Aisha Down '14: "Drowning" in translation

by Guest Blogger

Aisha Down ’14, a resident of Eliot House concentrating in Physics and English, was awarded an OFA Artist Development Fellowship to travel to Cambodia and to Lowell, Mass., in to work with poet and scholar Tararith Kho on translating his poetry and to begin work on a personal piece. Down, a recipient of Harvard's Sosland Prize in Expository Writing (2011), is a member of the Arts Board for The Harvard Crimson and writes for the publication's Science Page. She plans to pursue a career as a writer, humanitarian worker and physicist.

Back in Cambodia again, I am setting out to make some second translations of old poems I’ve done. It’s much easier here than in the U.S. If there’s a word I don’t know, I have only to ask a friend next door at a coffeeshop, or the owner of the guesthouse where I’m staying. And usually they can help me, or help me at least to find a synonym to look up. The dictionaries aren’t always so good, and you often have to consult several.

The Cambodian language is, to me, difficult to learn because of the sheer amount of characters and sounds to memorize—more sounds than in English, and a different character for every vowel as well as every dipthong. There are 33 consonants, 32 of which have two forms (normal and subscript), 13 independent vowels (meaning vowels written as separate characters) and another 20 vowels (written as subscripts or superscripts) attached to the consonants. A hundred characters, right there, and that’s not all: The consonant alphabet is divided into two series, voiced and unvoiced. A given vowel will be totally different paired with a voiced consonant than with its unvoiced counterpart.

I’m now at the point where I can read and sound most words, but will often find it faster to just guess a word from its consonants, rather than try to think to myself, "Hmmm, now is that ‘na’ sound voiced or unvoiced? There are two ‘na’ consonants. And how does a voiced consonant sound with ‘ey’ versus an unvoiced…ey? ii? ie?" This has worked for me so far, despite a few minor embarrassments.

Part of my problem is that there are a number of consonants that are just very difficult for an English-speaking ear to distinguish. There’ve been quite a few episodes in which my Cambodian friends have been trying to help me with a word by spelling it out. "Pah," they’ll say "Pah sra eh," (Pah with an eh on top). "No, not bpah, pah. No, no, not poh, pah. That’s bpoh. Pah, pah, that’s pah!"

Well, I sound pretty foolish, to be sure, but I guess I’m probably getting better.

I wanted to do second translations because I feel my command of the language is better now than it was. I realize the second translations probably won’t feel definitive either. Maybe this is true of all translations.

Here’s my first translation of Tararith Kho's Drowning Water Convolvulus:

This is the sorrow of the drowning water convolvulus:

It struggles upward through the rising waters,

Until its new leaves break the surface,

And life is safe for the night.

In the morning, nothing above the water stands,

While the jealous people eat the new shoots.

You know the sorrow of the drowning water convolvulus:

This time, it thought it would live.

And here’s my second:

And the drowning water convolvulus, too, is yearning

As the water along the river rises, as it struggles

To let the new leaves through,

As it earns its life for one more night.

When at dawn just stalks remain,

When the jealous cut those green new shoots,

Pity the weak leaves, pity the old trunks,

The plant that thought it could escape the water.