Read time: 2 mins

A Lifeless Sea & The Sun Wanders, Searching for Shade

by Alari (Abdul Latif Mohammad Ribaz)
9 August 2021

Translated from Tamil to English by Shash Trevett 

Translator’s note

Alari’s poems migrated easily and gracefully from Tamil to English. Translating the meaning was my fundamental priority: the starkness of the imagery of ‘A Lifeless Sea’ was retained in the translation, a necessary step when translating the trauma contained within the words. The poem recounts the murder of fishermen by the Tamil Tigers (the LTTE) and examines both the politics of power and the plight of those powerless to withstand the authority of those with guns. In ‘The Sun Wanders, Searching for Shade,’ the poetic voice is restrained and elegiac: facets I was compelled to capture in English. Indiscriminate development projects coupled with the migration of people due to the war have resulted in the loss of folk memory in many parts of Tamil Sri Lanka.

Some necessary adaptations had to be made as the poems travelled between the two languages. Unlike English, Tamil is a verb-final language, with a free word order within lines which always end with a finite verb. The only way a translator can negotiate between the two languages is by the skilful use of inversion while still paying attention to the logic of time and sequence in the Tamil original. Tamil poetry is written, almost universally, in short, end-stopped lines, something I abandoned in the English translation which follows instead the metre and lineation of contemporary English poetry. Alari writes in the Eastern Sri Lankan Tamil dialect, which is not as familiar to me as the Northern Tamil dialect. Yet the sparsity of his style, the formal diction and the universality of the experiences he writes about made the translation process easy. This ease can only be a testament to the quality of Alari’s writing which made translating his work a stimulating and enjoyable endeavour.


A Lifeless Sea


As the waves crashed upon the shore,

we discovered their corpses. Their eyes

were wide open, their hands shrunken,

their bodies bearing bullet wounds.


That night, without disturbing the frothing foam,

they had cast their lines into the waves

and had waited patiently for the catch.


The night was oppressive, black as charcoal.

What did they feel, those simple people

who had made no demands of those in power?

No, not even for a piece of land.


The rain which had poured like tears

and the coconut trees which had stood

drooping, bore witness that night

to them begging on their knees.


Without a sound they were shot.

The white sand reddened and turned black.

With the wind beating our heads in despair,

we recovered their bodies.


Between the waves and the shore

the sea remained lifeless.



The Sun Wanders, Searching for Shade


In the beginning of time

the buildings in my village

did not bear fruit, grow or expand.

Only the farmland, the sirissa

and guinea peach trees grew and multiplied.


Yet in three decades there has been

an explosion of fertility.

Stones and soil have copulated

to give birth to walls and roofs,

high-rise dwellings, a forest of buildings.


These houses have no front yards

or entrance ways. There are no murungai

trees flowering by the back door.

The wind can find no mango or neem

leaves to gather. There are no branches

for the crows to cry from.


The houses have borne fruit, spreading out

with a sigh. What used to contain two floors

now rise higher and higher, until

they tear at the sky. The coconut trees,

defeated, bend their heads low.


The parrots which had desired

the cashew and the many sparrows,

losing all sense of direction,

head towards the open wilderness.

The woodpecker searching for dead trees

pecks at pillars of granite.


The few surviving siris and guinea peach

trees shed their newly formed fruit and the last

of their flowers and stand in solitude.

The water is drying at their roots.

In a village parched of trees

the sun wanders, searching for shade.

Return to the collection

Illustration by Griselda Gabriele


About the Author

Alari (Abdul Latif Mohammad Ribaz)

Alari (Abdul Latif Mohammad Ribaz) is a Muslim Tamil poet who has published four collections of poetry in Tamil. He lives in the east of Sri Lanka. அலறி (அப்துல் லத்தீப் முஹம்மது ரிபாஸ்) தமிழ் முஸ்லிம் கவிஞராவார். இதுவரை நான்கு கவிதைத் தொகுப்புகளை வெளியிட்டுள்ள அவர் கிழக்கிலங்கையில் வசித்து வருகிறார்.