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Amarjit Chandan

A Way of Seeing the Dream of Stone


By Amarjit Chandan

Amarjit presented this paper at Tongues in the City Conference, held on 26 June 1998 in London, England. It was sponsored amongst others by the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia, England. Also view responses by Emirhan Basiyurt from Turkey, and Andreas Pitsillide from Greece.

I'm going to talk about one of my poems, which is untitled. The following are the English, Greek and Turkish translations by Andreas Pitsillides and Emirhan Basiyurt. First the English Version.

Je suis belle, o mortels! comme un reve de pierre...
O mortals, I'm beautiful like the dream of stone. -- Baudelaire....

Far far away on a distant planet
There lies a stone unseen untouched
The stone dreams of flower
With no colour, no odour
It has a dazzling glow
It can be seen only with closed eyes
As you see your loved ones

This poem was inspired by a line from a poem by Baudelaire. A French friend of mine wrote down her favourite poem on a piece of paper and gave it to me as a keepsake. The opening line kept haunting me till I composed my own poem. Poetry is basically about imagining. It has to be convincing though. It applies even to the wildest surrealistic fantasy.

In the line there are three cues to a possible poem -- the utterance that I am beautiful, and the two images -- the dream and the stone. Stone? Which stone? No, not that stone we are familiar with -- part of our landscape. I had the urge to write about a stone, a dream and a flower which no terrestrial being had ever seen including myself. I started writing and visioning the stone, the dream and the flower; and the rest is the poem. I liked the image of seeing with closed eyes. Maybe John Berger should write a sequel to his book and give it a new title -- Ways of Seeing with Closed Eyes!

My Greek translator Andreas Pitsillides insists that the stone is a gravestone. I understand his viewpoint; he visits the cemetery everyday where his wife lies buried. But in the poem who addresses the mortals? Death? Maybe not.Life? Maybe yes. For some reason I did not use the opening words of Baudlaire's line in the Punjabi poem. Maybe my mind was fixed on the stone and nothing else. I imagine the stone lying on another planet which is out of sight, which can not be seen with the naked eye and not even with any telescope. I suppose mortality does not exist on that planet.

A long time back I wrote a poem -- stones live longer than trees. I realized its essence only recently when I saw a bedrock lying in Hammersmith Hospital. It is an altar for me. I say

my silent prayer before it when I go to the hospital for treatment. In the beginning of this century when the hospital was a Poor Law Institute, this stone lay in the Labor Yard, where the inmates broke up rocks for road making as a contribution for their night's accommodation. This was the piece which they found unbreakable. The stone now lies there in peace at the center of the hospital site. Some time back Leah Thorn read her poem I Place My Stones here in this very place referring to the Jewish tradition of placing stones on the graves of the dead symbolizing the indestructibility of life. Her poem was a voice--over to the moving images of my personal memory. The stone is a tribute to the departed -- to quote Thorn -- in whose honor we live. In Indian culture the stone is worshipped as an embodiment of God. Najm Hossian Syed, a contemporary Punjabi poet, begins one of his essays thus: In the beginning was the stone. And man stood before the stone possessed by the need to live and the urge to be. In the end too, is the stone and man stands before it as unsatiated as in the beginning....Whatever man has felt, thought and done carries the memory of what he could feel, think and do -- the memory of the stones.

Here are English glosses of the poem in the original in Punjabi, which may give some idea how the Punjabi mind works through the language and vice versa.

I beautiful am stone of like. -- Baudelaire
far very far some planet on
lying is stone pebble
that stone that flower of dream takes
whose perfume somebody not knows
not any colour and not either taste
what light of flower has blossomed
whose glow tolerated not
whom eyes closed seen has to
like memory comes beautiful face of nice persons
far very far some planet on
lying is stone pebble

Now let us see how the dream looks in the Turkish and Greek languages. To me the Greek version is more fascinating as it is written in its own natural script. Why do not we use the prefix mother before the word script as we do with tongue/language?


Speech delivered by Emirhan Basiyurt

I want to convey some of my thoughts on translating poetry and illustrate how I translated Amarjit's poem. When I looked at the program for this conference I noticed that it states -- Punjabi poems translated into English, Greek and Turkish. I would like to say I did not translate a Punjabi poem, I am not fluent in Punjabi! I did an English translation of a poem written in Punjabi. I am sure if we found a Turkish/Punjabi translator his version may differ in some respects. I deliberately did not discuss the 'meaning' of the poem with Amarjit. I believe if I had engaged in such a discussion the translation process would have been affected. It may make translation difficult, or even impossible. I wanted to maintain a literal translation. I simply wanted to reflect the message of the poem. The word message from the word meaning needs to be distinguished. When translating it is important to understand the message. However, I do not believe it is for me to interpret the writer's views. I must translate his words. In other words I must refrain from interpreting a meaning and concentrate upon translating the message literal translation can in some respects lose the content of the poem. However, I always believe that translated poems in any event do not give the same pleasure to the readers as does the original form.

When Amarjit asked me to translate this particular poem, I was hesitant as to whether it could be translated in the short period of time that I had. It haunted me for many days before I eventually came up with a final version. I knew the poem needed to be translated into 'Turkish words' but I also had to maintain a poetic sound. As well as this I always had in mind the poem's message. The difficulty lies in attempting to convey the message without interpreting it. For to interpret it may significantly alter the meaning. I appreciate that this may not always be possible but this is the important difference between interpreting and translating. The order of the poem is slightly varied in Turkish, partly as a consequence of Turkish grammar but mainly as a result of wanting (or rather needing) to maintain a poetic sound. The first two lines of the poem are reversed and read as follows:

Eyes cannot see hands cannot touch
a stone lies Distant far a planet

This reversal is mainly due to the need to maintain a poetic flow, a poetic rhythm, a poetic sound etc. This adds another element to the translating process. The translator in a sense becomes a poet. I have translated many court documents and during this process it was imperative that I used legal terminology. Similarly when translating poetry you must consider poetic terminology.Thus, I chose not to use the literal words for unseen and untouched. The literal words sound misplaced in this poem. Similarly I chose not to maintain the dual use of the word far as this would have simplified the poem and portrayed a childlike sound. Using the same mode of thought the following two lines are also reversed:

No odour no colour
one flower is dreamed

The use of the word stone is omitted here, as it is not necessary to repeat which object is being referred to. To do so would also simplify the poem. The last three lines of the poem maintain the same structure as the original form:

Eye dazzling glow has on
only closed eyes see that
loved ones we see like

The only marked difference here is the use of the word eye before the words dazzling glow. It is necessary to include this because otherwise the line would convey no coherent meaning. By translating in this literal manner I believe I have left it for the reader to interpret the message and give a meaning to it. Had I myself tried to interpret the message perhaps I would have significantly altered the meaning. This is the greatest danger involved in translation. Here are English glosses of the Turkish version.

O Mortals, I that stone dream like beautiful -- Baudelaire
Eyes cannot see hands cannot touch a stone lies
Distant far a planet
No odour no colour one floweris dreamed
Eye dazzling glow has on
Only closed see that Loved ones we see like

and the Turkish version itself:

Ey faniler, ben o ruyasi kadar guzelim -- Baudelaire
Gozgormez eldegmez bir tas yatar
Mesafesi uzak bir gezegende
Kokusuz renksiz bir cicegin
Ruyasini gorur.
Goz kamastirici parlakigi vardir ustunde.
Yalniz kapali gozler onu
Sevdiklerimizi gordugumuz gibi.


Speech delivered by Andreas Pitsillides

This untitled poem by Amarjit Chandan evokes mixed feelings of sorrow and happiness. It is a short poem, yet these laconic rhymes express a deep in sight which became a challenge to me when I tried to translate it into Modern Greek. The difficulty lies in finding the right use of words to impart to it the nearest possible meaning.At first I used the word "vriskome" for the English word "to lie". I then decided to change it. I looked at it through a different perspective and decided to use the ancient Greek word "kimme" in order to add to it a distinctive colour, thereby imparting to it a touch of coldness.

The official language of Greece from about the middle of the 19th century up to 1980's was Katharevousa i.e. Refined Greek which was an imitation of Ancient Greek. Ancient Greek words are still used in Modern Greek. There are synonyms to every word. I have tried to use not only the right meaning but also to attach to it the 'right' sound. The sound of words express a more profound insight. For the English word stone" which plays an important part in the poem. I wanted at first to use the Greek word "tafopetra", in English a "gravestone". I opted for the word "plaka" which literally means "stone, slab, plaque", but can also be used as "gravestone" thereby omitting the word "tafos" which means "grave". The word "tafpopetra" sounds too sombre. These are but a few examples in the translating process. Amarjit explained to me that by using the word "stone", he simply meant an ordinary stone. On reading the quotation by Baudelaire "O mortals, I'm beautiful like the dream of stone", I immediately saw in front of me dead people hovering above the cemetery.

English-Greek dictionaries are sometimes not very helpful. Equivalent English words are not always given; sometimes not at all. I therefore have to make my own personal dictionary, searching for all possible words by looking through Greek dictionaries, the Greek Thesaurus and the Dictionary of Synonyms and Related Words.I have discussed the poem with the poet Amarjit and explained to him of my own impression. In order to get to the nearest meaning of a poem, it would require the collaboration of the translator with the poet if (s)he is available.

There will always exist a disagreement between the translator and the poet especially if they come from different cultures. What I see, is what I see. The message of the poem is in my view the realisation of beauty of which we can only see through the eyes of our soul.I was asked by Amarjit to give a literal transcription of the poem. When English words are translated into another language it could give a strange reading. In Greek it has not given this impression with this poem. The word for word translation of the poem still makes sense because Greek is an extremely elastic language. I can use a sentence in Greek made up of twenty words for example, and can write twenty different sentences by twisting around the same words. The sentence would still make sense; it would only change the emphasis.

The more I think of this poem the more I find new meanings. It's that kind of poem that looks simple on the surface, but when you look at it through all the perspectives you will find out that there is no end. It goes on and on.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the conference Chandan used a new term "mother script" (ma-lippi) which he had coined himself. It was picked up by all the participants proving that it makes sense linguistically.

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Last updated April 2008