Translation is more about sharing and learning and certainly more difficult than writing original poetry, says Gulzar

Each meeting with Gulzar is about encountering a different face of the man: poet, lyricist, screenwriter, author, filmmaker. However, it is the relatively out-of-sight side of his persona — the translator — who speaks to us in our latest outing with him.

He is busy giving finishing touches to the ‘A poem a day’ project, his rendering of the works of contemporary young poets from across the country in diverse languages and dialects, of varied cultures, perspectives and experiences.

Meanwhile, Gulzar’s own original poetry has also been translated by Pavan K. Varma for a new, soon-to-be-released volume, called Suspected Poems. Varma has translated three of his poetry volumes earlier.

Between the lines

Gulzar already has 272 translations in 32 languages and dialects behind him in the close to seven years that he has been at his new project. “There are poems from the northeast, written in Khasi, Manipuri, Adi. Dynamic poetry is happening there today,” he says.

He is impressed by the poets’ use of language as well as the issues they are dealing with in their works. “There is an attachment with their land. They are also specific in spelling out names, places, dates and events. They don’t generalise things, yet it’s not as though they are writing news. They keep it poetic.” The political context also shines through: how they feel neglected and betrayed by the country. “They are very honest. They say it sharply even if not obviously,” he says. A lot is to be read between the words and the lines.

He is just as impressed with the works of the third generation Tibetans in India: “They have not been to [their] Motherland, yet they are longing for it and writing about it. They know it, are attached to it through their parents and grandparents,” he says.

For him it’s important to be connected with and experience and understand these feelings through the translations. “Otherwise we wouldn’t even be aware of such emotions,” he says. “We have to open up our antennae, be ready to receive and absorb new experiences.”

No wonder then, that translations have been a constant, if not as visible, preoccupation. Late last year, he released his translation of the works of Rabindranath Tagore: 60-odd poems of Tagore’s young days in two volumes in Baghban (The Gardener), and his poems for children brought out as Nindiya Chor (The Crescent Moon). The collection has his poems in three languages: Gulzar’s Hindi rendering as well as the original in Bengali, and Tagore’s own English translations. Later, Sa Re Ga Ma brought out a music album on the translations, a collaboration with composer Shantanu Moitra and singers Shreya Ghoshal and Shaan.

Greedy for words

For someone who reads words, who deals with words how does the role of translator fit in? Laalach (greed) is how he describes it. “I want to know a lot. But to know, you also need to learn a lot,” he says.

No wonder, the translator has emerged from the avid reader in him. Every day, by 10.30 a.m. he is at his desk, either writing himself or reading works of others. He likes to keep the first half of the day free for himself and his undisturbed engagement with the world of words. “It’s about studying, be it reading or writing,” he says. He compares the human mind to a tank that constantly needs a fresh flow of words. “Still water begins to stink.”

He remembers taking books from lending libraries as a 13-year-old: detective fiction, tales of magic and fantasy. One day, the librarian gave him a volume of Urdu translation of Tagore’s The Gardener. That was the turning point, a book that affected him deeply. “I stole it,” he remembers. “From then on, I began reading Saratchandra, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Munshi Premchand. My reading changed.”

He went on to learn Bengali and read Tagore in the original. His close circle of Bengali friends — filmmakers Basu (Bhattacharya) and Debu (Sen) and composer Salil Chowdhury — provided a helping hand. He was an avid imbiber of the Baul poetry and the bhatiyalis of the boatmen. “I used to find them fascinating, especially coming from Punjab, where I grew up listening to Bulle Shah, Farid and Waris Shah.”

Closer home

Gulzar has gradually also got drawn towards writings in Marathi. Fifty years of living in Mumbai has helped him know and probe the language well. But in the early days, it was litterateur P.L. Deshpande’s poetry reading evenings, focusing on the works of a specific poet, that turned out to be a prime influence and a compelling learning ground. Dilip Chitre, Vinda Karandikar were the other literary friends he made over the years.

He reads in languages he is conversant in: English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali. But is curious about the writings even in languages he is not fluent in. “You have to be aware of what is being written and not just in your own medium or language. I would like to be aware of what is happening in Tamil, Malayalam, Oriya or Marathi.”

He began by translating Tagore for Urdu magazines in the ’60s, while his friends translated Urdu and Punjabi works to Bengali. He also remembers translating Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Subodh Ghosh, Premendra Mitra and Sukumar Ray in his early days as a translator.

He was initially scared of touching Tagore, because he was in awe of his work. Yet, there was a deep disappointment with most of the translations that he read, even those done by Tagore himself in English. “He used to edit the poems, would change the line, image while translating,” he says. “A poet should never translate his or her own work. Your child has to be brought up by someone else. That’s why I have Pavan [Varma].”

Knowing many languages helps him as a translator. “But it is not about getting the meaning of the word. It is the feel of the word that has to be communicated.”

What about the meter? “I have done Tagore in meter, but not necessarily the same as his,” he says.

Collaborations in verse

How does he translate from a language he doesn’t know? He takes the help of a senior poet/writer who knows the language, helps him translate it in English, which he again crosschecks. K. Satchidanandan helps him for Malayalam, Jayant Mahapatra, who writes in both Oriya and English, pitches in as did Vinda Karandikar.

Sometimes, poets explain their works to him themselves in English. At other times, translations also get enormously difficult. He found Jibananda Das the toughest to translate. “Translation is more difficult than writing in original,” he says.

Ultimately for him, translation is all about learning and sharing. “It is not for the sake of translation. By translating you are learning so much. You imbibe, the writings become part of your persona, you enrich yourself and then through translations you also share your own learning with others.”

It’s all about becoming a mediator between cultures. And in India, there is no dearth of it: “It is so rich in its diversity that it just pulls you in.”

Interview by Namrata Joshi, The Hindu