'but what can I sing of him?'

On the Challenges and Joys of Translating the Tiruvaymoli

Shatakopan’s First Song of the Tiruvaymoli, translated by Francis X. Clooney, S. J., and Archana Venkatesan, appeared in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of the Bulletin. Wendy McDowell, senior editor of the Bulletin, sat down with Clooney recently to discuss this compelling work of religious poetry, and the features that make it so difficult to translate into English.

Francis X. Clooney, S. J.
Francis X. Clooney, S. J.

Bulletin: What is this work of poetry that you are translating?

Clooney: The text that I am working on is a long poetic work in the Tamil language called the Tiruvaymoli, which means “The Holy Word of Mouth.” It’s a classic of the literature of the Tamil language, which is in the South Indian Dravidian language and not part of the more familiar Sanskrit Indo-European family. It comes from around the ninth century and it is 1,102 verses long, four-line verses that are divided into 100 songs. So it’s a big work.

Bulletin: How did you become interested in it?

Clooney: I first encountered Tiruvaymoli in graduate school in the early 1980s, when A.K. Ramanujan, one of my professors at the University of Chicago, introduced it to me. Ramanujan himself was a published poet and translator of poetry. While I was a grad student, he was finishing a little book called Hymns for the Drowning, translating songs of the alvars—the Vaisnava saints of south India, who are thoroughly immersed in God, as if drowning in divine love.

I came to know of it first through him, and it is beautiful poetry indeed. But what also interested me is that there were five to ten classical commentaries on this particular work. So it’s a religious classic that has attracted attention even until now. There are still teachers in Chennai (Madras) and other places in India where these poems are recited in the Temple; learned teachers still give talks about the deep spiritual and moral meanings of the poetry.

I’ve been working on Tiruvaymoli on and off since then, for the past 35 years or so. It’s one of those works that is quite obviously beautiful in Tamil, but as such it is also very hard to translate properly. That’s one of the challenges. Obviously, I’m not a native Tamil speaker and I miss things, I’m sure. I had finished my own translation more than 25 years ago, but I’m not a native speaker and didn’t want to do it on my own. I worked with one team of translators including Ramanujan until he died in 1993, but we never finished that project. I am lucky now to be working with Archana Venkatesan, who has published a number of translations of this kind of literature. Slowly but surely, we are translating the entire work.

Bulletin: What makes it so hard to translate?

Clooney: Part of it is that it really helps to have somebody like A.K. Ramanujan, who is a poet, doing these translations: poets translating poetry. I don’t consider myself a poet. But still, I must try to catch that natural sense of the rhythm of language and either deliberately follow the same rhythm, or to write some kind of a musical tone into the translation so it sounds good in the new language. That’s one thing.

Of course, it’s always hard to translate because you don’t do justice to the original language. And this work includes many elements that make it particularly difficult. First of all, it’s so long, 1,102 verses, almost all of them four lines each. Secondly, it includes a number of features that are very hard to express in English, especially the intricacies of style. I’ll mention just two.

One feature is that it has an end-to-beginning style, which in Tamil is called simply antati, “end-to-beginning.” End (anta) to beginning (adi) means that the last word of each of the 1,102 verses is the first word of the next—either word or sound, and the end of verse 1,102 is the same as the beginning of verse one. Sometimes it’s a word that carries over, so if the verse ends with “heaven,” then the next begins with “heaven.” Sometimes it is a sound at the end of the verse, such that next verse begins with a similar sound but it doesn’t mean the same. An absurd example in English would be, “I came riding my horse / Hoarse was my throat that day.” Or think of many other examples of homonyms. Do you even try to hold on to those links, or do you leave them out?

Another difficult feature is that there is initial rhyme in every verse, so there is a similar sound at the beginning of every line in a verse. For instance, the first verse has a similar sound at the beginning of each line—uyarvara, mayarvara, ayarvarum, tuyararu, and hearing the verse, one would catch the assonance easily. But the meanings are not at all similar: “unsurpassable,” “ending confusion,” “unforgetting,” “ending affliction.” So even a good translation, like the one Archana and I did for the Bulletin, doesn’t catch this rhyme:

Who possesses the highest, unsurpassable goodness? That one.
who cuts through confusion and graces the mind with goodness? That one.
who is the overlord of the immortals who never forget? That one.
at his luminous feet that cut through affliction bow down, and arise, my mind.

One cannot easily reproduce the initial assonance even once; doing it 1,100 times over would be nearly impossible.

Bulletin: That does sound very challenging!

Clooney: On top of all this, there are many cultural and religious resonances, many of which would require footnotes to explain, and there are limits to how much annotation a successful translation can bear. Let’s say a certain kind of mango tree is mentioned, but since few in America know mango trees well, someone decides to substitute an oak tree. It wouldn’t work, Or how do you translate “your shoulders are like fresh bamboo,” which in Tamil literature means supple and strong and slender but sounds very odd in English, or “your skin is like the new bud of a freshly opening mango flower”?

It’s like the Song of Songs, where so much of the poetry is culture-specific. For example, consider the first two verses in Chapter 4 of the Song:

How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.

How can you really communicate that kind of thing in translation?

In the Tamil, you might run into expressions such as, “Oh, you with fish eyes.” You can’t say that, because we Americans will think of big, bulging fish eyes! But putting in an explanation, “Your eyes are slender and long like the slender body of a fish” is awkward. You might say, “You with the flowers in your hair, where bees swarm”—but again, explaining it is awkward, “The flowers in your hair are so fresh there are bees swarming around them.” To some people that would be a frightening thing! Some of these images would be easily familiar in Tamil poetry, get lost over here, and yet adding too much would ruin the poetry.

So in content and imagery and style, Tiruvaymoli is a masterpiece of very beautiful, very careful, very demanding poetry. Ramanujan, who did very beautiful translations of this poetry, and of other Tamil poetry, makes it free verse, floating down the page. For Hymns for the Drowning, Ramanujan picked out verses that he liked out of the 1,100 and did a beautiful job of them.

Bulletin: Can you give an example of his free verse translation compared to yours?

Clooney: Here is what Ramanujan did with a famous verse, Tiruvaymoli II.3.3:

When I didn’t know a thing
you made me love
                             your service

mixing inseparably
               with my soul
when I
               your servant
was in the illusion of unknowing.

you dwarf incognito
               who once said to great Bali
                             ‘Give me space
                             just three steps”
and cheated him of everything
before anyone knew

But the verse isn’t actually all that free in form; it is very reliant on strictly observed meter and on rhyme, and the verses are tightly controlled. Throughout the work, the same strict structure is adhered to very conscientiously. The intensity of the flow of the poetry is important. Each verse by itself is beautiful but not overwhelmingly significant. It’s the flow from the first verse to the eleven hundred and second verse that creates this momentum. Trying to hold that in place—every verse in light of all of it, is important too.

So here is what I did with the same:

In that time of ignorance, you made this servant —
caught in a great unknowing delusion — love your service;
As an innocent dwarf you begged, “Three steps of earth, please, great Bali” and
You tricked him, so ignorant. And now you have mingled with my life’s breath.

Bulletin: It seems like the philological translation would be an initial stage a scholar would go through first, but then you’d need to go through another stage to make it more readable?

Clooney: Yes, it is a double task: do it right, in every detail, and make it accessible, simply pleasing. That’s what I try do in my own work. In my latest book, His Hiding Place Is Darkness, I translate six of these 11-verse songs, because I’m trying to bring them out to a wider audience interested in religion and culture in their literary forms. Here are a few verses from a song the woman sings, awake and alone in the night:

All the city sleeps, all the world is intensely black,
All the waters are calmed, and one long night stretches out.
He ate the whole earth, our Lord nearby on the snake bed,
But now He does not come.
Alas, who can protect the life of this doer of stubborn deeds?

Who will protect my life now?
Finishing off the deep sea and earth and sky in one great change,
This stubborn night stretches on,
But my Krishna, the kavi-robed Lord, does not come —
O sinner’s heart—even you are not on my side!

See, even you are not on my side, my heart! And so this long night
—when time does not pass—stretches out for ages.
My Rama does not come with his furious biting bow,
and this sinner, born a woman, does not know how to die. (Tiruvaymoli V.4.1-3)

In the book, I put these verses side by side with verses from the Song of Songs from the Bible. I struggled with how to do everything I can to be accurate philologically, but then I cleaned them up so that a wider audience will be interested. If you leave too much out, you’re missing the local references, the feel of the poetry, and the culture. Poets can maybe do some of this very well because they’re already writing poetry. I probably make errors in both directions—too conscientious, and still too mysterious for modern readers—my book is not for philologists or for Tamil scholars. It has to be expressive. Ramanujan always made this point, that it has to come alive in the new language, and that sometimes you simply have to say things differently to make it mean something in the new language.

Bulletin: If you want to read poetry from all over the world, it will still have a sense of place. Even if you have never experienced those places, you should expect references that might be unfamiliar to you, right?

Clooney: Yes, right. I think a lot of the comparative work I do is to try to make the other tradition intelligible here, but also get people here to at least mentally travel there. You can do that with concepts—I do this in the classroom all the time with students—but there is an immediacy to poetry. It doesn’t work if you have to have a page of footnotes to go with it. It has to be both honest about where you are coming from but also draw the reader in.

Bulletin: Translators tend to pick work from poets that they love, so they feel a great responsibility. How do you handle this sense of responsibility?

Clooney: I try to honor the form. A lot of premodern Indian literature is in verse form, and it seemed to have to do with memorization and so on. So even dry philosophical argumentation will come in these verses. Some people say, forget the verse altogether and just put it in prose, but there is a certain sense that the author was choosing to use the two-line shlokas (verses), to put the argument in that form.

I have tried to communicate this in other projects I’ve done, with texts that are ordinarily not thought of as poetry. To give a very difficult example, one work I’m still translating includes 1,500 two-line verses that treat 900 problems in ritual reasoning and practice. The challenge for Madhavananda, the fifteenth-century author, who was not trying to be a poet for poetry’s sake, was to say as much as compactly as possible in two lines while always following the meter. This is unusual. If a text is about love, then you might say, of course it is poetry. But if you’re arguing the details of a ritual performance, whether it’s done this way or that way, this leads to verse of another sort, aimed at economy of expression and for sake of memorization in that easier form. As translators we can ask, “Should we translate it as verse when no one in the United States today is memorizing medieval Indian ritual problematics?”

My point is that any good poetry has a certain feel and style, and sometimes even the philosophical texts raise problems for translators, if we notice the ideas and neglect the form.

Bulletin: What is known about how the verses of the Tiruvaymoli were used or performed?

Clooney: The eleventh verses talk about “those who recited” or who “sing” these verses, “those who dance and jump and sing.” There are a hundred of these eleventh verses and they give you various clues about the singing, the dancing, the recitation, the enjoyment of the verses. That we know. Several times they mention instruments that are being used, something like a harp would be an accompanying instrument.

In the tradition as it has come down to us, this poetry in Tamil is considered totally sacred and therefore of the same status as the Sanskrit Veda (the sacred scriptures of Sanskirt). To honor it, then, in temples the priest would recite it the way they would recite Sanskrit verses. This changes very much how the Tamil verses are heard, even if the Sanskritized form has a tradition and power to it.

Bulletin: So it is no longer performed as it was?

Clooney: Once the text came to be solemnly revered, its recitation was restrained, too. In the orthodox style, there are never instruments and certainly no singing or dancing. The Sri Vishaishnava tradition does celebrate the birthday of the saint, and they will recite all his poetry. They will hasten through it as if it was Sanskrit, because it is the sacred word and to utter it out loud is the key thing. But to the Western ear, at least, the rhythm and energy of the Sanskrit, applied so as to honor Tiruvaymoli, does not seem to communicate its lovely, sweeter Tamil sound and form.

The Sri Vishaishnava tradition also preserves another kind of performance —which Archana has written about, as has Vasudha Narayanan. In several temples in India there are performers, known as araiyars, who follow ancient precedents in reciting the verses with set, stylized gestures. I’ve been to several of these performances, and there are usually older men enacting the verses, and their performances are solemn, powerful, and entirely sacred.

But there are also modern performance traditions here, too, who bring the verses to life. Years ago we were happy to have at the CSWR Jyoti Raghavan, a local Tamil performer, who takes the works of the Tamil saints and puts them to a more lively style of music, singing and dancing them on stage, bringing them to life for today’s audience. She and other performers in this modern idiom show us vividly that reading the verses in a book is one thing, and formalized temple style another—but that the poetry has the potential for a whole new style of presentation, grounded in traditions of music and dance, to be sure, but also fresh and vibrant; Tamil devotion alive in our time.

Bulletin: Can you think of other examples of this or other religious poetry performed?

Clooney: Ramanajan’s translations of Tamil poetry have worked. People have even used excerpts from his translations at weddings and other celebrations because they’re so beautiful. You can go through with a red pencil and say, well he missed this, or he left this out because he didn’t like it. But he was successful in making it possible to perform the poems as living, compelling works of art.

This is true with the Bible, too. Settings of the Psalms have been set to music in Jewish and Christian contexts for millennia. The Psalms talk about the timbrel and harp and dancing. So that’s a real analogy in other traditions.

Or think of Qur’anic recitation. The first thing about the Qur’an is that you need to hear it. I’ve heard some very lovely and powerful performances of Qur’anic recitation, extraordinary voices and simple, pure enunciations of the Arabic. I don’t know a word of Arabic but it’s so beautiful.

Bulletin: I’ve heard from friends who have traveled in the Arab world that poets are revered there in a way they aren’t here. I wonder if and how this relates to these religious practices?

Clooney: Perhaps we can say that the poets are so important because language, uttered and heard, is religiously so important. You can’t really translate the Qur’an. It has to be in Arabic; that’s the sacred language. Even with the Veda, the ancient Indian texts, they should be heard in Sanskrit. To some extent, they’d probably say this with Tamil.

If you have Arabic, or Tibetan, or Sanskrit, you need the original sound. By definition, you can’t replicate the sound in translation in English. A good translator would pick up on what the sound is in English. But I think most translators of these texts would prefer them to be read rather than recited.

But Christians don’t have a sacred language. I mean, Roman Catholics are fond of Latin and the Greek Orthodox of Greek, but I don’t think that either tradition insists that its language is sacred. The Greek of the New Testament isn’t even the words of Jesus, because nobody thinks that Jesus spoke Greek all the time. Not having a sacred language means that right from the start, the New Testament is in translation, the gospels are in a sense a translation. So we can do all kinds of things in translation. Perhaps this is why we do translate, and why the poet/performer precedes a public spiritual figure.

Bulletin: An HDS graduate recently told me that Rumi is the best-selling poet in the U.S., which is interesting.

Clooney: Yes indeed. He is one of the world’s most popular poets. Nariman Aavani, a Center resident, recently gave a talk here on Rumi. Nariman spent a very pleasant hour with us reading translations of Rumi, but he also played some video clips of people reciting Rumi. It was so very different. On the page, the translation suggests a kind-of ethereal love, a sense that God is everywhere, all is sacred. You could see why Americans, seeking the spiritual in ordinary life, would like it. But in the performance Nariman played for us, there were six men with instruments, and one was swaying, and communicating so vitally, so vigorously. They were totally into it as a physical experience, but in that sense it was not ethereal at all.

I’ve been reading throughout the year with Eliza Griswold, who of course is a successful translator herself. And recently we’ve been reading Gitanjali, the collection of poems by the Bengali poet Tagore. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize, in 1912, and the book has been in print ever since. William Butler Yeats had helped Tagore with it before it was published. The one that won the Nobel Prize, the preface is by Yeats, introducing this poetry to the West. Yeats seems to have entertained the view that ancient India and ancient Ireland had the same mystical roots, that’s why he was interested in Tagore, and he helped Tagore do something marvelous in English. Somehow what Tagore did was to recreate in English, with an effect that seems to have been generated for the global audience.

But a new scholarly book has come out recently, retranslating the original Bengali Gitanjali, and showing its difference from the English Gitanjali. In the Bengali, it’s much more of this vigorous, rhythmic, political poetry with a real edge to it, and its performance needs to be lively and loud. In English, Tagore is more like another Rumi—flowing, mystical, and a bit elusive.

But again, what price do you pay? Even the best new translations, however commendable, probably will not win any prizes or sweep Americans off our feet. Tagore, we might say, (mis)translated himself brilliantly.

Bulletin: That leads me to ask: Who do you think your audience is, and why is it important to you to keep at it? Obviously, this is taking you a very long time, so it matters to you to do it this way.

Clooney: As I said, I first translated Tiruvaymoli completely by 1990 or so. But I wanted to work more on it, to get it right, to not betray it in my English of it. Eventually, Archana and I will publish our translations, but it’s going so slowly, word by word.

But even aside from all that work, what I do care about when I write a book like His Hiding Place Is Darkness, is my actual chosen audience, which is usually Western, Christian, theological—not the philologists and Indologists or native Tamil speakers. My hope is to help bridge the gap between astonishingly beautiful and powerful religious literatures, to give readers today, so far removed from medieval south India, something of the immediacy of the experience, the power of the text, such as made it true and beautiful and revelatory for nearly 1,500 years. To translate, but in doing so, to step aside and let the reader meet the poet.

Indeed, much of my prose is about trying to bridge that gap and enabling people to learn about the great Hindu traditions, allowed, paradoxically, to speak for themselves in my words. I want to say to my readers: You don’t have to be frightened if you don’t know what Tamil is or you can’t read the script or you don’t even know the map of India. Don’t be put off, or look for something else or easier, just enter that holy word through my imperfect words. My work is to create possibilities for that kind of interreligious, intuitive communication that poetry makes happen.

If I was a singer (which I am not), or a dancer (which I am not), I might try performance, as others do so well. But at least with the written, endlessly revised word, I try to make it evocative so that somebody can hear it and respond to it. Perhaps it is something like a priest (which I am) preaching in church on a Sunday morning: speak the Word in your own words, then be silent and let them listen. Shatakopan gets at this so beautifully:

He has exalted me for all time, day after day he has made me himself,
and by me he now sings himself in sweet Tamil,
my lord, my first one, my abiding light,
but what can I sing of him?

Even after I saw his excellence and was purified,
I still lacked the excellence to sing proper sweet songs,
but still he made unlovely me into himself, that highest one,
and by me sings sweet songs which the whole world can love. (Tiruvaymoli VII.9.1,5)

Francis X. Clooney, S.J., is Parkman Professor of Divinity and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His book, His Hiding Place Is Darkness (2013), centers on a double reading of the theme of divine absence in Tiruvaymoli and the Song of Songs.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.