Seamus Heaney Beowulf Translation/Hearing Beowulf in Tamil (?)

May 22, 2017

I’ve spent the last several days reading and re-reading Beowulf, in preparation for class this week. I am utterly, completely in its thrall. The Heaney translation is masterful–the control of rhythm and rhyme is delicate yet unyielding. The Tolkien translation, so different, has its own power–he translates with an unerring linguist’s ear.

I have a seed of an idea, about finding a way to translate the alliterative structure of Beowulf as interpreted by Heaney into an English translation of Alvar poetry. And then, to have it sung. Stay tuned.

May 24, 2017

So here’s the first draft of the first experiment, trying to adapt Heaney’s translation approach of Beowulf to the Tiruvaymoli.

I am unable to get the caesura to work like I want it to, and it’s inconsistent. But I was able to replicate the alliteration in each lines’ two halves. I rather like the effect it produces, something a little closer to the bone of the Tamil, and I also like how much more miserly with words, and syllables it forced me to be. I am particularly proud of the pairing of Rama in the first line and Brahma in the last. I still think I have too many words, but all in all, not bad for a first outing; I give myself a C+.

kaṟpār irāma pirāṉai allāl maṟṟum kaṟparō
paṟ-pā mutalāp-pul eṟumpu āti oṉṟu iṉṟiyē
naṟ pāl ayōttiyil vaḻum carācaram muṟṟavum
naṟ-pālukku uyttaṉaṉ nāṉmukaṉār peṟṟa nāṭṭulē

VII.5.1 If you can learn of great Rama, why learn of anything else?
The slimmest blade of grass, the smallest ant, all things
in Ayodhya, aware and unaware, he lifted them
all who lived in the land made by Brahmā.

Nammalvar. Tiruvaymoli. VII. 5.1.

On Translation

Today’s translation-yoga was a battle I barely won. By that I mean I struggled all day to sit down to translate, and when I did, the words wouldn’t come and the text was utterly opaque to me. It felt like I was drunk and trying to read road signs in a language I could neither read nor speak, and one I had never heard before. Worse still, I was rendered mute, and unable to find any linguistic register at all. So, the win is only that I eventually managed to translate *something* some 6 hours after I first started on this verse. One can only hope that tomorrow is better because today was painful.

As dusk set, the sky turned red
a river of blood flooding the sky, he emerged
a lion tearing through a mountain, this is how
my father killed the demon who brought such sorrow.

Nammalvar. Tiruvaymoli VII.4.6

In Memoriam: Pandit Varadadesikar, my teacher

Pandit Varadadesikar (1923-2017)
Sanskrit Scholar, EFEO, Pondicherry
Manuscript Cataloger, EFEO, Pondicherry

Photograph taken in 2007, EFEO, Pondicherry. We are reading Periyavaccan Pillai together.

I learned to love commentary from him. I understood anubhava from hearing him interpret alvar poems. I appreciated his understated zeal as he lost himself in their wonder. And how patiently, he taught me. This blundering, bumbling kid come to Pondicherry via North America. How he put up with the inanity of my questions, the staggering deficiency of my knowledge. He lived on Perumal Koyil Street, on the street parallel to mine-each of us tightly embracing the Vishnu temple from either side, as if saying, ‘I won’t let go.’ From the tiny balcony of my rented home, I could peer past the Andal Sannidhi Vimana and see the top of his house. Sometimes, we would run into each other outside of our classes, in the temple, and he was always a bit surprised to see me. I never quite understood why. But we would chat, he would tell me some little unknown tidbit about the alvar, and we would part. I sometimes had class in his home, and these were always marvelous affairs–he lived with his son and daughter-in-law, and their two children. I was a somewhat exotic creature, crashing about Tamil Nadu by myself, sometimes with the ‘American’ husband, turning ruby red in the bright tropical sun, in tow. Mama was bemused, but loved to hear of my travels to various temples–he couldn’t travel much by the time I knew him–and my travels were his vicarious experience of sites he had read about but never visited. Srivilliputtur was one of those places. So, I would bring him paal khoa from Srivilliputtur (he would confess that he shouldn’t eat it, but he still would), and tales of my various temple adventures, which he would listen to enraptured, describing them in detail, to bring them alive for this man I grew not only to respect but feel a deep, abiding affection for.

I could go on and on–so many memories. They come flooding in. He was a great teacher, a generous scholar and a very wise man. And like all great teachers, he gave so much more than he knew, and much more than I can ever match.

The loss of a teacher is never easy. I had dreaded this day. And now it is here.