Friday, September 2, 2011

Give, Eat, And Live (இட்டு உண்டு இரும்)

Give, Eat, And Live

Poems of Avvaiyar

Translated from the Tamil by
Thomas H Pruiksma
Red Hen Press
USD: $17.95
Available in
Review: Karikalan

When I saw the English translation of Avvaiyar's poems from the Tamil by  Mr. Pruiksma on, I bought it out of curiosity.   I knew many of Avvaiyar's poems in my childhood.  My mother retired as a school teacher over fifteen years ago, and to this day, she can recite many of Avvaiyaar's poems. These poems are thought to be written around the twelfth century AD by the Avvaiyar of the later period, unlike the Avvaiyaar of the Sangam era.

Translating poems is a challenging task.  Poetic beauty of a poem is determined by a combination of things which include its tonality/rhythm when read, the imagery it evokes, its graceful adherence to its chosen form and structure, and more importantly the universality of the underlying message.  It is indeed a difficult task to capture all these dimensions in a translation. As a native speaker of Tamil, I can say that Mr. Pruiksma has succeeded well in this task.

He has translated about sixty four line verses (of the Tamil poetic form, Venpaa, or வெண்பா) of Avvaiyaar.  The translations are predominantly from two works of Avviyaar - Moodhurai (மூதுரை) and Nalvazhi (நல்வழி).  The book elegantly presents both the original Tamil poem, and its English translation side by side.  This makes going back and forth between the languages easy to do for those who know both Tamil and English.  He has ably chosen poems that evoke vivid imagery.  To the translator's credit, the timelessness of the ideas expressed in her poems, shine through the translations.  I will quote a couple of examples.  

A recurring theme in Avvaiyaar's songs is the virtue of honor.  Here is the Tamil poem followed by its English translation:

உற்ற இடத்தில் உயிர்வழங்குந் தன்மையோர்
பற்றலரைக் கண்டால் பணிவரோ - கற்றூண்
பிளந்திறுவ தல்லால் பெரும்பாரந் தாங்கின
தளர்ந்து வளையுமோ தான்?

Does he who gives life before he gives honor
Bow when he sees his enemies? 
                                   -Beneath a heavy load
A stone pillar may break, but tell me,
Does it buckle? Does it bend?

Although a bit of the elegant brevity and the musicality of the original poem is somewhat lost in the translation, Mr. Pruiksma wonderfully captures the essence of the poem.  By constructing the last line as two succinct questions, Mr. Pruiksma captures the characteristic immediacy and the directness of Avvaiyar's poem elegantly.   In the Tamil Venpaa (வெண்பா) verse form, there is traditionally a break between the third and the fourth word units (சீர்) of the second line.  Mr. Pruiksma calls this a satisfying asymmetry, and with a poet's sensibility attempts to recreate a similar structure in his translations.  

கற்றதுகைம் மண்ணளவு கல்லாத துலகளவென்று
கற்ற கலைமடந்தை ஓதுகிறாள் - மெத்த  
வெறும் பந்தயம் வேண்டா புலவீர்
எறும்பும்தன் கையால்எண் சான்.

What we know: A handful of dirt. What we don't:
The width of the world. The goddess of learning
Keeps learning -
          So, poets don't bet and talk big
The body of an ant too is eight spans

In this poem, Mr. Pruiksma gives the definition of span as the distance between the tips of the thumb and the pink finger when fully extended, and pithily conveys the beautiful twist of the phrase in the last line. The literal Tamil translation of the last line would have been, 'Even an ant's body is eight spans long by the measure of its own arms".  Here Mr. Pruiksma contracts the last line to elegantly capture the characteristic derision with which Avvaiyar's poems deal with fools.

Overall, it is an enjoyable book, and would be a wonderful gift to any friends or family members who do not speak Tamil.  He does not load them with an enormous amount of explanation of the meaning of the poem.   With slight exertion and patience, and with a bit of imagination, the poems readily spring to life.  I can go as far as to say that the basic values of most middle class educated Tamil kids who went to school in the seventies and eighties are reflected in the poems of Avvaiyaar, e.g., the belief in fate, the importance of honor, the importance of generosity, friendship, etc.  One can not but admire the keen eye with which Avvaiyaar saw the world around her a thousand years ago, and the vividness with which she portrayed it.  Her poems ring true a millenia later and the directness of her poems is still striking.

The only criticism of the book is the rather thin selection of 60 poems of Avvaiyaar.  After finishing the book, one wishes for more.  In any case, Mr. Pruiksma is a wonderful addition to the small family of native English speakers who have learned Tamil.  I hope this book is the first of many more capable translations of new/old Tamil literature, as well as original works in Tamil from Mr. Pruiksma in the years to come.

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