REVIEW by Paul Cooper

NWR Issue 97

Aria/Anika

by Sudeep Sen

Sudeep Sen’s luminous collection Aria/Anika brings together poets from across the world, translated from multifarious languages with craft and imagination. Sen’s record as a poet and translator is formidable: his poems have achieved international acclaim, he has edited several major anthologies, and the list of his honours and scholarships is as long as the praise and endorsements that splash the cover and inner pages of this book. In his latest work, his award-winning collection of translations, Aria, is counterpointed by Anika, a compilation of his own poems, which have themselves been translated into more than twenty-five languages. The poems are divided and subdivided by region and language, then by poet. This approach results in headings such as ‘South Asian Poetry’ (Bengali, Bangladesh, India), which bring together poets as diverse in age, language and style as titan and Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore, modern bards like Ashok Vajpeyi and the elegant Bangladeshi romantic Fazal Shahabuddin. The arrangement’s attempt at precision is one of the most striking aspects of the collection, and helps to bring a strong sense of cohesion to a work that can cross many boundaries in space and language in the space of a few pages.

Of course any act of translation revives conflicts and conundrums: between loyalty to the original and the aesthetic value of the translation; between the sense of the piece and its original form. Sen falls on the side of fidelity to the literal meaning of the original, and makes every effort to reproduce all aspects of the original poems in his English renderings. It’s an admirable approach, but at times leaves the poems hanging in some in between place, written in a sort of English ‘translationese’ that can hamper the final effect. This problem is most glaring in the translations of Tagore’s nonsense verses, ‘Khapcharra’: why prioritise sense over aesthetic value in poems that were not written to make literal sense? Still, this is not at all the overriding feeling of the collection, which on the whole teases beauty out of the space between languages. Jibananda Das’ ‘Banalata Sen’, for instance, is a glorious piece of work.

Birds return home, so do the rivers; as life’s trade – its give-and-take – ceases.
Only the dark stays. And as it remains, so does sitting by my side,
face to face, my own Banalata Sen.


It’s enough to make you want to learn Bengali, and whether the poetry has been translated from Hindi, Persian, Polish, Macedonian, Korean, Hebrew or Urdu, the quality is similarly high.

As for Sen’s own poetry, it bears all the hallmarks of its author’s art. Thoughtful and poised, they act as answering voices not just to the poems in Aria, but also to the questions of the reader, to the process of translation itself. ‘A sheet of glazed emission / emerged,’ Sen writes in ‘Translating Poetry’; ‘words on an unsuspecting tray / a real poem defies translation, in every way.’ Another poem, ‘Aria’s Footprint’, tells us something about the engagement that a work of translation involves: ‘the block of text / I tirelessly worked on... your new step / like miniature ice-bergs / refusing to melt’.

Poems follow thereafter like falling fruit: ‘Banyan’; ‘Bhopal Light’; ‘Eating Guavas Outside Taj Mahal’. One shimmering standout is ‘Bharatanatyam Dancer’, the rhythm and rhyme-scheme of which reflects the actual rhythms that infuse the traditional dance: ‘ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta’. Overall, despite its preoccupation with categorisation and precision, Aria/Anika comes across as a mishmash, a casting of sticks all higgledy-piggledy, a complex arrangement, but at its best it is a work of startling beauty and will add lustre to the career of one of international poetry’s guiding stars.


       


previous review: Thrown into Nature
next review: Cheval 5



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