Soul-Fusion Technology: Into the Words with Vivek Narayanan
Soul-Fusion Technology: Into the Words with Vivek Narayanan
An interview conducted by Vahni Capildeo
VC: We met after you emailed me in your role as a co-editor (with Sharmistha Mohanty) of Almost Island and its international Dialogues…
VN: Sharmistha gets the credit for driving Almost Island. We both agreed that we wanted to be international in scope, while being located in India. We didn’t want to claim to select writers “objectively”, based on just four or five poems. In most cases we publish writers who we have read substantial amounts of, who we have slowly taught ourselves to read. It was hard staking all this out, especially given how much it cost to import books to India. Yet over ten years Almost Island has given us more than we could have imagined; it’s made a little scene for itself.
VN: Universal Beach is a selection from poems written over nearly twenty years. It seems to capture and presage my poetic schizophrenia and the range of my obsessions. For better or worse I am what W.N. Herbert might call a “polystylist.”
As for Mr S, this was in part the way the city of Chennai manifested itself in my work. Mr S was perhaps something like a Pessoan heteronym—in terms of being a separate linguistic self inside me. There are many differences between the writing habits and styles of Mr S and Mr Vivek—S composes on the computer, for instance, while Vivek drafts by hand—but above all one can say that Mr S seems to want to break every rule of poetry that Vivek sets for himself.
The Life and Times of Mr S.
VC: You talk about translation as ‘soul-fusion’ technology (in the sense of techne). Could you expand on this?
VN: I am not speaking metaphorically. Where do our souls appear, unbodied, if not in the things we write? I could make this case for any serious and successful literary translation; that it has highly technical and labour-intensive aspects only makes it more fascinating, more mysterious. It goes beyond that too. Both the one translating and the one translated can be profoundly changed by the encounter. I have been working with a deeply intellectual and erotic poet, Kutti Revathi, who writes in Tamil. The first time Revathi and I performed the Tamil poems and English translations together, I had the strangest feeling of gender crossing—not cross-dressing, not a sex change, but perhaps something in between.
VC: You are currently engaged with Valmiki’s Ramayana and the epic tradition. You mention using memorization as a translation ritual. How does this work?
VN: As prelude to translation, I often memorize certain key verses from passages I’m looking at, as a way of making an intimate bond with Valmiki’s language.
Before I say more, let me offer an example from the beginning of the epic:
I haven’t yet figured out what I’m going to do with this, but here’s my provisional translation:
feet and syllables in place,
with tone and time contained in it,
only from sorrow did the stanza shape emerge
and not otherwise
—from an account of how Valmiki—‘the first poet’—began to write in the ‘shloka’ metre, of which this is an example. The translation does not capture the precisely timed trigger between the homonyms shoka (sorrow, pain, suffering) and shloka (this metre, but also verse in general) – in the second half of the Sanskrit verse above, at the beginnings of what I’ve formatted as line and half-line. The link between those two words, separated by a single lateral consonant, became the basis of more than a few hundred years of Sanskrit literary theory. There’s something I can personally apprehend—a certain way in which the whole verse comes together and illuminates, everything in its place but also an object in four dimensions—only when I recite this, in the metre and to the standard tune I’ve been taught.
Something important to note: I am comically inept at learning languages. I have an intense connection with the Sanskrit verses I was made to memorize as a child. As far as I can remember, they were my first clear examples of poetry, what it sounded like and was meant to do; I suspect they inform my English prosody—but I have never taken a class in Sanskrit. I can read the script, have good pronunciation, recognize vocabulary from my knowledge of other Indian languages; that’s about it.
I translate out of existential necessity. The gradual entry into Valmiki’s Ramayana in my late thirties was made possible by other translations, glosses, annotations, commentaries, scholarly articles, dictionaries and targeted tutoring—after I already knew the passages I wanted to begin with—from genuine Sanskritists. The simple acts of recitation and memorization—which in the Indian tradition are two sides of the same coin—return me to something else, to my childhood somehow, and make a more direct bond with the work. After a bit of struggle, I feel the poem come alive in me with visceral energy, that precisely timed turn from shoka to shloka and back, I feel the cadence fall and the metre click into place—perhaps I do have something to offer here that the scholars don’t.
19th-C Saung used for Ramayana recitations, from Burma (credit: Met. Museum)
There’s also something else, both troubling and inevitable. Languages are closed systems, at least as we imagine and live in them now, especially the written word. One experiences a kind of infinitesimal moment (I’m thinking of the philosopher Nagarjuna) of death between them. I feel that barely perceptible nanosecond of ‘lights out’ and then the vacuum that the rapacious second language rushes in to fill. Any verse in Sanskrit or Tamil that I’ve memorized is in danger once my predatory English substitution arrives—and sometimes it arrives quickly. In our current translation game, every language wants to pretend as if it were the only one. Not so much with the verse above, though: the vital link between the words shoka and shloka resists substitution. This sets the stage for my introducing Sanskrit (or whatever source language), as interruption, deepening or enhancement, back into the midst of the English, because, why not? That’s one of the things Pound’s Cantos sort of made possible for me to do.
VC: You grew up in Zambia, studied in the U.S., and did research in Trinidad. The word-history of translation refers to carrying from place to place. What of location, voice(s), and movement?
VN: I’ve often looked to Fernando Pessoa and Edwin Morgan as potential kindred spirits. Different, but both protean, changeable, invested in multiplicity as I can’t help being. As I work on my Ramayana book, Pound’s Cantos seem to be the touchstone. A problematic work—the problem cannot be disentangled from the art, but when Pound does get something right, he really does get it right. I can’t shake the feeling that practically all of later 20th and 21st century poetry is previewed here. The Cantos seem to require a reading at once invested and cautious and sceptical. I’ve learned to read Valmiki in this way too. I’m trying to frame my response to Valmiki so it can be read that way.
VC: Valmiki’s Ramayana is one of the most élite strands of an elitist tradition. Can you say something about the relationship of poetry to politics?
VN: Sanskrit is an elitist language—I’d be the first to bring that up. You could even say that it’s a slave owner’s language. Equally, in the Indian context, English is also the language of the few, a language of power, bureaucracy and governance, the language that makes the poor feel poor, though in theory open to all.
The Ramayana occupies a different space. Unlike most other early Sanskrit texts, it seems to boil over with the vigour, the range and querulousness of folk tradition. There’s some ambiguity with Valmiki too; traditional biographies like to say he was born a Brahmin, but he’s one of a gang of highway robbers before he’s reborn as a poet. Might he have been from one of the groups the British categorized as the “criminal castes and tribes” of India—who by the way have also produced some of India finest folk performers, musicians and storytellers—and made a Brahmin retrospectively? Similarly, I can’t help wondering if the text was originally in a folk language, later reworked (and blended with elements of courtly epic) into Sanskrit.
Through various subliminal gestures, the Ramayana seems to be a poem that both praises and undermines conquest, war and hierarchy, that channels and defends the voices of both winners and losers. I feel that it’s this ability of poems like the Ramayana or the Iliad to embrace contradictions, in ways both canny and profound, that explains their staying power, beyond and above other merely heroic epics that may have lived and died.
This takes us back to élitism—and that too in a discussion of modes of poetry perennially accused of being élitist—and cautions us, I think, not to not assume that élitist and non-élitist modes are or must be impervious to each other.
Vivek Narayanan‘s books of poems include Universal Beach and Life and Times of Mr S. His honors include fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies and the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library. He is Co-editor of Almost Island, a ten-year old India-based international literary journal.