Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: Burning Troy in Hindi

May 22, 2016, 09:12 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

Thane-based translator Arunkumar Sharma labours over the social and political context of words he chooses, when translating 52 modern 20th century English poems into Hindi

IRISH playwright J M Synge had said in 1911 that his absorption of local life and the flavoured speech of peasants, fishermen and beggars turned his writing into a joy. In 2016, Thane-based Hindi translator Arunkumar Sharma (64) quotes Synge’s belief in the living language as the core inspiration behind his Hindi renderings of English works.

Awaiting his third translation — Angreziki Chuni Hui Adhunik Kavitaye (52 Select Modern Poems) — in June by New Delhi-based Prakashan Sansthan, Sharma says, “Synge’s willingness to listen to the servant girls in the kitchen shows the importance of the spoken word against heavily loaded dictionary terms which sound hollow.”

Arunkumar Sharma, 64, at his Thane residence. Sharma has translated three of modernist American poet T S Eliot’s most famous works in Hindi. Titled T S Eliot Ki Teen Utkrisht Kavitayen, the translations have won a stamp of approval from the UK-based T S Eliot Society, of which Sharma is member. Pic/Sameer Markande
Arunkumar Sharma, 64, at his Thane residence. Sharma has translated three of modernist American poet T S Eliot’s most famous works in Hindi. Titled T S Eliot Ki Teen Utkrisht Kavitayen, the translations have won a stamp of approval from the UK-based T S Eliot Society, of which Sharma is member. Pic/Sameer Markande

Sharma says the urge to translate was beyond reason and came with no great experience. He decided to pursue his passion and follow his gut feeling. Since 2006, when Sharma started his self-driven pursuit of bringing greats like Shakespeare and T S Elliot into the Hindi realm, he consciously banked on spoken Hindi (and a Hindi-Urdu mix) rather than the Sanskritised officialese that passes off as impressive Hindi in India. Urdu buff Tariq Shafiq has been his long-time consultant in the translation process.

In fact, Sharma’s choice of Hindi translations, as a post-retirement full-time activity, stemmed from his frustration with the bureaucratese that he resented during his professional life as a banker. Ever since he served in the Mumbai and Patna offices of the Reserve Bank of India and later at National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), he experienced a convoluted usage of Hindi in banking circles. During his tenures in several second- and third- tier cities, he sensed a similar linguistic crisis in sectors with a people interface. “If we consider Hindi as a uniting factor, either for banks or any public sector undertaking, why should we estrange our audience with scary bombastic usage?” Sharma has a list of the particularly vahiyat (atrocious or jarring) Hindi terms he is against. For instance, aarakshi (police), prakratik pita (natural guardian) and samvidhik taralta anupat (statutory liquidity ratio). “They sound like psychiatric disorders,” he adds in jest, while explaining why he retains the original flavour during translation, especially when there are limited equivalents provided by the Hindi thesaurus. For instance, he refused to use the word ‘doorbhash’, preferring to stick to ‘telephone’, similarly, with radio (which is itself an abbreviation), can’t be akashwani, he has decided as a general principle. He says zealots put these words in the dictionary and then expect their popular usage, while usage should drive the dictionary, in fact.

Sharma says the popular image of a writer-translator referring to hard-bound lexicons is false. While working on poets like W H Auden, Philip Larkins, Yvor Winters and Archibald MacLeish, he realised that their Hindi rendering couldn’t be restricted to finding equivalent words. Their thought had to be first located in world history and Western philosophy, after which the Indian context becomes apparent. That’s when the appropriate Hindi words flow. In No Second Troy, he used the Urdu word ‘fiza’ to explain “in an age like this” and felt ‘samay’ could not have captured the exact feeling. Achilles’ Heel became ‘dukhti rag’. “Thoughts come in the form of words. They are not the clothing but the substance itself. In translations, we have to responsibly recreate someone else’s thought in our regional idiom, naturally a supple expression ensures an easy read, which is what we owe to the original creator and the reader.”

Quite often, Western expressions eluded Hindi terms, he acknowledges. For instance, the word ‘God’ is particularly difficult, as its substitutes (ishwar, bhagwan, allah, uparwala, jagadish) hold different connotations in the mind of the Hindi reader.

While translating King Lear, Sharma chose ‘My Lord’ over ‘Mere Swami’, as the latter did not stand for the King as intended in the original. Yeats’ No Second Troy has the line, “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” Sharma thought of substituting Troy with Ravana’s Lanka, but then settled for the original, reading the political implications of the word ‘Lanka.’ Similarly, in rendering Eliot’s The Dry Salvages, he used ‘Devi’ for the Lady, i.e. Virgin Mary, as the Hindi translation of the Holy Bible uses Devi. “In section III of Burnt Norton by Eliot, I coined the word ‘bekagrata’ for lack of concentration from the Hindi word ‘ekagrata.’ One day this word may become acceptable to use.”

The reason for zeroing in on American and British poets is Sharma’s fascination with the existential concerns they spell out. Sharma says the 52 poems by 37 poets in his selection — poems written roughly between 1901 to 1950 — are creations of those who grew up as writers in the most turbulent time in history witnessing two World Wars, the invention of the aeroplane and the nuclear bomb. It is no co-incidence that in this random showcase there are many poems dealing with death — not as a terrifying abstract theme but a routine, closely felt experience. A few poets had served the army and died during the first World War. “Almost all modern poets are products of the Universities, bringing in an intellectual attitude and rigor to poetry. Contrary to the romantic and Edwardian style of 19th century poets, these poets are conscious of their role and the subject and form of poetry,” Sharma observes. He feels close to them because they are city dwellers lamenting the loss of an animated, intimate village existence. Sharma, who has lived in various cities (Mumbai, Guwahati, Chandigarh and Jammu) and has a post-graduate degree in English literature from the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur, appreciates poems that dwell on peripatetic lives, particularly the problems and opportunities of city life and the loneliness of the individual in a crowd. Another theme that appeals to Sharma is the poems’ focus on the boon and the curse of the machine. “The gadget-loaded Indian of today knows what these poems predicted.”

Appreciation for Sharma’s translations has emerged from varied quarters. The UK-based T S Eliot Society has made a note of Sharma’s work, whereas the late Khushwant Singh, whom Sharma had met as a literature student in 1973, also admired the cadence caught by the translator. Visitors to the recent Delhi Book Fair showed interest in his translations. However, Sharma has had little luck in becoming a part of a larger multi-lingual body of translators. He feels the Sahitya Akademi can play a role, which it hasn’t, in attracting recognition and funding for Indian translators.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text.

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