Let us begin with Robert Frost, a poet, and Roman Jakobson, a critic. The former said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, and the latter said, “Everything is translatable except poetry.” There are some poets whose poetry might challenge these two formulations as they easily lend themselves to translation without much loss of meaning in the process. But the poetry of Da.Ra. Bendre—the foremost modern Kannada poet and Jnanpith awardee—upholds the truth of these two statements.
The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe: Selected Poems of Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre
Manipal University Press
A substantial section of Bendre’s poetry in translation has not come out because of the belief that Bendre is untranslatable. However, Bendre himself, to begin with, translated a few of his poems, and later we had Armando Menezes, V.K. Gokak, K. Raghavendra Rao, K.S. Sharma, Vaman Bendre, G.S. Amur, and Maitreyi Karnoor (unpublished) doing the same. Madhav Ajjampur is the latest to have taken up the challenge of rendering Bendre into English. The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe (2022), Ajjampur’s translation of 26 poems by Bendre, is in many respects an important experiment in translating Bendre.
Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre (1896-1981) is one of the makers of modern Kannada literary culture, especially the Navodaya period in the history of Kannada literature. Born to a Marathi-speaking Chitpavan Brahmin family, which migrated from Maharashtra to Shirahatti in Karnataka, Bendre was a wandering soul who struggled to learn and make a living by teaching in places like Dharwad, Pune, and Solapur. As a result, his linguistic cosmos imbibed diverse traditions—of Marathi saint poets, English and Sanskrit literary discourse, and above all, Kannada classical poetry and folk songs. This created his unique poetic self—Ambikatanayadatta (Datta, the son of Mother Ambika).
Though Bendre could not produce an epic, he often said that his entire oeuvre, put together, formed an epic, audumbaragathe, consisting of 1,428 poems in Kannada, and a few in English and Marathi. He also wrote more than half a dozen plays and a couple of short story collections besides some brilliant pieces on literary criticism and poetics. He translated poems of spiritual belief systems like Vittala Sampradaya and poets like Kabir, Tagore, and Kalidas. His translation of Kalidas’ Meghadutam is a landmark of modern Indian translation.
Coming back to The Pollen Waits on Tiptoe, it has a section called “Rasika Response”, which records the responses of literary scholars and admirers of Bendre’s verse to Ajjampur’s translation. In one such response, Ashwin Kumara makes an interesting observation: “Absolutely brilliant translation! An unbelievable feat because, even after your success, Bendre remains an untranslatable poet.”
The untranslatability is partly due to Bendre’s poetry being a kind of leele (frolic play), which is not limited either to recreating the world or to responding to it; it is, to use Roland Barthes’ term, intransitive writing. Archibald MacLeish’s line, “Poetry does not mean but be” aptly captures the mode of Bendre’s poetry. Bendre expresses the same idea in one of his poems where he says, “Arthavilla svarthavilla, bariya bhavagita (“Neither meaning nor self-interest, only lyricism”).
It is interesting to see how Ajjamapur has negotiated the translation. His anthology consists of 26 poems, some of which have already been translated by one or the other translators of Bendre mentioned above. It is also a bilingual anthology including both Kannada and English versions, thus helping readers cross-check and examine the process of translation. One can also listen to recitations of both versions by scanning the QR codes embedded in the text. However, the quality of the recitation could have been improved. The paratexts such as glossary help non-Kannada readers get an idea of Bendre in English while the introduction prepares the reader to receive Bendre in a particular way. “After Words [sic] to the Poems” places each poem in context.
The collection begins with the translator’s own poem on Bendre “To Bendre Ajja—In Gratitude”, which is an excellent piece. Perhaps Ajjampur’s poetic talent and love for the poet make him a worthy translator of Bendre. Of course, these are not enough; a still more sustained engagement with Bendre’s oeuvre and the patience to internalise his poetic sensibility might help us produce better translations. I am reminded of G.S. Amur’s translation of more than 50 poems of Bendre in his collection, The Spider and the Web (2012). After engaging with Bendre’s works for more than four decades and producing a critical classic on him in Kannada, Bhuvanada Bhagya (1991), Amur was able to produce natural and fluid translations that could be read independently as English poems while they retained the structure and, to some extent, the auditory dimension of the Kannada versions.
Four of the poems in this collection have also been translated by Amur previously. I present a stanza from the poem, “Jogi”, in Amur’s and Ajjampur’s versions so that readers can judge for themselves:
Away from the town
Where the three roads end
And the valley begins
Half-hidden flows a stream
And thieving cattle freely graze.
Here frightened wanderers
Lose their way. A pair of owls
Hoot, mistaking the day for night (G.S. Amur, 68).
At the edge of town, where the three-fork ends and where the slope begins,
Where the running stream ducks under and rogue cattle go grazing,
the way is lost and if, once lost, you enter unknowing,
A stricken pair of owls appear, hooting through the mid-morning. (Madhava Ajjampur, 57).
When we compare, for example, Ajjampur’s translation of a poem like “A Prayer” with Amur’s translation, what strikes us is Ajjampur’s confidence in taking liberties with the source text; he is bold enough to ignore certain words and confident enough to substitute and add new words.
Each translation of Bendre has its own virtues and limitations. Some translators have got certain lines well and some not so well. For example, I compared the poem “Don’t Look at Me This Way” as found in Karnoor’s unpublished translation with Ajjampur’s. If the opening lines of Karnoor’s version are better, the third stanza in Ajjampur’s version has come out well. In the game of translation, losing and gaining meanings, rhyme and rhythm, style and tone are inevitable. After all, all translations are provisional acts, and exciting works keep inviting new translators. Overall, Ajjampur’s translations give non-Kannada readers a taste of Bendre and are worth reading as such.
“The untranslatability is partly due to Bendre’s poetry being a kind of leele (frolic play), which is not limited either to recreating the world or to responding to it.”
However, a few questions come up here. What is the cultural logic of translation today? Why do we translate works into English? It is a thing of the past now to translate for a Western or largely monolingual English audience, as was the case with A.K. Ramanujan’s translations. Many translators in India today are translating assuming the reader is an Indian who knows another Indian language apart from English and would probably know the cultural references. If that is the case, why not encourage translations between and among modern Indian languages?
In the absence of an ambitious project connecting all Indian languages through translation, translating into English is a sensible choice. As poet Jayant Mohapatra pointed out in a letter to G.S. Amur, translation is the only way he could have had the pleasure of reading and learning from other Indian poets like Bendre.
N.S. Gundur teaches English literature at Tumkur University.
- Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre (1896-1981) is one of the makers of modern Kannada literary culture.
- A substantial section of Bendre’s poetry in translation has not come out because of the belief that Bendre is untranslatable.
- Ajjamapur’s anthology consists of 26 poems, some of which have already been translated by one or the other translators of Bendre.
- What strikes us here is Ajjampur’s confidence in taking liberties with the source text.
- He is bold enough to ignore certain words and confident enough to substitute and add new words.