Translating boundaries

Ahem.  A little tooting of my own horn: I’ve started a blog in Telugu, which is however limited to selections from Telugu women’s poetry.  Why? Because very few people (even those who read Telugu poetry) know of them.  And because it’s the only kind I thrill to.

I’m posting here a translation of a poem I put up there, by my favourite Telugu poet, Jayaprabha, perhaps one of the most important feminists in India. It’s from an anthology of poems, with the same title as this poem, written when she was teaching at the University of Wisconsin.

Original in Telugu here.

Whence come the rain-bearing clouds?

Human selfishness draws boundaries

Not leaping streams

Not forests or waterfalls

Who can say whence

come the clouds bringing rain here!

Religion and ritual

break up the earth’s expanse

into bits and pieces.

If  the world’s boundaries were erased

(we’d see that)

Earth, water, air are everyone’s

Not separated into seven continents.

Although this isn’t a feminist poem in the strictest sense, I’m drawn to it because of my fascination for people whose imagination blurs boundaries.  Like that nameless narrator in Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, the little boy whose imaginative universe extends far beyond the Calcutta he grows up in, while for his globe-trotting cousin, the world is a series of airports.

My introduction to Jayaprabha was her M.Phil dissertation on women in Telugu Romantic Poetry, now a book titled Bhaavakavitvamlo Stree. It’s a work similar to Gilbert and Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic and Ferguson’s Images of Women in Literature, convincingly showing how celebrated Telugu Romantic writers simply perpetuated the woman-as-object motif of the earlier prabandha genre in a different garb. While earlier she was object of desire, for the Romantics she became an angelic object of devotion and love.  To paraphrase Velcheru Narayana Rao, earlier woman was just body with no heart; and for the Romantics she was just heart with no body.

I hope to be able to translate more of Jayaprabha’s poetry in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, here’s a fairly comprehensive survey of Telugu women’s writing.

+ This is my first translation, and I’ll readily admit that it comes nowhere near capturing the essence of the original. For instance, I find the word “viswarupam” untranslatable and had to make do with “expanse”.

+ +Thanks anu, for egging me on to this!

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3 Comments »

  1. anu said

    SS,

    congrats on your new blog and avatar, telugu script is like kannada and i can read the words and that is about all, so please keep translating them into english ( for non-telugu readers like me).

    few things that i try to get around are right here in your posts;

    first confession – i don’t use the word feminist as i don’t understand it or attempt to understand it (tried and failed), to me that is one more slot that i am slamming myself into (dalit being the other one), so i let it be and just read the content of articles with this word in them. here, i am tempted to probe a little now (indulge or ignore :))…… who is a feminist in the indian context? to me one who makes or creates choices in her situation/circumstances is a smart one or aware one, towards this she would have to be analytical of her situation and the forces and proceed to negotiate……. the results are not important to the one outside of her experience, that she negotiates is important. in this scenario, every indian woman is a smart and aware one, hence i cannot find some indian woman who is smarter than the others, provided one steps into the exact situation and feels that she could/would have made better choices…….. will leave this for now. 🙂

    the poem is a gentle one and i like its reflective tone.

    >>Although this isn’t a feminist poem in the strictest sense, I’m drawn to it because of my fascination for people whose imagination blurs boundaries.

    been reading this line a couple of times. when a poet is blurring boundaries in her verse, why do you begin your note having to cage it into a category, feminist in this instance? curious.

    >>To paraphrase Velcheru Narayana Rao, earlier woman was just body with no heart; and for the Romantics she was just heart with no body.

    is it different now? that is, has heart and body been reconciled in telugu poetry?

    last but not the least, i am hoping you send CF/pavada a translation of Jayaprabha’s poems soon… please, please :).

  2. anu:

    Thanks a ton for reading and responding. Helps immensely! Yeah, I lived five years in Bangalore, and could read Kannada easily, which was very helpful because I travelled only by bus!

    About feminism: I agree with you that to call oneself a feminist is perhaps to accept a categorization not all of whose shades of meaning one might be comfortable /identify with. And feminism does mean rather different things to different people. For me, it is the “radical” notion that women are people. And this isn’t just theory for me. It stems from a lifetime of being treated as either less than human or more than human.

    You’re absolutely right. The poem is about blurring boundaries, and I shouldn’t try to impose category on it. 🙂

    >> has heart and body been reconciled in telugu poetry? well, male poetry remains largely shackled. But there are women trying to put more heart into body and vice versa. For instance there is this anthology of Telugu Dalit women’s poetry I’m currently struggling with. Very powerful. That’s something I might attempt translating …

  3. […] Smokescreen translates a poem by Telugu feminist writer Jayaprabha and tries to interpret it: Human selfishness draws boundaries […]

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