Drizzling in Tongues: On Translating Myself
By Kiran Bhat
In this piece, multilingual poet Kiran Bhat reflects on the act of self-translation, and how the act and ambitions of a translation project can shift based on language, emotion, and sound.
To be lost in language, or languages. I don’t want to say I was born with this problem. Language is not a space, language is a trap. We are born into one, we are formed into one, and we never choose which one it is. My blessing was that I was raised in an environment in which I thought, felt, and conditioned myself in the world’s lingua franca, English. For my family who remained in India, particularly the older generation, the language was Kannada. In order to connect deeper with my grandparents or uncles and aunties, I would have to speak in Kannada. And then, when I studied abroad in Spain, and learned that there were people who did not speak English, who had chortled and gossiped and slandered in a completely different tongue, I learned I had to speak in Spanish, too.
To connect with a fundamentally different type of human being, the only path is language. I didn’t want to be just another person, I didn’t want there to be a wall I did not choose between other people and myself. So, I learned Spanish, I learned Portuguese, I learned Turkish… I learned about seven other tongues, until after a near decade of travelling and immersing myself in other lands, I came to the number twelve. I suppose for now, that will do.
It’s one thing to go to the local market and order your vegetables for the week in a foreign language. It’s another thing to write in them. I’m not an expert in any of the languages I happen to know. I barely consider myself an expert in English. But, I like playing in other languages. And so I’ve made an attempt to write a little bit in all of the languages I know. I’ve done the most work in my mother tongue Kannada, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Turkish.
There’s something about each and every one of these languages that I love. In Chinese, for example a bunch of characters come together to create meaning. Each character is drawn in a certain way to associate a feeling or emotion with an image. We see 女 (Nǚ), for example, and we are supposed to immediately associate this sign with the idea of a female, or the female gender. 女 (Nǚ) combines with 人 (Rén), or “person” to become 女人 (Nǚrén), or “woman,” just like 女 (Nǚ) combines with 孩 (Hái), or “child” to become 女孩 (Nǚhái), or “girl.” Almost all words in Chinese have this logic to them, which sticks out to me as a native English speaker. Our words don’t have the same effortlessness about them.
To make sentences is complicated in any language. In some ways it is easier in Chinese, as we can arrange characters in any order to convey meaning. But this possibility, which I see as freedom, can lead to several interpretations of the same line of text. I will explain using my own poem, from my Chinese language collection 客燃腦說 (Kiran Speaks), published by 白象文化 (White Elephant Press）out of Taiwan in late 2019.
The universe asks; what is your destiny?
The universe asks; what is your destiny.
To travel the world,
Do nothing of value,
Bring shame to my family.
Because I believe so much
In what I am meant to say,
In what I am meant to write,
In what I am meant to pass down,
Through the annals of humankind.
In order to write this book, I wrote a poem in Chinese, keeping some words in English here or there when I didn’t know the proper one to use. I then wrote the whole poem in English, and showed the two versions to a friend. Most of the time, the writing was off, and they edited the poem for me. But what was most interesting was the fact that as I showed the poem to four or five people, each had a very different way of interpreting what I originally wanted to say. For example, one friend, “J” felt that the final sentence in above mentioned poem should be,
which translates to “And, through human history, it is I who must deliver the message.’ My other friend, “W” saw it as
which means “In what I am meant to pass down, through the annals of humankind.”
These both are interpretations of what I wrote in Chinese which was,
This translates to, “I must deliver this message through human history.” I’m sure my original Chinese didn’t make enough sense and so my friends had to choose to interpret it, much like a translator would. Because each character is a world of its own, and can elicit such different meanings depending on usage, people can interpret the same thought very differently.
When it came to writing in Spanish, things were much easier. I’ve studied Spanish for much longer, starting as a high school student between 2005 and 2008, culminating in a year spent in Madrid around 2010, and then many years practicing by keeping in touch with friends. Spanish is much closer to English on a syntactical level. One can translate from English to Spanish without losing much meaning. I’ll share an example from a collection published in Spanish in 2019 called Autobiografia, published in Spain by Letrame Editorial in late 2019.
Los sonámbulos de la escritura son los pensamientos. Los pensamientos que se escriben son los que saben andar.
Si tus pensamientos tuvieran piernas, andarían a la fuente de las llamas, al trigo puesto naranja, entre las comillas de las ondas, el ojo sobre el mar.
Cuando no puedes dormir, deja de pensar.
Cuando el pozo de la consciencia está vacío, los pensamientos giran al inverso de su ámbito.
Y cuando los pensamientos deambulan lejos, están devorados por la imaginación y nunca pueden soñar.
the dreams of writing are thought
the thoughts which we write are lost when they perish on
they go to the end of time
where wheat becomes orange,
where commas are lost in blood
where eyes look upon the horizon
eyes too watchful
this is where thought is left to die
this is where thought becomes lost to us
when consciousness becomes empty,
thinking also inverses
the imagination is devoured
and no one can ever dream once more
we live in perilous times
I must learn to brave on.
The form of this poem shifted in translation, and so did many of the lines. The first lines of the two poems are the same, but the second lines are completely different. The same happened throughout the piece. There is no reference in fact to what were the end lines to my English poem (“we live in perilous times / I must learn to brave on.”) in the Spanish at all. Unlike in Chinese, where I focused on a more direct translation, in these poems I was writing in two languages, from the same feeling and in the same moment. As a result, one can’t really read the translation and see it as the same poem. They are two separate poems, built from a similar emotional space.
I’m currently in the process of writing two new poetry projects. One is in Turkish, and is called Seyahatnâme. Taken off the title of a famous travelogue by the Medieval Turkish author Evliya Çelebi, my Seyahatnâme is a suite of sixteen poems detailing my reflections and reactions to the seventeen countries I have considered home thus far. They have not yet been edited in Turkish, but here’s one, as an early sample.
Sevgi ile konuştuğumuzda,
Semnuniyetle evrene dokunduğumuzda,
Cesaretle kendi ayaklarımızın durduğumuzda,
tüm acı eriyor.
The harshness of the world
melts with ice,
when we stand upon our two feet,
stare out into the flittered edges of the universe,
and speak out love.
Once again, the writing in Turkish and the writing in English is almost completely different. In this case, it is because Turkish and English are structurally different worlds. English begins with a subject, grounds the action in a verb, and then heads to the point, whereas Turkish sentences start with the subject, keep the topic of the sentence in the middle, and end with a verb. As a result, “Sevgi ile konuştuğumuzda” (When we speak with love) is the very first line of the Turkish poem, and “Buz gibi, tüm acı eriyor” (Like ice, all of the pain melts) comes at the very end. English is action-focused, so the entire poem is inverted, the ‘ice’ image comes first, and the thoughts associated with it come second. It’s hard to say which form ultimately communicates the image better, but one thing is clear: a Turkish language poem is dramatically different from its English counterpart.
At the same time, I’m considering a project in which I translate writing not from the perspective of thought, but from the perspective of sound. The word 帅哥 (Shuàigē) in Chinese translates to “handsome guy” but in sound resembles the English word “swagger.” So if I write a poem in Chinese, and try to translate the meaning not to resemble what the Chinese is saying, but what the Chinese is sounding like, it would create an entirely new poem, built to sound the same in both languages, but mean something entirely different. I’m still in the processes of planning the project, but as I continue to reflect on the evolution of languages and their future, I wonder:
Is writing across language, or translation, or self-translation, best used when it works to bring out a text’s meaning, or is it best served when we are doing our best to render a text in its initial feeling?
The answer is not clear yet. But my work around it, and the meaning that effort brings to my writing and my life is truly transcendental.