From Sampurna: I

I have been thinking about the word ‘Adishakti’. ‘Adi’ – the first, the primary, the original. ‘Shakti’ – a power, an energy, a manifestation (Durga). Thinking also how strange it was that the entire week I spent on the premises of Adishakti, I never once thought about the name, the meaning. I was too close, too immersed. In that one week things changed inside me, and I had to leave, I had to go away, and then return in order to see them for what they meant, for me, to me.

It’s always like that, after a translation workshop. And saying ‘always’ after just three such workshops in the last two years is probably my way of communicating what happens to my idea of time when I pass through these experiences (when these experiences pass through me). Simultaneously, time expands and concentrates. I feel located, almost ruthlessly so, in the specificity of the place, the texts, the conversations, the task. And at the same time, I feel lost, stretched in both directions, towards and away, above and between, hearing not just the two languages with which I am supposed to work, but all the tongues, the bewildering, bewitching music of sounds I do not understand. “Listen to the language you don’t understand as sound,” Zoë said in her introduction that first morning at Adishakti, sitting around the courtyard with the rangoli at our feet, all of us still a little hesitant, a little strange. “Make a space for things you don’t understand.” How perfectly that sums up what happens inside me at these workshops. I make a space for things I do not understand, and then I try to understand them through language. “What makes the edges of your language?” Zoë said that morning. “The limits of your language are the limits of your world.” Is that why, when I translate, I feel things breaking down?

Until last year’s LAF workshop at Neemrana, I had only translated from Bengali into English, the language in which I write. How I had loved bringing into English the bounce, the wisecrackery, the tomfoolery, the endlessly inventive wordplay, the sounds, the puns, the impeccable rhymes, the limberness of Sukumar Ray’s Bengali poetry and prose. How I had despaired at the limitations of English, the formality of English, the closed fist of English. And how I had rejoiced each time I felt I broke through those limits, those limitations with solutions that delivered, I felt, at least the effect that Ray’s originals had. The effect on the eardrum, the effect on the grey cells, the effect on the funny bone. I had felt—oddly enough, considering how many Bengalis have marvelled at my courage (my foolhardiness) in translating their untranslatable inimitable beloved Ray—certain, surefooted, at ease. With the radically different poetry of Joy Goswami, it was a different kind of confidence—not the confidence of a “happy fool” [“Come happy fool whimsical cool/ come dreaming dancing fancy-free”, the opening lines of the opening poem in Ray’s Abol Tabol], sure that the rhymes I had internalized since childhood would find their English cousins on the page, but rather the awareness that a deliberate and deep absorption in the poet’s dark world would be the way towards light. With Joy-da, each poem was a puzzle to me, an enigma, a hieroglyph that translation alone would unlock. When I translated Bill’s ‘Hieroglyphic’ [below] into Bangla in the preparatory stages before the workshop, what an unexpected, unsettling kinship I found, between Joy-da’s work and Bill’s work. Unsettling only to me, who had translated Joy-da into English, and was now translating Bill into Bangla, looking for the word that would be “exact and unmerciful”, that would be “synonymous/ with truth” [my poem ‘Translations’]. Here was a poem speaking to me about the process that I had thought was personal and secret, here was a poem that would take me into the territory that unnerved me most, the territory of my mother tongue. So, as I puzzled over whether the line “shey/ pracheen Mishorer chhaya-noksha, chitrolipitey/ shey bojhaye ‘dhongsho’” needed the additional word ‘bojhaye’ in order to be faithful to “he is/ old Egypt’s silhouette, the pictogram/ for ‘kill’”—I was discovering the limits of my other language, my other self. In Bangla I felt like a child, and the only way I could dare think in it, speak in it, write in it was by holding the hand of another, wiser, older poem, a poem written in (or translated into) the English that is my first tongue. Only through translation could I hear myself speak in Bangla again, only by following the lines put there by someone else could I find my way back home.

It was shocking, discovering in Jan 2009, that I had so much Bangla inside me. Where had it been all these years? It was the Irish poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s poem ‘Barraíocht’ that unlocked it, and let it out into the open. As I found myself writing ‘Ami Oshustho’ in a kind of seamless Benglish patois, finding equivalents with absurd effortlessness, I felt a kind of delirium. This was not real, this was the result of too much alcohol (“Aamar glashey beshi beer”!), too many conversations, too much hilarity, affinity, madness. “Too much of a muchness is too much for me/ My fire is on fire and I’m sick.” I was, and I continued to be, translating many more of Gearóid’s poems into Bangla after the workshop, running them past Joy-da for his expert opinion and advice, hoping soon to get them published, even. As I said in my introduction that same first morning at Adishakti, [mis]quoting Meg Bateman who was at Neemrana with us—“It took an Irishman to make a Bengali out of me.” It changed me fundamentally, organically, it disembodied and shook me, it made me feel “like someone else, like someone else moved in, speaking a lingo that shocks her, all those words she thought she’d forgotten” [my poem ‘Five Different Words for Love’ which I wrote after the workshop]. That thinly-disguised ‘she’ was ‘I’, and this was my first English poem in which I used Bangla words, and left them untranslated.

But that’s a tale from already (almost) two years ago, as I post this on the last day of 2010. I invoke the past only to explain how I came to be here, in this strange land. This year when Alexandra wrote in her mail, outlining the plan for the workshop, aiming for translations into a host of languages, “and perhaps also Bengali, Sampurna’s language”, there was no “perhaps” in my mind. I knew I would, I knew I could. Of course there was terror, the terror of not knowing enough, of having to stumble and falter, of having the safety, the sureness, the confidence of writing in or translating into English breaking down as I travelled the other way. But there was excitement as well. Thinking about Zoë’s words now, I realise that perhaps I have always wanted language to limit me, to seal me in, to keep me safe, to mark clearly the borders of my world. And that’s why it was terrifying, as I sat down with poems from Bill and Zoë and Raphael and Roselyne before me. There I was, about to break the seal, make myself unsafe again. Writing in longhand on a ream of yellowing ruled paper that my dad-in-law used in his old-fashioned printer—a stack that no one wanted after his death in 2007, and that I preserved only to keep all traces of him from being obliterated, never anticipating that I would use them to write on, the ruled lines perfect to keep my Bangla script on course—I found myself feeling like a novice again, as if not just translating for the first time, but writing my very first letters. I felt a familiar surge of joy, a strange and tremendous energy, I felt new and old simultaneously.

I will post recordings of the translations, such as they are, soon. In the coming days, I will also (I hope!) talk more attentively and coherently about the poems themselves, the particular problems, the solutions, the suggestions. About what it was like to have my own poems translated, not just into Scots, French and Swiss-German, but into Hindi, Bambaiyya, Tamil, Manipuri, for the first time a movement into other Indian languages, an incredible delight. If this post has seemed at times disjointed, overwrought, overwhelmed, forgive me, it is because I am still disjointed, overwrought, overwhelmed.

Happy New Year, Dubious Saints.


Bill Herbert’s


The hawk that shears the hedge then steadies, held

above the verge by urgent need, he is

old Egypt’s silhouette, the pictogram

for ‘kill’. There is a lock to which he is

continually the key that must release

a narrow death from everywhere in air.

He is the tender axe that has to fall.

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4 Responses to From Sampurna: I

  1. Bill Herbert says:

    I met Joy when I was being interviewed for Bangla magazine in Kolkatta in 2000. I was really excited by the little bit of his work I saw in translation: could it have been your translation? Please give a few details as to where it’s published, Sampurna.

  2. Bill Herbert says:

    I was in the same issue of Almost Island, and remember liking these when I saw them. The Poetry International material is new to me though: thanks for this. Do you have a collection of translations from his work yet?

    • Sampurna Chattarji says:

      Bill, I haven’t done a selection from many books, just that one book, from start to finish! Kind of obsessive. Have started on another book, Moutat Moheshor, which is also a series, and which I hope to do in full, followed by a long book-length poem, Horiner Jonno Ekok. But yes, Surjo-Pora Chhai is scheduled to be published soon. 🙂

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