Much is lost in translation in ‘Letter of a Jailbird’Translating poetry is one thing, but giving it life is an entirely different matter. The pace, the pauses, the energy—everything is lost in translation in Letter of a Jailbird.
Anyone who has read Gopal Parajuli’s Madan Puraskar-winning epic Declaration of a New God knows the kind of quintessential experiments the poet likes to venture into. Like a duty-bound explorer, he wanders into where many contemporary poets would never dare or dream of going.
Letter of a Jailbird, Parajuli’s ninth epic and the second one to be translated into English, is one such venture, which spans across eleven cantos and creates an honest picture of the world with many short, snappy poetic lines.
Unlike a traditional epic, Parajuli’s work does not follow the conventional structure. There’s no invocation of the muses, no supernatural elements, and no heroic valour. There are, however, characters that keep coming and going: Devi and Mukti. And the poet, or the poetic persona, stands close with these two characters, often commenting on their deeds. Both characters are, in fact, epithets expressing attributes true to their characters. Two idealists, they voice their concerns frankly, and the poet agrees with whatever they have to say.
The epic begins with the introductory canto With the World Outside, where the poet rises out of uncertainty and tries to trace his own identity. Like a postmodern human, he rejects the notion of the centre. He is always moving, always shifting. And out of his move, his never-ending fluidity, he both decentres and recentres the logos—the ultimate truth. What follows afterwards are two cantos: A Letter from Devi and A Letter of the Poet, where these two characters depict the world as they see it. After the poet’s dream-world, two more letters from Devi and Mukti show the horrors and terrors of the world. The epic ends with a somewhat optimistic canto Celebration of Time, which celebrates life amid chaos.
For Parajuli, the ‘poet’ is the supreme creature. Even godlike characters, Devi and Mukti, seek help from the poet. The poet in return comments on the brutal deeds of humankind. He rises “unarmed / amid a mob” to “celebrate words”. Unable to celebrate words easily, he fights against injustice. When his efforts go in vain, he weeps bitterly. World politics torment him, and he thinks everyone should listen to him. He is an epitome of purity and right-mindedness—and this is exactly what makes me cringe.
The concept of ‘Poet as a Hero’ is something that has bogged down all Nepali poets for ages. They love to exalt the virtues of the supposedly superior male ‘poet’ so much that he looks like a godhead. Whatever the poet does seems right afterwards. And he behaves as if the world owes him a huge debt.
Parajuli’s poetic persona also suffers the same folly. He “deconstructs all words of fiction into nonfiction,” “dismantles his singularity,” and “shares himself among the multitude of men.” As if men would die without this all-knowing and all-caring saviour poet, the messiah of humanity.
My other grievance—not with translation but the original work—is that repeatedly the poet cites his own work, especially the Declaration of a New God and Proposal for a New World. This is to introduce a new form of writing, the autobiographical novel in verse, but the repetition is too forced and too overwrought. Repetition, in fact, plagues the book. Every canto is full of repetitive and banal ideas. The repetitions add nothing to the larger narrative.
The problem with translating poetry is two-fold: the linguistic and the aesthetic. The translator has to be an expert in syntactic and the poetic structure of the target language. If not, the translator might run into the risk of compiling prosaic verses in non-standard English. Take, for instance, these lines from the third canto: “Mother making me dream / Sister sharing me her proximity / Better half accompanying me / Offering me time to live the hills / The land / And ever standing to make me live / The mountain.” The whole stanza, no matter how carefully one reads, suffers defeat at the hands of inept translators. We lose both linguistic and aesthetic qualities—the result is a mound of gibberish.
Here’s another example: “Even if the world keeps changing / Myself many things / Keep deconstructing / Even I cease to exist / Within me / The sky will never collapse.” What is this stanza, if not a string of unpunctuated, unmelodious, and unintelligible words strung together? Reading stanzas like these make us question the credibility of the translators—are they aware of the literary aesthetics? Poetry is a delicate genre, and when people translate it haphazardly, what follows is nothing but rhythmless, unpoetic gobbledegook.
Two more examples. First, “And as I saw the destitute / Taking refuge in mother’s heart as abode / And father’s / Breast as hospice.” Second, “I saw before Durga / Rama to dwell / Durga to dwell / Man to dwell / The fall is a must / Of all territories of Dushana.” How would an English-speaking reader perceive these lines? And where will translations of these kinds take Nepali poetry to?
I remember reading the works of Parajuli with fondness, with a special liking to its steady rhythm. Everything is now lost in translation. The translators have used an approach called ‘philological translation,’ where the readability of the text produced is the least important subject of concern. Letter of a Jailbird adheres too much to its proto-text. All the instances of internal rhymes, subtle alliterations, assonance, and consonance are destroyed.
When translating poetry, nothing is harder to mime than the cadence of the poem. Much to the readers’ dismay, the translators have failed miserably with Letter of a Jailbird by only trying to pass the meaning into another language. Getting to the bones of the poem is one thing, but giving it life is an entirely different matter. The pace, the pauses, the energy—everything is lost in translation. To quote Masatoshi Nagase from the movie Paterson, “Poetry is translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.” Reading this epic made me realise that I had been taking a shower with my raincoat on all the while.
Book: Letter of a Jailbird
Author: Gopal Parajuli
Translators: Balram Adhikari/Mukti Ghimire
Publisher: Raghav Dhital (OBE)
Price: Rs. 300