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 Kabul Press, World Media Home


A life devoted to translation

By Sunil K Poolani

All of us translate each poem

into our own language

and then we quarrel over the meaning.

                K Satchidanandan, Malayalam poet and translator

Translation, for a talented and clued-on translator like O T J Menon, is a transmigration of ideas and culture from one fertile language to another. This is no sweeping statement, considering the fact that he had spent most of his leisure hours learning new Indian languages only to relish the oeuvre of the regional poetry in its original form.

Not only did Menon get acquainted with Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati not to mention his mother tongue Malayalam but he had translated a wide range of poets from different levels to English and into the regional languages he is well-versed in.

Well, I would love talking to you on my work. But, if you are a person interested in poetry and appreciate it, I can feel more comfortable with you, was Menons first reaction over the telephone before this publicity-shy polyglot, who is neither too conservative nor ultra-modern in matters of dress, really got down to talk. (Menon passed away some years back.)

Menon, who had spent more than four decades in Bombay, acquired the desire to discover the richness and variety of Marathi poetry firsthand immediately after he migrated to the metropolis to work with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research as an administrator. This urge (he had earlier published an anthology of his own poems in English) was strengthened by the advice tendered by the famous Malayalam poet, the late Vylopillil Sreedhara Menon that, We should imbibe the Marathi culture and render into Malayalam the best that is available in Marathi literature.

To attain this there was only one option: to learn to read and write Marathi, said Menon. Rendering good Marathi poems into English was only a humble step to share my joy on reading them with my friends who were not in a position to read the originals in Marathi.

As a first step, he started reading the poems for his own enjoyment. Then he felt that important among them should be translated. After the draft translations were ready, he me the original authors and discussed with them details to get their approval. Some of the poets used to read or recite their favourite work for my benefit. The advantage of talking to the poet before the work is translated is that one gets to know the background of the poet. Moreover, if you indulge in a dialogue with them, the full connotation of the work is grasped.

Translation is not a mere verbatim process. At least Menon believes so. And thats the reason he feels acquainted with poets equally important as meeting them and discussing about their works. Generally I take living authors: this helps me to grasp the original works content, tone and spirit in tact with almost a photogenic sensitivity. Then I convey it into another language using suitable words. Appropriateness, I must say, should be the watchword.

And the hardship he had to undergo while translating verse? Menon was the right person to tell you that: Writing on ones own is less laborious than translations. While I was working on Malayalam writer Sridhara Menons poem, That Bunch of Flowers, I couldnt provide a verbatim translation for the word preetham, which can be light red, pink or deep pink in the Malayalam language. Moreover, the context in which the word was used was to denote in the pink of health, which, ultimately, I had to use though it didnt convey the exact connotation. I believe that while translating, the spirit of the poem has to be conveyed. This can only be possible when the same meaning and the idea are transcribed in the possible phraseology in the language into which the work is translated.

Menon also remembered translating K G Shankara Pillais Suddenly the Star Brigade for the magazine Poesis after useful discussions with the poet, which helped Menon to bring out the full implications latent in his lines.

One decade ago, encouraged by poet like Mangesh Padgaonkar, Vinda Karandikar and critics of the stature like Dr Vijaya Rajadhyaksha, Menon published an anthology of Marathi poems titled Glimpses of Marathi Poetry. This collection had 19 poems by 14 poets, all translated by him and published in reputed journals and newspapers. The response was very good, spontaneous beyond my expectations. Shanta Shelke, one of the poets included in the collection told me: You have translated my poem Colours Run Riot keeping the spirit of the poem in tact, and I feel that translated version is more effective than my original verse. Comments like were the greatest reward I could get.

Among the four languages, he felt poets in Marathi are more powerful. Poets like Vasant A Dahake, Satish Kalsekar and Tulsi Parab are all good poets. Ashok Naigaonkar, Arun Mhatre, Niranjan Uzgare and Ashok Bagwe, who form part of a group which travels to remote areas holding poetry sessions, are a promising young lot. Marathi literature can continue to expect vibrant works from second-generation women poets like Pradnya Lokhande, Rajani Parulekar and Aruna Dhere. And talking about Dalit poetry, the relevance of poets like Namdeo Dhasal and Yashwant Manohar perhaps lies in the fact that they mirror the life and problems of the urban poor.

That doesnt mean poets in Malayalam, Gujarati and Hindi are so behind. In Malayalam, there are talented poets ranging from Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan, Attoor Ravi Varma, Balachandran Chullikad and K G Shankara Pillai to Sugathakkumari. And the present generation poets like A Ayyappan, Vijayalakshmi, P Indira and V M Girija are quite active. Hindi poetry can boast of poets like Chandrakant Deothale and Rithuraj, and in Gujarati two names worth mentioning are Udayan Thakkar and Suresh Dalal.

Despite the noteworthy efforts he had done, Menon always kept a low profile, always shunning away from fame in a world where rat race for publicity has always been the catchword. I believe that one should live within his means. When the circumstance improves, I alter my lifestyle correspondingly, said Menon, who accepted change, but slowly. He was a man of regular habits, did not neglect any aspect of life though poetry got high priority in his scheme of things and demanded his maximum attention.

Born in a middle-class family at Irinjalakuda (in central Kerala) in 1931, Menons parents took a keen interest in teaching him both the English and Malayalam languages.

In 1948, after completing his high school, he left for Bombay in quest of a job. While working for the Tatas he attended part-time classes in the Jai-Hind College, from where he graduated in philosophy. Here he found poetry blossoming: Menon wrote romantic, philosophical and nature poems.

Menon took diplomas in different management and industrial relations and financial control. H also passed Kovid of Wardha in Hindi and a certificate course in Marathi conducted by Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh.

Two of Menons poems were accepted by the Canberra Fellowship of Australian Writers in their preliminary selection during a talent contest covering Asia. And in 1957 his first book, Stray Petals (a collection of his poems in English), was published when he was a graduate. Sir C P Ramaswamy Aiyar, Dewan of the erstwhile Travancore state, praising the book, wrote to him: You possess not only the gift of apt phrasing but you have a real sensitiveness to beauty which, if further cultivated, will result in memorable work.

When I last met him he was 65. Intellectually quite agile then, Menon was leading a happy though busy life. His wife, Manorama, retired as headmistress of a local high school, his only son is a computer professional, married with a kid now. The last few years of his life were in Kochi. Before he bade farewell to Bombay, he told me over telephone: [Once I settle in Kochi] I think I would be able to devote much time for my passion: writing and translation. Im in constant touch with poets and their works in different languages and I believe I can do more justice to them keeping myself away from the busy life.

He was planning more compilations of his translations: the first one, from English; another, from Marathi into English; and the third, a collection of women poets from different regional languages. I will compile them provided some enterprising publisher or some literary organisation take the initiative. My pre-conditions are mainly two: i) the books should be published error-free; ii) they should be aesthetically produced. I am clear on these points which I will never compromise.

But a sudden death might have put an end to his dreams, and it is yet to be known how much of his dreams really bore fruit. I need to find out.

I vividly remember the last question I asked him: Why do you translate, apart from the personal satisfaction that you have gained? He told me: Writers of different language groups work in a watertight compartment. Hence, good translation helps in bringing about an understanding within the language groups in the country. We are in a state where we know French and German, not Malayalam or Bengali. So, ironically, we are not in a situation to understand the value of the regional strength. Mine is a humble effort to break the regional barrier.

RAHA/18/July/ /2004


Strong hands rain

blow after blow

on the hearts

of gigantic stones.

The poor stones

hide themselves,

in despair,

in the womb

of the earth,

on mountains

and hillocks,

in the lap

of the sea,

in the silence

of our hearts.

But only after taking

such heavy beatings

and incessant thrashing

does the stone become

tender like the heart

and the heart

hard like stone.

              H S Shivaprakash

Translated from the Kannada by O T J Menon

Where have you been staying?

Where have you been staying

after leaving my words?

As fresh water in the jar,

full to the brim,

carried by a suvasini?

Trailing down the plough,

are you dangling

beneath the earth

as a new sprout?

Perhaps you are blowing

like the wind

into the dreams of saints

or perhaps flowing

as agony

in the blood

of some prophet?

Why did you walk

out of my words so freely

this I wont ask.

But if you are lying

with clenched fists

in an empty

yearning womb,

then, as Oti, I would offer

to that woman

all these hollow words

and my own life too

love-lorn, crazy.


 Aruna Dhere

Translated from the Marathi by O T J Menon





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