order is exactly the reverse in English. There are times when – serendipitously – the English translation will match the topography of the Tamil poem almost exactly. But most often, the effectiveness of the last line cannot be matched in English, without resorting to inversion. The translator might have to achieve the same effect by seeking out some other poetic pattern.

Just consider the poem again. Grammatically, it is made up of a single long sentence, which is basically this: Everything can be forgotten/all this can be forgotten/ but… my girl.. the broken pot/ the parched rice/ how shall I forget? The first three verses enact a headlong flight along a main street in Colombo, full of terrible sights and scattered body-parts. The pace of the poem is equally headlong; the long sentence strings together surreal and fragmented images as they hurtle past. The last verse, by contrast, is a single poignant memory: the poem slows down with the conjunction aanaal, ‘but’. That aanaal stands alone, as if the reader is invited to take a breath and start again. The last part of the sentence (but…my girl…the broken pot… the parched rice…how shall I forget), is qualified by so many phrases and clauses, details of that single tragic scene remembered and dwelt upon, making up a complex verse of 14 lines.


In the very first line what comes out as a passive construction in English, is actually a reflection by the narrator, with an implied ‘I’ or ‘you’ or even ‘one’. In the last line of the first verse, too, there is an implied pronoun. In Tamil there is no loss in the immediacy of the experience, but I felt, in English, there had be a direct construction and a personal pronoun. (In Tamil, it is not until the last verse that the narrator makes a direct appearance.)

        while all the compass points
        and with the compass points (my) heart too
        shook, as (I) hastened

The Tamil word Cheran uses is thisaigal, literally compass points, or directions. The image is one of the narrator being caught in a world that is jolted and shaking. The Tamil word kulungu, ‘shaken, shaking’ is a very physical one. My first draft went

        … all directions shuddered
        - and with them, my heart -

This, though, sounded a bit obscure, the image didn’t seem to translate very well, so my final version reads

        … the very earth shuddered,
        and so too, my heart.

In English, the very long second verse, with its piled up images, doesn’t make sense until we come to the two lines following, ‘all these/ everything can be forgotten’. I had to reverse the sentence, but was anxious to keep the repetition, ‘everything can be forgotten’, which, in a way brackets off the first two verses.

I made a decision, controversial, perhaps, to separate off each terrible image so that it stands alone. I hope this captures the sense of these stark visuals as they flash past the fleeing narrator. I also used, almost instinctively, a monosyllabic diction which is like the thudding of feet along the street. (Cheran indicates, very subtly, that along with the carnage, a mindless looting has also gone on: someone has wrenched off a wristwatch from a severed hand; a pregnant woman steals a cradle from a burning house)

        a cradle
        unable to carry, (yet) carrying it out,
        a pregnant Sinhala woman

The Tamil has ‘thottil ondrai/ sumakkamudiaamal sumandupona’. The image is extraordinary: a pregnant woman seizes her chance to steal a cradle, though she puts herself in danger. It is the only thing she needs and loots. Cheran repeats the word sumakka/ sumandu ‘to carry, carried’. I wanted to keep the repetition if possible, but also to suggest the awfulness of the situation, the paradox of it. My final version has:

        A Sinhala woman, pregnant
        bearing, unbearably,
        a cradle from a burning house.

I like the weight of meanings in the English words ‘bear’ and ‘unbearable’.

The last verse was incredibly difficult. I wanted to keep the long sentence, the one poignant memory, with all its loving detail. The task is to recreate the sentence into English verse form in such a way that the enactment of memory has somehow to come across with the same poetic effect. When the Tamil syntax is as difficult as this to translate, I find that it is helpful to do a literal translation and then see how each phrase will transpose into English. It is in the transposition that there will be loss and gain.

In Tamil, this verse begins with the single word aanaal, ‘but’. The sound of the Tamil, with its two syllables and its two long vowels is so much more tender and reflective than the abruptness of ‘but’ in English, so I moved ‘my girl’ to the first line, trying to reflect the feeling and sense of aanaal. The transposition of the lines, to make a flowing sentence in English, in any case, required the image of the girl to come first, the rice cooking in the poet to come next, and then the children hiding under the tea bushes. In Tamil this series is in reverse, as you will see in the literal translation. Is there a subtle change in the outcome? (I note that the image of the traumatised children is prescient: it will haunt all of Cheran’s war poetry.)

The word that Cheran uses for ‘plucked’ is pidungu in Tamil. Pidungu is used in many senses: for the action of picking tea leaves, for plucking out, snatching up or dragging out/pulling out. The sound ‘pidungu’ to me has a very strong physical feel. Here it has to glance at picking tea leaves and indicate rape at the same time: a difficult task, except that Cheran combines it with it with eripatta, thrown away.

In Cheran’s poem, the last line is …. eppadi marakka, ‘how to forget’, where the ‘I’ is taken for granted. In reversing the sentence, I end the translated poem with the image of the broken pot and the parched rice. I hope this works too : for me this image, so simple yet so horrific, stands not only for the devastation of that day in July 1983, but also for the damage and loss caused in the many years to come.

So here is my final version of the poem:

        I could forget all this
        Forget the flight
        headlong through Galle Road
        clutching an instant’s spark of hope
        refusing to abandon this wretched
        vulnerable life
        even though the very earth shuddered
        — and so too, my heart —

        Forget the sight
        of a thigh-bone protruding
        from an upturned, burnt-out car

        a single eye fixed in its staring
        somewhere between earth and sky

        empty of its eye
        a socket, caked in blood

        on Dickman’s Road, six men dead
        heads split open
        black hair turned red

        a fragment of a sari
        that escaped burning

        bereft of its partner
        a lone left hand
        the wristwatch wrenched off

        a Sinhala woman, pregnant,
        bearing, unbearably,
        a cradle from a burning house

        I could forget all this
        forget it all, forget everything

        But you, my girl,
        snatched up and flung away
        one late afternoon
        as you waited in secret
        while the handful of rice
        — found after so many days —
        cooked in its pot,
        your children hidden beneath the tea bushes
        low-lying clouds shielding them above —
        How shall I forget the broken shards
        and the scattered rice
        lying parched upon the earth?

Some conclusions

To translate a poem is not to translate its prose meaning alone.

A poem comes from a whole cultural tradition and history. A translation has to bear this in mind, particularly when addressing a readership which doesn’t come equipped with the same cultural baggage.

But one also has to address as sensitively as possible, the ‘minute particulars of the individual poems, the words, the syntax, and through them the world in the words,’ as A.K. Ramanujan, poet and translator, puts it.

So a translation is a personal one in that it is a particular reading coming out of a particular interpretation.

In the end the poem in translation has to stand up on its own, with an integrity of its own. It has, at its best, to work as a poem on its own. And one has to take the necessary risks to achieve that.

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