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"speaking in the voice of the Poet..."

jo's picture

In writing this and planning out what quotes I want to reference, I'm remembering that my book's pages are different than those of everyone else in this class, which continues for me the questions we began asking last class about language and translation. There is no way for any of you with your copies to find the exact page I refer to without me giving the chapter and you searching through the whole thing. There is an added level of inconvenience and disconnect beyond what would already exist by nature of me being one person understanding and expressing a quote one way and you being another person with a potentially different understanding.

Moving beyond that, I want to raise the importance of the poet Rilke, or "the Poet" as Nirmal most commonly refers to him in his journal. Much of The Hungry Tide is framed around Nirmal's descriptions of the Tide Country and the specific struggle over the island Morichjhapi, and he seems to root his understanding of the Sundarbans in Rilke's poetry: "...nothing escapes the maw of the tides; everything is ground to fine silt, becomes something new. It was as if the whole tide country was speaking in the voice of the Poet: 'life is lived in transformation'" (from end of chapter: Transformation). Also, quoting Rilke:

we, who have always thought of joyas rising...feel the emotionthat almost amazes uswhen a happy thing falls. (from end of first chapter)

Through "the Poet's" words, Nirmal makes sense of the confusing and dangerous land that he and so many others cling to. And still there is another theme that runs through Nirmal's writing: Poetry or Prose? Which translates also to choosing "between the quiet persistence of everyday change and the heady excitement of revolution" and also figuring out where he belongs: "In Kolkata or in the tide country? In India or across the border? In prose or in poetry?" (from the end of chapter: Besieged).


jo's picture

more thoughts

I hadn't fully fleshed this idea out when I finished my post, but as I've continued reading, I've been thinking more and more about the quasi-god-like role that Rilke plays for Nirmal. This man who is so vehemently opposed to religion, spirituality, and the worshiping of deities uses Rilke's writing as a sort of bible, and his obsession with "the Poet" rivals the relationship the island-dwellers have with Bon Bibi.

Then, he goes so far as to say that "Rilke himself had shown me what to do. Hidden in a verse I had found a message written for my eyes only, filled with hidden meaning. It remained only for the time to come when I would receive a sign and then I would know what I had to do." This sounds so similar to biblical stories of god sending a message to a chosen one.

This is the first instance of an extremely rational and logical man drifting away from logic, perhaps going mad. It happens for the second time when Kanai is left on the island and he sees a tiger that the others insist wasn't there. He is also dilusional about the time he spends on that island. The difference in this parallel between Kanai and his uncle is that, for his uncle, a large part of the experience centers around language and writing, whereas for Kanai, language seems to have completely failed him in the moment, or perhaps he has lost it.

Kelsey's picture

I, like jo, was also struck

I, like jo, was also struck by Nirmal's use of Rilke's poetry to "make sense of the confusing and dangerous land that he and so many others cling to", as jo puts it.  One of my favorite excerpts of Rilke's poetry comes at the end of the section "A Gift" (p. 298 for many of us), which Kanai quotes to Piya at the end of his letter:

Look, we don't love like flowers
with one one season behind us; when we love,
a sap older than memory rises in our arms.  O girl,
it's like this: inside us we haven't loved just some one
in the future, but a fermenting tribe; not just one
child, but fathers, cradled inside us like ruins
of mountains, the dry riverbed
of formed mothers, yes, and all that
soundless landscape under its clouded
or clear destiny- girl, all this came before you.

I loved this excerpt of Rilke's poetry so much, in fact, that I googled the first line and Rilke's name, hoping to find what poem it came from.  I was successful in this much- it's from the third elegy of Rilke's Duino Elegies.  But upon further searching, hoping to find a translation of the entire elegy (as Rilke wrote in German), I quickly realized that the English version used by Ghosh is different from the first google result.  Here are (what I assume to be) the same lines, from the website :

See, we don’t love like flowers, in a
single year: when we love, an ancient
sap rises in our arms. O, girls,
this: that we loved inside us, not one to come, but
the immeasurable seething: not a single child,
but the fathers: resting on our depths
like the rubble of mountains: the dry river-beds
of those who were mothers - : the whole
silent landscape under a clouded or
clear destiny - : girls, this came before you.

I then returned to The Hungry Tide, specifically to Ghosh's author's note at the end.  Ghosh writes, "I am grateful to B. Poulin and Houghton Mifflin for permission to quote from A. Poulin Jr.'s 1977 translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies: this remains, for me, the definitive English rendition."

From all of this, I want to comment on two things: first, the excerpt of Rilke's poetry quoted above, as translated by A. Poulin Jr., as a text in itself; and second, the issue of translation.

To me, this excerpt of Rilke's poetry says above all else that we don't love without context.  There is always history that continually informs who and when and how we love, and there's something beautiful about acknowledging how everything around us shapes one of the most intimate of our experiences.  For Kanai, a person who- as he admits- has spent most of his life primarily concerned about himself, admitting not only love for another human being but the context in which that love exists is quite powerful.  The interconnectedness that Rilke describes about love is also reflected in the environment of The Hungry Tide, in the Sundarbans themselves- everything about the environment affects everything else, and the present is always informed by what happened in the past.  

But of course, I am getting all of this not from Rilke's words themselves, but from Poulin's English rendition of them.  The translation that Ghosh uses differs greatly from the first translation that I found online, to the point where I have trouble sometimes seeing how the two are taken from the same source material.  Ghosh calls Poulin's translation "the definitive English rendition", which is quite striking to me, because how is that determined?  Perhaps it's by how elegant the translation is, and in that I could agree with Rilke, for, at least compared to Kline's translation, I find Poulin's far more poetic and moving.  But is the point of translation to be an artistic interpretation, to make what was beautiful in one language beautiful in another, or is it to be accurate?  Since it's often times hard or even impossible to convey ideas from one language in a different language, is trying to make a translation poetic just serving to obscure its meaning even further?  Do beauty and accuracy have to be mutually exclusive in translation, or can you have both?  Of course, not knowing German, I have no way of reading Rilke's original work, of comparing what he says in German with what Poulin and Kline say in English and deciding whose translation is most accurate.  All I have is my knowledge of English, and my somewhat subjective determinations of lingustic beauty.  I find being at the mercy of translators in this way quite frustrating, which, of course, goes back to The Hungry Tide, and the characters' continual need of translation (oftentimes of Kanai) to understand each other's words.  But, while Piya and Fokir could often times communicate fine without understanding each others' language, if Rilke isn't translated into English (and if I don't learn German, which may seem achievable but, when you consider the cultural context and personal experience required to truly understand a language beyond the classroom level, it becomes a lot more complicated) there's no way that I can ever read his poetry or hope to understand what he wanted to convey through it.  We may be able to communicate without language, but are there some things, like Rilke's poetry, that we can only convey through words?  And, if so, what does this mean for empathy, for striving to understand each other as much as we can (although I think we're mostly agreed at this point that complete understanding is impossible)?  Can you ever achieve as close of an understanding of someone who you don't share language with as someone who you do?