Translated from Tamil to English by Shash Trevett
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.
Illustration by Griselda Gabriele
Subscribe for new writing
Sign up to receive new pieces of writing as soon as they are published as well as information on competitions, creative grants and more.