The International Poetry Journal in Bengali

Translated Poetry
9th Issue
July-Sept 2000

From Barishal to Briarwood:
Bengali Poetry in English

From the Guest Editor

The sub-continent, as we Westerners are fond of calling places like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, is replete with languages--Gujurati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, Pashto, Tamil. According to those who speak these languages, so I have been told by some, Bengali is the language of poetry.
I do not speak Bengali. But I have heard the voices of Bengali children in a school in Astoria, Queens (America), chanting the poems of Nazrul Islam who is famed all over that region; but, unfortunately, to date, is not as internationally celebrated as Tagore. Hearing those children singing in Bengali moved me to dreams of passages to Bangladesh.
The 38 poems in this special English-translation edition of Shabdaguchha, I am told, are pale shadows of the originals, primarily because they fail to capture the music and mystery of the Bengali language. It is a cliché to say that "something is lost in translation," when, in fact, sometimes something can be gained in the process. When translating from English into Italian, I think of how much more musical is the target language. Indeed, if Bengali is the language of poetry, Italian is the language of music.
Witness a poem,"On the Death of a Day-Old Child," by Menke Katz (the Yiddish/English poet-editor of the internationally known little magazine, Bitterroot):
The wind will sing my lullabies to you
(Italian translation)
Il vento ti canterą la mia ninnananna.
Clearly, the latter is more musical.
Again from the same poem:
You are the beginning when light is wise.

Here "light" can be the light of the sun or moon or match or streetlamp—natural or artificial. But the Swahili word "nuru," which means the light of understanding is much closer to the original intent of the poem which is referring to the Jewish tradition that, when a child is born, it is believed that his soul comes with the knowledge of everything. An angel must come and kiss the knowledge from his eyes. Or, in another tradition, the angel must remove the knowledge by scraping off the skin between the nose and lips, where we have a ridge. Thus, in some cases, in translation, there is more music or more preciseness in meaning. But, it is agreed, that it is far more often true that Frost's dictum applies: What is lost in translation is the poetry. Nevertheless, given these cautions, it should still become apparent to the English-language reader that the poems in this collection reflect the nature of the people of Bangladesh today.
These poems are by contemporary Bengali poets--who live or lived in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, and those who currently live in America. In stark contrast to so many other immigrants, these new immigrants, the Bengali, demonstrate a passion for things non-material. Surely, food must be put on the table. And an obligation to those back home is of great concern. But the passion for poetry--all of the arts--the creative process--is still extraordinarily present, if not, at times, paramount. For them, as Arthur Dobrin (poet-novelist, leader of the Ethical Humanist Society on Long Island) has remarked--"Poetry is as natural as breathing." I would add, for them, it is as necessary as breathing.
The poems range from traditional to modern, even post-modern.

Despite the conservative use in all these poems of using initial capitals--i.e., starting each line with a capital--a holdover from times when all poems had strict structure with forms like the sonnet, the ode, the villanelle, the heroic couplet, all with clear rhythmic patterns, and the poems here rarely conform to such strictures, these poems evince a distinct modern tendency.

This is particularly the case with the choice of subject, and, frequently, in the use of certain word choices once forbidden in print.

I feel confident that these poems are a first step on the bridge of understanding essentials--the heart of a people, its culture as reflected in its art, in its words, in its poetry.

From Barishal to Briarwood, from Bangladesh to Brooklyn, these poems are the bridge: The Bengali Bridge. Come, turn the page, read, and cross it! There are wonders on the other side.

--Stanley H. Barkan

  • Back to the Translated Issue

  • Back to Front Page

  • To subscribe this special issue, write to Shabdaguchha with a $6 money order.

    Shabdaguchha, A Journal of Bengali Poetry, Published in New York, Edited by Hassanal Abdullah.