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Spring 2003

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Translating poems and cultures

“Translation is subversive writing,” declared Rajagopal Parthasarathy in this year’s Edwin Moseley Faculty Research Lecture. “By unearthing long-forgotten texts and putting them into orbit,” he said, translators can “redraw the literary map.”
Poet R. Parthasarathy
     The Skidmore English professor has conducted a little literary subversion himself, with his translation of the classic fifth-century Tamil epic The Tale of an Anklet in the early 1990s. The English version earned him a PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club citation, a prize from the National Academy of Letters in India, and other honors. For a multilingual society like his native India, Parthasarathy believes, “translation is essential. A nation renews itself through translation. If it is indifferent to it, it is in danger of falling off the globe.”

     In his lecture, Parthasarathy drew on his own aesthetics as a poet and on his linguistic expertise to discuss translations from Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, and Sanskrit (“the language most completely possessed by the spirit of India,” he says). Presenting poems or songs in the original and then in his translated versions, he compared the grammars, traditions, aesthetic subtleties, and even sociopolitical undertones in each work and explained how he tried to honor and reflect the original poetics in his English versions. For example, he said, “My translations are done orally first, so that the English poem is shaped by the tongue rather than the pen.” Using works from ancient to recent, with subjects ranging from erotic to devotional to political, he clearly demonstrated his point that “translation builds bridges between cultures.” —SR


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