She thought she knew acrobatics rather well.— Nabaneeta Dev Sen, ‘Acrobat’, translated by Nandana Dev Sen.
That she could juggle time with both hands,
Play with the now, right next to the then,
She would make both dance, she thought, fist to fist –
And she would glide, so smooth, along the tightrope,
She thought she could do absolutely anything at all.
Only once in your life will the rope shiver.
I translated this poem on the sly nine years ago. This was my plot: on my mother’s 75th birthday, I would present her with 75 copies of Make Up Your Mind, a bilingual book of my translations from Ma’s new book of poetry, Tumi Monosthir Koro. I translated the poems on my honeymoon in Spain, and though we spoke to each other every day, as we always did, I didn’t consult Ma on any of the translations, since I’d planned this as a grand surprise for her.
So, when I translated the poem ‘Acrobat’, I couldn’t ask Ma if she would prefer its protagonist to be a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, the Bengali third-person singular pronoun not being gender-specific. To me, this poem had always invoked the precarious multi-tasking every woman must perfect to survive, so that’s the direction I chose. After giving her the book, I asked Ma if my choice had been right.
‘Actually, I wasn’t thinking about gender when I wrote this one,’ Ma replied. ‘To me, it’s about a poet’s delicate balancing act, as one word too many or a sentence too long could throw you off the tightrope.’
I was stunned to hear this, though it made perfect sense. ‘Let me rework it then, Ma –’
‘Why? It works beautifully as a feminist poem,’ my mother interrupted. ‘So often, there’s no right or wrong choice in translation – as long as the words speak their own truth, that is. Every translation is an interpretation, after all, as well as a newborn text. Don’t you think?’
Ma passed away a few weeks before the pandemic hit the world. Her words kept coming back to me as I worked on another, more comprehensive book of translations of her poetry – Acrobat, the contract for which we had signed just two weeks before her death, and the only project I managed to complete during lockdown.
Although Ma was a widely acclaimed scholar with over a hundred books to her credit, ours – incredibly – would be her first to be published for an international audience. ‘I’m definitely going to stick around for this one!’ she had exclaimed with her famously dazzling smile, undiminished by illness. She announced the conception of Acrobat with great excitement in her very last column, dictated from her bed, delighted that her creative work would finally be ‘introduced’ to the world beyond India through her poems, rather than her plentiful and immensely popular prose.
A life in poetry
The truth is, my mother couldn’t remember a time in her life when she did not write poetry. Raised by two celebrated poets, Radharani Debi and Narendra Dev, and named by Rabindranath Tagore, she published her first book of poems, Pratham Pratyay (First Confidence), the year she turned twenty-one, just before she left for Harvard. She grew to be beloved in every genre she chose – literary fiction or humorous non-fiction, political journalism or satirical plays, feminist essays or children’s books – and her books in prose far outnumbered her poetry collections.
And yet, throughout her life, Ma made no secret of the fact that she would always identify herself as a poet. ‘No matter what I write, it is always a poet writing,’ she wrote with her self-proclaimed ‘poet’s immodesty’, for ‘it was in the looking glass of poetry that I saw my face for the first time. Poetry was my first confidence.’
Indeed, poetry was not only my mother’s ‘first confidence’ – her first allegiance, her first love – but it proved to be an unwavering life partner. As a child, Ma cherished the little black notebook Radharani had given her for writing poems, which initiated a lifelong compulsion to carry a kabitar khata with her everywhere. Right until the last weeks of her life, she kept scribbling poems in the khata she kept under her pillow. Ma had a profound and primal need for poetry, not only as a means to cope, but also as a way of ‘forming’ and freeing herself, both as a woman and as an artist. ‘I speak for poetry as being central to a woman’s freedom,’ she wrote. ‘Poetry is a means of our survival, it is a window through which we can breathe.’
My mother believed in writing poetry every day of her life; a day without poetry was, to her, ‘a sad day, a barren day.’ But as a young wife and scholar shuttling between America and England, she stopped publishing poetry for a while, focusing instead on her family, and on her pioneering research into the oral origins of epic poetry.
When her marriage fell apart, she returned to India with us, two fractious young daughters. Her imminent divorce, the first of its kind in her literary circle in Kolkata, became a scandal that was suffocating for her. Within a year, my mother published her second book of poems after a gap of thirteen years, re-opening that window through which she could breathe.
Translating in absence
It took me a year, too, to complete Acrobat – much longer than I had planned, perhaps unrealistically, considering that the book represents six dynamic decades of poetry. What made the process especially difficult was having to remind myself every day that my mother was gone. Each poem brought back her booming voice; she was so close, yet so far away. And though I knew my mother’s poems by heart (an intimacy I had taken for granted, like her love, and my mother tongue), I was stunned to discover the many layers of her emotional history that I simply had not grasped while she was alive.
It was only when I ‘entered’ her 60 years of compulsive poetry as a translator that my mother’s text opened up to me like an unedited journal, helping me finally understand, for instance, the disintegration of my parents’ marriage, or the complexity of her relationship with her own mother. I had loved Ma’s poems all my life, but in translating them after her death, I was shocked by how raw they were, how much they hurt. How would I find the language to articulate the grief of someone I loved, when I was lost in my own grief for her?
It was the palpability of her absence that made it so befuddling. Though I had never done so as intensively, I had translated my mother’s poems before; that part was not new to me. In fact, poetry had always been a language of communication between Ma and me, almost like a code. We wrote poems to each other on our birthdays, and when I left home early to study, it was through her poetry (as well as the short ‘trunk calls’ between Kolkata and Cambridge every Saturday morning) that we stayed connected.
Long before the magic of email, Ma, always a passionate letter-writer, found generous ways to share her poems with me. Blue aerogrammes and yellow envelopes arrived regularly from India, usually filled with lengthy remonstrations and, often, with poetry. Whenever she sensed a sadness in me, or if ever there was a special reason to celebrate, lines of poetry arrived by post a few days later – sometimes quiet and wise, sometimes silly and joyful, but always comforting. Clippings or photocopies of her published poems were often lovingly folded into the heart of her letters.
In truth, Acrobat had its beginnings well over 30 years ago, when Ma and I first started translating her poems together. These undertakings were born purely out of need; Ma was often invited to give poetry readings while on conference tours and had little available in translation. On one such occasion, when she was visiting me during my freshman year, the Bunting Institute requested that she present her poetry in a special session for the Radcliffe Fellows – we quickly had to get to work.
While Ma was deeply committed to translating the work of women poets across the globe, she never hid the fact that she lacked the patience and indeed the motivation to translate her own poetry. As a perfectionist, she agonised over every syllable of every poem she wrote in Bangla, but once the poem was complete, she felt her work was done. ‘I would rather write a new poem,’ she would say, than revisit one through translation.
So, our translations were always sparked by practical necessity: Ma needed to have good English versions of her poetry to hand for her own use. In 2012, on a trip to China, Ma was invited to read in Beijing’s Bookworm bookstore, and I was asked to be ‘in conversation’ with her. As she had a book of new poems out – Tumi Monosthir Koro – I quickly translated just a few for the reading.
It was her great delight with these translations that prompted me to present her with Make Up Your Mind on her 75th birthday, the next year. She told me afterwards that she was thrilled that I hadn’t involved her in my translating process. It had ‘freed’ me, she said, to find my own meanings and trust my instincts, while staying true to the words, images, and rhymes on the page. And that, in essence, is what I tried to do in Acrobat, when I found myself, once again, unable to discuss with Ma her intentions as a poet, or my choices as a translator.
It is not easy to distil a lifetime of luminous poetry into one slim volume, yet across the years there is a remarkable consistency in the themes, refrains, and tone of my mother’s poetry. Throughout her life, poetry empowered her to find her balance during upheavals of every kind, whether the ferocity of love or the anxiety of motherhood; the shock of rejection or the grief of bereavement; the despair of communal violence or the outrage of gender-based injustices – all of which developed into abiding themes in her poetry. In contrast to her boisterous non-fiction (much loved for its self-deprecating irony, infectious irreverence, and laugh-out-loud humour), Ma’s poetry is visceral and inward-looking, often disturbing, but always breathtaking in the power of its truth. My mother loved to laugh at herself in her prose; but she was never afraid to cry in her poetry.
‘Fidelity’ in translation
Poetry is perplexing to translate, as we know. Even more so when the rawness and intricacy of emotion are mirrored by complex rhyming and rhythmic structures, underscored by repetitions that are sublimely melodious or pointedly dissonant. My mother also had an extraordinary talent for creating new words, powerful neologisms that fit perfectly and indispensably into a poem but that were almost impossible to translate.
In addition, even as Ma’s images sparkled with piercing originality, they often caressed her own cultural and political history, tenderly and sometimes dissentingly, with an assumption of familiarity. And if conveying all those nuances without exposition weren’t challenging enough, Ma loved using words that had multiple meanings and resonances, forcing a translator to make some very difficult choices.
As I wrestled with the unique demands of translating my mother’s poetry, I was often guided by a line of questioning that she had raised herself in her essay ‘Translating Between Cultures: Translation and its Discontents’. Do you prioritise the matter or the spirit of the piece? Do you keep your translation literally faithful or opt for a freer rendering? How do you transmit an author’s unconventional syntactical and grammatical usage into another language? How do you deal with rituals and gestures, colloquialisms and idioms? Do you explain references to history and literature? Do you retain the metre and rhyme, the breaks and divisions, of the original and if so, at what cost?
Like any other translator, I wanted the translations to be effortless in their flow, to not ‘read like translations’. At the same time, I had resolved to be faithful to each poem in as many ways as I could, in content as well as form, and without the help of expository footnotes. Sometimes that meant choosing linguistic and cultural equivalents over a more literal ‘fidelity’, and very often it necessitated having faith in the reader’s awareness and curiosity (for instance, rather than footnoting Kafka in a poem that was inspired by his most famous novel, I titled the poem ‘Metamorphosis’).
As I worked on the book, a question I kept asking myself was, how would Ma have written this poem in English, delivering all the nuances of thought, feeling, and cadence she achieved in Bangla? In the process of forming an answer to that question, many of my versions grew closer to English adaptations rather than clear-cut translations. In making this choice, I was emboldened by Ma’s wholehearted endorsement of my earlier renderings of her poems in Make Up Your Mind.
My first draft – and more literal translation – of ‘Alphabet Bird’ hadn’t adequately conveyed, I felt, the poet’s fraught relationship with language, her frustration with the uncontrollability of words. So, I had invented more lines (including ‘I cage language’) and introduced a few more rhymes than in her original – modifications that Ma had loved, much to my relief.
As a poet, my mother revelled in rhymes and alliterations, which she used masterfully to manipulate meanings, emphasise emotions, register revelations, and demonstrate dissent. She often generously noted, in her articles and interviews, how glad she was that my translations tried to preserve not only her verbal, visual, and emotional nuances but also her linguistic, rhyming, and metrical patterns. There is much debate about these choices in the context of translating poetry, and as Ma had pointed out, there is no right or wrong approach. But taking her nod as a cue, I made it a priority that in Acrobat, any poem that Ma had written in rhyme be rendered in rhyme, retaining a similar metrical and alliterative scheme whenever possible.
I also followed, as much as I could, Ma’s line breaks and stanza divisions, so that the text looked the same on the page, because I believe that the way a poem inhabits its space is critical to the emotion it creates. This was at times particularly demanding given the linguistic structure of Bengali: one slim line in Bangla could contain a whole world of feeling but easily spill into a chunky block of text in English, an outcome I tried to avoid at all cost.
Consequently, the poems in Acrobat do, in fact, reflect the rhyme, rhythm, and shape of the originals, negotiated through multiple rounds of compulsive rewriting to achieve a balance between the competing demands of form and of content. In this respect, I am truly my mother’s daughter. I don’t have any of her multifaceted virtuosity, but I did inherit what she called her ‘terrible habit of writing and rewriting and re-rewriting every single piece.’ Ma was brutally honest about her writing ‘neuroses’, her obsessive apprehensions as a poet, all of which I can proudly say I have inherited. As she often confessed:
I can never meet a deadline. I keep on changing my manuscript even while correcting my proofs … Every time a poem comes out, I feel it needed a lot more work … Every word matters. Every punctuation matters. It is a question of life and death.
I do exemplify every exasperating trait that my mother owns up to here, as my ever-patient publishers would, I am sure, attest. But this bequest of perfectionism is not the only reason why it took me more than a year to complete this book.
Conversations with Ma
In the last year, I’ve used my mother’s poetry to keep her close. I’ve held on to each poem like it was a letter from Ma to me. Her words made me feel as if she were right by my side, speaking to me. I could hear her voice, wrapping her words in all its deep Bengali beauty. I’ve spent months poring over every poem, anguishing over each word, revising each punctuation mark – and continuing my conversation with Ma.
Yes, the proximity and disorientation of grief made translating my mother’s poetry all the more painful, for I missed her at every word, every line. The weight of her absence made the rope shiver beneath my feet with each poem. But I see now that Acrobat helped me, every day, to cope with my loss. Poetry turned into a ‘tool for survival’ for me, too, just as it had been for Ma.
Looking back, I see all the ways in which I resisted completing Acrobat, as clearly as I see that it’s time, now, to let go. It is time to share her poet’s voice, hoarse and silken, with all of you.
When night falls
I search for him
I bring him home
I look him in the eye
And I cage
When day breaks
Once again the world
Wraps around my eyes
And off he flies
Taking each word
That alphabet bird
Boy, are you scared of bloodshed?
Are you terrified of plucking virginity?
If the taste of blood goes to your head,
Do you fear that it will be a calamity?
The truth is, whether wrong or right,
Your blood calls out to you each night.
Listen, boy, it’s time for you to grow.
Words can be as fierce, don’t you know?
The treachery that lingers on tongue tips –
Beyond the world that all your dreams show,
Know that blood can be easily shed by lips.
(Memories on my mother’s birthday)
‘Go to sleep now, Ma,
It’s way past eleven.’
‘Eleven? It’s still early, then!
But you must go to bed,
you’re teaching tomorrow.’
Ma sits in her easy chair,
thick glasses perched on her thin nose,
pale fingers clutching her magnifying glass,
The Statesman spread out across her lap.
Next to her, on the table, her flask of tea, her medicines,
her fragrant betel-leaf in its silver case,
her brass spittoon, her cash-box.
Behind her, on the teapoy, an earthen vase
filled with her favourite white tuberoses,
and a wicker table lamp, woven in Agartala.
Before her, the alarm clock ticking away,
her travelling timepiece.
As Ma turns the pages of the newspaper,
its noisy crackle splinters the quiet night.
Closing my book, I come to her.
As soon as I step inside, I drown
in the deep perfume of those tuberoses.
The nurse is dozing in her chair.
‘Ma, please go to sleep now.
‘One-thirty?’ she scolds. ‘And you’re still awake?
Don’t you have college tomorrow?’
Swallowing the rebuke, I keep on wheedling.
‘You’ll get sick, Ma, if you stay up like this.
You must take care of your body …’
‘My body?’ Ma breaks into laughter that sparkles,
like jewellery shimmering from head to toe.
‘How much more sick can it get?
And what use is my body, anyway?’
I go to her one more time, before I sleep.
‘It’s two-thirty, Ma, do call it a night.
Come, let me take you to your bed.’
‘Yes, I’m coming, just coming,
there’s only this one tiny bit left.
Reading isn’t so easy now, you see –
it’s the gift of these cataracts!’
With a slight smile, embarrassed, apologetic,
she buries herself again in printed words.
Under the glowing light of the table lamp,
with her focus on the magnifying glass,
the ticking of the alarm clock
As I walk back to my room,
I hear her speaking softly to the nurse.
‘No, no, my dear,
don’t turn off the light.
Keep that lamp switched on, please.
I have just one more page left …’
Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.
This article was first published in Wasafiri.
Nabaneeta Dev Sen (1938–2019) was a versatile and prolific Bengali writer. She published her first book of poems at the age of 21. Equally expressive in poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, she has over one hundred books to her name.
A writer, actor, and child-rights activist, Nandana Dev Sen has authored six children’s books, translated into more than 15 languages globally, and translated two collections of the Bengali poetry of her mother, Nabaneeta Dev Sen. She has starred in 20 feature films from four continents (in multiple languages). She can be reached on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and at www.nandanadevsen.com.