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The Poetry School. London Review of Books Shop. London. 16 March 2008

Panelists: Tony Frazer, Translator and Publisher: Shearsman; Eric Ormsby, Arabic scholar and translator; Amarjit Chandan, Poet; hosted by Fiona Sampson, Poet and Editor Poetry Review]

Amarjit Chandan’s Talk Notes.


First of all – a few words about PUNJABI. It is an Indo-European language within the Indic branch of the Indo-Iranian subfamily. Its region is the Punjab – the land of five rivers – which is divided between India and Pakistan. It is spoken by total 120 million people all over the world including one million in this country. It has two scripts – Gurmukhi used in India and the Farsi which is used in Pakistan. I can’t read and write in the Farsi script. 

As we know, in terms of Etymology the word Translate means:

A. remove from one place to another

B. turn from one language into another. xiii 

For Translation the Punjabi word taken from Sanskrit is: Anuvaad.  
Picchey Pichhey, Nālo-nāl, NeRhey-NeRhey

Which Follows. Close, near, corresponding at the same time

Vaad – Bāt. Idea behind a sound/word 

The written word is silent. The sound is uttered word. 


ow the age old question: Is it really possible to translate poetry? 

My answer is: Yes and no. 

Peoples of the world have known each other through translation, of course. There is a certain element of truth in the cliché that it is impossible to translate poetry; that poetry is what is lost in translation. No word which is basically a sound can be replaced by another word, especially in another language. In that sense the translation is not possible.  

But what is it that comes through even in the translation and what is it that is lost or not communicated? These basic questions will continue to be asked without any definitive answers.  

[Pushkin said: Translators are “Couriers of literature.”

Progress Publishers Moscow published the Punjabi translation of Pushkin in 1980, but it did not touch a chord with any Punjabi reader. Why? Did the translator not do his job properly or was Pushkin too lyrical to be translated? No other Russian poet comes through enjoyable in Punjabi.] 


’ll relate my personal experience. It can’t be wrong; theories can be.  

For the last twenty years I have been working on English translation of my poems with my English poet friends like John Welch, Julia Casterton, Stephen Watts and Yvonne Green. 

I always do the first draft and later work on each and every word including punctuation and spacing sitting with my friends. One of the frinds went further making it a more painstaking task – she transliterated the poems without knowing the language. She was not interested in my first drafts. 

Using poetic license I tend to take some liberty with my poems and use words or imagery which is not in the original. When my above-mentioned collaborator sent me her ‘Englished’ – as Daniel Weissbort put it – version of my poem, I was unable to relate with it. I objected. She emailed me back. I quote some extracts as they are quite relevant to our talk: 

      Every syllable and omission was deliberately placed, after much thought. What  you have produced is a literal translation which sounds jumbled in English.  Please don't put my name on it under any circumstances.


      I think that you may be looking for literal translations rather than the type of  version I try to produce, with metre and word-sounds which give an  impression of the Punjabi, that I've heard you describe at length, but which  works to an English ear.  


      If you don't want me to send off my version for publication, please tell me and  I won't. I admire your work immensely and the way you explain it but I can't  translate it, if you reclaim it each time I try.   

Since then she has not spoken with me. That was a couple of years ago. 

I think in my case I was asserting my right of moral ‘ownership’ and it was ‘intellectual appropriation’ in the translator’s case. It did not work and a compromise was never tried. 

Thank goodness, there can’t be any breakdown of working relationship with the classical poets, whose work is more difficult to do e.g. Nanak, Sufi poets, Wāris Shāh. [Punjabi] and Kālidās. [Sanskrit]. They are not there to object and the translators are always left with full freedom and much more onus. 

Modern Punjabi poetry is easier to do as it is influenced by English /Western poetry. Poetics is changed now – Imagery. Syntax. Diction. 

When I do my rare poems into Punjabi saying sheepishly ‘Translated from the original in English’ I again take some liberty. I don’t think any body else could do full justice in Punjabi as I do, as in both the situations I am in control. It’d be worth noting how Beckett handled it when he translated into English his own poems written originally in French. 


must admit that all these years I could translate just 25% of my work – about 120 poems. The rest is simply not possible. I find my essays in Punjabi, written in the John Berger style, much more demanding and so far I haven’t dared to touch any of those.  

I think, feel and dream in Punjabi. Its every sound is tangible from within unlike English. I started learning English when I was six, but still I am unable to reach its essence, its soul. I think my prose is more intense, austere and clear.  

There are numerous Punjabi words which are my favourite, while there is just one word Telephone in English I like most. I was mortified to realise this that the language which gives me my bread and butter and which my sons speak with me is so strange to me.  


y poetic training was also equally influenced by Western modern poetry. Brecht, Ritsos, Neruda, Hikmet, Cardenal etc. I have known through English translations. I have translated their poetry into Punjabi without much difficulty, but if I were to translate my favourite contemporary English poets like Dannie Abse, Adrian Mitchell, Owen Shears and Jackie Kay, I will find it really challenging. 

It is right to say that my encounter with English always suggests subconsciously – and it’s not by force – to always reconsider my own writing and thinking. 

Most of the time the real worth of a poem is put to test when it is translated into another language; in this instance from Punjabi into English. This is another way of deconstructing the text. 

Auden said:  “I love Italian, it’s the most beautiful language to write in, but terribly hard for writers, because you can’t tell when you’ve written nonsense. In English you know right away.” 

I do know that Punjabi in that sense is not much different from Italian. I am always able to filter out the nonsense from my poems! Like the Qura’nic angel Nakeer, the English-speaking secular angel Auden is always perched on my right shoulder taking notes of my deeds.  

Problems of grammar, diction and idiom will remain for ever; that’s what translating is all about. 

Here is a simple sentence – I love you. English glosses of the Punjabi sentence will be: I you to loving am. It may give some idea how the Punjabi mind works through the language and vice versa. 

The idea in the original is the soul which after translation incarnates itself in a new body. 

The whole translating pursuit is only liberating after it has been accomplished. It is said – a poem is never complete. I’d say, it’s more so when it is translated.