Abigail Tuscano on translating Padma Sachdev (पद्मा सचदेव)

Abigail Tuscano

on translating Padma Sachdev (पद्मा सचदेव)

Translating जाल was, more than anything, an exercise in patience — clearing the straits of my lack of expertise in reading Devanagari script and the poet’s extensive use of metaphor and imagery that, often, proved difficult to understand as a non-native Hindi speaker.

I began by transferring the poem from Devanagari to a phonetic version in Latin script. I learned Hindi by listening, and being able to link words to sound proved the most effective method of finding meaning in the text. From there I translated the poem literally, then adjusted the language of my translation to account for Sachdev’s tone and my interpretation of her intentions.

जाल is a poem meant to be read out loud; Hindi poetry has a wonderful lyrical quality, rhythmic and rich on the tongue. This musicality falls flat in a language like English, whose semantics and phonetics lend themselves to harder, shorter consonants and singular meaning. To remedy this, I focused on enhancing the poem’s emotional aspect through my use of diction.

I chose to preserve much of the poem’s structure, placing line breaks and stanzas in similar places; however, I also added capitalization — a feature that Hindi lacks completely — and punctuation where it didn’t exist prior for stylistic purposes. While the original can be read with minimal punctuation, almost intuitively, the same transitions between thoughts read much less naturally in English. However, while I sought to keep the structure similar, preserving the meaning in the same direct way was much more difficult. Many phrases are untranslatable, or can be translated multiple ways.

For example, सुनो तो सही, a line that I translated as “do listen,” has no English equivalent. In its original form, it evokes a sense of both invitation and desperation, as if the poet is beseeching an unhearing stranger or seeking company between the bars of a jail cell. Similarly, कलेजे can be translated as both heart and liver. I chose liver for the gruesome, honest tone it lends to the poet’s narrative, while heart would have alluded in some ways to a romance that the text doesn’t contain.

Rather than accuracy, I sought to capture the poem’s emotional essence — the poet’s clinging to familiar pain, her simultaneous self-destruction and consumption of that which traps her.

about the author

A poet and novelist hailing from India, Padma Sachdev (April 17, 1940 – August 4, 2021) is widely acknowledged as the first modern female poet to write in Dogri — an Indo-Aryan language native to India’s Jammu district. She also wrote extensively in Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi.

Known for her lyrical, often deeply personal verse, she is regarded as a luminary of Dogri culture, evoking in her readers the beauty and nostalgia of their language — and of their nation. Through her intimate descriptions of mundane life, her own emotional turmoil, and the lands she was raised on, Sachdev’s love for her heritage is evident.

In India, Sachdev is celebrated among the nation’s most prominent female poets and contributors to Indian literature, and her death was regarded as a loss for her home state of Jammu and Kashmir. She was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honor, for her work.

Sachdev also received the Sahitya Akademi award for her collection मेरी कविता मेरे गीत (My Poems, My Songs), a work which inspired Hindi poet and freedom fighter Ramdhari Singh Dinkar to declare, “After reading Padma’s poems, I felt I should throw my pen away—for what Padma writes is true poetry.”

about the translator

Abigail Tuscano (b. 2005) is a high school junior from Texas, and a first-generation Indian-American born to immigrant parents from Maharashtra. A native speaker of Kadodi, an Indian dialect with eclectic roots in languages like Marathi and Konkani that contains loanwords from Portuguese, she is also working to learn Hindi, Urdu, and Spanish. Her loss of fluency in her heritage language at an early age — and the resultant loss of a cultural anchor — inspired her to turn to language-learning as a way of circling back to something akin to the voices and stories of her childhood.

photo by Katherine Rozsypalek