Epitaph : Mohammad Rafiq
translated from Bengali to English by Carolyn B. Brown
here lay a grave, crumbled by time, washed
away by the river,
in the end the poet’s skull holds a scoop of water
three fistfuls of dirt—
perhaps a stanza survives or two lines
“Epitaph” (এপিটাফ) is the final poem in
From time to time, I listen to a very old phonograph recording, the soundtrack of Jean Renoir’s 1951 cinematic love-song to Bengal, The River. My parents played the record so often when I was growing up that as I listen now, I realize how it pervaded my youth, almost as if it were a promise. Even so, I could never have imagined that one day I would understand the words of the boatman’s song. As I grew older, I came to love the films of Satyajit Ray, engaged not only by the characters, the scenery, Ravi Shankar’s music, and the expressive but elusive spoken words. I was completely dependent on the English subtitles, just as I was dependent on Tagore’s own prose renderings when I first read Gitanjali, with no hint the original poems were, in fact, songs. I begin with these recollections because they have a direct bearing on my approach to translating poetry in general and Mohammad Rafiq’s in particular.
When we first met to work on translations of some of his poems in the fall of 1997, Rafiq was a participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and my job was to bring the poems, stories, plays, and essays by writers from around the world into English. Rafiq’s instinct was perfect. Although we had a rough handwritten translation in front of us as a starting place, he chose to first recite the poem in Bengali. I didn’t understand a word, but my ear told me immediately that I was listening to genuine poetry. This moment is the origin of my conviction that I must, from first to last, translate “by ear.” The literal version might provide a rough understanding of the words along with a structural framework, but unless I could fashion an English that captured the emotional current of the original as conveyed by the sound of the words, the patterns and changes in texture, the poem would remain untranslatable. My initial efforts were grounded in face-to-face discussions with the poet, replaced later by written conversations and most important, recordings of the Bengali originals, which I listened to over and over, as if memorizing a piece of music, before putting pen to paper.
This was a daunting task. I was determined to learn Bengali, despite having almost no access to learning materials at the time. Simply finding a comprehensive dictionary took months; acquiring university-level instructional tapes, more than a year. When the squiggles of Bengali script turned into letters and words, I felt as if I’d deciphered the Rosetta stone! My leisure reading became focused on the history and culture of the region. The further I went, the more I wanted to acquaint myself not just with the language and facts but with the land itself and the people who lived there. I wanted to taste the fish that darted through the lines—a mouthful of rui mach, a bite of ilish. I wanted to see the trees whose names branched out before me—bakul, batabi, jarul. When I learned the words echoing sounds that water makes, I wanted to be afloat on a river—the Meghna, the Padma, the Jamuna.
A path in Baitpur, the poet's birthplace
My translations of Rafiq’s poetry, now gathered in This Path, are informed by those experiences and by my conviction that a translator should try to offer the reader an experience as close as possible to that of a native speaker reading the original. It’s a common misconception that a translator must be fluent in the spoken “target” language. I can say amar bangla khub kharap (my Bengali is very bad) with an accent convincing enough to provoke a flood of Bengali much too rapid for me to comprehend. The facility to utter the words of another language in a steady stream, however, is less important than the ability to imagine in one’s own language not only the effect of the original words of a poem but to render them in a way that a native speaker might even recognize the melody. I will remain forever grateful to Mohammad Rafiq for drawing me into the world of translation, for introducing me to Bangladesh, and for many years of collaboration and friendship.
Photographs by Carolyn B. Brown