I fell in love with George L. Hart’s earlier translation of Tamil poetry (some of which overlaps with this volume), Poets of the Tamil Anthologies: AnI fell in love with George L. Hart’s earlier translation of Tamil poetry (some of which overlaps with this volume), Poets of the Tamil Anthologies: Ancient Poems of Love and War; especially compared with the earlier work, The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom is disappointing. This could be because the Purananuru is not the strongest of the Tamil anthologies, and it could be because Hart could not in this book, as he did in the earlier collection, cherry pick the best poems for translation. I know almost nothing of old Tamil poetry, and couldn’t say. But I think the real problem is in the addition of Hank Heifetz to the translation team. Heifetz is ostensibly supposed to “poeticize” Hart’s literal translations, but the resulting poems are wordy, and ugly in syntax.
You when you confront a war win that war as you take your stand routing their armies, your body slashed over with the scars and wounds from their swords, and you become then a grim sight to the eyes but a sweet thing to hear about! 167
This may be a very faithful translation, for all I know, but it’s certainly an awkward one. Hart’s Poets of the Tamil Anthologies is marked by a simplicity of style that never conceals the beauty of what translates well from the Tamil originals: the images, the metaphors, and the themes. This is Hart by himself:
My feet will not walk further, My eyes looking and looking have lost their clearness. Surely more than the stars in the wide dark sky are strangers in this world. (Kuruntokai 44.)
This may not be great poetry as poetry, but the point is: Nothing gets in the way here. It’s almost unheard of for poetry to be translated into great poetry, and even competent versifiers (Luquiens, Mandelbaum) are rare; all I want is to be able to appreciate the translatable parts of the Tamil anthologies, and a line like “You when you confront a war win that war as you take” isn’t helping. It’s Hart’s artlessness that lets the art of the original shine through. I prefer Hart’s translations even to R.K. Ramanujan’s in his Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil precisely because Ramanujan tries harder to make his poems pass as poetry; but Ramanujan is both better at it and less baroque and distracting than Heifetz.
Hart had translated in his earlier book some of the same poems that appear in this one. Compare #356 by Hart alone:
The burning ground has seen the back of every man, for it alone is the end of all men on earth. No one has ever seen its back.
with #356 by Hart and Heifetz:
It [the burning ground] has seen the back of every human being, all the people living in this world as they go away, but no one has ever seen it turn its back and go away.
The second is much wordier, and this is especially fatal in the last line, which bathetically loses its epigrammatic pith. It’s possible that the second is more literal, but I can’t find much virtue in that; it’s a far weaker poem.
It’s fun to read one of the Tamil Anthologies in toto, including the fragmentary and the abstruse entries; but overall, anyone interested in classical Tamil poetry for an English-speaking layman should try Hart’s Poets of the Tamil Anthologies: Ancient Poems of Love and War or even Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil instead....more