bout a century ago, two poets were writing transformative verse in languages other than English. In their own ways, these two poets changed the way people read and spoke about poetry. One was Rainer Maria Rilke and the other was Subramania Bharati. While Rilke's poetry has been translated into English many times, it's incredibly hard to find an English translation of Bharati's work.
As a child growing up outside Tamil Nadu but immersed in Carnatic music, I have always had a frustrating relationship with Bharatiyar's poetry: I know it only through song, both classical and filmic but I cannot read his poetry off the page and have always needed someone to translate his verse for me.
It was with delight, therefore, that I began Usha Rajagopalan's translation of Bharati's verse. It seemed to me a necessary project, to bring this poet who sang of ships and minerals as joyfully as he sang about Krishna and Shakti, to the notice of the Anglophone world. I was even more thrilled to read that Rajagopalan's journey through his work also began via song.
It helps that this is a bilingual edition as, I think, all translated poetry should be. Unfortunately, this is as far as the good news goes. The risk in a bilingual edition of course is that for those who can read the source language, the shortcomings in the translation are inescapable and apparent. Every translating decision is laid bare on the page and the translator's only defence — if it can be called that — lies in an Introduction.
This translation of Bharati's poetry does not have an Introduction. It has a list of important dates and an account of his life that very briefly outlines his engagement with the Independence movement, his political writing, his subsequent escape from British India and his life as an ardent spiritualist-nationalist. But there is nothing from Rajagopalan on what her approach to translating his work was or how she engaged with the very different kinds of poetry he wrote: the spiritual/love poems and the rousing nationalist verse.
Not all translators need be scholars or even be in a position to contextualise a poet's work and place it in the broader framework of the times in which he lived. The Selected Poetry of Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell, for instance, has a comprehensive and intelligent Introduction by the American poet Robert Hass. If it was beyond Rajagopalan to write an Introduction that examines Bharati's poetry with the care it deserves, surely someone else could have been commissioned to write one?
If it was beyond Rajagopalan to write an Introduction that examines Bharati’s poetry with the care it deserves, surely someone else could have been commissioned to write one?
For a reader who is not already familiar with Bharati's verse, this plunge into the deep end of his work is very disorientating: the first poem is an invocation, which is all well and good. It is followed by a poem that Rajagopalan titles 'A Special Song' but in the Tamil is called 'Ammakannu Paatu'. Even for someone whose Tamil is as workaday as mine is, it is apparent that 'Ammakannu' is a term of endearment and 'Special' in no way conveys the tenderness and affection of the title in Tamil. The poem itself is a barrage of trochees that assault the ear: The hand opens a lock,/Wisdom opens the mind./ Melody makes a song/A woman makes a home happy. For a poem that is called 'Song', it is singularly unmusical.