In one of his oft-quoted poems, Rudyard Kipling brings out the point that East is East, West is West; Nether the twain shall meet. Should it be so for literary works also? As the cultural diffusion takes place from the culture of the dominant world power to the cultures of the subservient periphery, we are [...]

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A welcome effort to take Tamil poetry to English literary world


Author Mohamed Riyal presenting a copy of his book to Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hkeem

In one of his oft-quoted poems, Rudyard Kipling brings out the point that East is East, West is West; Nether the twain shall meet. Should it be so for literary works also?

As the cultural diffusion takes place from the culture of the dominant world power to the cultures of the subservient periphery, we are made to study the West’s literary works, while many of our works – literary works of the east — fade into oblivion.  But there are a few exceptions. Some poets and philosophers of the East have made a mark in the West, even though, as Edward Said would say, “it was an exercise in political intellectualism; a psychological exercise in the self-affirmation of ‘European identity’; not an objective exercise of intellectual enquiry and the academic study of Eastern cultures.”

Shorn of cultural biases and dominations, in whatever language poetry, short stories and novels are written, they are more wholesome in the language of the writer’s mind than in their reappearances in another language. Many a work of the East’s literary giants has been translated. Yet, however excellent they are, the taste is at its best only in the original.

Each language has its own power in prose and phrases. Figures of speech in one language cannot be fully understood when translated into another language unless the translator is thoroughly familiar with the culture of the people associated with the language of the original work.  This is why much research should go into when undertaking translations, as the aim is to give the closest similar expression.

Translators of poems often focus on the spirit of the verses; not so much on the structure or rhyme. This is why none understands Omar Khayyam’s poetry better than the Persians. They savour every grain of the Rubaiyat.

Yet translators have done and continue to do an immense service to humanity. Great works would have remained buried in history if they had not been translated into popular academic languages. The long lost works of Greek philosophers would have been denied to mankind, if they had not been found and translated into Arabic by the scholars of the 10th century Abbasid Caliphate.

Book facts: A Soul's Paradise In the Seventh Heaven By Mohamed Riyal Published by Alish Media Art, Literature and Social Service Network, Maruthamunai

When language becomes a barrier, translation becomes the bridge. Thanks to Western translators, Omar Khayyam, Jalauddin Rumi, Muhammed Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore and many more literary giants from Kipling’s East are celebrated and their works are savoured. Literature bees perch on these flowers oozing with nectar and ponder.

One such nectary is Mohamed Riyal’s “A Soul’s Paradise in the Seventh Heaven,”– an anthology of Tamil poems translated into English.

Mohamed Riyal is well known in Tamil poetry circles. His poems published or posted on social media have a large fan club. In him is a spring that supplies a continuous flow of Tamil poetry on various subjects: When a poem is needed, he just closes his eyes, and it is with him.

His poetry in Tamil is of high calibre – some are as strong as steel, some as soft as silk; some in between. Evocative and reflective, they deal with emotions, nature, beauty, philosophy and relationships. In short, the poems give the reader a soul-searching experience.

He lives in picturesque Pottuvil, the eastern province town, with the sea, hills and ample greenery adding to its beauty. He cannot resist the serenity that keeps prodding him to be reflective. You cannot sit idle, says the nature as it beckons him to sing with her.

In 2015, Riyal published an English translation of a collection of his Tamil poems. Titled “With a pain of heart, waiting for poems,” the book casts the searchlight inwards and self-examines one’s inner struggles.

Like most Tamil poets, he is still a garden flower; known only to those within the confines of the garden; rarely does the fragrance waft beyond the wall. Unsung, yet they are brimming with quality and substance.  To the West-dominated literature world, most vernacular poets are unexplored – a buried treasure. Without vernacular poetry, the world of literature is only partially illuminated. Only Tamil-speaking people know the reverence that is owed to Thiruvalluvar for his Thirukkural — a collection of couplets on ethics, politics, economic matters and love. Then there were other great Tamil poets such as Kamban, Kannadasan, Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan. They spoke of love, revolution and social reforms. If only they had been born in the West, they would have been studied in world universities and colleges just as Shelly and Shakespeare are.

More effort is called for to take vernacular literary work to the centre stage of the world.  The translation of Mohammed Riyal’s ‘A Soul’s Paradise’ is one such attempt. He says he wants to take his poems to the world that thinks and reads in English. In this effort, credit should go to Dr. Vincent Saundaram, a retired English professor from Tamil Nadu.  He volunteered to translate them into English as they were in agreement that the poems and the poet should be known to the wider literature world. Dr. Saundaram’s labour of love has produced a thought-provoking book of poems.

Agree that poetry is difficult to understand by many people. This is because we tend to look for its literal meaning. Great poetry is abstract and metaphorical – that is the art of poetry. The message is completely the poet’s. The reader tries to interpret it, by poring over the written word – again and again.

The book offers intellectual stimulation to the one who wishes to look for the underlying message behind the words. Poets like Riyal need to be brought to the mainstream of the literature world. In Sri Lanka, the lack of camaraderie between literature enthusiasts of the three main communities does not augur well for the development of an all-embracing Sri Lanka culture that will bring about unity in diversity. Literary festivals should not necessarily be language specific. They should be points of convergence for cultures to meet and share their richness.

Riyal’s literary endeavours are like mileposts of a meditative journey, in which readers are his silent co-travellers. Together, they will see new vistas and reach the destination, satisfied and unfatigued. I wish him success.

- Reviewed by Ameen Izzadeen


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