Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch
by Jonathan Mayhew
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Let me just cut through all the usual, boring book review preliminaries and say the following thing: Jonathan Mayhew has, in Apocryphal Lorca, written an amazing book. I justify the use of the adjective “amazing” as follows. First, as an extended case study in the uses, abuses and consequences (intended and otherwise) of the practice of translation, the book is almost without precedent or parallel and will, if the world has any sense in it, serve as a practical model to other scholars. Secondly, this examination of the American afterlife of a prominent Spanish poet is also one of the most perceptive readings of 20th century American poetry that I have ever read, refreshingly light on the kind of partisanship and weirdness that characterizes such discussion in the poetry world proper. Thirdly, throughout the book Mayhew works with a transparency that verges on suspicion of his own motives, with no claim to objectivity or ultimate truth, thereby avoiding the many traps and pitfalls that confront the professional academic Hispanist in a work of this kind.
The basic structure of Apocryphal Lorca is relatively simple. Mayhew openly declares “I resist the uncritical, hagiographical treatment to which [Lorca] has often been subjected and am skeptical of approaches that rely too heavily on the romantic idea of the 'genius' or...the duende.” He then says his goal is to examine how “Lorca in English translation and adaptation has become a specifically American poet.”
Chapter 1: Federico García Lorca: Himself. Chapter 2: The American Agenda. From there the conversation moves into specifics, as Mayhew follows Lorca's path into the center of the American canon as a central preoccupation of postwar American poetry. That this discussion requires knowledge of the relevant poetry is obvious. The impression one gets from reading the book is that Mayhew was already deeply familiar with this poetry before the idea of writing this book ever occurred to him. It does not play like he's gone and done a bunch of reading simply as research, but rather as though he's been quoting people like Robert Creeley off the top of his head since the mid 1970s. This facility with the material serves him well because, combined with his knowledge of Lorca's work, it enables him to make difficult distinctions in the evaluation of the various American uses of Lorca.
Mayhew identifies the 1950s as the beginning of Lorca's penetration into American poetry, beginning with the 1951 publication of Langston Hughes's mostly forgotten version of Romancero gitano. This was published as a chapbook on a very small press and quickly went out of print, seeming to influence or even be read by almost no one but Bob Kaufman. The fact that Hughes's translations were largely forgotten means that “the Lorca boom of the 1950s often drew its inspiration from translations of indifferent quality,” which is not intended as a general statement, far from it.
Those “translations of indifferent quality” are to be found in two books. The first was a Selected Poems edited by Lorca's brother Francisco and Donald Allen, published by New Directions in 1955. The editors assembled what they considered the best available versions of Lorca's work from a total of eighteen translators. Many of them, Mayhew says, “can still hold their own against more recent work.” The book's “most notable weakness” is the translations by Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili that make up “more than one quarter” of its length. Mayhew finds that they take a “flat-footed, literal approach,” then proceeds to back this claim up with a detailed examination of their work.
Mayhew's critiques of specific translators, here and throughout the book, are of an entirely different order than the usual armchair quarterback second guessing that translators rightfully fear and loathe. What he's doing is looking for the roots of those later “uncritical, hagiographical” versions of Lorca, for the point of departure where Lorca ceases to be himself and starts to become someone, or something, else. He does not lay all the blame for this process at the feet of Spender and Gili, or anyone else, but finds that in general there is plenty of responsibility to go around.
Some people, though, are more responsible than others. The second of the two books that, according to Mayhew, put Lorca in the American poetry mainstream is the 1955 Grove Press edition of The Poet of New York, translated by Ben Belitt. In a subsection titled “The Translator's Ego,” Mayhew thrashes Belitt, whose “infractions include verbosity, ennoblement, awkward syntax and punctuation, outright obfuscation, the erasure of poetic devices like metonymy and syntactic parallelism, wildly inappropriate shifts of register and tone, inexplicable lexical choices, and the dilution of metaphors and sensory images.” Is that all? No. Mayhew then provides six specific examples to back up these assertions. “Where Lorca has a single vaso, Belitt requires both a jigger and a tumbler. Turning a cuttlefish inside out takes Belitt thirteen words, to Lorca's six.” Mayhew is not just scoring points, his analysis of Bellit's “vandalistic approach” serves his broader argument about the distortions Lorca has undergone.
I can well imagine that it will seem, then, paradoxical to some people that Mayhew has much in the way of praise for Paul Blackburn, a notorious changer of the literal form and meaning of the texts he translated. What makes the difference for Mayhew is that Blackburn “works explicitly to translate Lorca into the Pound-Williams tradition,” which is to say that Paul openly declares his intentions and is transparent about his many, drastic alterations, as opposed to Bellit, for example. While he finds that “Blackburn's experimental translation practice produces predictably mixed results” Mayhew also affirms that such practice, when successful, leads to “high points” of “colloquialism and musicality.” It is my own opinion that these “high points” are not likely to be reached another way. In the end Mayhew's view, as well as my own, is that “the ultimate justification for the poet-translator is the creation of new poetry in the target language,” a premise which, if accepted, shifts the critical basis from which such texts can be evaluated.
Mayhew's next topic is a thorny one, the “Deep Image School”, which may in fact be two separate groups, each claiming the name for themselves and denouncing the other. Or, one of them is the true “Deep Image School” and the other is not worth even mentioning. This is the sort of territorial mess that's typical of the last fifty or sixty years of American poetry, and it's further complicated by who makes up these rival camps. On the one hand, decidedly avant-gardist poets like Jerome Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman and Robert Kelly. On the other, decidedly mainstream poets like Robert Bly and James Wright. Yeesh. Mayhew has to devote five full pages to sorting through the attempts by various partisan critics to erase one group or the other before he himself can even begin his discussion.
What finally emerges in Mayhew's telling is a two-part movement, invented by Kelly and Rothenberg, et al., and then taken over (some would say co-opted) by Bly and Wright et al. as the Kelly-Rothenberg group distanced themselves from it, both in the course of their natural poetic development and as a response to the Bly-Wright contingent. It is unfortunate for Mayhew that his subject necessitated his entry into this matter, because there's almost no way he can avoid pissing off everyone involved and thereby reducing the likelihood that any of them will listen to what he has to say specifically involving Lorca. But, given the importance of both Rothenberg and Bly to the American take on Lorca, the topic was in fact totally unavoidable. The basic conclusion Mayhew reaches as regards Rothenberg and Kelly is that they were not quite as influenced by Lorca as has been asserted. Rather, he finds that the greater portion Lorca's supposed influence on them has been one effect of Bly's efforts to link his own practice of the deep image with something that Bly calls “Spanish surrealism.”
Upon examination, this “Spanish surrealism” of Bly's turns out to be more or less chimerical. It encompasses many poets, such as Antonio Machado, who were neither proper Surrealists (in the sense of belonging to the group headed by André Breton) nor particularly “surrealistic” in their poetic practice. It also includes many poets, such as Pablo Neruda, who were not Spanish. Bly is over-generalizing, imprecise, and basically doesn't know what he's talking about, which should come as no surprise to anyone. The man is, frankly, as big a windbag as any American who ever put pen to paper, and I hope to get some other work done this afternoon, so I am moving on. Suffice it to say that Mayhew leaves little of Bly's “Spanish surrealism” standing.
The next three chapters of Mayhew's book are where the real action is anyway. First comes a brief discussion of a poem by Robert Creeley called “After Lorca,” and then 15 pages on Jack Spicer's 1957 book After Lorca. With the recent publication of his Collected Poems, Spicer is naturally enough a hot topic of discussion these days. I expect to spend the next two or three years hearing poets all over New York breathlessly recite the Spicer epigraphs they've attached to their poems. After that, I expect a backlash. This is literary fashion, all well and good but basically independent of Spicer's texts in and of themselves. Mayhew's analysis is of a different order, much more focused on the text of one book in a very specific, Lorca-centered way. As was the case with Blackburn, given the aggressive use to which Spicer subjected the idea of Lorca, Lorca's poems and translation itself, one might expect a professional Hispanist to be a bit taken aback, but that is not the case. Mayhew's reading of After Lorca is extremely interesting and far too complex to accurately summarize. Suffice it to say that since “the ultimate justification for the poet-translator is the creation of new poetry in the target language,” Mayhew has high praise for Spicer, saying that “[o]f all the U.S. poets who took inspiration from Lorca...Spicer had the deepest and broadest response.” The only reservation Mayhew has is as regards the poem “Oda a Walt Whitman,” about which more later.
Then we come to what is, to my mind, the most interesting section of Apocryphal Lorca, two chapters, one on Frank O'Hara and one on Kenneth Koch. The conventional wisdom on the “New York School” to which both are assigned by critics, is that they were primarily influenced by French modernist poets such as Pierre Reverdy. And it is indisputable that French modernists were a huge influence. That said, anyone with eyes in their head should be able to look at Poet in New York by Lorca, compare it to a great deal of New York School writing and see obvious, strong similarities. Lorca's book is prototypical of the majority of O'Hara's own poems, particularly as regards the use of the city and the role of the poet in it. I am overgeneralizing here where Mayhew goes into deep specifics, in a chapter that makes a strong case for the re-evaluation of O'Hara's relationship to Lorca and other Spanish poetry.
The following chapter on Kenneth Koch centers mainly on his poem “Some South American Poets,” originally published in 1969's The Pleasures of Peace. The poem purports to be a handful of translations from the Spanish, but is in fact a parody of, mostly, Argentine poetry in translation. Mayhew is a little more charitable as regards Koch's intentions than I myself have ever been. That poem looks for all the world like condescension to me, but Mayhew sees a “parody-homage.” The essential question here being how you take Koch's idea of hasosismo, as a parody of a perceived (by Koch) Hispanic pseudo-profundity or as a parody of the American perception of a “deep” “primitive” profundity in Hispanic culture. Basically this is eye-of-the-beholder.
But the central argument these two chapters make, for a re-evaluation of Lorca's influence on the New York School, is very strong. It is also common sense. If there should be someone out there who feels compelled to argue that a group of poets who were voraciously reading everything while at Harvard in the late 1940s would not have been likely to encounter the 1940 edition of Poet in New York translated by Rolfe Humphries, go ahead. If someone wants to deny the overwhelming similarity between Lorca's New York poems and those of O'Hara and company, feel free. But you're going to have to talk over my derisive giggling.
The final chapter, on Jerome Rothenberg's Lorca Variations, I will have to skip because I have not read Rothenberg's book, and am therefore in no position to evaluate Mayhew's criticisms of the poetry therein contained.
Mayhew's conclusion casts an eye back over the arguments and examinations made, and essentially concludes that there is little in the way of hard and fast answers. Lorca's influence has been handled in a variety of ways. Some of these have been productive of new achievements, others merely exploitative. All of them are problematic to some degree. Those who appear to respect the letter of Lorca the least get the best poetic results, while those who would appear to respect him more wind up warping him into a duende-soaked caricature. This is the natural conclusion to draw, I think, from a book which is oriented more toward a process of critical investigation than toward setting forth a programmatic theoretical scheme, based on the case of Lorca, for future approaches to translation generally or Lorca specifically. It is another point to Mayhew's credit that he avoids, in this way, anything resembling a disembodied theory.
On the the whole, Apocryphal Lorca offers anyone interested in poetry and/or translation a vast array of things to think about as well as a thorough education in the way Lorca has passed into American poetry, one project at a time. I have only two problems with the book, one of which is rather minor, the other a little less so.
The first concerns the distinction Mayhew makes between those who put the accent on the “García” in Lorca's name and those who do not, placing a [sic] after usages that lack the accent. In a note Mayhew explains that he does this “not out of a desire to be pedantic, but because Garcia represents an Americanization of Lorca's paternal surname: it is important to distinguish between poets familiar enough with the conventions of Spanish orthography to include the accent, and those who are not.” And no doubt Mayhew's desire “not to be pedantic” is completely sincere. I wonder, however, if he considered that, given the time period when most of the books he looks at were published (the 1950s and 60s) and the many, many instances of printer's errors in the more avant-garde poetry of that period, the omission of the accent might be attributable as much to the printers as the poets. In the first edition of The New American Poetry, for example, Stuart Z. Perkoff's poem about the Spanish director Luis Buñuel is titled "Flowers for Luis Bunuel" without the diacritic mark. Donald Allen edited Lorca's Selected Poems as well, and surely would have been familiar with Spanish orthography. Maybe the printers in those days just didn't have the proper type, or simply didn't think it mattered very much.
The other concern I have regards Mayhew's reading of Lorca's Oda a Walt Whitman as a “homophobic” poem. He is hardly alone in this. Reactions to this poem tend to break one of two ways, considering it to be either homophobic or celebratory of homosexual life. Neither are very convincing to me, personally. The poem is altogether too negative toward those who Lorca calls los maricas for the celebration argument to be convincing, while at the same time confining its attack exclusively to los maricas, which Lorca himself translates as “faeries” at one point in the poem.
The question here is: how to define the term los maricas? If we define it as 1: being an epithet and 2: meaning “homosexuals” in a broad sense, then the homophobic argument logically follows. If we define it as 1:being an epithet and 2: referring to a subset of homosexuals (in this case probably effeminate homosexual men) then the homophobic argument weakens considerably and the whole thing takes on the tone of in-fighting.
Of course, little is known about how the word marica was used within the gay culture of Spain in Lorca's own time, so it's difficult to say how the word ought to be defined with any certainty. And even less so when Lorca's own rather tortured relationship with his sexuality is taken into account. My point is that there's a lot of ambiguity inside the poem as well as in its backgrounds pertaining specifically to the term los maricas, and therefore to the nature of the argument in poem as a whole. Not that you would know it from reading translations of that poem, where maricas is rendered as everything from “faggots” to “cocksuckers” to “queers.” In every case, the word choice says more about the translator than it does about Lorca. With that in mind, what follows is my own version of Oda a Walt Whitman, which attempts to make some profitable poetic use of the ambiguity I find in the poem itself.
Ode to Walt Whitman
Along the East River, in the Bronx
boys sang showing their waists,
with wheel, oil, leather and hammer.
Ninety thousand miners took silver from rocks
and kids drew staircases and perspectives.
But no one slept,
no one wanted to be a river,
no one loved big leaves,
no one the beach's blue tongue.
Along the East River, in Queensborough
boys fought against industry,
and Jews sold the rose of circumcision
to river fauna
and the sky flowed through bridges and the roofs
bison herds pushed by the wind.
But no one stopped,
no one wanted to be a cloud,
no one looked for ferns
or the tamboril's yellow wheel.
When the moon comes out
pulleys will spin to shock the sky;
a needle border will besiege memory
and coffins will come for those who don't work.
Mud New York,
wire and death New York.
What angel do you carry hidden in your mouth?
What perfect voice will tell the truths of wheat?
Who the terrible dreams of your stained anemones?
Not for one single moment, beautiful old man, Walt Whitman,
have I ceased to see your beard full of butterflies,
or your shoulders of corduroy worn thin by the moon,
or your virgin Apollo thighs,
or your voice like a column of ash;
old man beautiful as fog,
you who moaned like a bird
sex pierced by a needle,
enemy of the satyr,
enemy of the vine
and lover of bodies beneath rough cloth.
Not for one single moment, virile beauty
who in coal mountains, billboards and railroads,
dreamed of being a river and sleeping like a river
with that comrade who would put a small
ignorant leopard pain in your breast.
Not for one single moment, blood Adam, Masculine,
man alone on the sea, beautiful old Walt Whitman,
because on azoteas,
gathered in bars,
coming out of sewers in bunches,
trembling between the legs of cabdrivers
or spinning on absinthe platforms,
the maricas, Walt Whitman, point to you.
Him too! Him too! And they fall
onto your luminous chaste beard,
blonds from the north, blacks from the sands,
crowd of cries and gestures,
like cats and like serpents,
the maricas, Walt Whitman, the maricas,
misty with tears, flesh for the whip,
boot or bite of masters.
Him too! Him too! Painted-nail fingers
point to your dream's shore
when that friend eats your apple
with a faint taste of gasoline
and the sun sings on the bellies
of boys playing beneath bridges.
But you didn't look for the spidered eyes,
or the darkest sunken children marsh,
or the frozen spit,
or the wounded curves like a toad's belly
that maricas wear in cars, on balconies
while the moon whips them on corners of terror.
You looked for a naked man who was like a river,
bull and dream who'd join the wheel with the weeds,
father of your agony, camellia of your death,
who would moan in your hidden equator's flames.
Because it's right that man seek not his delight
in the blood jungle of the morning after.
The sky has beaches where life can be avoided
and there are bodies that shouldn't be repeated in the dawn.
Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream.
This is the world, friend, agony, agony.
The dead decompose under clock cities,
war passes crying with a million gray rats,
the rich give their loved ones
small dying visionaries,
and life is not noble, or good, or sacred.
Man can, if he wants, drive his desire
through a coral vein or heavenly naked man.
Tomorrow loves will be rocks and Time
a breeze that comes sleeping through branches.
That's why I don't raise my voice, old Walt Whitman,
against the little boy who writes
a girl's name on his pillow,
or against the boy who dresses as a bride
in the closet's darkness,
or against the lonely men in casinos
drinking prostitution's water with disgust,
or against men with that green gaze
who love men and their lips burn in silence.
But I do against you, city maricas,
with swollen flesh and filthy thoughts.
Mud mothers. Harpies. Dreamless enemies
of Love that hands out crowns of happiness.
Against you forever, who give boys
drops of dirty death with bitter poison.
Against you forever,
Faeries of North America,
Pájaros of Havana,
Jotos of Mexico,
Sarasas of Cadiz,
Apios of Seville,
Cancos of Madrid,
Floras of Alicante,
Adelaidas of Portugal.
Maricas of the world, murderers of doves!
Slaves of woman. Their dressing table bitches.
Openly in plazas with a fever of fans
or ambushed in stiff hemlock landscapes.
No quarter! Death
pours from your eyes
and gray flowers gather on the muddy banks.
No quarter! Look out!!
May the confused, the pure,
the classical, the celebrated, the supplicants
close the orgy's doors to you.
And you, beautiful Walt Whitman, sleep on the banks of the Hudson,
with your beard toward the pole and your open hands.
Soft clay or snow, your tongue is calling
comrades to watch over your unbodied ghazal.
Sleep: nothing's left.
A dance of walls shakes the prairies
and America is flooded with machines and weeping.
I want the strong air of the deepest night
to strip flowers and letters from the arch where you sleep
and a black child to announce to the golden whites
the coming of the kingdom of wheat.
Introduction: Giving shape to the silences
Translations. How did I stumble upon the art? Neither education nor work prepared me for the skills or perseverance that this work requires. I trained as a pharmacist, and in the course of a working day, have little to do with words of a literary nature. Till I tried, I lacked acquaintance with this tantalizing form, that of looking for the right words to match, stretching one’s vocabulary to give a tale a new life in another language, yet staying loyal to the essence of the original work. I’d had missed out on the thrill of respecting the bounds of both tongues, deciphering their cadences. The joy of creating the same mood and temper in another language, one with completely different social nuances, for an audience that lacks the background which, in the original, is a “given”. Conveying the same meaning- despite these limitations. I guess I got lucky.
Gujarati is one of the 1600-odd Indian languages, of which 22 are officially recognized. Like most Indians, I am multilingual. I wish I had a well-argued theory as to why I chose Mr. Chavda’s works in particular. I wish I had a rationale based on a comparative study of published authors, and selection of the best in class. But I don’t. Perhaps his unusual style drew me in-more often than not, the story is inspired by events typical to middle-class Gujarati families, the stories are free of spectacular events, they are free of a sunshine-and-happy-endings sentimentalism that is the norm in Gujarati stories. His work is outside the box, it sounds authentic. At times, he sounds harsh, but this is the way it is.
There is silence between the lines in Mr. Chavda’s stories. His stories are real, drawn from life. The setting is traditional, even conservative. The background is typically Rajput, a warrior clan from the Western India with its own code of honor. This is the background the author is most familiar with. But instead of the clamor of war, his work gently hints at what I choose to call the silences, the spaces between the lines. To quote from his signature work, Trimurti;
When I stand in that no man’s land with Bapuji I see that the wise historian, the authority and the man of letters transforms into a mere child in this land. Where have the pride of learning and the distinguished veneer of knowledge gone? All this expertise, all this wisdom about humankind, the individual, the universality of nature, the pervasiveness of human emotions…why did all this not help him in his own case? I used to firmly believe that a learned man, an authority stays aloof from sorrow and grief; he stands beyond the pale of mundane human emotions.
A wife’s untimely death, a son lost in the prime of youth…but so what? After thirteen days of quiet, he returns to his realm of books, his domain, and says firmly, without this sustenance, there is no go, for life has to go on.
But Bapuji could not do this.
Translating his work into English was like putting together a giant puzzle, making sure that all the pieces fitted into a cohesive, near seamless whole that did justice to the original finished work. His stories are admired for their economy of words. A trademark polish and flow set these tales apart. Mr. Chavda is a feted author with half-a-dozen novels and story collections. There was always the pressure of trying to do justice. Translating to a clarity that was fair to the original, took up hours. It demanded a fluid switch between languages, and this is particularly difficult when patois is used. In the story The Neighbors, there is a hint at the obsessive shyness observed in the girl next door, the word “wild mare” doesn’t really capture that mad, colt-like scared skittishness that the original “rosedey” represents. Working on his stories required words to be pulled out from the far reaches of one’s vocabulary, and much internal debate before any form close to acceptance could be cobbled together, and sometimes the original word stayed. There were many drafts.
With a great deal of motherly affection, Kanchanben would force some snacks on Viraj’s plate. “One can count the bones on your face. I’ll have to tell Kashmiraben about this. Does she feed her daughter anything or not?” Isha would feign anger and say “Mummy, don’t keep butting in, just go! We’re reading the poetry of Robert Frost.” Kanchanben would counter, “What will this rose understand of a poem?” And Viraj would say, “This rosedey understands everything. Don’t repair the walls. Break them down.”
It was not easy, there are so many equivalents to a word. For most Indian languages the choices are vast, there are equivalent words that have a different weight, each with a different nuance. Yet the translation must look seamless, it must not seem patchworked, the story must stay true to its roots and sound the same, pitch wise, it must capture the silences and abruptness of the original.
Gujarat is a conservative state, even though it borders the sea, and has had a history of trade and immigration. New ideas are tempered, they are made to fit the existing social mores, but the underlying thread is patriarchal and conforming.
Then again, most of Mr. Chavda’s stories are set in a Rajput background, and this presents its own set of challenges for a translator. Rajputs are the warrior clan, with their own mores and protocol. This is the clan that princes and statesmen once belonged to, and their behavior reflects this.
To quote from Wikipedia:
The Rajput ethos is martial, in spirit, and fiercely proud and independent, and emphasizes lineage and tradition. Rajput patriotism is legendary, an ideal they embodied with a sometimes fanatical zeal, often choosing death before dishonour. Rajput warriors were often known to fight until the last man.
The women stay veiled, they stay quiet. The women exert their influence from the shadows, and their silences. Perhaps in their collective memories they still carry the memories of self-immolation before dishonor. Centuries of conditioning, of expected behavior influences their reactions. A reader who’d be reading the original story would be aware of the culture expectations, the backstory. He would not need an explaination in fine print. He would know how inappropriate it is for an adult son to question the authority of an elder, and that when the author shows this, it is close to a polite rebellion.
But how can a translator capture this influence in a story that will now be read by those from a completely different context? After all, it is a story one is translating, it cannot have a history lesson as a preface!
How does one do justice to the background in a language that is far angular, even strident? How does one capture the essence of the unspoken in a foreign language with its peculiar blunt edges, where so much is stated upfront, even blatant? This is a cross I’ve had to live with.
For instance, consider this exchange from The Battle of Manekgadh:
The next evening, Father said, “He has ruined his health and come here, he should rest, take medicines, it’s his home…”
Grandfather cleared his throat thrice in a row. Whenever he did this, the silence that followed was scary. Father stiffened and stared at him.
“Was it necessary to clarify that it is his house? Is that a matter of some argument?” Grandfather asked.
Father laughed. He quickly moved to Grandfather’s armchair and sat by it, pressing his feet, “I liked this a lot, Father.”
Grandfather laughed. “You’ve become quite the businessman, I must say. I’ve been watching for some time…”
“All I’m asking - is this an auspicious hour to begin inscribing history?”
Grandfather laughed, “He is a free spirit.”
Getting the uniformity of the words- ensuring all the words and lines and the dialogue are in the same plane, in the context that they belong, was one of the key challenges.
I was fortunate in having Mr Chavda vet these stories, and in a few instances guiding me to a clearer interpretation, particularly if a layered meaning was involved. But largely his approach has been hands off and trusting, which puts even greater pressure on the translator to give her best. His emphasis has been on meaning, at times liberty has been taken with the language to bring in the right shade of understanding, to color the words so that they flow with the story seamlessly, and issues that have a cultural bearing, are addressed fairly. In the story “ the Battle of Manekgadh,” a single word in acceptance “ji” has been free form translated to a crisp, acquiescing “ Yessir” While the starting point is the base story, the translated story has a form and cadence that is completely new, true to the target language.
Issues of sentence structure and expression have often been a stumbling block, particularly if a subtle satire were involved. Gujarati tends to be liberal with adjectives, the lyricality of the language is different. English is direct and to the point, blunt. How does one capture the essence and still keep the flavor of the original?
These are some of the challenges I’ve worked with. I hope these stories bring you a whiff of the flavors of Gujarat.
Devshankar Maharaj’s lips, cheeks and nose were made of rubber, and when he took a pinch of snuff, his nose would stretch to his left ear. Today is Sunday, and sadly there is no auspicious hour for a discourse before Thursday, my dear disciples- this is the manner he’d address a gathering of sundry shepherds and farmers, they’d flash their teeth and gratefully listen to his words. Lifted on this effusive wave of words someone would ask- Oh really Devshankar bapa, all creation emerged from Lord Brahma’s navel, is that true? And long ago, in ancient times they say an enormous ocean covered the earth? In our times will everything be submerged again? The space outside shops or the benches of tin-roofed wayside hotels were not deemed inappropriate for such philosophical discussions. Stimulated by the questions of the inquisitive, that rubber mass would tremble and erupt in laughter. His reply would be prefaced with- you fools!
When such heated exchanges of knowledge were in progress, the listener’s faces would show a sense of wonder, but they’d smirk as well, because they knew of a major problem. Devu Maharaj, what you say is true. The saga you’ve shared about the creation and destruction of the universe is of the highest order and above all dissent, the printed language is the highest truth, but in all this where do we fit in Vasu- misshapen, bent and dark-skinned- do let us know. If you don’t unravel one or two mysteries of the universe, it will do.
Vasubhai! Oh Vasudev Maharaj!
People treat the junior maharaj with great respect. Kindly grace this seat. Someone pulls his brahmin’s knot and questions- you want tea? Someone prods his navel with a finger. Sing that one Vasu Maharaj- my begging bowl is dry, no one cares to fill it, oh why…. Suddenly Vasudev Maharaj asks- can I get a steel dish or an empty case? After the instrument is produced, he closes his eyes, sways, and sings in a tinny voice - Oh my love, he is a wanderer… He sways like a dervish and all the people assembled there fold their hands with devotion at this spectacle. The junior and the senior Maharaj, praise upon them! When the song is complete, the balladeer wipes sweat and demands his prize. That tea you were talking about- where is it now? Give me half a cup. This demand for tea too, prompts a song request- I am mad after tea, I cannot do without tea - sing that one, and then you’ll get your tea.
In the meanwhile, a fight has cropped up in the last row of spectators. Oye there- don’t serve him tea in a cup which someone else has previously used- no matter what, but his body is still that of a Brahmin. Half a cup of tea is rotated before the statue like a prayer offering. Vasudev Maharaj reaches out to grab the cup, but the offering is moved away. First tell us about that one, the silken one. Maharaj forgets his tea and his entire being is preoccupied with being shy, abashed.
Have patience, scriptures! For a while let us attend to worldly matters - whenever someone mumbles and mentions Vasudev to Devshankar Maharaj, he pulls his pouch-like nose to his knee, wipes it clean with his dhoti edge, and says- he’s a child, he’s immature….
Oh behold and the one thought to be omnipotent, turned out to be omnipresent too! What is he upto in this old house in Kalupur, in the old part of the city in far away Ahmedabad? He sits in a yogic posture, ardhpadmasana, with one leg lifted and placed on the other, his white cap has been folded and placed carefully on his knee; since his turban has been taken off, his topknot is askew- like a cobra’s hood- and he is speaking to the ill-witted widow seated before him. Then I do not see any need for further discussion in this matter! He had this knack of conveying a tone of conclusion at a discussion’s start. In a corner of the room, a young girl sits with an array of books, her eyes are closed and she mumbles as if she is casting a magic spell, then she quickly records the notations she remembers into a book. Her mother signals to her, and whisks her to the kitchen. Look at me! Listen- says the mother, as she pats her daughter’s face and arranges strands of hair by her ear. Do you think you look good this way in front of your father-in -law, dressed in just a frock, running about with your head uncovered, flinging your braids like a hedgehog? The girl abandons an essay on the benefits of democracy, stops reciting half-learnt sentences about equality and absentmindedly asks- whose father-in-law? Her mother is greatly amused at this naiveté. “My little dove. My little one. You sit in the kitchen. I’ll go and get your books. You can read them prettily for a few days.”
After she returns to the other room the mother sits by the wall, draws her veil, and complains.
“She’s a little childish.”
Devshankar Maharaj adds to this litany of complaints about offspring. Moving his trunk about, he says, even our Vasubhai is, you know, what you’d call unconventional.
After he says this, he pleads defense - I must admit he didn’t care much for education- but he’s free of an iota of laziness. He’s constantly occupied.
Devshankar Maharaj got a girl for his Vasuda all the way from Ahmedabad, did you see her? Oh ho ho what beauty! A linguistic correction is called for. She can’t be called Vasuda’s wife. Whatever it may be, she is Gorani- the priest’s wife. The entire village chants, Gorani. Gorani steps about the village with her veil pulled low, sits beneath the awning, scrubs vessels, fills water from the village well, and traipses through the bazaar. The awe that this beauty inspires, wipes out the impression of the scriptures and the clowning of the fool. Devabapa’s home has been blessed with light after all these years.
Well it was possibly true that the day was brighter, but what about the night? At night, Devshankar bapa leads Vasudev by the hand and sits by him in the courtyard. Sit here and listen carefully to what I’m saying. Now, both of us are of the same age. Now, you no longer are a child. You’re a man, and you have to abide by your duty as a man. Covering the language of the scriptures with a cloak of worldly wisdom he ladles several pieces of advice, after imbibing these, his son opens the door to his room. He does enter, but stands in the dark doorway watching his wife by lantern light. Both are curious. The Gorani sits with her head uncovered on the bed in the corner, she watches her lord and master with a shy smile. She too, has been gifted a bundle of advice by her widowed mother, so she remembers her duty, and with sundry gestures of her eyes and hands invites her master. She shows self-confidence. In school prayer assemblies she has driven home many a debating sword with an impatient toss of her head . That energy will help her pierce this darkness and bridge the ocean of life, of that she is sure. Sleep has eluded a tottering Devshankar Maharaj who sits on the dark verandah. As an alternative, he pines for a maiden named sleep from some story. Oh sleep, come to me! Ashamed at his condition, he wipes sweat and introspects. Does such frivolity befit a learned man? What are the reasons; and if the reasons may not be disclosed, what is the solution? The solution strikes him at about midnight. A scared Vasu sneaks out from his room. In accordance with some law of motion, that very instant Devshankar Maharaj morphs into a tiny infant and slips into the bedroom. Sounds of lip-smacking wisdom are heard from different corners of the room.
Gorani’s days are not dull either. A troop of young village women swoops down. They examine the redness of her city-bred palms. They caress the beauty’s face with their coarsened hand and chipped nails. The entire village is content. The old women of the village say- just the mirror image of our late Goranima. Exactly the same beauty. The ones who’d earlier stop Vasu Maharaj, lead him to overturned crates of lemonade and beguile him to sing songs that are usually sung by women; they’d now drench their locks with oil, shape it in a question or exclamation mark; and smooth-shaven, loiter about the pond or village well . Oye there! You can’t whistle! Whatever it may be, she is Gorani, a Gorani, right? Sparkling eyes that pierce the veil are curious and bright. She beckons to Vasu some afternoon. Come here, O’ master. Sit here a while. Why are you shy? You’re my lord, why are you afraid? C’mon, lets run away to Ahmedabad. Hold my hand, I’ll tie a lifeline and steer you past the ocean.
This speech has to be halted mid-sentence because the person to whom this is addressed has slipped away to the bazaar with a hay hay. His friends drag him to the village pond and begin negotiations. Tell me, Vasiya, how about an exchange deal?
During this period in her married home, a total of two messages reach Gorani from the world outside. The widowed mother has scribbled an original message on a post card addressed to her daughter and son in law Vasudevkumar- live happily. The other letter is cruel. A friend named Komal writes- we’d just been to Bangalore with the Girl Guides. From Bangalore, we went to see the palace of the Mysore Maharaja. Since we’d gone all the way there, how could we resist the famous garden? We were a bit tense about exams, else this tour was fun and we learnt a great deal. During the journey everyone remembered you a lot, we all imagined what would you be doing now. If you’d been with us, we’d have had such fun! Please convey our regards to Jijaji.
The letter had drawn to a sudden end about here. Perhaps a wall stretched across further comprehension.
But as such, there was no reason for concern. Preparations for fleeing this prison had been put into place. Banesang had decorated his tractor. He would pat his huffing tractor affectionately. A room had been decorated in the berry farm. A new bed had been made to order. The hedge that enclosed the farm had been sealed, made opaque. Furthermore, for added protection, three dogs had been let loose. When Banesang crisscrossed Devshankar Maharaj’s home, the village well, and pond a good seven times or more, his tractor would shamelessly stick its tongue out - tell me, what have you decided? His tractor was a bird. Amongst birds, it was an eagle. Boards with freedom slogans were affixed on its wide wings. What are you waiting for, Gorani? Get up!
One afternoon, as if it were scratching at the ground, the tractor slowed down near the banyan tree near the village well. Gorani quietly put aside Devumaharaj’s brazen dhoti and Vasudev’s lame pajamas, wiped dry her soapy hands on her saree edge, pulled her veil low over her chest , strode barefoot with dignity, and climbed on the tractor. No goodbyes or farewells were exchanged in any direction, to anyone, or to the village pond or well. As the tractor took flight, her veil flew askew, off her face and chest.
Not a city, not even a village, but a farm. In such natural habitat, what is Gorani’s life like? Far from the main road, by the river bank, a double fence of wire and cactus enclose sixty bighas. There is a horse on the farm, then there are dogs and the tractor. A maid is in place to protect and serve Gorani. Whenever he has the time Banesang sits on a charpoy in the courtyard and cleans the barrel of his gun. Out of respect to the smooth -skinned Gorani, on alternate days he rides his horse into the village and defies the village folk, then he orders Ganpat the barber to give him a shave. Every two or three days he goes into Patan and brings home a mountain-load of shikakai soap, herbal oil and such other accessories for his city-bred woman. He also orders a parcel of dabeli, or pau bhaji or such other fast food. You rest easy, Gorani, no one dare look this way! When other people are present and even when they’re not, Banesang addresses her with respect. Feel completely free to move about. Don’t care about anyone. Your reign extends till the river and in that direction to the jambu tree. Gorani hides a smile surveying her domain. That student’s sense of humor is now sharper. She can imagine Devu Maharaj sitting amid a crowd, clenching fists and hitting his head against a wall.
The maid’s name is Sharda. As such, there is no practice of hiding anything, so Gorani learns about her history too. Three years ago, Banesang had abducted her on horseback from the bazaar in Deesa. After wear and tear in the ensuing years, from a beauteous maiden she’d turned into a maid. In this farm, free of the limitations of time, she lacks a history past her Deesa origins.
When Banesang is away, Gorani sits by the window on the upper floor. Else, with Sharda, she loiters in the chicku orchard or in the wheat-rayda fields. She shivers as she moves her palms over the dried wheat-ears.
“Where does this dry river lead to?”
“The desert of Kutch, Gorani-ma.”
“How far d’you reckon the sea is, Shardi?”
“Oh, that’s rather far, Gorani-ma.”
Thinking that she still has something to add, Sharda says- Thakor is a gentleman. He stands by his word. He can take on the Congress government; such is his valor.
Gorani says- right, Sharda, right.
A jeep brakes to a standstill. “Where is Thakor? Who are you?”
The police inspector is energetic. He does not take the seat offered. He paces the courtyard. Out of respect to this government authority the dogs stand at a distance and bark. “Where is Banesang ?!” He is middle-aged. His belly is held in with a leather belt. His eyes dance with authority.
Gorani looks dignified as she sits, and smiles, “Shardi, serve tea, snacks to the visitor. Shardi, tell sir that the Thakor does not inform us where he is going.”
“When will he return?”
“He does not consult us about his return either. Tell me, constable, who put in a complaint? Who felt shortchanged by our departure? Who ordered you here, wagging your tail this manner…”
The inspector swirled his baton “This girl chatters too much!”
Gorani got to her feet, her head held high, “Watch your tongue, constable. Call me Gorani. Gorani.”
The inspector laughs and folds his hands, “I bow to thee, Gorani-ma”
The next time that he visits after four days or so, he’s put on a yellow T-shirt. He plays with a shining red apple as he talks. As he talks, he takes turns licking the apple and biting it. Gorani, you are difficult to fathom. I can’t understand you- but this inspector has ripped off masks of experts. Tell me, what do you think? You must be missing Ahmedabad. When is Thakorsaheb likely to visit? As such my hometown is Idar.
“When Thakorsaheb is not here, is that the only time your government machinery wakes up? What will happen the day the two of you encounter each other? Where will the scuffle break out, in the courtyard, or the river bed? When the swords ring out and there are cloud-showers of blood, will I stand between the two heroes and get drenched?”
One afternoon, a swarm of locusts attack. Gorani sits under a mango tree, looking through some book. She rushes, “This is too much! Shardi, these will destroy the entire crop.” The horde is in after creating or sniffing out cracks in the hedge, it is devouring green pods. Half of them brandish dark glasses. Dupattas are wrapped around their heads for protection against the sun. The mob rushes, it encircles Gorani and Sharda. “What is your name, sister?” Bean clumps are stuck between their teeth. ”Where is that horrid rascal? Just see, how miserable the poor girl looks!” Gorani replied, “Thakor does not ask anyone where he goes, but who are all of you ladies?”
Someone opens up a ledger. Someone opens a file.”C’mon, tell us your name”
“Women’s shelter. What is that?”
All of them speak, explain its objectives and activities.
Shardi, all these kind women have come from afar. And see how they talk of such good, lofty matters! Shall we offer them some tea? After tea is served, Gorani stands and stretches. Upliftment and all that is fine, but you must have not seen ears of wheat and tender chickoo leaves. C’mon, I’ll give you chickoo, eat as much as you want, pack the rest in your clothes, and get going. Run! Thakor is away on a hunt- he’ll return thirsting with anger, anytime now.
Without any niceties of departure, these heavy bodies leave a dust trail as they flee, and in a race to rush headlong from the hedge cracks, they tear each other’s clothes - Shardi bursts out in laughter at this spectacle.
When he visits, the inspector is in a state of surprise. “Gorani rani, you laugh a great deal!”
“Do I? Oh I didn’t know that!”
“You’re still as impish as a child.”
“Inspector, where does this river lead?”
The fifth time that he drops in to meet her one afternoon, the car is not a government vehicle, nor is he accompanied by a policeman. He parks the car near the well. “Sharda, pick me some ripe chickoos from the orchard.”
“Are you in a hurry Inspector? Are you afraid? Are you looking for something?”
“In Ahmedabad, in the Bopal area I have a 250 sq yard, 3- bedroom apartment on the eighth floor. Here is the key. My family is in Kalol. Tell me, what do you think?”
Gorani stands up, lifts an arm in farewell to the slender Sharda visible in the far distance with armfuls of fruit, and sits in the car. She touches the fields of wheat and rayda with her eyes and she says, “Let’s go.”
That night, Gorani sits by the window of the flat in Bopal.
Several miracles have happened after she has left her mother’s home. That last bit of magic happens as soon as she enters the flat- she’s seen this herself. The prince who swirled a baton, spirited the woman from the fields, drops her in his cave, dons a pair of Bermudas and a T- shirt-and transforms into an aging court jester. As she looks upon a sagging belly, a face lined with wrinkles, and jowly cheeks, Gorani feels like clapping. It is now past midnight. The inspector, sits naked, preparing a whisky-soda mixture with great concentration, and Gorani stands by the window trying to determine which part of the sky could possibly be right above a certain locality in the east part of Kalupur.
If the episode with Devshankar Maharaj and Vasu are counted as one event, then those make forty-four, add to them Banesang’s thirty-six days, so all in all that takes the total to eighty; and in this span she’s stepped out from a hemmed-in valley in Kalupur, and reached the high eighth-floor luxurious apartment in Bopal.
She was swift; now she must have raced far ahead.
Pravinsinh Chavda is an established author in Gujarati, with six short story collections and a novel to his credit. A literary autobiography and a travelogue are currently at the press. A few stories have been translated into Hindi and Marathi as well. He has been a member of Gujarat Public Service Commission, has worked in the Gujarat Educational Services, and has taught for about a decade at the undergraduate level. His began writing when he was at school and about fifty short stories and essays were published in reputed Gujarati magazines.
Mira Desai writes,works and lives in Bombay. As a translator, she has been published in Indian Literature, Pratilipi and Muse India. As austere, she has written for Six Sentences Vol 2, and on sixsentences.blogspot.com. She is an active member of the internet writing workshop. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: For the foreseeable future, Calque will be periodically offering selections of Ilya Bernstein's extensive Osip Mandelstam translations. This is the second post of the series. The first can be found here. This poems are presented in English only, due to their length and the wide availability of Mandelstam's work in Russian online.
In 1933-1934, Mandelstam wrote a sequence of philosophical eight-liners about creativity — creativity as it emerges in writing, in culture as a whole, in biological evolution, and in being in general. Ironically, for poems concerned with the precise manner in which the creative gesture unfolds, their own order was left undetermined by the poet. They are arranged here after the fashion of Russian dolls, starting out in the small world of the poet, passing through the intermediate realms of culture and biology, and ending up in the big world of space and time.
I love the formation of tissue
When after two, after three,
Or after four attempts at inhaling
I draw an unbroken breath.
And tracing the arcs of racing
Sailboats and sketching green shapes,
Like a child that has never known a cradle,
Space sleepily plays with itself.
I love the formation of tissue
When after two, after three,
Or after four attempts at inhaling
I draw an unbroken breath.
And I feel so sweet and tormented
When that moment arrives
And suddenly an arc is extended
Through this muttering of mine.
When, after destroying the sketches,
You diligently hold in your mind
A period without heavy glosses,
Intact in interior dark,
And shutting its eyes, it is resting
On its own momentum alone,
It stands in the same relation to paper
As a dome to the empty skies.
O butterfly, O Muslim maid,
Wrapped in the shreds of a shroud,
Lady Alive and Lady Dying,
So large — so you as you are!
A big biter with large whiskers
And your head inside a burnoose —
O shroud unfurled like a banner!
Fold your wings — I dare not look!
The toothed paw of the maple
Is bathed in rounded angles.
Out of butterflies’ speckles
Pictures are made on walls.
Certain mosques are alive
And I can now surmise:
Perhaps we are Hagia Sophia
With countless numbers of eyes.
Tell me, draftsman of the desert,
Geometer of the Arabian sands,
Can unbounded lines really prevail
Against the blowing wind?
“Its Judaic tremor
Never enters my thoughts!”
His memory mirrors his murmurs,
Murmurs from memory wrought...
Schubert in water, and Mozart in birdsongs,
And Goethe whistling on the winding path,
And Hamlet reasoning with timid footsteps,
Measured the pulse of the crowd and believed the crowd.
Maybe before there were lips, there was already a whisper,
And leaves circled around in treelessness.
And those to whom we dedicate our learning
Prior to any learning acquired their traits.
The sixth sense in a tiny appendage
And the lizard’s parietal eye,
The snails and bivalves in their cloisters,
Or what the shimmering cilia say —
The inaccessible, at such close distance!
And you cannot untie the knot, you cannot look —
As if you have been handed a message
That must be answered without being read...
Overcoming the rigidity of nature,
The hard-blue eye penetrated into its laws.
Minerals riot in the earth’s crust
And the cry strains at the breast like ore.
And the blind preformation struggles,
As if along a road that curves like a horn,
To grasp space and its inner surplus —
The implied petal, the implied dome.
And into the overgrown garden
Of magnitudes, I step out of space,
And I tear the unreal consistency
And self-consciousness of causes.
And your textbook, infinity,
I read without people, on my own —
A leafless, wild medical manual,
The problem book of enormous roots.
Out of pin-like, poisonous goblets
We drink the delusion of causes,
And our hooks touch magnitudes
As infinitesimal as easy death.
And where the jackstraws have coupled
The child says not a word —
In little eternity’s cradle
Slumbers a big universe.
November 1933 - July 1935