Monday, July 2, 2012

Issues in Translating Verses of R.K.Singh’s Flight of Phoenix

Varsha Singh

The main aim of translation is to serve as a cross-cultural bilingual communication vehicle among people. In the past few decades, this activity has developed because of rising international trade, increased migration, globalization, the recognition of linguistic minorities, and the expansion of the mass media and technology. For this reason, the translator plays an important role as a bilingual or multilingual cross-cultural transmitter of culture and truths by attempting to interpret concepts and speech in a variety of texts as faithfully and accurately as possible.

Most translation theorists agree that translation is understood as a transfer process from a foreign language or a second language to the mother tongue. Newmark says:
I shall assume that you, the reader, are learning to translate into your language of habitual use, since that is only way you can translate naturally, accurately and with maximum effectiveness. (Newmark, 1988).1

If translating is a discourse operation interposing between language and thought, we should accept that in the art or skill of translating we are inexorably going to come across assorted and numerous obstacles. Delisle illustrates translation as a subtle  exercise:
Translation is an arduous job that mortifies you, puts you in a state of despair at times, but also an enriching and indispensable work, that demands honesty and modesty.2

Flight of Phoenix, a collection of poems by R.K. Singh, dominates itself with intense sensitivity of eroticism and expression of inner-self as well. These tremendous features of this collection of poetry, make the job of a translator much more difficult, than any kind of translation of poetry is considered. The difficulties or challenges in translating the poems of the collection Flight of Phoenix, can be categorized into three distinct parts: (a) issues of structure, (b) issues of texture, and (c) cultural issues.

The structural issues include certain aspects, such as, problems in translating the images, idioms, phrasal verbs, enjambment and extraordinary language dealt by the poet. For example, Poem no. 16 from the collection Flight of Phoenix is perfect for situating the issue of images while translating poetry.
Poem no. 16
Each day I construct
myself in new desires and
end in emptiness

a hollow shadow
I move in dust and rest in
stony webs of haze

In this poem the poet presents some majestic images such as “hollow shadow” and “stony webs”, which become a challenge for the translator. Here it becomes the responsibility of the  translator to generate the similar sense created in the SL text (i.e. English) with the help of exact equivalence present in the TL text (i.e. Hindi). As a result, one finds suitable equivalents for these images, such as, 4o4a saya\ for “hollow shadow” and p4rIle jal for “stony webs” by keeping the sense of negativity alive in the translated version too.

R.K. Singh uses lots of phrasal verbs and idioms in his poems, such as, “inside out”, “criss-cross”, “forsaken island”, “dumb myths”, “empty hunts”, “tamed passages”, “dual single” etc. These phrasal verbs and idioms become another matter of concern for a translator, because, they are some fixed group of words with special meaning, which is different from the meaning of the individual words.

Enjambment comes as the next problem, or it would be better to call it a challenge, in translation of this collection. This is such, because, most of the time if the translator is not careful, enjambment may lead toward misinterpretation of the SL text, and hence, the output would be completely incorrect. Example of such misinterpretation can be seen in the following translation of poem no. 4 from Flight of Phoenix.
Poem no. 4
When sleepless poetry
fails to negotiate night
I wait for white dreams

जब बेनीन्द कविता 

हार जाती रात से समझौते में 

मैं बेरंग सपनो का करता इंतज़ार  

Whereas, the better translation would be:

जब  रहूँ बेनीन्द 

और कविता हारे समझौते में 

तब रात करूँ  मैं  इंतज़ार 

बेरंग सपनों का 

In the first attempt of translating this poem it can be seen that, it is the poem becoming sleepless, which is not the implied meaning and thus incorrect: whereas, in the second translation it is the persona who has become sleepless, and thus it is the correct translation. This is basically a transferred epithet, which requires keen observation of the translator for a better result.

Compressed language used in this collection of poetry is its most dominating and impressive aspect providing rhythm and tone to the poems vis-à-vis leading towards the textural issues in translation. This aspect of Flight of Phoenix can be seen as another big challenge for a translator. Poem no. 22 is a perfect example situating the issue of compressiveness in the poems of R.K. Singh.

Poem no. 22
Is it the heat wave
or stupor that I see
shadows in the dark and call it vision?

In this poem one finds it visible that the poet does not uses any punctuation mark, except a question mark at the end. This describes the compressive nature of the poem, and thus, becomes a challenge in translation. Similar problem is encountered in all the poems Flight of Phoenix.

As discussed earlier, that, compressed language provides a variant tone to the poems of this collection, poem no. 24 would be a suitable example describing this issue of tone in translating verses.
Poem no. 24
The colour of night is the same everywhere
what if my identity is not known
let’s fuck the moment and forget the place

The tone of this poem is negative, where the persona is talking about darkness and his unidentified identity. In this situation, any kind of carelessness or incapability of the translator may lead toward misinterpretation, as resulted below:
रागिनी की रंगत हर तरफ एक सी है 
तो क्या अगर मैं अनजान हूँ 
चलो इस स्थान से विरक्त हो 
इस पल को हम शिकस्त दें 

Here, the poem has resulted as over translation and has become a romantic piece, which is not the original tone. A better version for this poem would be:

रात हर तरफ एक सी 

तो क्या अगर मेरी पहचान है छुपी 

बिन फ़िक्र के अब जगह की 

जी लें हम ये पल अभी 

Here, one may find the tone of negativity alive, as in the original work. 
As it is known that translation is not just a linguistic procedure, it’s also a cultural one.

A translator faces several problems related to the cultural issues, as one has to take care of the emotions, values and traditions of not just a single culture but culture of the SL text vis-à-vis culture of the TL text. Poem no. 14 from Flight of Phoenix is a better example presenting the cultural issues in translation.
Poem no.14
Winter is caught in
waves of narrow discussions
under the blanket
fingers move by nipples erect
without sensing consummation

It is clear in this poem that it has some erotic element; hence a translator needs to be careful in this situation. Careful understanding becomes an essential requirement, because, the expressions and sentiments of two different cultures cannot be same, they vary from each other. Similar problem is noticed in poem no. 19 as well.

Poem no. 19
Bones of levity criss-cross
at the bottom of silence
there is no shape in the mind

ख़ामोशी  तले

होती आड़ी - तिरछी

शरीर उतावलेपन की

ज़ेहन में रहे नहीं

फिर आकार कोई 

Present translation makes it clear, that, a slight deviation by the translator may lead the text towards a negative cultural impression, and may hurt the sentiments of the target readers.

Some other examples of the erotic elements which create cultural problems while translating this collection are:
Poem no 59
I smell my boneless
semen under the pillow
weaving legends in      
half-dream along her
hips as I curl like rainbow
dying winds splash down blots

Poem no.56
Like a woman’s mind
resides between her thghs joy
and satisfaction

man’s love and hatred
concentrate on the crevice
though he watches face

she laughs when I say
love and beauty is nothing
but sabre and sheath

Poem no.52
The split in cypress
is vulva I know the roots

call it Yin and Yang
our basic sex, lingam and
yoni harmonise
Like lotus rising
from the depths of lake through mud
crossing existence

One faces another kind of cultural implication while translating the title of Flight of Phoenix, which is the most important part of this collection. Phoenix is basically a Greek mythical bird, the only one of its kind; hence, it becomes a challenge for the translator to find out a suitable equivalent for Phoenix in Indian culture too. After some research Garud comes as the Indian mythical bird, which is considered the only one of its kind and very much similar to the nature and features of Phoenix. As a result, after translation, the title for Flight of Phoenix becomes गरुड़ की उड़ान in Hindi.

At last, it becomes necessary to say, that, there are many more dominant ingredients that constitute the art of R.K. Singh’s poetry and if the translator misses them, then a major constituent of Singh’s poetry is lost. In fact, it cannot be demonstrated here, but it has to be admitted that majority of full translations of the poems of this collection (F.O.P.) do turn out to be poor replicas of the original, because, it is truly said by Frost that, it is poetry that gets lost in translation. A literary translator, therefore, needs to be able to use his/her art and craft “with responsibility to capture the spirit of the original” avoiding both under-translation and over-translation.

About the Poet
Born, broughtup and educated in Varanasi, he is a university professor, teaching English language skills to students of earth and mineral sciences. He has authored over 150 articles,165 book reviews and 34 books, including Twelve collections of poems, among them, two jointly with U S Bahri, TWO POETS (1994) and COVER TO COVER (2002), and two others, EVERY STONE DROP PEBBLE (1999) jointly with Catherine Mire and Patricia Prime, and PACEM IN TERRIS (2003, a trilogy collection, containing his haiku collection PEDDLING DREAM). MY SILENCE AND OTHER SELECTED POEMS:1974-1994 (1996), ABOVE THE EARTH'S GREEN (1997), and THE RIVER RETURNS (2006) are his other three important poetry books. NEW INDIAN ENGLISH POETRY: AN ALTERNATIVE VOICE: R.K.SINGH (ed: I.K.Sharma) is the latest publication on his poetry. It contains 22 critical articles, six interviews and over a dozen review/comments by about 30 scholars.(Details from He has received several awards and honours, including honorary Litt.D. from the World Academy of Arts and Culture, Taiwan, 1984, Michael Madhusudan Award, Calcutta, 1994 and Peace Museum Award from Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, 1999.

1. Newmark, P. 1988. A Textbook of Translation. New York: Prentice Hall. p.21.
2. Delisle, J. and J. Woodsworth. 1995. Translators through History. Amsterdam/      Philadelphia: John Benjamin. p.63.
 3. Singh, R.K. 1990. Flight of Phoenix: A Collection of Poems. Behrampur: Poetry Time Publications.


  1. Well described... It's not very easy to translate the REAL feelings expressed by the poet in a particular language.