Translation of Bill Herbert’s ‘Forgive the Flies’ into Tamil

Here’s Bill Herbert’s poem.

Forgive the Flies

We must forgive the flies
because they are so young,
their cortices so small,
that they don’t understand
what it is they crawl on.
They greet everything
like little deities:
sugar and excrement
are each as good to them.
They vomit in their nervous
pleasure and mistake
our rolled up newspapers,
suppose our dying hands
are merely waving back.

And here’s my Tamil translation:

ஈக்களை மன்னிப்போம்

ஏன் என்றால் அவர்கள்
வயதில் மிகவும் இளையவர்கள்,
எதன் மீது தவழ்கிறோம் என்று கூட
அறியாத அளவிற்கு அவர்களின்
மூளையோ மிகச் சிறியது.
எல்லாவற்றையும் சிறு தெய்வங்களாய்
வணங்குகிறார்கள்:
பழமும் மலமும் அவர்களுக்கு ஒன்றே.
மகிழ்ச்சியின் நடுக்கத்தில் வாந்தி எடுப்பார்கள்
நமது சுருட்டிய செய்தித்தாளை
தவறாய்ப் புரிந்து கொள்வார்கள்,
சாவின் பிடியில் துடிக்கும் நம் கைகளை
விடைபெறுவதாய் எடுத்து கொள்வார்கள்.

Well, I chose this poem because it is so CRAZY when you imagine it in Tamil.

Because Bill chooses to use the plural flies, instead of a single (looser, lost-soul) fly, in Tamil it suddenly turns respectful because of the plural. After all, the plural is reserved not just for anything signifying multiplicity or more than one, but also as a term of respect and honour. So, these are either too many flies, though in my mind, I keep envisioning a His Highness The Royal Fly, or something of that sort.

Next, was how the hell does one worry about cortices? Where do I go and dig up the Tamil word. I am sure my people have a word for every conceivable part of the human body. But then, my reasoning was, what was I going to gain by making use of a word that even I didn’t know from everyday regular usage. I thought it is safer to go with brains, which is what I have used in the Tamil.

What else?  A line that caused some palpable tension was Bill’s “They greet everything/like little deities” My doubt was: are the flies little deities greeting everything that comes their way? After all little deities (folk gods and goddesses) in Tamil are known for their busy travel schedules. Or, does Bill intend to say that the flies greet everything (they come across) as though it were a little deity? This ambiguity was confusing, not to mention, cute. Never had I gone over (parsing) a sentence, since Chomsky’s famous “Flying planes can be dangerous.” What did I do, in this case? I decided to go with the flies worshipping everything as though those things were small-gods/folk-deities–since that was the meaning conveyed to me from the next line.

Finally, the kind of things we poets do for the sake of rhyme. Bill talks of sugar, sakkarai in Tamil. But the Tamil word for fruit pazham rhymes with the Tamil word for excrement malam, so I did this little substitution: replacing fruit with sugar. Again, to me, flies are found far more on fruits than on sugar. Took Bill’s permission (I think).

So, there.

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About Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer, activist and translator.
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3 Responses to Translation of Bill Herbert’s ‘Forgive the Flies’ into Tamil

  1. Bill Herbert says:

    Beneath the banner of the Fly King Courier, what can I say but I too am troubled by images of His Royal Flyness? I wrote a much bigger poem called Eschatology of the Fly on this topic which I won’t trouble you with, but this intuition is definitely on the right lines.

    According to my reading, the flies were the little deities, but I can see the line works both ways and there’s no point fighting that sort of flexibility.

    I think rhyme is occasionally the only way to decide where to go — weak poets are admittedly led by rhyme, but stronger poets discover something through it, as here, which they mightn’t have thought of before: for both it’s a way of thinking differently.

    Do give the translation in Roman script, please — I enjoy trying to sound these out even though I understand this only makes me sound like an imbecile.

  2. Okay Bill, I will indulge you..

    eekkalai mannippom

    aen enraal avargal
    vayadhil migavum ilaiyavargal,
    edhan meedhu thavilgirom enru kooda
    ariyaadha alavirku avargalin
    moolaiyo miga siriyadhu.
    ellavatraiyum siru theivangalaai
    vanangugiraargal:
    palamum malaum avargalukku onre.
    magilchiyin nadukkathil vaandhi eduppaargal
    namadhu suruttiya seidhithaalai
    thavaraai purindhu kolvaargal,
    saavin pidiyil thudikkum nam kaigalai
    vidaiperuvadhaai eduththu kolvaargal.

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