Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Words against meaning

Two years ago I translated Prabhakar Barve’s book “Kora Canvas” from Marathi into English. I knew even as I was doing it, that the translation wasn’t working in English. The original is too full of repetitions and circumlocutions. The artist strives too hard to express the inexpressible, making reading and trying to understand the text tedious. The English language doesn’t take too kindly to descriptive stuff about the inner lives of artists and to home grown mysticism. These things sound just fine in Marathi because the language reflects a culture that thinks, feels and writes that way. In English the same sounds fluffy and uncomfortably sentimental.

Where exactly is the inner life of an artist located? In “Kora Canvas” it is in the “mun”. Now here’s a word designed to give the translator her worst nightmares. In Molesworth’s Marathi into English dictionary which I most often use for its reliability (it doesn’t pass up on difficult words as some other dictionaries do), the word could have any of the following five meanings:

1) The mind; the seat of judgement, reflection, reasoning, memory etc
2) The heart; the seat of the sentiments, passions and the affections
3) The conscience or moral sense
4) Consciousness
5) The will or determining faculty.

Realising the problem this list is likely to create for a person who is straining to understand the meaning of the word, Mr Molesworth gives generous advice. Choose whichever meaning fits the context, he says.

Easier said than done. Usage has never bothered with meanings neatly separated into compartments. In popular and literary usage, “mun” leaks through Mr Molesworth’s pigeon holes to combine heart and soul in one context and mind and heart in another, with a hint of imagination thrown in for good measure. There lies the rub for translators, a breed that Mr Molesworth knows nothing of.

It is strange how inter-connections get made when you happen to be working on two independent things at the same time. While I’m editing the ninth chapter of “Kora Canvas” provisionally entitled “Sensibility” because the original title could also be translated as “Awareness” or “Percipience”, I am also reading Zeami on No theatre and the idea of “yugen”, and an essay on Japanese aesthetics.

“Yugen” cannot be translated in a single word. It connotes the world of the invisible that lies beyond reality. The original Chinese meaning of the word was, to be so mysteriously faint and profound as to be beyond human perception and understanding. This is the kind of space Barve often tries to enter but with the wrong tools.

The essay on Japanese aesthetics goes into equally untranslatable concepts like “mono no aware”, which might be understood to mean “empathy with things in their transience”. Barve writes about once having been so intensely absorbed in the image of a yellow leaf that had fallen on a wet, black road that it kept recurring in his work. Surely a mono no aware response?

Barve also writes about occasionally feeling profoundly solitary and lonely. He accepts the state and lives with it until it passes. But there have been occasions he says, when the feeling has given birth to a creative idea. This is like the idea of “sabi” which suggests both the subjective sadness of solitariness and the objective ‘is’ness of it. This duality is perfectly expressed in the following haiku:

Solitary now —
Standing amidst the blossoms
Is a cypress tree.

At one point, Barve speaks of a dense darkness that descends on him, seeming to fill the entire void of his rib cage. He accepts this state too and lives with it. Sometimes, magically, out of the darkness arises an image of incredible clarity. Patina, darkness, and what they can reveal, are ideas that imbue Japanese aesthetics.

The mysterious beauty of darkness is the subject of Junichiro Tanizaki’s gem of a monograph, “In Praise of Shadows”. My favourite passage is the one that describes his experience of drinking soup from a lacquer bowl. Lacquer bowls have dark interiors. “What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish.; but the palms sense the gentle movement of the liquid, vapour rises from within, forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapour brings a delicate anticipation.” It is not the thing itself but our awareness of it that creates the thing and the beauty of the thing. Barve attempts to suggest this too in “Sensibility”.

In his afterword, the translator of “In Praise of Shadows”, Thomas J Harper, cites Susan Sontag's explanation of why she chose to write “Notes on Camp” in the style she did. “To snare a sensibility in words.....one must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.”

This is perhaps what Barve too should have done in “Kora Canvas”. He did the reverse. He constructed these essays from the jottings he used to make in his diary.

As an artist, Barve locates his shapes and forms with sensitive precision in the picture space. In "Kora Canvas", he repeatedly asserts that it is only when forms are placed in a coherent relationship with space in the picture frame, that meaning is made. In literature too, suggestion rather than overwrought description makes for greater significance.

Had Barve known as the Japanese do (or did) that certain concepts cannot be over-explained, and had he written "Kora Canvas" "nimbly and tentatively" rather than in long-winded adjective-heavy passages, we'd have had a better chance of reaching his "mun". The style in which it is written stalls us and leaves us groping for meaning.


Anonymous said...


parotechnics said...

beautiful post

Sachin Ketkar said...

Thanks Shantatai for sharing this!

m said...

Wherr can we get this translated book?
Mukund patwardhan

shanta said...

Mukund, the book is still with the publisher. She's a good soul who assures me it will soon be out. I guess it will be--one of these days!