By Ravi Shankar
A few years ago, I was asked to contribute a few poems to Indivisible (University of Arkansas Press, 2010), an anthology of contemporary South Asian American poetry and additionally to provide a sentence or two about my own poetic and cultural background. Here’s what I wrote in response: “a Chennai and Coimbatore Tamilian from Northern Virginia, as apt to say bugging as roomba nandri, I identify with language’s musical inflections, rather than a particular race or nation.” That brief snippet gets at the root of my own attitude towards translation, because rather than a simple act of communication, it has been an orienting metaphor for how I view the world and navigate my daily life.
My mother tongue is Tamil, a Dravidian language primarily spoken in South India and Sri Lanka, and one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world. I grew up speaking and being spoken to this language at home, but because I am a first generation Indian American, my parents having come to the United States in the 1960’s, I also learned English, the colonizer’s language, and slowly but surely, the subject-predicate and gerund began to eradicate the Tamil which never left, but went into hiding in my bloodstream.
From an early age, I learned how το navigate my bifurcated identity by sharpening my skills of observation, of detached perception, feeling keenly a sense of alienation, how when I was in India, I would be considered too American, and in America too Indian. Having such a richness to draw my self from should have been a source of strength but as a child, it was a vexation; today, though, I feel blessed to have two idioms to speak in, two modes of being that I can participate in. In fact, I often trace my own origins as a poet back to my upbringing as a Brahmin, who even in America would go to temple to listen to ancient hymns being sung and prayers recited in Sanskrit. The music of that root language bubbled directly in my bloodstream even when I didn’t understand the meaning of the words being chanted. That experience of responding viscerally to the intonations and inflections of a language even when I could not parse it into paraphrase was instrumental in developing my own poetic sensibility.
My most recent translation project is with Indian poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai Chabria and we are working on bringing the 8th century Tamil poet/saint Andal’s poetry into English, a process that requires that we both engage with the classical (or shen) Tamil which bears only a glancing relationship to the colloquial language we both speak and understand. As a result, we have worked with scholars to render the poems into rudimentary English and then we have been infusing that with the passion and transcendence so readily apparent in her work. An excerpt from our forthcoming book, Andal: Autobiography of a Goddess (due out with Zubaan Books in India in Fall 2015) is published in the Cortland Review:
This excerpt begins:
In January hoarfrost, I sweep the ground
to draw sacred mandalas with fine sand,
intricate adornment of stars and matrixes
of dots in rice powder that will disperse
in the afternoon void. The art of engaging
beauty for its own form and transient sake.
The art of engaging beauty for its own form and transient sake, navigating the music of one language and bringing it into another, acutely aware both of the loss and the gain such a transposition entails characterizes my attitude towards translation and I’m honored to serve on the Board of Philadelphus to help foster more such exchanges.