Poetry Translation Workshop 2

The poem below is by Najm Hosain Syed, a distinguished name in modern Punjabi literature.

First listen to the poem read out by the poet. View video >>

The point of our exercise, whether you know Punjabi or not, is to understand how the poem works and by close reading and translation to try to see/understand what constitutes the poetry of it. And through a foreign language we may see better what might work in a poem in English.

Glance down the last words of each line (you may like to say them aloud or listen to the video again).

View video »

The Month of Katayien is Here (katayieN chaRh gaya é)

katayieN chaRh gaya é
eis bahãrey sun*iaa e koojaaN ãvandiaaN sannmathi-mathi ik haneri payee jhuldee é be-malumi
thãr-jihi ik `va de aNdar ghuldi é
lagda é eh shahar puran*a
sehjo sehaj koyee lamma paNdh kareNda
malkRey jehey kisey naweiN jahãn di hadd `te ãn* khlota é
oho ghar né, oho saRkãN
fer vi koyee gall hor jihi hoyee labhdee é
oho lok ne
koyee akhiãN vich par tarel jihi é
nit de vichhoRé nit dé nirasé koloN
jehRi-beparvãh hoyee lagdi é

katayieN chaRh gaya é
sun*iã é eis bahãrey pattar jhaRdé né

tãki té di kan*iãN payéyãN
hauli-hauli hajhakdiãN juRh gayéãN
tilkdiãN muRh hethãN turiãN
jiveN grehstanãN ãhar karédiãN
achanchet ulãr-jihiãN ho vaiNdiãN né
te muRh akhiãN pooNjh ke trikhiãN-trikhiãN
kamméN lagiãN rehNdiãN né

There are no rhymes but there is a certain rhythm.

 Listen again View video »

Punjabi syntax is very much different from English. Read glosses of first four lines under the next subheading. Problems of grammar, diction and idiom will remain forever; that’s what translating is all about. Here is a simple sentence – I love you. English glosses of the Punjabi sentence will be: I you to love doing am.

Note: You can get a long way into the whole sense of a poem by accurately observing its physical make-up. You can do this (with help) even in a language you don’t speak.

Translation Word-for-Word
As an example, glosses of the first four lines show the syntax of the Punjabi language and may give some idea how the Punjabi mind works through the language and vice versa.

kwqyN cVH igaf ey

eys bhfry suixaf ey kMUjF aFvdIaF sn

Kattak risen has is

This weather [I’ve] heard is cranes come used to

mwTI-mwTI iek hnyrI peI JuwldI ey bymlUmI

Tfr-ijhI iek ’vf dy aMdr GuÜdI ey

Slow wind lies blowing imperceptibly

Like coolness in air dissolves is

A literal translation to help with your version can be found here

Linguistic Background
First of all let us locate Punjabi on the world map. It is an Indo-European language within the Indic branch of the Indo-Iranian subfamily. Its region is the Punjab in northern India divided between India (30 million speakers) and Pakistan (80 million speakers). It is the 12th most widely spoken language in the world. It is statistically the second most widely spoken language in Britain. It figures after English, French, Chinese, Italian and German languages in Canada and it is at fourth place in British Columbia.

Hard retroflex flap V x and stop consonant sounds in Punjabi Tz Z Q J make it distinct from romance languages.

Even the finest feelings are expressed using these sounds, which may ring incongruous to the ears of a romance language speaker.

This poem contains such 15 stop consonants.

Even though Punjabi is the most spoken language in Pakistan, it has no official status mainly because Punjabi is seen there as the language of ‘unsophisticated’ people and of the Sikhs whose holy book is in Punjabi written in the Gurmukhi script. To write in one’s mother tongue Punjabi is seen as a political statement challenging the ideology of Pakistan. Urdu the national language of Pakistan is spoken by a tiny population.

I have also written an essay in Punjabi on this poem.

Syed writes in the Persian - Farsi - script written from right to left unlike the Gurmukhi script in which I write and is so close to me. (I call the Gurmukhi the mother script of Punjabi). I can’t read my own books published in the Farsi script in West Punjab across the ‘international’ border carved out during Partition in 1947.

In translation the first casualty is the script. In the case of Punjabi the loss is twofold.

Some comments on the poem

It is a poem largely composed of images of subdued melancholy and silent suffering of Punjabi women, using pure language and cultural references. KatayieN used in the title is a further Punjabi variation of the Punjabi word Kattak - Kartik in Sanskrit - the seventh month of the Hindu Vikrami lunar calender established by Emperor Vikramaditya in 56 BCE. Now it is popularly used in India and the villages of West Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan. Kattak, coinciding with October, is the sowing season of wheat and ripening of the cotton crop. The name connects with mythological references of ancient Indus valley civilisation. Kartik is a name of Sikand, son of Lord Shiva and his consort Paravati. Kritika, wife of the Moon, was the wet nurse of Kattak. He was the supreme commander of gods, the exterminator of the demon Tarak. These references make this poem deeply rooted in the ancient Punjabi culture, whereas the official history of Pakistan starts from the eighth century with the invasion of Punjab and Sindh in India by Mohammad Bin Qasim of Saudi Arabia.

The main metamorphic image is of KoonjaaN the cranes. The cranes migrate to the Punjab from Siberia during this month of the year coinciding with October. In Punjabi folksongs a married woman is referred to as a crane in anguish that is separated from her flock - family and friends. The departure of the newly wed daughter is always a heart-breaking scene, which from her and her family’s side can only be seen as death before reincarnation. Till recently women after marriage were given new names - a new identity breaking totally from her past.

The poet uses cinematic silent imagery as if with soft flute playing in the background on monochrome film shot from above - the camera panning from flying cranes to the close ups of raindrops on the windowpane or tears welling up in women’s eyes. The montage narrated by a male soothing voice (in the video by the poet himself): sky with and without flying cranes, city’s sky line, streets, houses, falling tree leaves, raindrops on windowpanes, women talking, teardrops. Fade out.

Punjabi is an accented language, and in fact more heavily accented than English. You will hear where the stresses fall in a line of Punjabi verse. And you may be able to hear whether the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is regular or not. Also, you may pick up assonance.

Secondly we describe the appearance and make-up of the poem.

This poem has a title.

It is composed of three parts, of thirteen, two and seven lines. The first parts build up the emotional ground taking it to the climax in the last part. 

The lines vary in length (typographically, number of words, number of stresses).

Glance down the last words of each line (you may like to say them aloud or listen to the video again).

View video >>

There are no rhymes, but it has a certain rhythm. 

Listen again View video >>

You can probably hear that the stress-pattern is not regular. Look at the punctuation without the marks - each line starts and is read out with the natural breathing in. The last part starts with a longer pause. The last part has seventeen words ending with the nasal rhythmic high tone sound ਈ eeN giving it resonance.

You will see that most lines go over into the next to complete their sense.

Limits of translating: Nuance in sound
All Arabic, Farsi, Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu classical poetry, mostly Sufistic, revolves around the theme of Hijr (Arabic), Firaq (Persian) Vi-yoga and Viraha (Sanskrit) and Vichhorha (with ‘rh’ hard retroflex flap sound in Punjabi) all meaning the same. The words sound elegant in these languages and have no equivalent in English. The word ‘separation’ is the closest but so inadequate.

Some comments on the translation
The Punjabi script has no capitals or lower cases.
Word-order: The Punjabi sentence is very loose in structure and extremely flexible. See glosses of first four lines. When translating you have to judge how odd it would sound in English if you reproduce a syntax, which is normal and correct in Punjabi.

Line 1: In Punjabi the Sun/Moon/Day/Month/Year/New Century
rises/climbs/embarks/mounts/rides/clambers etc. It cannot be literally translated into English.

Line 3: mathi-mathi ik haneri jhuldi é ‘Blowing of slow wind’ is extremely difficult to translate into English. The literal version is very close to the cultural register of the English language. There is a benign, loving, almost spontaneous  humanisation (it is not the same as personification) of nyrHI wind which may look odd in the English language.

Lines 7 and 15 glimmer with hope of a new world and coming spring after the autumn (‘falling leaves’).

Note: Much of the pathos of the poem is contained in its severe understatement.

Possible further exercises
Translate the poem. You might do different versions: one very close, one ‘freer’. Move further away and write a poem in English that employs some or all of the poetic means employed by Syed in Punjabi: irregular metre; images that constitute a state of being. The poem might be an image of the original – same emotional tenor – or, still employing the same strategies, one having an entirely different mood and sense.

Note: strategies are imitable; they may be observed, learned, carried over (translated) into your native tongue, for your own purposes.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I have drawn upon most of the general translating guidelines from the previous Poetry Translation Workshop by David Constantine on a poem Hälfte des Lebens by Friedrich Hölderlin.

VIDEO: Voice over by Najm Hosain Syed; Painting by Gurvinder Singh; Video made by Danyal Rasheed. Typesetting in the Farsi script by Zubair Ahmed.

Amarjit Chandan

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