Translation or Travesty? Bharati’s Poems in English Translation

“Thath tharikita Thath tharikita thiththom,” says Mahakavi Bharati.

Whoosh, crackle, snap, sizzle,” says Usha Rajagopalan.

This claims to be the English translation of the last line of Agni Kunju – a profound allegorical poem by Bharati. It appears in a recently released book, Selected Poems, by Subramania Bharati, translated by Usha Rajagopalan, and published by Hachette India.  Ms. Rajagopalan            LR_BHARATHI_1228667e
has also released another book of Bharati translations called Panchali’s Pledge, an English rendering of Bharati’s Panchali Sabatham, also published by Hachette. Both books were released at functions  in Chennai during the Bharati festival and at the British Council, on December 10th and 12th.

For a long time, I wondered what Ms. Rajagopalan’s “translation” of the last line of Agni Kunju could mean. Then (I thought) I understood: it must represent the sound of a fire!

Perhaps the translator was imagining the sound of the fire when its flames burnt down the forest in Bharati’s poem:

Tamil 1 cropped

Yet, Bharati himself never wrote any such thing. The last line written by Bharati has nothing to do with the sound of the fire per se. It is a dance rhythm. Why, and on what basis, did Ms. Rajagopalan make this change from the original? It seems purely imaginary. A translation may have to take some liberties for the sake of readability in the new language. But in this case, the translator is, in effect, claiming that the poet wrote something that is simply not there. That is not translation; it is falsification of the original, and a misrepresentation of both the poet and his work. And – above all – the English phrase sounds ridiculous!

Another problem that is immediately apparent is the translator’s approach to the titles of Bharati’s poems. Some of the “translated” titles actually change Bharati’s imagination and become the translator’s own titles:

For example:

Panchali's Pledge– the title of the poem Panchali Sabatham is translated as Panchali’s Pledge rather than Panchali’s Vow. The connotations of the two words are quite different. The Oxford Concise English dictionary defines “pledge” as: “solemn promise or undertaking,” “a thing given as security for the fulfilment of a contract, the payment of a debt, etc., and liable to forfeiture in the event of failure, ” “a promise of a donation to charity.” “Vow” is defined as “a solemn promise, especially in the form of an oath to God.”

– Vendum as Aspirations

– Sivasakti  as In Search of Answers

– Agni Kunju as A Baby Fire

– Ammakkannu Pattu  as A Special Song

This last alteration is truly inappropriate.  Ammakkannu is not at all, as one of the reviewers of the collection puts it, a “term of endearment.” In fact, Ammakkannu was a person – it is the proper name of a woman who worked for the Bharati family in Pondicherry.  When Bharati’s family was under surveillance by the British police in Pondicherry for nationalist activities, Ammakkannu protected Bharati’s wife, Chellamma, and  his child.  When there was election in Pondicherry, she stayed in Bharati’s house day and night, as Bharati often returned home late at night from the Aurobindo Ashram.  She took food to Bharati wherever he went – the beach, the Ashram, the mango grove, and the ponds and temples around the outskirts of Pondicherry.

I have bought the Kindle version of this book, and I have read a number of reviews of Ms. Rajagopalan’s Selected Poems, which include excerpts from the translations. The reviewers have identified fundamental problems with the work, and have cited examples to support their claims. A review from the Sunday Guardian, “Underwhelming Entree for a Masterly Meal,” can be viewed here, and a review from The Hindu, “No Song Here,” can be viewed here. I  am very disappointed, and I  feel very  sorry that Ms. Rajagopalan’s efforts have ended up like this.

As noted by Sharanya Mannivannan in her review of the translations, Ms. Rajagopalan’s publication is in a position to inflict terrible damage on Bharati’s name among the reading public who want to know about the Tamil Mahakavi, but cannot read his work in the original. Today, literary reputations often depend on the ability of the English-speaking public to read and recognize great writers from countries and cultures around the world. Even in India, most of the reading public does not read Tamil; yet Bharati is a founding father of this nation of myriad languages, and what he wrote is relevant to them all – a gift for every single Indian, regardless of mother tongue. Translation, into English, and into other Indian languages, is important.

Yet, as far as English is concerned, Bharati has never found a good translator.  I have been reading translations of Bharati’s poems by various authors over the past four decades, and I have yet to see a satisfactory translation of Bharati.  This situation is unfortunate, but not at all surprising.  Translating Bharati is a formidable task.  It requires research and knowledge, scholarship, expert fluency in both Tamil and English, and something else – a literary touch –  what Alexander Pope called, “nameless graces which no methods teach.” Translating Bharati is additionally complicated by the fact that translation does not depend only on language.  Bharati’s poems involve a cultural framework that is profound and complex, and one that is, in many ways, quite remote from Western culture.  In this case, effective translation means cultural translation.

Taking all of these considerations into account, the sad truth must be acknowledged.  To date, no qualified translators of Bharati have come forward.

Let us look more closely at Agni Kunju, the great short poem, in deceptively simple language and form, that Ms. Rajagopalan attempted to render in English.  It is true that the poem is allegorical in nature and therefore subject to the interpretations of the reader. But, in a symbolic poem, you should be able to go beyond the words and try to capture the imagination of the poet in order to understand the symbolism. The reader-translator has to understand the poet, his background, his influences, the words he uses, his poetic diction, his thinking, his imagination, and his genius.

The symbolic poem Agni Kunju may be interpreted in several ways. It could be a poem about women’s freedom, spiritual experience, Vedic imagination – or a number of other possibilities!

Bharati’s interest in Vedic literature may have been a result of his association with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry.  He had the extraordinary opportunity of engaging in research with Sri Aurobindo, who lived as a fellow nationalist exile in Pondicherry while Bharati was there.  Sri Aurobindo, who was originally involved in the freedom struggle, ultimately emerged as a “philosopher,” “seer,” and a “maharishi”.  Both Bharati and Sri Aurobindo were learned scholars, and were widely read in the Sanskrit language and literature.  They read the Vedas together, the more than two and half millennia-old Hindu scriptures, undertook research, and wrote in detail about their findings.

Bharati points out that the language of the Vedas is the oldest known form of Sanskrit; it is quite different from the later scriptures that were written in Sanskrit, presenting unique challenges for the reader.  Importantly, the Vedic literature is basically symbolic.
In Vedic language

The Vedarishis pour ghee on the fire and sing in praise of Agni.  In the poem Agni Bhagavan, Bharati sings:

Tamil 3

The influence of Bharati’s Vedic research on his poetry is clearly apparent. A few of his poems are directly related to Vedic literature. In a poem called Velvi Pattu

Tamil 4

sings Bharati, in his Velvi Pattu.

In another poem, Agni Sthomam, which may be called a masterpiece, the rishis joyfully sing the praises of Agni and celebrate their success over the demons; in contrast, the asuras groan and lament their helplessness and defeat:

Tamil 5top

Tamil 5bottom

In Bharati’s poetry, his dealing with poetical “form” is quite extraordinary.  As a true Renaissance poet and creator of the modern Tamil language, he was an innovator, and built his innovations on the foundation of the age-long tradition of Tamil poetry.  Modern in every sense, not only in language, but also in thought, ideas, imagination, creativity, and vision, he chose to write in apparently “simple” language.  Because of this simplicity, the choice of simple words, common rhymes, and adherence to his fundamental principle that “one should write as one speaks,” it is easy to think that Bharati’s poetry is simple to  understand and enjoy. But it is quite the contrary. As the few examples discussed here illustrate, Bharati’s learning and influences are quite amazing, as they represent many traditions of literature and culture, going all the way back to the Vedic experience.

Reading poetry is an art in itself. The reader has an opportunity to make a journey with the poet himself, to wherever he has travelled, in order to capture the poet’s thinking and imagination.

In general, the best approach to read a poem is to approach it as a whole, rather than line by line, trying to capture the literal meaning of each word. The poem has the beauty of music, and the sound and rhythm of the words, themselves, communicate the poet’s vision.

I have examined in detail the original poem, Agni Kunju. It is also essential to bear in mind that a grasp of the “source” poem for the translation is only the first part of the translator’s job. The translator also carries the responsibility of expressing his or her thoughts on the source poem in a new language – one which may be far removed from the source language and culture. Therefore, the translator must be equipped to handle both traditions, which may or may not be compatible with each other.

Regarding Ms. Rajagopalan’s translations of Bharati, something must be done. The publication of these translations has already caused damage to Bharati. And the continued availability of the book will cause future damage to Bharati.

I had the following thoughts about possible remedies:

– The author of the translations could attempt to redo certain translations and re-publish them in a new edition of the book.  But, is there a promise of a better production? And what is to be done about the books that have already been sold? The book is even available in a Kindle version for worldwide distribution!

–  On this issue, should Hachette be called upon to withdraw these books from the market?

A few words need to be directed towards the publisher of Ms. Rajagopalan’s translations. How were these translations approved for publication? I do not know what Hachette’s approvals process involves, but I am familiar with the publication process at some of the world’s leading publishing houses for scholarship. Publication depends on the submission of a detailed proposal, explaining what the intellectual contribution of the book will be, what the writers see as its market potential, and how the writers are qualified to write the work that they hope to publish. In most cases, these proposals are examined, not only by the publisher, but by independent peer reviewers who assess the credibility of the project, point out potential weaknesses or problems, and comment on the qualifications of the author to undertake this work. The author must satisfy the publisher on all counts before a book can be accepted for publication.

As far as Ms. Rajagoapalan’s translations are concerned, how was this project approved for publication? Was her work subject to any form of independent evaluation, by peer reviewers or other experts? Were her qualifications to do this work assessed? I do not understand why Hachette did not notice the poor quality of the translations, and why they proceeded with publication.

The book production is, of course, beautiful – and Hachette is a well-reputed publisher. The books, especially as they are marketed under the authorship of “Subramania Bharati,” translated by Usha Rajagopalan, are sure to sell well. My main concern is, what kind of impression will they make with readers around the world, particularly non-Indian readers who may be attracted by the book’s delightful cover design, but may  or may not have any knowledge of Bharati as a poet? These translations present a grossly distorted caricature of the great poet. They will damage his reputation as a Mahakavi.

I appeal to the public. Should we not take care of our national treasures? How can this situation be dealt with? How can we find a remedy in this case?

 Bharati’s great-granddaughter, Mira T. Sundara Rajan, has become an expert on the “moral rights” of the author – an area that she decided to study in order to address the treatment of the Mahakavi’s works. Moral rights are an author’s right to proper attribution of his work, and to protect the integrity of his work from damage, distortion, or mutilation. In India, the Indian Copyright Act, section 57, protects the moral rights of authors. Internationally, a copyright treaty called the Berne Convention protects moral rights and is accepted by virtually every country in the world.

Mira has recently published a book on moral rights: Moral Rights: Principles, Practice, and New Technology (Oxford University Press, New York 2011). This book has also been published in an Indian edition by OUP India, and was reviewed in The Hindu. But Mira’s first scholarly paper was actually a study of Bharati’s moral rights, published in the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies (2001), and an excerpt from this paper was published as an editorial in The Hindu in December of 2004.  It includes a section on the problems of Bharati translations:

“Translations and Adaptations

Bharati’s works have been translated into a number of languages. Some of these translations are his own, while others have been done by his personal acquaintances.  The vast majority of translations of his works, however, were completed after his death. Many of these appear to be of disappointingly poor quality, particularly those in English and French.

The problems which arise in relation to these translations can often be characterized as moral rights issues. It is generally accepted that an original author has a moral right in translations of his work undertaken by other authors. As far as possible, translations should accurately reflect the meaning, ideas, and style of the original.  However, the situation of translations and adaptations in developing countries is quite distinctive, and deserves separate treatment beyond the sphere of moral rights.

In a vast and culturally diverse country like India, the quality of translations may be virtually as important to an author as the quality of his original works. Translations will determine whether the author’s works are read in other linguistic areas of India, as well as outside the country. The quality of translations is almost certain to affect his international reputation and standing. The availability of good translations not only determines whether an author’s works are read for pleasure in another country, but they will also have an impact on international scholarship on his works, and in the growth of international interest in his language, culture, and country.

Given Bharati’s historical importance, translation within his own country is vitally important. Few Indians are literate in more than one or two national languages, a situation that KR Srinivasa Iyengar appropriately calls a “mental purdah.”  As a result, for Indians to be aware of literary happenings in different parts of the country, reliable and suitable translations into regional languages are crucial. This applies equally to readers and to other writers, whose creative development stands to benefit from contact with writers in the other national languages.

Translation Rights in Indian Law

Under the Indian Copyright Act, the right to translate a work, like the right of reproduction, is vested in the author. The author may authorize a translation of his work either by providing a licence to the translator, or by assigning his translation rights to the translator.

The translator has copyright in his translation. He may protect his translation against infringement as an original work in its own right. However, under Indian law, only authorized translations are assured of protection as original works. Unauthorized translations are considered to be infringing works which do not merit copyright protection.

The Indian stand against unauthorized translations seems very harsh. Although the translator’s work has not been authorized by the author of the original work, it remains an original work in its own right, reflecting the skill and effort of its creator. Rather than denying protection to these works, which is equivalent to sanctioning further illegal or immoral activity by allowing anyone to exploit them freely, the legal focus should be on protecting the integrity of the original author’s works. Instead, the original author should be able to restrain the sale and distribution of unauthorized translations on the basis that the translation infringes his rights, both economic and, if appropriate, moral.

The situation of translation in Indian law may grow out of an awareness of the difficulties of pursuing legal remedies in the Indian context. Authors may not have the financial means to vindicate their legal rights through the court system. Further, the time period which is likely to pass before the granting of an injunction or a damages award may be so long that the damage to the author’s reputation or, indeed finances, is irreparable. However, it should be noted that translators may also have great difficulty in obtaining authorization for their work because of the vast distances and difficulties of long-distance communication which appear to remain typical of India. It remains to be seen whether Information Age technologies will succeed in improving these conditions.

In Bharati’s case, almost all translations of his work are unauthorized. After his death, neither his family members nor a legal representative of his estate authorized any translation work. When the government took over the copyright, the publishing committee was not concerned with translations of his work. Finally, when the copyright became public, there was no system for monitoring or supervising translations.

The importance of translations should not be underestimated. They require as much approval and supervision by qualified people as original editions and scholarly work. If Bharati’s work were to be incorporated into a system resembling the domaine public payant, translations should also be subject to this regime.”

3 responses

  1. Dear Dr. Vijaya,
    I’m shocked and deeply hurt by your comments. Even before I began translating, I had contacted you and Mr. P K Sundara Rajan through your daughter, Mira, on 7th Aug. 2007 by email. I did this not to get permission to translate Bharati but “to obtain the approval, comments, suggestions of Bharati’s legal heirs to my translations.” Mr. PKS was kind enough to reply promptly that his family would be “glad to offer some help designed to make the book outstanding!” True to his word, he sent me several books on Bharati written by members of your family and others. From that day till now I have been sending regular updates on my work. I particularly treasure this email from Mr. PKS, “You are part of this (family) enclave, and as such, whether or not you write regularly, you are remembered here!”

    I sent my translations, as many as 40 poems or more to him (on his request I sent the Tamil text as well) by post. When you and Mr. PKS visited us in Bangalore in Feb. 2008, he returned the typescript with comments marked on the pages. During that visit, “Agni Kunju” was one of the poems I had read out, saying that I visualized the last line as the dance of flames. (You didn’t have to wonder at all about this line.) If you had even hinted to me that you disagreed with my interpretation, I would have gladly scrapped it. As already mentioned, your approval was so paramount to me. I had also read out Amma Kannu Paattu and either you or Mr. PKS told me what the line “Ettai thudaipathu kaiyaale” means.

    After his untimely demise on 1st Sept. 2008, I kept up email correspondence with you and you were one of the first people I wrote to when Hachette accepted the manuscript in July 2010. Your “Thank you for sending me the information. I am glad your book has been accepted for publication. Congratulations!” meant as much to me as Hachette’s acceptance. When you wrote to me in Aug. this year asking to be introduced to the Hachette editor I was only too happy to do so. And now to read such comments from you! Indeed, Madam, I didn’t expect this from you.

  2. Dear Usha,

    I am sorry that you are upset and hurt about my review on the Bharati-Blog. My intention was not to upset you at all.

    I want to explain to you that my goal and mission in life, is to protect the integrity of my grandfather’s works, and to promote the dissemination of his works throughout the world. I have been trying to do just that for a number of years.

    Regarding your letter —

    First of all, I don’t recall some of the things that you describe. I clearly remember our visit to your house in Bangalore, before PKS passed away in 2008. It extended a few minutes (may be one-half hour), having coffee, and a casual chat about your work on Bharati-translation.

    I do remember our communication with each other, which was minimal, and our growing friendship over the past couple of years. For some reason, you seem to be trying to prove our friendship, as though I am rejecting it.

    I am NOT familiar at all with your communication with my husband, except that he mentioned you to me once in a while.

    PKS and I both wanted to help you, and to this end, PKS may have made some comments on your drafts. My husband was an erudite scholar and if he had made any comments on your translations, I am sure they must be good. My husband was a kind man; he had a special place in his heart for women, just like Bharati, and was helpful to them in every way.

    I did not see these drafts, nor was I involved in any way with HIS comments. PKS did not see your final versions, either. My husband and I were very close, and we have always shared each other’s experiences, including people, literature, arts, society – and so on. Considering this, I am sure that he would have told me if he were involved in something important.

    If you wanted my approval for your translations, you should have consulted with me about them.
    I never saw your final versions. You never consulted with me about them, or sent me your poems for my approval.

    Above all, you should have the grace to accept responsibility for your own work. Neither PKS nor I
    can be responsible for work that you have published at your own initiative, and under your own name.

    I understand that you have travelled all over the world as “Bharati’s translator,” receiving grants and fellowships to carry out this work and promote it. I don’t think it is fair to expect to get the benefit of an association with Bharati’s name, and not to face accountability for it.

    You need to understand that my comments on the blog are about the work that you did, which I found to be disappointing. What I wrote in my article, was not “personal.” Work is work, especially where a great poet like Bharati is concerned. It has to be judged by objective standards — not friendship.


    S. Vijaya Bharati

  3. Dr Vijaya Bharati,
    On a casual search for the etymology of the Tamil word Sabatham, I came upon your blog. When I saw ‘Panchaali’s Pledge’, my reaction was one of letdown and disappointment. Only someone who has no grasp of Tamil language could have come up with that kind of translation. I have not read the translation of the Mahakavi’s works by Ms Usha Rajagopalan. I don’t think I have to. You want to get the energy and the essence of his writing, you have to know not only the language but the history, the environment, the family background and his own personality traits and his interactions. Otherwise, you can simply translate with the help of a dictionary, picking word for word. I think your criticism is fully justified.

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