Translation as internal transformation

The experience of translating and being translated into a panoply of European languages has been, in one word, transformatory, reveals Sampurna Chattarji .

I write in English and have translated the celebrated poets Sukumar Ray 1 (1887-1923) and Joy Goswami (1954-) from Bengali into English. But it was translating an Irish poet into Bengali during a workshop 2 in Neemrana that made me aware of my linguistic resources, and resourcefulness, in a wholly unexpected manner. That’s when I started reading fellow-poets’ work with two questions in mind. How do I make this English translation better before it travels into other languages?

This doubling led to a profound internal shift in the way I approached the two primary languages in my life. To travel from Irish to Bengali via English felt seamless. It wasn’t just the affinity I felt for the poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s wordplay, kinetic energy and political engagement, it was the nature of his sound. Irish, I discovered (as I would later discover about Welsh) could be pronounced easily by my Indian tongue if I transcribed the words (uttered clearly by the native speaker) in my Bengali script. The barrier erected by the Roman alphabet fell away and Irish, at a purely aural level, became transparent. Here was a softness and a lilt that suited the cadences of ‘Bangla’. It was this sisterhood of sound that made me feel at home in Irish and, later, in Welsh.

Working with Welsh poets over a series of India-Wales projects 3 deepened my relationship with my own culture, while impacting my creative writing. My encounter with fiercely nationalist poets like Twm Morys helped me re-assert my conviction that writing in the coloniser’s language is not an act of betrayal. Workshopping my poem ‘Mirage’ (in which I examine how the English language abuses animals through everyday idiomatic usages) revealed that animal stories featured in both our traditions — their Mabinogion to our Panchatantra. And a poignant Welsh concept — hiraeth — embodied the visual fracturing and conceptual homecoming in my new poetry.

This untranslatable word hiraeth, which gestures at a “specifically haunting longing”, triggered a poem about the demon-king Hiranyakashipu and Vishnu’s Narasimha avatar. I was led back to the image of the man-lion ripping out the guts of the demon-king — a story that has fascinated me since childhood, a story of divine intervention and human faith, a story about the way in which words can bind and betray.

In my poem words mutated, losing letters like limbs (an idea suggested by conversations with the Welsh poets about mutations in their language) but at its core is the idea of metamorphosis so central to Indian mythology. Lord Vishnu as man-lion undermines each line of the boon that was so cleverly crafted by Hiranyakashipu when he asked the gods for immortality — neither man nor beast could kill him, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither on the ground nor in the air, neither by day nor by night. So Narasimha, who was neither man nor beast, laid Hiranyakashipu across his thigh and killed him at twilight with his bare hands on the threshold of his house, at once fulfilling each clause of the boon and subverting it.

I sometimes think of translation as that kind of simultaneous fulfilment and subversion. The idea of what is culturally communicable is one that is constantly shifting. Sometimes the associations are delightful extra-textual. For example, while translating the Dutch/Frisian poet Tsead Bruinja’s poem, Grass That’s Already Laughing, I found myself thinking of lines from Jibanananda Das’ poem Grass —Since then grass makes the earth laugh, which I first read while translating Joy Goswami’s poem about Jibanananda Das (1899-1954).

While discussing our languages with the Estonian poet Doris Kareva, I learnt that the Bengali word for ‘yes’—hain—meant ‘good’ in Estonian! My interactions with Doris led to In Another Town 4, a prose text where Pondicherry, Kolkata, London and Doris’s hometown Tallinn came together in a meditation on language as a diasporic entity, a body both intimately linked to place and placelessness. This piece went on to be translated into Chinese, a thrilling first for me .

Often (even with someone as well-read as my Portuguese poet friend Miguel-Manso) European poets’ awareness about the Eastern canon is limited to Tagore, Omar Khayyam, Rumi. Translating the work of a contemporary Indian poet like myself, Miguel writes, “the distance that remains is that which exists between two people, between two poetics, between two subjectivities, between two worlds. I believe that this is the most important challenge in relation to translation: translating a notion of the world.” […] “The challenge is to translate Sampurna (a mystery in itself) and not an Indian poet. Just as I assume that the challenge of your translating my book becomes more a ‘fight’ with me than a fight with the Portuguese language. The poetry genre makes it harder, because it goes beyond common language.”

The Swiss poet Heike Fiedler (who translated me into German and French) writes, “Translation is cross-cultural by definition. I am first always amazed to enter into the world of those I translate. In your case, what I apprehended was a feeling of being a passenger in this world, where objects and places surround us, offer themselves to the writer to enter into her perception, her transmission from there to be put on paper. I loved this physical aspect your poetry offered me, like being beamed into this, your other culture.”

What animates true cross-cultural transmission is curiosity. At all the workshops I’ve attended, the key to solving problems is asking questions — detailed, pedantic, argumentative, silly, serious, searching questions. For me, translation 5 is the crucial answer to many questions; a set of questions that encompasses many answers.


  1. An essay on translation and a poetic response to the Poetry Connection translation workshop in Shantiniketan, 2011:
  2. Critical writing on works of translation by Sampurna Chattarji:
  3. Literature Across Frontiers:
  4. No Laws In This Land of Doubles: A talk by Sampurna Chattarji on her journey as a translator for Junoon’s Mumbai Local:
  5. In Another Town in the original English and with the Chinese translation:
  6. Notes post-Poetry Connections translation workshop in Pondicherry 2010:
  7. Wales-India translation project:
  8. Poetry Connections:
  9. 1) Sampurna Chattarjee is a poet, novelist and translator. Her fourteen books include five poetry titles, two novels and a short-story collection about Bombay, Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013). Her latest books are her translation of Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems (HarperPerennial, 2014) and Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins, 2015).
Sampurna Chattarji
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