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In this paper I wish to speak of the diasporic condition as a form of translation. The metaphor applies in three ways. In the first instance, translation entails the "removal or conveyance from one person, place, time, or condition to another" (SHOED 1, OED I.1.a). This sense describes what happens to a person who travels away from a place (or time, or state of being) that may be designated as a metonymic token for home, community, or sense of belonging. For this condition, translation is a form of removal as loss, and writing is an elegiac delineation and acknowledgment of that loss. In the second instance, translation entails "changing or adapting to another use" (SHOED 3, OED 3.a). This notion applies to the processes by which some kind of gain is accomplished, despite loss, either as motive for, and justification of, voluntary migration, or as retrieval from involuntary displacement. In this condition, writing is a means of redressal, and expresses recuperation. The third sense of translation that I wish to emphasize is the "alteration of a bequest by transferring a legacy", "a transfer of property" (SHOED 4, OED III.5.Law). This is the sense in which the diasporic as migrant or exile conflates loss and gain, the elegiac and the recuperative, by figuring the self as the bearer of a legacy, which belongs neither to a past that is mourned in memory, nor to a future that is celebrated in augury, but to the acts of mind in which pastness and futurity have their being, as gain-in-loss.
In this third condition, writing translates the diasporic into metaphor, for which the figure of the cusp can serve as a geometrical emblem: "A point at which two branches of a curve come together and share a common tangent, as if a point describing the curve had its motion reversed there" (SHOED 4). As metaphor, the diasporic refers to a state of being in two minds about itself. Likewise, translation may be said to be a thought in two minds about itself. Both are figures for gain-in-loss. Just as selves translate across environments, likewise, texts are diasporic between languages. Each is a form of continuance in change. Both diaspora and translation may be said to be metaphors for poetry: firstly, because in a poem, senses migrate from the world of experience to the world of languages, and secondly, because in a poem, pastness, loss, negation, absence, and desire are translated, through the continuance of memory into a trace of being which recovers a part from evanescence. That is why all poets are, in a sense, engaged in acts of translation, and every translation is a migration, an elegiac recuperation of Love -- as A.K. Ramanujan reminds us, invoking Marvell -- begotten by Despair upon Impossibility (Collected Essays 219). I have recently argued for a comparable situation in respect of the poems and translations of Agha Shahid Ali (Patke 2000).
Here, I would like to adduce the example of A.K. Ramanujan as a type of the poet-translator to demonstrate a homology between metaphor, diaspora, and translation. Ramanujan was born in the south Indian city of Mysore in 1929, and moved to the USA in the early 1960s, teaching Dravidian Languages at the University of Chicago until his death in 1993. He published two early collections of poems in Kannada (Proverbs, 1955; Hokkulalli Huvilla, 1969), but after the 1960s, he seems to have confined himself to writing in English. He was to publish four collections of poems in English with the Oxford University Press based in New Delhi, from The Striders (1966) to the posthumous Collected Poems (1995). These poems in English are written largely (though not exclusively) from the circumstances of his chosen place of work in the United States. Throughout his lifetime, Ramanujan also translated into English from three South Indian languages: Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu.In this paper I address the poems in English and the translations into English as the split halves of a single though complex poetic world, in which contemporaneous reality is like the translucence through which a past predating the poets diasporic present is refracted as memory. This evocation of memory, which refers to a personal and a communal time before various forms of separation took place, overshadows the present as a coloration that is somber and nostalgic. Under this dark light, the diasporic poet becomes several kinds of translator. The activity, the materials chosen, and the function of translation, all act as a form of what Seamus Heaney has called a form of redressal, which translates displacement into poetry.
It is the aim of this paper to develop the argument that in Ramanujan, as a type of the diasporic poet, the relationship of the poems in English to the translated work is antithetical and complementary, like the relation between a photographic image and its negative, where the translation is the positive to the negativity of the poets original work in English. Taken together, they produce a metaphoric translation of the self, such that the literal activity of translation seeks to recover from an invoked and imagined past a plenitude that is lacking in the negativity of the poets own present time and the absence that his work is constituted around. The poet copes with the ambivalence of the diasporic experience by making an antithetical value of a non-personal past to which he declares an elective affinity. The role of memory in this recuperative activity is to invest the invoked and invented past with the satisfaction of a desire that is often expressed in his poems in English as the unfulfilled longing of the present. The past does not function merely as an illustration of a desirable mode of being. Translation re-enacts the poets diaspora, it attempts the continued and transmuted life of an old tradition into a new world, and it bridges the gap between leaving a home behind, and carrying it, Anchises-like, on his back, into an uncertain future. Translation, like diaspora, looks two ways at once, and always with mixed feelings, sustaining loss in restitution, while reconstituting sustenance despite loss.
I propose to illustrate these claims about Ramanujans two poetic worlds -- his poems in English, and his translations from classical and medieval Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu -- in three steps.1. The world he migrates to is presented as loss of meaning through the separation of a self from its connectedness to a unity larger than one.
2. The poetic world he translates from offers recuperation by giving access to a world in which the self, and all its modes of feeling, doing and saying are always connected in a sense of community as communion.
3. The activity of translating is antidotal to the negative effects of migration because it restores continuity with the past; reciprocally, migration enlarges the life of the past by giving the solitary self the need-as-opportunity to revive and sustain its transmissibility through translation. Thus translation helps the individual cope with diaspora, while diaspora enables a collective past to survive and adapt through the individual.
1. Migration represents loss in Ramanujans poems in several ways.1.1 The poems become symptoms of distress at solitariness.
Example 1.1But I, a community of one (CP 172)
1.2 In them, the world left behind haunts the memory, as guilt and emptiness.
Example 1.2the wasteland
you have to pass through
is absence itself .
do you think that home will be sweet
for the ones you leave behind? (The Interior Landscape 56)
1.3 They suggest difficulty in establishing or sustaining a sense of relatedness to other people.
Example 1.3Waking is a blow
and walking, a sleet
of faceless acquaintances. (CP 44)
1.4 They reveal a sense of estrangement even within the reduced family unit, as in several poems addressed to his wife.
Dear woman, you never let me forget
youre not Mother.
. . .
youre not my Daughter (CP 180-81)
1.5 They also express a sense of alienation from his physical and cultural environment.
Example 1.5aIn Chicago it blows
. . .
Enemies have guns.
Friends have doubts.
Wives have lawyers.
. . .
Give daughters pills,
do not walk slow. (CP 103)
Example 1.5b. . .a paper world in search of identity cards. (CP 149)
1.6 The world migrated to appears meaningful only when related to the world migrated from, in nostalgic double-focus.Example 1.6athe naked Chicago bulb
a cousin of the Vedic sun. (CP 169)
to dream of a blue Mysore house in Chicago. (CP 249).
1.7 Perception is obscured by the intrusions of memory.
Example 1.7asomething opened
in the past and I heard something shut
in the future, quietly (CP 16)
Example 1.7ba hood
Of memory like a coil on a heath (CP 7)
1.8 They express a sense of being trapped in the past, bound deterministically to the shaping influence of family and parents.
Example 1.8aBut living
binds the feet. (translated epigraph to Relations, 1971, CP 56)
Example 1.8bI pass from ghost to real
and back again in the albums
of family rumours (CP 65)
Example 1.8chis concave eye groping only
for mothers and absences (CP 76)
I choke, for ancient hands are at my throat. (CP 79)
1.9 The deterministic hold of the parental as progenitor on the self as progeny is acknowledged as an ambivalent relation that binds.
Example 1.9father whispers in my ear, black holes
and white noise (CP 178)
1.10 The maternal is treated as a link that cannot be severed, from birth to death.1.11 Migration, as from India to the West, corresponds to translation from the classical and medieval Indian into Modern English, or, in short, from classical to modern. In each case, the difference is the movement from context-sensitive to context-free.
Example 1.10amy heads soft crown bathed in mothers blood,
wearing tatters of attachment, bursting
into the cruelties
of earthly light, infected air? (CP 131)
Example 1.10bbut death? Is it a dispersal
of gathered energies .
back into mother-matter... (CP 207)
One might see "modernization" in India as a movement from the context-sensitive to the context-free an erosion of contexts (Collected Essays 49)
2. Ramanujans poems in English treat migration negatively, as loss of home, and what home signified, because migration severs the individual self from a sense of connectedness within an integrated system of hierarchical relations, kinships, family bonds, and cultural ties. The self needs a sense of belongingness and plenitude without the anxiety of solitariness. In this predicament, the world of classical and mediaeval South Indian poetry offers an antidote.2.1 In the world of the past, selfhood thrives in the midst of relatedness, the individual in the midst of the communal.
a peeping-tom ghostlooking for all sorts of proof
for the presence of the past (CP 89)
Now you know what you always knew:
the country cannot be reached
by jet .
other means of transport, Nor by any
migrating with a clean valid passport,
no, not even by transmigrating (CP 187)
Looking for the centre these days
is like looking for the Center
for Missing Children
Suddenly, connections severed
as in a lobotomy, unburdened
of history, I lose
my bearings (CP 184-85)
I transact with the past as with another
country with its own customs, currency,stock exchanges, always
at a loss when I count my change (CP 189)
Alienation from the immediate environment can mean continuity with an older ideal. (Introduction, Speaking of Śiva, 33)
Example 2.1blets go, I say,
to where my man is,
alien languages. (The Interior Landscape 23)
The lyric poet likes to find ways of saying many things while saying one thing; he would like to suggest an entire astronomy by his specks and flashes. Towards this end, the Tamil poets used a set of five landscapes and formalized the world into a symbolism. By a remarkable consensus they all spoke this common language of symbols for some six generations The spurious name Cankam (fraternity, community) for this poetry is justified not by history but by the poetic practice. (Afterword, The Interior Landscape 115)
Example 2.1dMy little girl says,
"Ive no relatives here
and everyone here is my relative."
"Im the one who makes relatives relate,"
"I also end relations,
and to those related to me
I become all relations,"
she says. (Hymns 75)
2.2 The difference connectedness makes can be illustrated by the very different function served by similar images in the world as untranslatable and the world as translated.
He can neither sleep nor wake from the one-legged sleep on this Chicago lake of yachts in full sail, herons playing at sages. (CP 179)
There was onlyand looking
on legs yellow as millet stems a thin-legged heron standing
in the running water
when he took me. (The Interior Landscape 30)
Example 2.2cto hear my wife cry her heart
out as if from a crater
in hell: she hates me, I hate her (CP 68)
Counterexample 2.2dWhen my lover is by my side
I am happy
as a city
in the rapture of a carnival. (The Interior Landscape 38)
2.3 The world of the past is a secure, maternal world.
Example 2.3aMy dark one
who holds their lands
as a mother would
a child in her womb (Hymns 67)
Example 2.3bMothers smear bitter neem
paste on their nipples
to wean greedy babies
and give them an inexplicable
taste for bitter gourd
late in life (CP 257)
2.4 This world's language is the first language of mothering as the only form of true love.
Example 2.4amy late mother gave me more than a mother tongue (Introduction, Love and War xvi)
Example 2.4blove is like the young of the tortoise
nourished by the sight
of its mother. (The Interior Landscape 63)
2.5 In this world, the paternal circumscribes but in a way that resolves the Oedipal situation to the advantage of the son.
Example 2.5aI fall to work
and suckle till I glow
on milk still warm, groan
at the taste
of Mothers salt,
five, weaned, and jealous,
seems no longer halt
or blind: cured almost. (CP 225)
This Indian Oedipus does not slay his father, but obeys and fulfills him, often sacrificing his potency for his elders At his best, he becomes himself by first surrendering to them. (Afterword, Love and War 285)
2.6 The activity of translation creates an oppositional relation to the world of Sanskrit as a language and a culture. In the world translated from, the vernacular opposes the masculine principle with the feminine, the written with the spoken, the public versus the private, the hieratic with the commonplace, the static aspect of being with the dynamism of doing, the insiders canon of received writing with the translated speech of the outsider. Tejaswini Niranjana, in Siting Translation (1992: 181-86), fears that, in the bid to resist Sanskritism, Ramanujan is in danger of essentializing bhakti. This is not altogether unfair as a reading, nevertheless, there seems little need for the kind of overheated defense of Ramanujan made recently by Vinay Dharwadkar (1999: 130-35) against the charge of essentializing Hinduism.
Example 2.6aThe imperial presence of Sanskrit, with its brahmanical texts of the Vedas and the Upanishads, was a presence against which bhakti in Tamil defines itself. (Afterword, Hymns 109)
Example 2.6bVacanas are bhakti poems, poems of personal devotion The vacana saint rejects not only the "great" traditions of Vedic religion, but the "little" local traditions as well. They not only scorn the effectiveness of the Vedas as scripture; they reject the little legends of the local gods and goddesses . This fierce rebellion against petrification was a rebellion only against contemporary Hindu practice; the rebellion was a call to return to experience . The vacana is thus a rejection of premeditated art a cry for spontaneity . But then "spontaneity" has its own rhetorical structure . This stock included figures, symbols and paradoxes often drawn from an ancient and pan-Indian pool of symbology. (Introduction, Śiva 25, 33, 38, 39)
2.7 In the world translated from, the personal is rooted in the communal and the historical.
Example 2.7aThe poem is placed in a real society and given a context of real history. (Afterword, The Interior Landscape 101)
Example 2.7bThis world lives
do not eat alone (Love and War 157)
2.8 The world translated from regards experience as inner (akam) rather than outer (puram), and love is the core of inner experience.
Example 2.8aThe love of man and woman is taken as the ideal expression of the "inner world". (Afterword, The Interior Landscape 104)
each phase of love gets its characteristic type of imagery from a particular landscape Each of these landscapes is a whole repertoire of images used to symbolize and evoke a specific feeling. (Afterword, The Interior Landscape 106)
2.9 The world translated from engenders a second language of conventions, whose stylized schematism provides an Inscape corresponding to and transforming the world of actual persons, events, and feelings. Experience or perception is a first language, and the poetic traditions of the past translate this language of perception into the second language of symbolism.
The dramatis personae are limited by convention to a small number: the hero, the heroine, the heros friend(s) or messengers, the heroines friend and foster-mother, the concubine, and passer-by. (Afterword, The Interior Landscape 112)
Example 2.9bBeginning with a first language, they may construct a second. (Afterword, Hymns 164)
Example 2.9cThe poets language is not only Tamil: landscapes, the personae, the appropriate moods, all become a language within language . I spoke earlier of a poetic "second language," the language of landscapes especially in akam poems. When we read puram poems, we are struck by another aspect of this second language, its repertoire of formulas, motifs, and such The signs of this secondary system become in turn the signifiers of expressive systems like mythology; poetry weaves into its language all the cultural significances of words and things, their mythic and ritual uses, and "returns" them to ordinary language renewing the "language of the tribe." (Afterword, Love and War 250-51, 269, 280-81)
2.10 The system of correspondences created by the poetic traditions of the past is based on metonymy, not metaphor, concerned less with unifying diversity than with expressing the same unity through any of its parts. Each poem resonates as part of a larger unity, implied when many of its members are absent, always present in the presence of any one of its members.2.11 The poetic traditions of the past merge the profane and the sacred, thus representing the possibility of all forms of union as a principle of coherence opposed to the spirit of individuation.
In the Tamil system of correspondences, a whole language of signs is created by relating the landscapes as signifiers to the uri or appropriate human feelings . This progression (from the basic cosmic elements to the specific component of a landscape) is also the method of the entire intellectual framework behind the poetry . Evocations designed like these may be seen in poem after poem. Ullurais -- let us call them insets -- of the natural scene (somewhat like G.M. Hopkinss inscape) repeat the total action of the poem . (a) An inset is a correlation of the landscapes and their contents (karu) to the human scene (uri). (b) Unlike metaphor in ordinary language, an inset is a structural feature within the poem; it integrates the different elements of the poem and shapes its message. (c) Unlike metaphor and simile, it often leaves out all the points of comparison and all explicit markers of comparison such an omission increases manifold the power of the figure . The inset is essentially a "metonymy," an in presentia relationship, where both terms are present, where the signifier and the signified belong to the same universe, share the same "landscape." Both are parts of one scene. .. Metaphor implies diversity to be unified by comparison. Poetry for the Tamils does not unify a multiverse but expresses a universe from within, speaking through any of its parts. (Afterword, Love and War 241, 244-47)
Every poem resonates with the absent presence of others that sound with it, like the unstruck strings of a sitar. So we respond to a system of presences and absences Every poem is part of a larger self-reflexive paradigm; it relates to all others in absentia (Collected Essays 15)
Example 2.11awithout you
take me (Hymns 25)
Example 2.11bWithout him here
how shall I survive? (Hymns 33)
2.12 Oneness as between two lovers, or as between God and devotee, is regarded as the only true way of being, an equation between selfhood in community and selfhood in communion.
Example 2.12we can speak of "framing" the erotic poem, in a new context of bhakti [devotion] . In Nammālvārs poem, the entire erotic tradition has become a new signifier, with bhakti as the signified. The classical tradition is to bhakti what the erotic motifs are to the tradition (Afterword, Hymns 159, 160)
2.13 The sacred tradition of bhakti (devotional) poetry absorbs selfhood into the Godhead, offering a relief from the solitariness of the individual self.
The poem evokes the primal, the essential experience of bhakti: not ecstasy, not enstasy, but an embodiment; neither a shamanic flight to the heavens or soul loss, nor a yogic autonomy, a withdrawal of the senses but a partaking of the god. (Afterword, Hymns 115-16)
The whole world become oneself
Who needs solitude (Śiva 128)
2.14 In the secular tradition that deals with love and the inner world, poetry practices the freedom of impersonality in which feelings can be dramatized without being personalized confessionally.
Example 2.14aThe classical tradition of Tamil poetry is an impersonal tradition. (Afterword, The Interior Landscape 99)
Example 2.14bNo poet here speaks in his own voice, and no poem is addressed to a reader. (Afterword, The Interior Landscape 112)
Example 2.14chere, only classes, ideal types; for in this inner world there are no names or individuals. (Afterword, Love and War 257)
Both the classical and folk literature of India work with well-established languages of convention, given personae, and elaborate metrical patterns that mediate and depersonalize literary expression . Bhakti religions are Indian analogues to European protestant movements (Introduction, Śiva 53)
Example 2.14eThus any single poem is part of a set, a family of sets, a landscape (one of five), a genre (akam, puram, comic, or religious). The intertextuality is concentric, a pattern of memberships as well as neighbourhoods, of likenesses and unlikenesses. (Collected Essays 229)
2.15 The religious tradition offers a paradoxical combination of accessibility and otherness, which can serve as an emblem for translation, because the devotees relation to the deity is a version of the translators relation to the original, or the migrants sense of separation in relation to his ideal of being-in-oneness.
Example 2.15The Vaisnavas have a pair of technical terms, paratvam "otherness," and saulabhyam "ease of access." He [the Lord] is everything, yet the other. He is at hand, easy of access, yet beyond. . A distinction that characterizes the ālvārs [religious poets] deepest experience of all being: its nearness coupled with its mysterious otherness, its unavailability. The latter makes the former precious, precarious, a thing of grace The otherness is a condition of grace. So is separation a condition for bhakti. (Afterword, Hymns 124, 156-57)
2.16 In the religious tradition, the opposition to paternalism, Sanskritism, and firstness provides a model for the viability of all forms of translation as self-assertion through defiance, the Protestantism of the parochial against the universal (Śiva 40), bhakti against public religion.
A new kind of persona or person comes into fashion with bhakti movements: a person who flouts proprieties, refuses the education of a poet, insists that anyone can be a poet (Afterword, Hymns 164-65)
3. If we consider the two worlds of Ramanujans poetry in stereoscopic vision, to have migrated is a tragic predicament insofar as it produces separation, isolation, and guilt. To that degree translation, like migration, is lack of full transference. But the activity of translation, undertaken as the re-accessing of a legacy, goes some way towards revalorizing the experience of migration. There would have been no redemption without the Fall, likewise, the new identity constituted out of exile, self-exile, and migration, achieves a contingent synthesis in which the loss of an old self is balanced by the recovery of a new self.
Example 3Translations are transpositions, and some elements of the original cannot be transposed at all Items are more difficult to translate than relations, textures more difficult than structure, words more difficult than phrasing, linear order more difficult than syntax, lines more difficult than pattern (Introduction, Hymns for the Drowning xvi)
3.1 Translation transforms readers, not just texts.
Example 3.1Anyone translating a poem into a foreign language is, at the same time, trying to translate a foreign reader into a native one. (The Interior Landscape 11)
3.2 Translation reacquires a legacy as an act of will, an act of constitution as much as it is a restitution, and to the oblivious inheritor, migration acts as the reminder urging repossession.
Even ones own tradition is not ones birthright; it has to be earned, repossessed . Here was a world, a part of my language and culture, to which I had been an ignorant heir (Introduction, Love and War xvii)
3.3 The desire for connectedness, and the absence of connection are the two facets of Ramanujans poetic world, the first celebrated in his translations, the second mourned in his poems in English.
Connect! Connect! Cries my disconnecting
madness, remembering phrases. (CP 178)
This poetry of touching, sharing, seeing, the many in the one, is a poetry of connections, of continuities. It connects god, gods, and all creation; the god of myth, the god of philosophy, the god in the temple and the god within; speaker, subject, listener; good and evil, hell and heaven, mythic then and poetic now, opposites and contraries . To see such flowing continuity as the fact of facts (even in misery) is truly to be an ālvār, truly to be "the immersed one.". (Afterword, Hymns 166-67)
According to Ramanujan, the world invoked in translation is "like a collection of people with the same proper name " (Collected Essays 156). This unity of diversity within a name is a figure for a sense of being at one with the world. Its loss and the hope of its recovery are, togther, the need and the motive for translation. As a student of translation, Ramanujan describes the relation between the Indian epic Ramayana and its myriad translations in terms of a common code or pool: "Every author dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context" (Collected Essays 158). Transposed to diaspora, the task is identifiable as one of supplying or recreating contexts, to ameliorate the feeling that life is being lived as if it were a text without contexts. Translation translates diaspora by perpetuating a legacy. It makes a restitution out of transplantation, transforming guilt through desire to keeping the past alive in the present: "Just as our biological past lives in the physical body, our social and cultural past lives in the many cultural bodies we inherit -- our languages, arts, religions, and life-cycle rites" (Collected Essays 184). Thus, "To translate is to metaphor, to carry across". Translated, the diasporic poet learns to re-present himself as more and other than the restoration of a lost original.
Perseus Project, Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary