Nabina Das reviews “Aria” translations by Sudeep Sen


translations by Sudeep Sen


Yeti Books, Kerala, 2009, 152 pages, Price Rs.399/599 (pb/hb)
Mulfran Press, Wales, 2010, 152 pages, Price £11.95/14.95 (pb/hb)

 Reviewed by NABINA DAS


That Sudeep Sen’s strikingly diverse book of translated poetry is titled ARIA, brings to mind the significance of the music analogy. Just as the different movements in an opera would hold together a singular musical piece for a sublime impression, so do the selections from various language and literary traditions in this book create an array of poetics. From Jibanananda Das of Bengal to Hebrew poet Avraham BenYitshak and the Persian poetess Shirin Razavian – with the expected names like Tagore – Sen’s collection is as rich and nuanced as the collographs and art plates displayed throughout the book.


What makes Sen choose poetry the way he has, for translation, especially in the geographical arrangement? He answers that, saying it was merely the way he went about courting work in various workshops. Looking at the South Asia section, one finds India repeated twice, with Bangladesh sandwiched in between. The next major section is East and West Asian, Middle Eastern, European and South American Poetry. Workshop opportunities apart, the sheer spread makes one wonder if representation weighed heavy on the poet’s mind to organize the book as a smorgasbord. Then notwithstanding the arrangement, one concludes that the samples he presents are each unique in their thematique and yet connected to the overture the book aims at.


It strikes the reader that Sen spans his translating skills not merely across geographical space, but across different times. In this time-space confluence his chosen themes are turmoil, sexuality, desire, politics and poetry itself. Quotes from Wislawa Szymborska, Mark Strand, Gulzar and Kaifi Azmi on the title page and the dedication page illustrate this cosmogony of Sen’s shimmering translation of poetry. On one level we can argue that the book could have done well to include the source texts beside them, not an altogether unexplored idea. Then, about the superior quality of the work presented, there is no doubt.


Sen’s growing up as a tri-lingual has played a significant role in his act of conscious “literary translation” even before this book was conceived, as also his association with other poet-translators he met in various poetic settings. It is interesting to note Sen’s account about the process of this project, at once a daunting and marvellous one. Obviously, the mathematical mapping of the rhyme scheme and prosody, to whatever extent it is employed, is not apparent to us as we read his work. Despite the fact that the methodology he talks about is a rigorous one, especially if the poet has gone to the length of trying to produce an end-rhyme matching that in the source language, the result is of high poetic elation.


In this context, I would like to cite my favourite “Banalata Sen”, an iconic poem by Jibanananda Das, that Sen re-etches in our memory. It is not too tough even for those outside of contemporary Bengali literature to see and hear the end lines of the three stanzas as they occur in the original. The tone is sombre-blithe and true to the original, and Sen let’s his lines flow like the speaker’s long, weary and expectant trudge. What perhaps cannot be achieved in the translated lines is the surprise that Jibanananda had thrown in his readers’ way in Bengali:


… Gently, raising

her eyes like a bird’s nest, she whispered:…


(Banalata Sen)


We have a word as close to the original in “nest” (Bengali: neeR; meaning: home, abode), unless a compound creation like ‘birdhome’ would be the eccentric preference for the original “paakhir neeR”.


I keenly read the Urdu poems in this collection, for the language fascinates me and provokes me to write my own poems in English with the sounds that create imageries of their own. Kaifi Azmi’s “One Kiss” is where the excellence shines forth in each couplet. The clever end-assertion of “glow-and-glitter” in the first couplet and “collect-and hover” in the third is evocative. And the end rhymes “crime/smile” in the last couplet complete the musicality for which Azmi was well-known.


In Gulzar’s short poems Sen shows us the modern voice of the romantic lover that Gulzar nurtures carefully, his tongue-in-cheek humor lacing a last line or a couplet ending a quatrain.


Taking cue from the Urdu poetry, it is indeed a treat to the senses to read the nature poems of Abraham Ben Yitshak:


Lights: dreaming, pale,

            fall at my feet

Splashing soft, weary shadows,

            Tracing my path.


(Autumn in the Boulevard)


and the crispness of winter:

in the distant



where the sun’s birth

            melts the snow’s solid


into liquid.

            I shut my eyes,


The blood

within me whispers –


(Bright Winter)


Sen’s poems here give us the elemental, the objective and the form-specific footprints of Yitshak’s Hebrew verses that we have no knowledge about, but see in the effective arrangement of the dimeter or trimeter lines.


Yitshak fulfils the need for lyricism in his poetics as much as Rabindranth Tagore does. Yet Tagore appears after Jibanananda Das in a curve that represents the contemporary Bengali literary scene, the sweep of the two names constituting a poetic psyche which Sen recognizes well. In this book, Sen has selected the lighter verses of the master poet, the nonsense rhymes. I see much usefulness in Sen’s using first lines of each poem as the title, for all the four translated ones are originally untitled poems. Nonsense verses, sparkling with wisdom nonetheless. As Motilal Nandi, dying of boredom in school, tears off pages from the textbook, dispersing them in the Ganga:


Word-compounds move

            float away like words-conjoined

To proceed further with lessons –

            these are his tactics.


(‘In school, yawns’)


This translation resonates, given Tagore’s nonsense verse aimed not merely at gibberish with its underlying tone of “tactics” and philosophy.


Tactics, and poetic craft are evidenced in the translation of Sergio Claudio F. Lima that begins with three epigraphs. The poem itself is written in eighteen sections marked by Roman numerals, each a single line, hence eighteen lines. A list poem in appearance and didactic in tone for some of its lines, it may seem to have been an easy candidate for translation. Quite the contrary, for each line is condensed statement. Especially for sections V, VI, XIV, XV, and XVI, the relation of a word to the next one is a complex semantic one. For example:


V. The act of acting: “Only the one who knows this, the

one who does not know, does not do.” – (REX)

VI. The sense is the tension (in tension), one which

forms, broadening …


(The Body [of a Woman] Signifies)


This is redolent of the 20th century American Objectivists’ tradition. Craft transports beautifully again in a poem by Bangladesh’s Aminur Rahman. The piece written in four column-stanzas could be read column wise or cross-column, even laterally within the last column. The last line (word) of each column-stanza visually appears like descending steps, creating a destabilizing effect that captures the source poem’s despair and irony. (Hai hai) Reminiscent of the experimental nature of Language poetry in English, I read these poems (by Raman and Lima) as an inherent challenge to the art of translation. Sen’s patient ear and expertise with forms bring about the resolution.


There are many favorites of mine in this book, Mandakranta Sen, Mangesh Dabral and Zoran Anchevski being a few. All of these make one realize that translation has, for each of these poet’s works, been a separate sword to sharpen, a distinctive overture to compose. In that the collection is a beacon for future works of such nature, creating truly what is a world vision of poetic languages. The last two poems are original English compositions of Sen, a veritable feast of poetics and lush musical assonance.



NABINA DAS is the author of Footprints in the Bajra, a novel (Cedar Books, India). Her poetry, short stories and essays have won prizes and have been published in a variety of literary journals and anthologies in North America, Asia and Australia. A bilingual with a Linguistics Masters, Nabina writes in three languages and is currently pursuing an MFA from Rutgers University (Camden).