‘Sangam’: A Conflux of Multiple Poetic VoicesSangam is quite an accomplishment when it comes to Nepali poetry in translation, but it has a few quibbles.
Poetry is often regarded as an untranslatable art form. While attempts have been made to translate other forms of art, poetry remains almost impossible to translate, for the act risks it losing its essence, which is weighed by every calculated word. However, various efforts have been made, and translators, especially poets, seem to have achieved what poet Octavio Paz called “similar results.”
Sangam is an example of one such “similar result.” Readers looking for a comprehensive anthology of Nepali poems in translation can pick up Haris Adhikari’s latest foray into translating poetry and peruse the 64 poems in English. The anthology encompasses poets of three different generations, and thus provides a confluence of multiple contemporary poetic voices of proto-modernists to post-modernist poets. This heteroglossia results in an anthology that is meant to be not just read, but savoured.
In his lengthy, seminal translator’s note, Adhikari writes that “translation is more an art than a science.” To translate the essence of one language into another, the translator should have some essential skills in his arsenal. Knowing how the grammar and syntax of the target language functions, learning the effect of proper punctuation, and deciding the purpose of choosing a certain line length over countless other choices are all science. What culminates thereafter is art—or perhaps the heart—of translation.
The 64 poems in this anthology show the best of Nepali writings. From the works of prominent poets like Dinesh Adhikari, Shailendra Sakar, and Tulasi Diwas to the writings of emerging poets like Anil Nembang, Nabin Pyassi, and Nirvik Jung Rayamajhee, the collection showcases the works of Nepali poets for the last fifty years. Many of these poems search for roots albeit with some hidden political edginess. Some of them deal with love and lust, often by employing unusually fresh imagery.
Many critics hold the view that only poets should translate poetry. The reason is all too obvious. And Adhikari has played the game well, breaking rules at times, while inventing his own constraints sometimes. His major strength is that the translated poems are equally poetic. Readers do not feel like they’re reading prosaic pieces, and the desire to go back to the original works springs only once in a while. The translated verses are self-contained; they suffice poetically and otherwise.
Here are some memorable sections from the book. The closing stanza of Hangyug Agyat’s Dust employs the conceit of dust elegantly. “Dust is all-pervasive in my heart. / I will have to live my life with it” is the poet’s philosophic declaration in this metapoem. I was also enchanted with a phrase from Suman Pokhrel’s Bereft of Poetry - II: “the wreckage of broken time.” Also, the ending of Mukul Dahal’s In Between the Mountain and the Sea is so very perfect. As such, the anthology has its moments of brilliance.
The major quibble about this work of translation is the overuse of sentence inversion. Inversions, though used for emphasising the meaning of the sentence by foregrounding the predicate or the verb, is an archaic poetic tool. A hundred years ago when everyone was writing in meter and rhyme, the inversion would help the poets get the perfect meter. However, this practice is almost obsolete. Take, for instance, the closing stanza of Anmol Kandel’s The Mirage: “After reaching / Right in front of you / Was my race done.” The stress goes on to the word “was” rather than “my race,” giving it a feel of Victorian impulse.
Also, some readers consider capitalising the beginning of every new line throughout the poem a traditional practice, but this is still debatable. Modern poets generally prefer sentence case; whereas the experimental post-modern ones may go on to the extent of eschewing capitalisation and punctuation altogether. For the latter, the way words appear on the page, sprawling with flowing white spaces, is what makes poetry different from prose. Since we have the works of mostly modern Nepali poets, we can argue on the graphology or the lineation of the poems.
The translator has, however, attempted experimenting with Hem Pravas’s Country by playing with the spaces and letter cases. The result is quite amusing, leaving readers wondering. Also, Raj Manglak’s Freedom is a delightful concrete poem—the first one I’ve ever seen in Nepali poetry. What readers of Nepali poetry need is the experimental flair coupled with local everyday subjectivity, not just on the level of content but also the way poems appear on the page. Sadly, whatever Nepali poets have been writing is still reminiscent of Bhupi Sherchan or Ishwor Ballav’s works.
Another bitter-sweet aspect of this anthology is the use of non-standard Nepali English sparingly across some poems. This might amuse some readers, but the sceptical ones may easily question the intention. Yet, some stanzas suffer by being cluttered and clunky. Let’s take this section: “Sort of similar / We are / Returned together, / Like there’s no other person hungry.” This part, along with some other sections from the same poem, suffers from the same fate of being heavy-handed.
If one can overlook the pardonable mistakes like “vision in their eyes,” “chanting with their lips,” “little kids,” “a humming hunter with a gun,” “philosopher man,” and the remnants of legal language in “hereafter,” “herein” or “whereon” as well the occasional “O yea!” or “‘cause,” punctuating the formal tone of the poem, the anthology is a pleasant read.
Overall, Sangam is quite an accomplishment when it comes to Nepali poetry in translation. Since the translator himself is a distinguished poet, he has taken great care of not just passing the meaning into another language but giving the final product its much-deserved rhythm, cadence and life. Non-Nepali readers are sure to enjoy these poems if the collection goes through a thorough editorial review.