Nepali Times
Translating Bairagi Kainla


A respected literary figure once joked that I probably didn't translate traditional chhanda (formed) poetry because that is harder to translate than free verse: "You have more freedom when you translate free verse." He may be right. Yet, without even having to bother with such things as rhyme and metre and scansion, translating free verse is hard enough to do. In this week's column, the ayaameli or abstract, "dimensionalist" poetry of Bairagi Kainla has kept me especially perplexed, trying to make out dim, dissatisfying forms in the half-light of mixed languages.

There are, in the act of translation, three main tasks to attend to: translating the meaning/s (or logic) of the original text, translating its style (or rhetoric), and opting between the different silences that result from each word choice, each comma, exclamation mark and full stop.

In abstract verses such as Kainla's "The Mountain," below, the meaning of the original text can be obscure at times, filled with innuendoes, subtle connotations, double entendres and the possibility of multiple interpretations. While this abstraction makes for a layered, participatory reading experience in the original language, it guarantees a flattening of meaning in the process of translation: secondary interpretations easily get lost. Similarly, translating the style of such a poem is tricky-for the rhythms and resonance of Nepali language tend not to match those of English. Indeed, "The Mountain" is the most challenging work of Nepali literature I have translated to date. Silence features large in this translation (as in any translated text); and more than anything else, I am reminded of why the critic Jacques Derrida has said that the enterprise of translation is always slated for failure. There is much in literature that simply never translates.


1. Even in the house going to the top floor

I climb peaks of the high staircase ledge

These days I'm always climbing mountains in my dreams

which never bow down no matter how many hills and peaks

I subdue with the threshold of each step

on my street

Oh! The backbones of the Himalayas break

and collapse, retching pools of

nighttime on my street

The thundering of echoes

slams against the walls of the sky-

onto the main street, upon a running train

In droplets of blood contained by shards of glass

instances of lives

crushed in separate compartments-

on the lines of broken trains

From the flames of the raging fires

I gather these, I carry these

in my pockets and on my shoulders

The streets which are exhausted

having taken many children to school

having taken many sons to the border trenches

having returned many fathers from their offices

these streets by now shattered in accidents

yes, all these streets

I carry on my shoulders

On my shoulders of the mythical Kumbhakarna

I carry the corpse of life

2. From above my shoulders-

the corpse of life putrefying

on the density of my love, the blaze of my faith

drops in many pieces upon shards of light

conveying one boon each these pieces

drop with a splash into brightness

in each of my steps: on my street!

An eye drops: a night ends

Another eye drops: another night ends

A heel drops: a foot-length piece of the street is filled

A hand falls: a bridge is drawn from earth to sky

Two hands in embrace drop-

in an earth of boundless expanses

and once again, another time splits open in history

Upon the forehead of an opening

for everyone's information

amid pine needles

in letters at the joints of branches

time comes rushing over and jots down a few lines-

welcome to mountain climbers,

to tender heels,

to each life!

Now let each person once again start

a separate journey from this opening!

3. Filling the sun

into the vast spinning bulb of the third eye

holding up the flat sea in both hands

standing apart from the calves of the opening

from the attacks of sharks and whales

from the raids of ocean pirates

treasures and rescuing ships

and lifting the Govardhan hill on a fingertip

from this opening even I

these days am always climbing mountains in my dreams

these days I'm always climbing mountains in my dreams

A dogged emotion-expressing a stubborn will to overcome arduous, albeit unnamed, hurdles-rings clearly through the original Nepali text. There is a powerful mix of panic, resolve and weariness in the narrative voice. The poem's ultimate abstruseness, its openness to varying interpretations and its refusal to offer easy narratives makes it more suited to those with postmodern sensibilities than to those who seek closure in literature.

Kainla's poetry collection Bairagi Kainlaka Kabita can be extremely difficult to find on the market-a baffling fact, given the importance of his contribution to Nepali literature. (He was one of the originators of the 1960's Tesro Ayaam movement calling for greater complexity in Nepali literary expression). In recent decades, Kainla has stopped writing actively, choosing instead to promote, through the Royal Nepal Academy, the art and literature of Nepal's minority national languages. He is himself a translator of the Mundhum (origination myth) and other texts in the Limbu language. His original name is Til Bikram Nembang. His widely recognised pen name, translated, is far more lyrical, though: melancholy fourth son.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)