Fafnir the Dragon lives in Norse mythology. Like all dragons he breathes fire and guards treasure; he is greedy. But he holds a secret. A taste of his large heart grants the eater an understanding of the languages of birds, beasts and nature, even the hidden thoughts of people. Further, human language would evermore dance on the taster’s tongue, fashioning song and discourse.
To my mind, Fafnir’s myth takes on urgency and added significance today as the world grows increasingly intolerant of diversity. We know too that market imperatives and cultural imperialism create a more homogenised landscape of the mind.
But to be true to ourselves, that is, acknowledge that we are vibrantly multiple and rejoice in our dividuality, we draw from the imagination and aesthetics of others. Poetry in translation enables this. It condenses, clarifies and gifts us contrastive cultures often in thrilling new literary forms; it clears a space for attentiveness and rumination which helps us build a shared humanity. Thus, the theme of tasting Fafnir’s heart runs through this anthology of world poetry in translation.
Dayplaces: Showdowns on the Beauty of the World and its Depression, Naseer Hassan, translated by Naseer Hassan and Jon Davis
Iraqi translator and poet Naseer Hassan met poet and professor Jon Davis at the University of Iowa. Soon, they were working on translating Hassan’s profound, rigorous and fragmented poems from the Arabic, poems that journey through outer and interior landscapes while echoing with an oneiric familiarity. They mirror the chaotic times Naseer had lived through, but which, in Naseer’s view, the whole world has endured: “The agony here is the world’s agony...but of course this is one side of the world, the other side is its beauty.”
Tobacco is the color of gold, duskiness is the water of darkness;
two surfaces move parallel, and meet in a point – then the city
dissolves, and words settle on the thrones.
We stare at the sun / we stare at our summer / we become
enlightened behind the deep-set gardens / and we enter the horn of
the day through a porthole, in the evening of gloom...
We are our ancestors, we are our opposites, we dream of returning –
as we were – overwhelming...
On The Other Side of the Shadow, Roselyne Sibille, translated by Karthika Nair
Roselyne Sibille is a poet of ruminations, glimmerings and music. Her work demands her readers become figures of thought that glide between the apparent and the unheard to arrive at aquiescence that overflows into “the void and its edging of blood”. Karthika Nair is an award-winning poet of formidable rigour and beauty of thought; she’s audacious in her use of forms. She translates these poems with keen intelligence and tenderness.
The Shadow Rises Before Me
The shadow rises before me
I will carve a figure just to my scale
that I can step inside
I will dry my feet of clay in the conflagration
I will wait amidst the birds whom I will not see
The expanses will be blue
A Name For Every Leaf: Selected Poems 1959-2015, Ashok Vajpeyi, translated by Rahul Soni
Acclaimed Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi writes, “… [A]m searching for / words for my poetry / everlasting holiness for words …” One conjures the image of the poet as both pupa and sunlit shed chrysalis, weaving a cocoon of words only to break free, then return to its self-made womb, to discover the glint of a new colour, a new thread. Each translator is, in a sense, a somnambulist, trance-walking through terrain that she renders familiar through the journey, or pilgrimage, into another’s creation. Rahul Soni’s translations are moist with the petrichor of Hindi rising through poems which he fashions into an idiom that is intimate yet unexpected, and at all times, inviting.
The Other Name for Awakening
In her eyes
is the dense green darkness
that shades the river waters.
The sweat of her palms
is the water of springs flowing silently in forests.
On her lips
is the imprint of dew falling late at night.
At the touch of her hands
colours come alive
shapes come alive
countless heartbeats quicken.
She is the other name for awakening.
Selected poems by Mohan Gehani, translated by Mohan Gehani
While the leitmotif of ache for the lost land, janmabhoomi, is shared among Sindhi writers, Gehani culls more from his cultural landscape’s folklore and romantic legends. Echoes of the Sindhi Sufis, like Shah Latif, Sanchal Sarmast and Sami, reverberate through his poems as distant soundings moored to drifting heavens. The poems seem disarmingly “simple” at first read, but a magical quickness leaps out to connect the everyday to the fantastic, even the cosmic. Gehani demands we inhabit this flash.
I will tell you
How stars are made.
That day you were feeding
He gathered milk in his mouth
Spat it out with full force
And your face was full of milk drops.
Wild Girls, Wicked Words (Sangam House and Kaachuvadu Publications), by Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani, translated by Lakshmi Holmström
The late Lakshmi Holmström gained legendary status among translators for bringing Tamil voices, both ancient and contemporary, to the world. In the anthology Wild Girls, Wicked Words, she notes, “Sukirtharani seeks an ‘infant language’, with all the rough and physical reality of new birth, sticky with blood.”
Beginning with the politics of sexuality the body of work by these poets enlarges, like a stone-rippled pond, to question the body of language as well as the poet’s body in the world in its many roles as lover, warrior, mother, thinker, child and activist.
Say you bury me alive.
I will become a green grass-field
and lie outspread, a fertile land.
You may set me on fire;
I will become a flaming bird
and fly about in the wide, wide space.
You may wave a magic wand
and shut me up, a genie in a bottle;
I will vaporize as mercury
and stand upright towards the sky.
You may dissolve me into the wind
like water immersed into water;
from its every direction
I will emerge, like blown breath.
You may frame me, like a picture,
and hang me on your wall;
I will pour down, away past you,
like a river in sudden flood.
I myself will become
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over,
Fafnir’s Heart: World Poetry in Translation, edited by Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Bombaykala Books.