Robert Frost provided the notorious definition of poetry as “that which is lost […] in translation.” Then would translating Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translations of Prakrit love poetry into Polish mean that poetry was lost twice in the process, and there is nothing more of it left?

Before I try answering the question, let me provide some background information. I have published Mehrotra translations in two journals in Poland: the online Helikopter (a selection from his renderings of Prakrit poetry) and the literary quarterly Elewator (a short presentation of the poet’s own work). What is the context to read Mehrotra in Polish? While a significant number of Indian novels written in English is available in Polish (Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Anuradha Roy, Jeet Thayil, Tishani Doshi, Kiran Desai, and more), there is hardly any contemporary Indian poetry to be found in translation.

Mehrotra’s History of Indian Literature in English was published in 2007, filling a significant void. Yet, the chapter on poetry mainly discussed work unavailable to the Polish reading public. Indian poetry in English is also largely absent from academic curricula – English studies focus on British and American literature, while indological faculties concentrate on India’s classical languages and texts.

Still, for a poet and translator, the neglect Indian poetry in English suffers from would not be reason enough to attempt translation. One must, I believe, truly fall in love with the poems in question, and hope that translating them will offer something, some new tones and registers that poetry in the target language may not have known before. The task seemed even more challenging as some of Mehrotra’s poems were translations themselves, like this one (433):

‘What’s this?’
She innocently wonders,
And now washes, now rubs, now scratches
The nail-mark on her breast.

An ear for everyday speech (“What’s this?”), a wonderful sense of observation, irony (how “innocently” does she really wonder?), the sense of humour, the way the third line mimics the quick, nervous, finical gestures of the woman, and the way the poet builds the tension (only in the last line do we learn what the lady is concerned with) – we get all this in just four short lines. Even though it is two thousand years old, Mehrotra makes the poem sound contemporary.

The relationship between the original and the translation

The translations are not only convincing renderings of the originals, they are first of all Mehrotra’s poems in their own right and including them in the author’s Collected Poems makes this reading legitimate. One can look at it this way: in the process of translation the original serves as a mould that prevents words from spilling over, providing formal discipline (which does not preclude being faithful to the original), a starting point, a frame. In this sense The Absent Traveller could be seen as a counterpart of Ezra Pound’s Cathay that contained versions of ancient Chinese poetry.

It is evident (though we tend to forget about it) that translation is much more than imitation or a derivative activity of secondary importance; for instance, in Europe Bible translations were often one of the first texts produced in vernacular languages, laying foundations and providing models for literature in national languages (as opposed to Latin texts).

While rendering Mehrotra’s poems into Polish, my priority was to produce the best poems I could write (and remain faithful to the original). I also assumed that the Polish reader who decides to familiarise himself or herself with poetry from India is ready to face foreignness, so instead of bringing the text closer to the reader I preferred to send the reader abroad.

For instance, it is probable that a Polish reader will find some images in The Sting in the Tail exotic (a cyclist with “a towel wrapped round his head,”  “genset” or “[f]ennel-flavoured sherbet”), but there is no need to change the “sherbet” to any other drink. Surprisingly perhaps, the most familiar reference in The Sting in the Tail is to reading John Ashbery. Ashbery, and other New York poets (Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch) are all well-known in Poland and the translations of their work that started appearing in the late 1980s are often thought to have been a significant influence on Polish avant-garde poetry.

The reference to Ashbery also makes it possible to see a parallel between Indian poetry in English and American poetry. After all, Indian poets writing in English attempted to do what their American counterparts did some years before – to write in English in a way that will be radically different from, and not derivative of, the traditions of English poetry. That is why Mehrotra named his periodical damn you/a magazine of the arts alluding to Ed Sanders’s Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.

Writing poetry in Engiish by choice

I should add that for me, yet one more exciting aspect of Indian poetry written in English is the freedom of choice. Namely, for many Indian poets, the choice of English is an act of free will; they could just as well work in a different language. Having recently decided to switch from Polish to English in my poetry, I sympathise with this gesture – the language you work in is a matter of choice, not necessity; not writing in one’s mother tongue offers a chance to break free of the constraints of the first language and culture; one is forced to leave one’s comfort zone and, as a result, paradoxically, writing with a lesser degree of certainty can even make one’s work better or at least more unpredictable.

Let me close with a look at Mirza Ghalib in Old Age. Delhi, 1868, which is a fine example of Mehrotra’s recent pedestrian, succinct style and can throw some light on the questions of poetry and translation:

His eyesight failed him,
But in his soldier’s hands,
Still held like a sword,
Was the mirror of couplets.

By every post came
Friends’ verses to correct,
But his rosary-chain
Was a string of debts.

Poetry, according to this lyric, is a craft, like warfare (“sword”), it is linked with the body (“eyesight,” “hands”), sometimes it is slightly narcissistic (“the mirror of couplets”). It is also a means of communication and something that keeps people together (“by every post came / Friends’ verses”). Yet the most interesting observation comes at the end, especially when we apply the discourse of economy (“debts”) to poetry and translation: one can never get even, even in old age. To paraphrase Paul Valéry, poems and translations are never finished, only abandoned, we always owe them something. In the same vein Jacques Derrida argues that in fact translation precedes the original (not chronologically of course, but conceptually): the original needs translation and demands it as it can be an original only when its translation exists. The original is thus always already indebted to translation(s).

I should add that I feel indebted to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s poetry for letting me experience something I have not experienced before, for enriching my vocabulary; and in particular I feel indebted to the poem quoted above, which has not been translated yet, but I feel it demands translation (and I promise to yield to its demands soon).

As for the Frost definition, it can be said that the matter is a bit more complicated. It well may be that poetry and translation are inseparable, that they are actually one and the same thing, that poetry is nothing but translation. If it be so, then no poetry is ever truly lost, it only changes form.

Adam Zdrodowski is a poet and translator; he has published three collections of poetry and translated authors such as Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs. He lives in Warsaw, Poland.