How does a text change in translation?

The overall impression of the image of the raindrop, the words chosen, the rhythm of these lines, is one of gentleness, slowness; it is in this way that sadness comes to the women, and then slips away

I have been teaching seminars at Manchester University, for an undergraduate course called Textual Communities. The course is constructed around an essay by Edward Said called ‘The World, the Text and the Critic’, in which Said argues that all texts are worldly – they don’t belong to a pure separate sphere of art, but are deeply implicated in the world, formed by the communities in which they are conceived, produced, distributed, shared, read. Each week, we have been studying a different text, exploring the ways in which it has been created by the context: historical, geographical, political, cultural, ideological, of its conception, writing, production, audience, translation and readership.

We recently looked at translation, examining three very different translated versions of Dante’s Inferno, each reflecting the time, place, language and cultural context into which they were translated. In the seminar, we considered questions such as how a text changes in translation, what influences how it is translated, and how translations are coloured by the background/world-view of the translator as a located individual. Each translation, therefore, is an interpretation of the original text or of a translation – and adds layers to the work that take us away from the original.

In order to discuss this further, I used examples from a Translate a Poem Workshop on the Modern Poetry in Translation website to examine this idea of translation as a creative act, as an interpretation by the individual translator - informed by his/her background and world-view. The workshop is an open invitation to translate, very freely, from the original Punjabi or from Amarjit Chandan’s literal English translation of the poem The Month of Katayien is Here by Najm Hosain Syed. In the seminar, we looked at Chandan’s original literal translation and compared it to three of the translations that follow by Madan Gopal Singh, Virinder S. Kalra and Sonia Jarema. We paid particular attention to the beautiful last stanza, and the different ways in which the images and language in it are portrayed in all these versions – influenced perhaps, by the identities of the translators themselves.

Two raindrops fell on the glass windowpane
             and moving slowly joined hesitatingly
Then started slipping down together
As women folk get swayed with emotion all of a sudden while doing their chores
They wipe their tears and get on with their work in a sprightly fashion.

In Chandan’s version above, these two raindrops move ‘slowly’ and join ‘hesitatingly’. They ‘slip down’ together. It is a gentle image, of women who, like the slowly moving raindrops, are quietly stirred, ‘swayed’ by emotions - memories or sadness, in the midst of their chores and then, wiping their tears away continue with their work. The overall impression of the image of the raindrop, the words chosen, the rhythm of these lines, is one of gentleness, slowness; it is in this way that sadness comes to the women, and then slips away. The same atmosphere is created in the translations/ interpretations by Kalra and Singh (italics are mine):

Two droplets fell on the windowpane
came together in a slow hesitant move
Like women of the house
in the midst of their chores
overcome with emotion all of a sudden
wipe their eyes yet again
and get back to work
with sharpened vigour

(Madan Gopal Singh)

Two raindrops land on the window
reluctantly, they slowly join
down, now together.
Just like women folk
In the middle of their housework
Over come with feeling.

(Virinder S. Kalra)

These translations recreate some of the sentiment and rhythm of Syed’s original poem in Punjabi (as well as in his recorded rendering of the poem on-line), which carries a gentle aura of sadness, nostalgia, but also of distance. The women, who are compared to these raindrops, are seen in his poem, along with its other images, from afar.

In Jarema’s translation of the poem, in contrast, the raindrops move slowly until they ‘shudder’ into each other.

and rush into free fall
as emotion sweeps the women
from their chatting and chores.

The words that Jarema uses, both in their meaning and their sound: (‘shudder,’ ‘rush into free fall,’) are very different, the sounds are harsher, there is more movement. Whereas in the earlier versions, and in the original, the poem tails beautifully at the end, with an image that stays with us, but also blends into the poem, in this version there is a change of tempo, a shift, where it registers the emotions of the women. The women, compared with these shuddering raindrops, stand out, they become flesh and blood, alive, dynamic – their emotions are so strong, that, like the shuddering, rushing raindrops, they sweep the women, not only from their chores or housework, but also their chatting. Compare this to the earlier translations, where the women are ‘overcome’ or ‘swayed’ by their emotions or by ‘a feeling’; in those sentence constructions, the women are active, an element of control is implied, which dilutes the strength of these feelings. Perhaps it is as a woman that Jarema interprets these images so differently, not as a distant observation, seen with an aura of nostalgia and romanticism, but with more force and feeling.

It is apparent, as we look at these different versions of Najm Hosain Syed’s poem in Amarjit Chandan’s MPT workshop, that each translator brings his/her own perception and interpretation to a work, and recreates it anew.

[Easter, 2012]

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