February 27th at The Bookworm, Sanlitun, Beijing
DE: What are some of the challenges in translating poetry?
PW: A poem might describe a very, simple mundane thing but to me poetry is like dance with a strict choreography. If you’re used to dancing in a certain style, to a certain music, translation is a bit like trying to do that dance to a different music. And it’s very difficult to translate those moves to a different tune. Poetry in particular is full of images and metaphors that are very culture specific. For example, we have this word in Sinhalese called haal-paruwa. It’s a bad word, used to insult men saying that they’re impotent, but not directly. You simply say that what comes out of you is the same color as the water I throw out after I wash my rice.
DE: (childish giggling)
PW: That is a very crass reference, but you just have two words for that in my language. But imagine if I have to translate that and unpack that metaphor. You need two lines for that. And it loses its punch. Then there are emotions that can only be explained precisely in a certain language. English speakers had to borrow the word Schadenfreude from German, to express the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune. We have a word for the exact opposite feeling – muditha, which goes beyond empathy. There is no word in English that lets me convey that feeling. To me, poetry is a very sensory experience, but this creates a stumbling block for a translator. Do you know what a frangipani smells like? Or the taste of coconut sambal? Does an unappetizing footnote saying it’s a mix of grated fresh coconut flavored with dry fish, lime, onion and chili make a reader’s mouth water the way a memory of it does? And if you’re translating literature that comes from a very small place that are not part of the global mainstream pop culture. Sri Lanka is not what you see in Bollywood, for instance, and even Bollywood is not really what is in India. Perhaps it’s harder for people to relate to many culture-specific references and poetry doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of space to explain at length.
DE: I also wondered if there might be structural or grammatical challenges. When I looked at the original Sinhalese of “Her Story,” it looks like there’s a fat column on the left and a thin column on the right. Your translation looks physically different.
PW: That’s true. I especially think in old poetry they were very strict in terms of, not just the number of syllables they used but in terms of rhyming the last word. Just like in English poetry there might be like this rhythm and meter. Sri Lankan poetry, poetry in South Asia has this thing called shabda shaastra or the science of sound. It’s not just that you have to have five syllables. The five syllables in each of the lines should have a similar or compatible sound because Sinhalese is a phonetic language. So it’s not just enough for you to have the same kind of stress or the number of syllables, but also sounds that go together. That’s all very, very difficult to preserve.
DE: When you’re translating is that something that you try to stay faithful to? Is it even possible?
PW: I think it’s very difficult to translate it that way. I sometimes try to rhyme, but if you see my translations they’re more like free verse. I haven’t been able to stick to those rules.
DE: You’ve mentioned to me before that many publishers, especially English language publishers, are reluctant to publish works of translation. Why is that?
PW: This comes from my own experience. Publishers are particularly afraid that the readers aren’t familiar with the names of the authors or actual subject matter that is being translated. Yes, there is a lot of post-colonial literature that is written in English by people in South Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and so on. Buthere’s what one publisher told me when I interviewed him at the Galle literature festival in Sri Lanka: He said people pick up a novel with names, places or scenes that are familiar to them and a work in translation takes you to a completely unknown place.
DE: Isn’t that the good thing about literature?
PW: It is absolutely the good thing about literature. But if you are a publisher who wants to sell copies you want to sell a product that is tried and tested. There are small independent publishers who might take a risk, but if you want to break into a bigger publishing house it’s much harder to do that with works of translation unless you’ve already got a novel or other things published under your name.
DE: I also wanted to ask you a question or two about this poem “Her Story.” I was curious about the narrator who observes all stages of the woman’s life. What is your sense of who or what the narrator is?
PW: This particular writer has many works written from this omnipresent eye. For me, it feels like this narrator has very diverse feelings about this girl. At times there are feelings of lust, craving or desire. But at other times it is as if she’s your own daughter; very sympathetic feelings. I think this is simply to show how a woman’s life changes. Especially in traditional society a woman was more valued for what her uterus could produce as opposed to her as a person. They were just the ones who served your dinner, who made sure the children didn’t get sick. But they weren’t necessarily observed or considered as a presence. I remember my PE teacher in school used to say “you know it’s a girl’s school when you see the girls. You know it’s a boy’s school when you hear the boys.” I think at the time the writer wrote this, to actually lay your eyes on a woman and to observe her life, to acknowledge her own existence was something interesting or important.
DE: So this poet was also a Buddhist monk. From my own limited understanding of Buddhism there seem to be Buddhist themes in it as well.
DE: Impermanence and “the end of her worldly sorrows.”
PW: Although this writer was a Buddhist monk in his early life, he disrobed and went into politics. He was a very active voice in the independence movement. We had a non-violent independence struggle. A lot of people talk about Gandhi and non-violence in India, and ours is overshadowed by that. The origins of our print media can be traced back to these times as well. Newspapers and pamphlets originated to get people to resist the British rule. I think that’s one of the reasons that motivated him to disrobe. But I think his Buddhist education is visible throughout most of his work, not just this one. In this particular poem, he’s talking about the impermanence of life. But it’s not a Buddhist view to think that this life is a test and then you have eternal bliss in an afterlife. I think what he’s trying to say is that you’ve suffered in this life and then you come back to suffer again in this cycle of Samsara, or rebirth. That’s the sense I got.
DE: Finally, I’m fascinated by this erotic poem you translated. How do you pronounce the name Andare?
PW: That was the time when there was Portuguese colonization in Sri Lanka, so a lot of locals had names that sounded Portuguese.
DE: So this name could be a partially westernized?
DE: I was curious, erotica is usually understood to be written with the intent to create arousal, but this poem seems to be something quite different.
PW: Andare is more known to be a humorist poet. As I said we don’t know whether there was an actual historic person called Andare, or it was a bunch of poets who were writing with this pen name. So I chose this simply because it uses interesting images to describe a woman’s body, like coconuts, bitter melons, jackfruit. These are not images or comparisons that we see in say English poems, per se. You’re right, I wouldn’t exactly call this erotica. But Sinhala literature is very, again, a little conservative. So in that context this is slightly erotic because it creates such explicit images of this woman’s body.
DE: They’re really funny and wicked putdowns. You usually don’t think of very old, venerable writing as being so funny.
PW: That is why this guy’s writing stands out, because a lot of the other poems that you see from that period, and before that, most of them have religious motives and poetry was used to propagate Buddhism and discipline people. Whereas, here is this man telling, “Oh, you’re like this old baboon and killing my desire.” So that stood out for me.
DE: I’m also intrigued by the idea that there might not have been one Andare, that it might have been different people using that pen name as cover. It seems like if you wanted to poke fun at the powers that be it could be a useful thing to be able to take on this pen name. What do you think?
PW: I think, like with many emperors, the level of tolerance really depended on the temperament of the man or woman in power. If you look at the history of Sinhala literature there are periods where it flourished because there was not much censorship, and there were periods where it was just squeezed and everything was just like a soothsaying poem to the king. Especially during those times I think, poets adopted this technique of having a pen name, a collective pen name, and writing these absolutely damning poems in a way that they couldn’t be found.
DE: Have any modern or contemporary poems been written under the pen name Andare?
PW: Yes! It continues to be a popular pen name, even among bloggers back home. In our universities there is this tradition of writing poems on the walls of classrooms or in our dorms. And sometimes, when you want to write something scathing and critical, one would just sign it as Andare. So there is this tradition. He’s not just one poet, he’s like a phenomenon of someone who can say something really critical and get away with it.
POETRY IN TRANSLATION
Literotic from an 18th century Sri Lankan court jester
Many humorous poems in Sinhala literature are attributed to a court jester named
Andare, from the late 18th century. It is not clear whether a historic person of that name really existed or whether it was a pen name assumed by a group of poets who
wrote some of the earliest forms of literotica found in Sinhalese and poems critical of
As the story goes, one day, an inebriated Andare saw a woman bathing at the royal
well, and said….
Your hair like scorched coconut fibers
The stomach protruding like a jackfruit full of infertile seeds
Breasts hanging like yellowed, dried bitter melons
Woman you look like an old, toothless baboon,
Slowly chewing away at the young shoots of my desire
He didn’t realize it was the queen he had insulted. When summoned to the court and
threatened with a beheading, the quick-witted poet said his lines had been
misinterpreted and that what he really meant to say was…
Your hair like golden rice paddy waving in the sun
the waist KK a sculpture of fragrant sandalwood
Your breasts full and glistening like sweet orange coconuts
with nipples blossoming like lotuses
Woman when I look at you I see you radiating like a goddess
By Sagara Palansooriya
I saw her
When beads of sweat were rolling down her tiny forehead
As she stuffed sand into coconut shells in the burning sun
She didn’t even know that I had set my eyes upon her
She glistened like a dewdrop on a full moon night
Her eyes – the wellspring of innocence
Her softness felt like petals of a frangipani flower
The sun and the moon liked to peak into her thatched roof hut
And listen to her laughter that rang through the mud walls
Flowers withered when the light of her eyes fell on them
Her lips were the fiery red of the setting sun
Her sweetness oozed out into everything she touched
The bees, intoxicated by a mere look from her, perished from the jealous stings of
Later I saw her in the cusp of youth,
A star that has dived into the milky way
With flecks of sand stuck to the soles of her cracked feet
Old women used to say that wild flowers blossomed when tears rolled down her
And the sound of paddy heaving in the wind carried her tender voice to the corners of
I laid my eyes on her again when she was making passionate love
She was now valued and respected, not for her self but for what her womb could carry
I saw her again, after a long while
She was a mother of four
Although the charm of her youth had slowly disappeared
She looked like an imposing Sal tree with her branches full of flowers
The last time I saw her
Only a few were weeping around her corpse, wrinkled like a sun-dried date
I wished for an end of her worldly sorrows
And turned my heart into a graveyard in her memory
(Translated by Poornima Weerasekara)
About the Poet
Sagara Palansooriya (1908-1961) is regarded as one of the best modern poets in
Sinhala literature. A monk in his youth, he disrobed and went into politics, and was
part of the independence movement against the British in the early 1990s. His work
focused on the rural landscape in Sri Lanka.