Translating Sylvia Plath

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Ab ke bichhde to shayad kabhi khwabon mein mile,
Jis tarah tale hue cockroach Jaldiram’s namkeen mein mile.

(If we parted this time, we would probably find each other in dreams,
The way fried cockroaches are found in Jaldiram’s namkeen.)

Obviously, the above parody is not composed by Sylvia Plath. She certainly never tasted Jaldiram’s snacks. I am the one who gorges on export-quality (read expired-quality) packet after packet of bhujia and navrattan mix. I just thought of putting some original stuff before writing about the translation.

Last week, a very handsome friend asked me if I had the time to translate a few poems by Sylvia Plath. I don’t know what substance I was high on that day that I said yes. Maybe, I had had an extra helping of tea.

Later, when he sent me the poems titled, “Love Letter,” “Mary’s Song,” “Childless Woman,” “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” and “Lyonnesse,” I started sweating hot and cold. I thanked God for not sending me into this world as a Raghuvanshi, a family whose members are known for giving up their lives before breaking any promises.

My first instinct on reading the poems sent by the friend was to wonder if he really wanted me to translate these for the benefit of Hindi literature or he was just flirting with me. I told him that if someone sent such a "Love Letter" to his beloved, the latter would try to get rid of the former. He agreed, saying that the latter would run away even before reading the whole poem.

As for me, I never flirt with anyone. I just fall head over heels in love. Right now I am in love with you, the reader, and am sending you my flying kisses. My love is 24-carat pure and genuine like a grandma’s love.

A few days later when my anxiety subsided, I started reading about Sylvia Plath and her poems to get into the groove. I decided to translate the easiest poem, “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” Despite being diametrically opposite personalities, Sylvia Plath and I do share some similarities. Both of us are great poets and writers. She won a Pulitzer Prize. I won a BlogAdda Newbie Award. Yeah, and I also won a word scrabble game at a recent baby shower. This is why my friend might have thought that I was the perfect candidate to translate Plath’s work.

While reading the poems, I was overwhelmed by gloom. For no apparent reason, I felt emotionally distressed. Unexplained anxiety took over me, and I started mulling over the miseries of life a la Gautam Buddha. Why do I have to shower daily? Why doesn't my hair settle the way I want? Why does my nail polish chip away so quickly? Such existential questions began troubling me. I was so depressed that I stalked all the men in my friend list on Facebook, and spied on their female friends too. This went on for two days before I realized that I had been suffering from PMS.

Then I tried to concentrate on the poem and experienced the heights of ecstasies and the depths of agonies that Plath must have felt, as if her soul had entered my body. Parsing her poetry was like an aag ka dariya and I had to doob ke jao in it, meaning I had to cross a river of fire by drowning in it. In this way, I completed the following translation.

Jokes apart, I totally enjoyed the literary immersion while translating this poem. I want to thank Kishore Chaudhary for bringing up the poems. And all of you thought I only wrote about imaginary friends. Here is the translation, which I have also posted on the Hindi blog. Those who find Hindi difficult, please enjoy the original poem.

Mad Girl's Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

पागल लड़की का प्रेमगीत

नयनों को जब भी मूँद लूं, दुनिया हो जाती खत्म तभी;
पलकों को उठाऊँ हौले से, सब कुछ हो जाता पुन: जीवित.
(तुम्हे गढ़ा है अपने इस अंतर्मन में शायद मैंने ही.)

तारे चले नृत्यमग्न होकर लाल और आसमानी,
चला आता है मनमाना अन्धकार भर कर गुलाटी:
नयनों को जब भी मूँद लूं दुनिया हो जाती खत्म तभी.

स्वप्न में मुझे ले गए थे तुम शैय्या पर कर मोहित
गाकर मुझे मदमस्त किया, किया पागल बरसाकर प्रीत.
(तुम्हे गढ़ा है अपने इस अंतर्मन में शायद मैंने ही.)

इश्वर सत्ताहीन हुआ, नर्क की आग भी बुझ सी गयी:
देवदूत और दानव हुए निष्काषित:
नयनों को जब भी मूँद लूं, दुनिया हो जाती खत्म तभी.

विश्वास किया तुम पर कि लौटोगे मेरी देहरी
पर उम्र हो गयी मेरी, तुम्हारा नाम भी मैं भूली.
(तुम्हे गढ़ा है अपने इस अंतर्मन में शायद मैंने ही.)

अच्छा होता एक पपीहे से लगन लगाई होती;
कम से कम बसंत के आने पर चहक सुनाई देती.
नयनों को जब भी मूँद लूं, दुनिया हो जाती खत्म तभी.
(तुम्हे गढ़ा है अपने इस अंतर्मन में शायद मैंने ही.)


  1. The translation is good!

    And there was something about Sylvia, isn't it? that is communicated from her words directly into our mood, without much thought. Some say she found love in death.

    Par ye Jaldiram kahaan milti hai? yahaan to Turmeric Raam milti hai :P

    When are you going to share the other translations?

  2. Sadly I can't appreciate the translation much. My Hindi is not that good. But I loved the poem. And thanks for introducing us to Sylvia Plath. Felt sad after reading about her tragic end at a young age.

  3. @Anshul: Thanks! The effort I had to put was same as writing an original piece. Therefore I am not translating anymore. But the process was a good learning experience, so can't say anything for sure.
    @Ajay: I can understand your Hindi challenge. Someone else had asked me, "What is गढ़ा?" I love both the languages equally :-)

  4. Never heard of Sylvia before , but then I'm miles (Miles) away from poetry, so that explains quite a lot :-) Loved her poem, absolutely romantic, painful even. I surely cannot comment on the translation as it would take me ages to even complete reading what's written in Hindi :-)

    I guess the important thing in any translation is that it should not be Word-to-word but the essence of the original should be retained with despite a fair amount of poetic license wielded by the translator. (Phew, that was a long sentence. Time to take a break :-))

    Having said that, I wonder how much effort it must have taken you to actually translate. Never tried anything of the sort before, but I cannot even imagine how difficult it must have been, to capture language, meaning and essence all at the same time!!! So kudos to you, for the effort!

  5. I think I should read more of Sylvia Plath..

  6. A simply fab translation! a gr8 job done! congrats!

  7. @Pallavi: Yes, I liked this poem too. You should also read Emily Dickinson. I have posted some of her poems on a page which you can see on the top of the blog named "Borrowed Verses." I found the translating effort equal to composing a new poem. And as you said it is not word to word.

    @Harish: Yes, you should read more. Here is a list of 101 Great Books:

    @Abha: Thank you so much :-)

  8. Excellent poem I liked it majboor wo bhi masboor hum bhi aag yaha bhi aag wha bhi

  9. Oh, I read the poem before the opening lines of your post. (Blame it on my fascination for Hindi :) )
    And believe me, I thought that it was your poem which was original and translated into English (The illiterate me couldn't find anything in my head that could relate to the name Sylvia Plath ;) )

  10. nice translation! you did not kill the beauty and the very essence of the poem while parsing it technically. Also this speaks of your command over hindi. cheers:)

  11. Havent read Sylvia..but it sure must be an enriching experience for you.

  12. Nice poem and good translation, though it hurt my head to read and understand the Hindi version. But don’t you think this is one of the easier ones? I know Sylvia Plath is highly acclaimed but I am sorry to say even a cursory read of her poems induces a throbbing in the temples for me.

  13. Sorry how dense of me! I forgot to say the main thing – hilarious narration of your translation! I too ponder similar existential dilemmas a la Gautam Buddha, especially about nail paint chipping off! Now where’s Sylvia’s poem about that?!

  14. Giribala I may not be handsome, I may not be a man, I cannot promise you ecstasies that Sylvia Plath imagines in her poetry.....

    But I know you won't turn me down - can you please,. please.....translate some Hindi movie song lyrics (the guttur guttur dhak-dhak variety)on your blog?

  15. @Parvve: That's a good interpretation. In reality, when Plath wrote this poem wahan ki aag was burning for someone else. Her husband had left her for another woman.

    @Puja: Heh, you thought my poem was original. I wish to write such poems in future :-)

    @4twc: Thanks for the nice words!

    @Alka: Yes, this single poem made me moody for several days!

    @Gargi: This was the easiest one, but still I could understand it to a certain level only after translating it. The poem looks simple, but is not that simple.

    @Purba: For me all those who read my blog are extremely handsome and beautiful, others are ugly. It's okay even if you are not a man, because I don't discriminate. If and when I find an interesting song I will certainly translate it for you.

  16. Translation, a tedious job requires immense tenacity and patience; kudos to you for that. :)

  17. Aw, I am no connoisseur, but I admire the toil to blend unadult-e-rated comedy with such tragedy.

    Will you Please translate some Whitman also, for my relatives in Benaras,

    "Thou Reader

    Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I,
    Therefore for thee the following chants.

  18. @Sayak: thanks :-)
    @Pusterik Humous: "Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I, Therefore for thee the following chants." Thanks for acknowledging the emotions conveyed in these lines. I will find out my favorite poem from Leaves of Grass and try to translate it. I am proud of the fact that you have such great literary taste and still like my un-adult-e-rated humor :-)

  19. अच्छा होता एक पपीहे से लगन लगाई होती;
    कम से कम बसंत के आने पर चहक सुनाई देती
    beautiful lines

  20. Giribala, I'm so moved I will write my comment latter!

    But then, what the heck, I'll write it here and now....
    Pahnishwar Nath Renu is my favourite Hindi author. I read an English translation once. I think I could puke!
    I still love Shakespeare. But Hindi translations send me laughing to the loo!

    Every language is unique. Translations are always so difficult. Not only you loose some of the feelings in translations invariably, you run the risk of introducing entirely unintended elements too.

    Yet, I wish you all the very best in your new venture.

    गिरि बाला, मैं तो चला हूँ मैं अपनी टिप्पणी लिखने के बाद होगा!

    लेकिन फिर, क्या बिल्ली, मैं इसे अभी और यहीं लिख देंगे ....
    फणीश्वर नाथ रेणु मेरा पसंदीदा हिन्दी लेखक हैं. मैं एक अंग्रेजी अनुवाद एक बार पढ़ा. मुझे लगता है मैं उल्टी सकता है!
    मैं अभी भी शेक्सपियर प्यार करता हूँ. लेकिन हिन्दी अनुवाद मुझे शौचालय हँस भेज दो!

    हर भाषा अद्वितीय है. अनुवाद हमेशा से रहे हैं तो मुश्किल है. न केवल आप अनुवाद में भावनाओं का कुछ सदा ही ढीला है, तो आप पूरी तरह से अनपेक्षित तत्व भी शुरू करने के जोखिम को चलाते हैं.

    फिर भी, मैं आप चाहते हैं सब बहुत ही अपने नए उद्यम में सबसे अच्छा है.
    (Courtsey Google translate)

  21. @Umashankar: I believe you when you say that you are moved. This isn't any sort of venture. The translation of your comment is superb. At first I thought you had translated it yourself, only when I reached the last line did I discover your assistant. I think I should also use it to translate poems :-)

  22. @sm: Thanks! So good to hear from you :-)

  23. Loved your translation!!!


    'इश्वर सत्ताहीन हुआ'
    'दानव हुए निष्काषित'
    'तुम्हे गढ़ा है'
    'भर कर गुलाटी'

    And blue translated so beautifully to आसमानी!!!

  24. Giribala, this is a great translation. & I'm absolutely with you when you say "The effort I had to put was same as writing an original piece". I think the beauty of this translation would be more evident if it is, for once, displayed independently, out of the shadow of its English twin (while mentioning that its a sylvia plath translation, but not putting it besides the English version- Its like putting two beautiful sisters in the same room for the groom- hardly romantic :P. I can imagine the effect your translation is capable of having on the lovers of hindi poetry. I'm loving it. Awesome!

    1. Thanks for reading and for the nice words! I would not compare my meager effort with any poet's work, leave aside Sylvia Plath's. Your comparison reminds me that those who love both the languages, often have to deal with a situation like "ek taraf hai gharwali, ek taraf baharwali" :D


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