By Subhash Jaireth
On 6 October 2020, I led an online workshop curated by the Poetry on the Move Festival. The workshop was attended by seven poets interested in the art of translation. I introduced two songs of Meerabai, a sixteenth-century Rajasthani mystic poet, singer and dancer. In my introduction I provided biographical, historical and cultural contexts within which the two songs were written.
Before the workshop the participants were given material which included: the original songs in Hindi; a line-by-line English paraphrase of the songs; an English transcript of the two songs; and audio recording of the songs. Subsequently, six of the participants wrote translations of their own. The group reconvened on 10 October, to discuss their translations and the process of writing them. The translations are published here together with the reflective comments of their authors: Maurice Corlett, Hazel Hall, Matt Hetherington, Subhash Jaireth, Penelope Leyland, and Sandra Renew.
The art of translation
Literary translation is an event of co-being of two languages and experiences. Its first aim, as Perry Link suggests, is to grasp the original and then to create a piece that meets the needs of the readers of the second language. No translation is perfect. Translators have to make value judgements in deciding what to leave out and what to keep. Their main aim is to create a comparable literary experience. Personally, I prefer translations that capture the meaning, mood and the soundscape of the original poem. I also prefer a dialogic approach in which the poet/translator enters an empathetic dialogue with the text producing a work which retains intonations of both: the creator of the original poem and that of the poet/translator.
Although a good knowledge of the language of the original is critical, it doesn’t mean that the poet-translator needs to have that knowledge. The presence of an intermediary with a ‘working’ knowledge of both languages can provide a helping hand to walk over the bridge between two languages and cultures.
Translation in this model becomes an iterative process realised through a prolonged conversation between three participants: the original poem; the intermediary interlocutor; and the translator. The purpose of the iterative process is to achieve in the translated poem a balance between three intricately interrelated elements of the original poem: meaning, mood and the sound-world.
The translation workshop had the above-mentioned objective in mind. It hoped to produce more than one translation of a single song by different poets writing in English but with no or very cursory knowledge of Rajasthani/Hindi language and poetry.
No single translation can fully capture the meaning, mood and the soundscape of the original. Keeping this in mind, the project decided to present more than one translation of the same song. These translations complement each other, enriching as well as questioning each other’s presence. By reading them together, a reader will be able to appreciate the richness of the poetic voice in the original songs.
Meerabai (1498–1556) was a poet, singer and dancer and a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna. She is revered as one of the prominent voices of the Bhakti Movement: a movement of religious reformation which valued personal engagement with deities over traditional ritualistic practices.
Her life and work are shrouded in mystery, clouded by legends, gossip and stories. She is said to have been born in 1498 (or 1502) into a minor royal family in Marwar, Rajasthan in north-west India. When she was five, her mother died, and she was brought up by her grandfather. At the age of eighteen, or perhaps younger, she was given away in marriage to the crown-prince of a neighbouring kingdom. She found married life oppressive and wanted instead to devote her life to Lord Krishna, who she believed was her true husband. She composed songs in his praise and sang them in temples dancing in ecstasy and rapture.
Both her husband, and her father-in-law, the King, found her behaviour scandalous, and declared her either insane or a woman of loose morals who had brought shame to the royal family. After the death of her husband (in 1523) and father-in-law (in 1528), other members of the royal family continued to persecute her. There are stories that they tried more than once to kill her by feeding her poison. She survived and left the royal home, turning into a yogin, a religious mendicant. She travelled to places associated with Krishna, either alone or in the company of other devotees, singing and dancing with them. Life around her was in turmoil, with frequent wars waged by the Hindu kingdoms either among each other, or against the Muslim rulers. Her songs of love and peace, sung in the glory of her Krishna, sounded as moments of respite from the endless violence happening around her.
Like most Indians, I have grown up reading and listening to her songs. They have been recorded by Indian classical vocalists and by several popular Bollywood singers and musicians. They are sung everywhere: in temples, music festivals and in films. Her life has been turned into feature films, dance dramas, and plays.
Most of her songs remained unwritten in her lifetime and were transmitted orally. It’s quite likely that some were edited and embellished in the process. It is equally possible that some of the songs attributed to her were composed by other poets.
Meerabai composed her songs in the language she spoke and heard which includes words from several local Rajasthani dialects. She also used words from Braj Bhasha, a language spoken in north-central India. Over time these dialects and languages evolved to form Hindi or Hindustani, a language presently spoken by a large majority of people in north India.
Meerabai composed her songs so that they could be sung aloud. This is what controls their meter and rhythm, and this also helps a performer to dance to and with them. The rhythm is created by various types of end-rhymes as well by the meter. The most common rhyme pattern used is AA, BA, CA, DA etc. Some songs use a single end-rhyme pattern AA.
Like most poets of her time, she inserts her name in the final couplet of the song. This introduces a third-person voice in the songs, creating an impression that the poet wants to speak to herself as the other.
Most poems are addressed to her lover, her Lord Krishna, for whom she employs different names: Girdhar, Dark-skinned, Hari, and Govinda. In some songs the addressee is either her mother or her girl-friends. In most songs addressed to Krishna, Meerabai confesses that she loves her Krishna so much that she is ready to die for him. However, there are songs in which she performs the role of a disappointed and jilted lover, ready to throw a tantrum. Meerabai also finds a place for the male members of her royal family. They are all represented by Ranaji, a proxy either of her husband or her father-in-law.
Meerabai is known to have composed thousands of songs. The two songs the poets/translators have translated represent the tiniest drop in that large ocean.
A substantial portion of this essay was published previously in Rain Clouds: Meerabai (Recent Work Press 2020). It is republished here with the permission of Recent Work Press.
The image of Meerabai can be found at mypoeticside.com/poets/mira-bai-poems
Meerabai – Song 1 (a reading in Hindi and translations, improvisations and interpretations)
Meerabai – Song 2 (a reading in Hindi and translations, improvisations and interpretations)
Songs of Meerabai (1498-1556), an introduction by Sandra Renew (Not Very Quiet founding co-editor)
About the translators who participated in Subhash Jaireth’s translation workshop for Poetry on the Move (October 2020)