The well-known Hindi writer, Shivani aka Gaura Pant was enormously popular. She was fluent in four languages — Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati and English. She also knew Sanskrit. According to her daughter, the noted journalist, Mrinal Pande, Shivani wrote her first story in Bengali but was dissauaded to do so by Rabindranath Tagore, who advised her to write in her own tongue. So she became a Hindi writer.
Many who grew up reading Hindi literature have stories to share about how generations of folks would wait for the next story to be published by Shivani. Grandmothers would encourage their granddaughters to read Shivani’s stories too. But as her daughter, the noted translator and writer, Ira Pande points out, “she wrote novels and stories that had strong women characters who rebelled against all such values and social inequalities. This also accounted for her lifelong fascination with those who lived on the margins—mendicants, lunatics and lepers. Time and again, she returns in her short stories and novels to characters drawn from those to whom rigid social values cannot be applied.” ( “A Conservative Rebel: An Unusual Mother ” by Ira Pande, Manushi, No 147 or read Ira Pande’s excellent book on her mother — Diddi: My Mother’s Voice) . Nevertheless, by all accounts, Shivani’s readers were not confined to a particular gender. Everyone read her. Everyone enjoyed reading her stories. She seems to have been the Indian equivalent of Charles Dickens in her popularity and her readers shared the same sense of excitement for her next story as Victorian readers did for the next instalment of a Dickension story.
So when Simon & Schuster India announced the publication of an English translation of Shivani’s Bhairavi: The Runaway, it caused a ripple of excitement. Priyanka Sarkar is an accomplished translator and an editor and her awe at being entrusted with a novel by Shivani shines through her prefatory remarks. The foreword has been written by Mrinal Pande who observes that “As her [Shivani] reader and daughter, I meet her countless admirers all over the globe. Among them are simple housewives and professional men and women, school kids, and a surprisingly large number of diaspora Indians from India’s Hindi belt, who confess they developed a taste for Hindi after reading Shivani’s books. All of them confide how their mother, or grandmother or even great grandmother had first introduced them to Shivani’s writings and once into it they were hooked for life.”
Women writers who have this sort of strange freedom thrust on them, mostly resolve their tensions in laughter and in prose and in doing so they will, almost inadvertantly, confer the gift of free thinking on their daughters. I learnt from Shivani both as mother and reader, that women leading socially secure lives as mother and wives are not morally more credible or more capable than those who are without family or child. Till the end, Shivani remained a kaleidoscopic character for me: outwardly traditional but bold, perverse, un-beholden and totally free when she puts pen to paper. Reading Bhairavi and the strange composure and compassion in these pages that co-exists with pain and hurt, I feel it is not the moralist’s why, but a humane what, that the writer ekes out from life, holds tenderly and finally redeems from oblivion.
With the formidable combination of a tremendous writer and of a talented translator, I was looking forward to reading a fine translation of Bhairavi. Instead I was confounded and deeply saddened by what I encountered. Apparently the original novel is written in continuation and slipping in and out of the languages Shivani knew. Of course it is a challenging task to translate such a text for the modern reader but to say “for the sake of readability, the story has been broken down into chapters” was astonishing. I have still been unable to wrap my head around this fact that how can one take such liberty with a piece of work that is already recognised for its craftsmanship. Translated works are known to have been experimental in their literary form such as run on sentences or no chapters but the translators have never taken the liberty of chopping up the original text. Take for instance award-winning writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai who is known for his extraordinarly long and immersive sentences. The English translations of his text are never cut up for the sake of the convenience of the modern reader. And yet, he has won some major prizes such as the International Booker Prize. In fact with Bhairavi too, if the reader chooses to ignore the chapter breaks and goes into a sort of creative sleep and reads the text smoothly, then one gets a sense of rhythm and sense of what Shivani probably conveys in the original text. But if the reader makes the mistake of allowing the present form of the English text to govern one’s reading, it does not work.
The second remark that I came upon and troubled me greatly was “the untranslateable has been left as is and explained wherever possible”. This comment did not make any sense to me especially since I had recently interviewed the acclaimed translator Anthony Shugaar who is known for his numerous translations of French and Italian texts into English. In fact, he makes precisely this very point “there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live” ( “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook”, VQR, 19 Feb 2014).
Despite reading this remark in the Translator’s note in Bhairavi , I proceeded ahead with the novel. Alas, it become a tougher and tougher task to do so. In my humble opinion, if Shivani chose to play with multiple languages to write her novel in, then the least the translator could do is to acknowledge this craftsmanship and understand the cultural context. Perhaps the best way to create a translation in the destination language is to imbue it with the cultural context, much in the way Anthony Shugaar seems to create. Translation is not merely an act of linguistic conversion. If it was only that we could rely upon neural technology and use digital tools such as Google Translate. Somewhere the distinction has to creep in between manmade and computer translations.
Having said that I look forward to the next work of translation Priyanka Sarkar does. She is definitely a translator with potential and we need more translators like her to make our rich cultural heritage visible to a larger audience.
Blood and Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Powerby Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck is a rivetting account of the Crown Prince of Saudi Prince. It is published by John Murray, Hachette. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia, is a prince who has captured the world’s imagination with his suave presence on the global political stage but also with very strong rumours of his unorthodox, at times brutal, methods of ruling. Most notably the allegation of his involvement in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the holding of three hundred members of the Saudi royal family in the Ritz Carlton for month. The authors refer to him on the back cover as “one of the world’s most decisive and dangerous new leaders”.
Other journalists have been equally fascinated by the prince and done their own form of investigative journalism. Take for instance, FRONTLINE PBS correspondent Martin Smith, who has covered the Middle East for FRONTLINE for 20 years, examines MBS’s vision for the future, his handling of dissent, and his relationship with the United States. This documentary was made a year after the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and FRONTLINE investigated the rise and rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia.
Books like Blood and Oil are fascinating to read but capture only a very brief moment in time. The prince works at a very fast pace and is forever evolving as are the circumstances around him. He is a man in great hurry who has youth on his side. So he will be here for a long time to stay. There are bound to be visible changes in Saudi society. For good or bad, only time will tell. This is an ongoing story.
Perhaps this book will take a life of its own in different media. It needs it.
Hanif Kureishi’s What Happened? is a collection of essays and stories that were published in various literary magazines and newspapers in recent years. The publications may be recent but it is an interesting mix spanning a few decades of his life. The essays are mostly autobiographical revolving primarily around his desire to be a writer, his determination to achieve his goal and once a published writer, inhabiting a literary world which was predominantly white and seemed to constantly sideline writers like him who were of a different colour.
The British creativity I grew up with – in pop, fashion, poetry, the visual arts and the novel – has almost always come from outside the mainstream, from clubs, gay subcultures, the working class and from the street. Many of the instigators might have been white, but they were not from the middle class, a group that lacks, in my experience, the imagination, fearlessness and talent to be truly subversive.
The truth is, the conservative fear of other voices is not due to the anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge, but that they will be outstanding and brilliant. The conservatives willhave to swallow the fact that despite the success of British artists, real talent has been neglected and discouraged by those who dominate the culture, deliberately keeping schools, the media, universities and the cultural world closed to interesting people.
The essays that stand out are those that describe Kureishi’s awakening as an author, his descriptions of inhabiting the literary world and his firm opinions about racism. These have been consistent themes in his essays over the years but in this collection they are stand out as being extremely relevant. What really hits home hard is that Kureishi was writing about these subjects much before it became fashionable to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the creative industry. He was writing what he saw, experienced, and analysed. He made it his trademark to write about various subjects particularly the racial discrimination he saw daily. It is a perspective that was quite literally being whitewashed in mainstream media and literary platforms though chinks had begun to be visible. Hanif Kureishi is of Asian origin but he was born and brought up in UK. So he was like any other British child except he was made acutely aware of the difference because of his skin colour whereas he did not see himself as any different. But in his very moving essay remembering his friend David Bowie it becomes apparent that to some degree even colour does not matter, but the socio-economic station that you inhabit does. Bowie and Kureishi were a decade apart, they went to the same school in Bromley, but become firm friends later, probably when they joined showbiz.
From the time Kureishi began writing in the early 1970s till now, he has always been comfortable with who he is and his voice has never changed. His style of writing is predictable but never boring, if anything it has become sharper with age. What comes through extraordinarily beautifully in What Happened? is that Hanif Kureishi has not changed but the world has to a certain degree — the horrors of sectarian violence and racism that he was alerting us to over the years have only intensified. So commentators like Kureishi who speak confidently, sharing an opinion, continue to be relevant.
Those Who Forget by Geraldine Schwarz, published by Pushkin Press. It has been translated from French into English by Laura Marris. It is about Schwarz discovering that her paternal grandparents were Nazis but more than that she meticulously puts together sufficient evidence to show how Nazi sympathisers continues to exist in society and have ultimately contributed to the rise of the modern right wing movements.
This memoir is about the rize of Nazis, end of WWII, denazification by the Allied forces, the new Chancellor of Germany while agreeing to pay “blood money” to the newly formed country Israel also gave prominent positions in his cabinet to former Nazis. Schwarz’s argument is that the rise of the alt-Right in Europe should be no surprise as the sentiments that ruled Nazi supporters were allowed to exist in societies even after the war. All this despite efforts like the Nuremberg trials or tribunals set up by the Allied forces to weed out Nazi supporters and sympathisers. She interviews people who lived through Nazi Germany and are now in their 90s. Jews who fled but also Germans who continue to believe in their Fuhrer. She talks about the collective and personal memories and the tangle of guilt, denial and confession that has characterized Germany since the Second World War. She talks about the impact of right wing forces on a nation and then the politics of memory, remembrance culture, work of memory vs tyranny of memory etc.
It is an absorbing read albeit chilling at times for the historical details she documents have parallels in modern politics. Stunning book.
I first came across Antony Shugaar’s work as a translator in the magnificently translated novel, The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati. It has been translated from Italian to English. It was an extraordinary translation. I was reading English but with the rhythm and cadences of Italian without massacring any language in the process. Instead it made the thrill of reading a translated work so much richer as it was so easy to get into. Perhaps having a husband who shifts smoothly between English and Italian made it easier for me to recognise this truth. The utter joy of being able to appreciate translated literature from the very first page is inexplicable. It is the rare translator who is able to achieve this feat of being able to convey the beauty of the original language in the destination language.
Then I came across his essay “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook” ( 19 Feb 2014) I loved. I made extensive scribbles in the margins of the hard copy while reading it and kept saying, “yes, yes, yes!” There are so many points he raised that interested me.
Translators put in all the hard work and make literature available in other languages. There is so much variety. Without being a translator myself, I find I “judge” the quality of translations. Very peculiar space to inhabit. I judge based predominantly on the basis of “readability” of the destination language. Obviously not being familiar with the source text or language it makes it difficult to ascertain whether the translation is accurate or not. Yet there is something in “uneven” or “poor” translations that sets my teeth on edge. With a poor translation I find that there are texts I seem to be hitting my head against the wall for the clunkiness of text. There is no rhythm and it is tough to read. This is probably what Antony Shugaar refers to in the “dialect problem” — “the reductio ad absurdum of translation. There are workarounds, but basically, when a translator runs into this kind of issue, she simply leaves it out. And the reader is none the wiser.”
Another of his recently translated books that I have read is Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and published by Enchanted Lion Books. 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christen Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read.
I wrote to Antony Shugaar after reading The Catholic School. He very kindly replied. Subsequently he also agreed to be interviewed for my blog. The following is the result of a lovely, long correspondence we had discussing various aspects of translation.
Antony Shugaar is a writer and a translator from the Italian and the French. He’s translated dozens of articles for the New York Review of Books and close to forty novels for Europa Editions. He has translated many novels that were awarded Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize (the 2011 winner, Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People, Resistance Is Futile, by Walter Siti , Francesco Piccolo’s Wanna Be Like Everyone , Ferocity, by Nicola Lagioia , and the 2016 winner, The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati). In the realm of Italian noir, aside from some of the work of Gianfranco Carofiglio, he’s also translated books by many of the leading figures in the field: Massimo Carlotto, Sandrone Dazieri, Maurizio de Giovanni, the late Giorgio Faletti, Antonio Manzini, and others. He’s received two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships. He translated two books in the W. W. Norton Collected Works of Primo Levi, published in 2015.And his translation of Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado was shortlisted for both the PEN and the ALTA Italian translation awards. He has translated TV series and movies for HBO, Netflix, and Amazon.
What prompted you to become a professional translator?
I forget the name of the professor who said it, but the great translator Richard Howard quoted the line in a lovely essay he wrote many, many decades ago in a book on translation published by University of Texas Press: “No one ever set out to become a professional translator.” That may no longer be true, but it is a wise and wry observation. Languages are such vast and demarcated pools that any attempt to breach the levees separating them almost feels like a rash and ill-advised act. Certainly, comparative literature studies these huge inland seas and “compares” them, but the act of channelling one into another seems to violate some sort of taboo. So there’s a secret thrill to cutting a hole in the wall and letting water out of one reservoir and into another… an act which can be dangerous. The word “rival” comes very much out of the lore of riparian law and the banks of rivers… (in linguistics, “p” and “v” are close neighbours, as the two conjoined words “separate” and “several), in turn connected to “sever”, clearly show). A friend of mine told me a folk etymology that I believe is illustrative. My friend is from a land of canals and rivers, near Venice, a place of flooding and dam-building. He tells me that a “rival” is someone who lives on the opposite river bank. If a river’s level rises dangerously to flood state, he is the first to come over to YOUR side of the river and dig a hole at the top of YOUR levee. Because if YOUR side of the river floods, then HIS doesn’t. That being said, I think it’s clear why there is an age-old suspicion of the act of alchemy and magic that accompanies translation. It seems intrinsically DANGEROUS to unleash the uncontrollable elements of nature that cause floods. Language groups are also known as linguistic reservoirs. I compare translation to time travel. In fact, the classic quote about foreign countries compares them to other times. And rarely do people complete the famous sentence with its second half, separated by a semicolon: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So I became a translator for a couple of reasons, ostensibly to earn money while living in a foreign country, and therefore in order to stay there. But also because it felt like an act of magic, and also a way of sharing with others of my own language the things I was seeing in this amazing new place where I lived. If I travelled to the past, I would certainly want to be able to share my experience with those of the present. The same of course is true for the future. Italy always felt like a mix of past and future to me, blended into a startlingly vivid present. I could say more about the details of how I started, and would be glad to. Suffice it to say that it involved doing translations via Telex, a now-antiquated means of communication that used a huge and clumsy keyboard and a long yellow strip of paper with holes punched into a bizarre and fragile arabesque of meaning. More information on those years in the Italian Alps working as a fledgling translator will happily be provided upon request.
2. You make a powerful statement with “there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live.” So what does it take to become a professional translator?
I should start by pointing out that an editor added the concluding phrase about bridges from one world to another. To my mind, that add-on was optimistic and pat, and not entirely unwarranted, but it wasn’t part of what I wanted to say. I’m not such a positivist, and I definitely feel that there’s an enormous reservoir of lost meaning in the whole process of translation. But then you can hardly help but look around right now at the shambles of our society and wonder if loss isn’t just a standard part of any human interaction. That said, I would probably want to ally myself with the fantastic theorist of translation, Jorge Luis Borges, and say that there are actually no untranslatable worlds, but a full translation of certain sentences might require a multi-volume encyclopaedia to translate them. I’d hearken back to my early years in Italy, when I went to a café in Perugia, where I was studying, and sat down with an espresso at a small table. So far, perfectly translatable. But then I looked out and realized that there was the high-pitched musical sound of hammers tapping on chisels and chisels biting into stone. I looked closer and realized that there were four or five workmen seated on low wooden benches, laboriously shaping large grey stone slabs that formed part of the road surface. These slabs were perhaps a pietra serena, a Tuscan grey stone very similar to the bluestone used for sidewalks in, say, Brooklyn. The crew were all wearing work clothes, possibly the jumpsuits or overalls typical of Italian manual labourers. Certainly, I remember, they wore ingeniously folded hats made out of that morning’s newspaper. The slabs of stone they were working on must have weighed a hundred pounds. The chorus of hammers on metal sounded like something out of Italian high opera or a Japanese abstract composition. Hard to say which. Now if this scene were described in Italian as a “road repair crew,” without any additional description, how could I claim to have translated it accurately? This is an endless problem in translation. Someone opens a door and walks into a restaurant. Well in America by law that door opens outward, to avoid the danger of a panic in case of a fire, with people crushed against a door that cannot be opened inward. I’ve often wondered why Italian doors in public facilities open inward, and I’ve come up with a bit of a joke about it. Since cars park on the sidewalk in Italy, a door that opened outward might easily be blocked by a too-large car parked too close to the building’s facade. Not as unreasonable as it sounds, especially in my early days in Italy. Sometimes these patterns or customs are established and then left in place. William Weaver, a great translator from the Italian who is, sadly, no longer with us, used to say that the hardest word to translate out of Italian is “buongiorno,” a Swiss-Army-knife of a word that has all kinds of subtle aspects to its use and is decidedly not equivalent to “good day.” The Italian “portone” is often translated as “front door” or “street entrance” but neither of those terms really describe the richness and articulation of the “portone” as a filter, a diaphragm, and a scrim between the inner world of the Italian “condominio,” or community of apartment dwellers, and the outside street and sidewalk. The door itself is a double panel, massive thing, large enough for a horse-drawn carriage to drive through and into the courtyard. Often the building in question actually was built when horse-and-carriage was the prime conveyance. You can often see narrow ruts running across the sidewalk and past the doorman’s booth and on into the courtyard. There is usually a small pedestrian door cut into one of the large panels. When the large doors are closed, of course, this door can be buzzed open by any of the inhabitants of the “palazzo.” When the doors are open, there is the entire rich declension of interactions with the doorman or doorwoman. To translate portone with “front door,” like an apartment house aluminum-and-glass door seems impossibly reductive. I could go on. There are window systems called “miradors” in Spain that reach their high point in the Atlantic coast city of La Coruña. Just google “miradors” and “La Coruña” and start scrolling. They’re amazing structures designed to allow light and wind to be calibrated as elaborately as the suit of sails on a clipper ship at the height of the mariner’s art. The windows can be set at an angle, just so, and sunlight can be modulated with precision. To call that a “bow” or “bay window” is to miss and to overlook a world.
3. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation? How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project? How would you define a “good” translation?
I’m going to take the three questions as a prompt for a somewhat independent “riff.” Please bear with me, and I imagine this feels a little bit like herding cats. I will gladly address some of your questions about more specific matters but I’d like to range a little freer on the “metaphysics” of translation.
I did not know about this latest interaction between Cervantes and Rushdie through the person of Edith Grossman[i]. It is almost ironic (as if there were a ghost hand at play) that I sent you a photo of a mirador in La Coruña with a comment on how it resembled Indian vernacular architecture (with a possible British intermediation) two days ago, when we are now talking about a Spanish author and his gnomic influence on a British-Indian novelist and essayist. But there you are. I cannot comment on this interaction and I confess I haven’t read either of the books in question, Quichotte or Grossman’s rendering of Don Quixote. I can say that Cervantes is the source of one of my favourite quotes (we can discuss the detail on this) on translation, saying that a translation is like looking at the reverse of a Turkish carpet, where you see the knots and the warp and weft, but only indistinctly. He specifies, as I recall, that this is true of vernacular languages, not the great classical languages of Latin and Greek. I’ve never quite understood that distinction. Also, I love that Sciascia references a line from Don Quixote in his understanding of the origins of Mafia culture. “Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”[ii] It is quite a brilliant reference: something about how a gentleman doesn’t pry into other people’s business. And of course the Spanish influence on Southern Italian culture is enormous, a result of long centuries of occupation, a Bourbon dynasty ruling over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with its tradition of “¿si hay algo que se puede hacer porque te preocupes y si no hay nada que se puede hacer porque te preocupes?” But especially the role of Spanish culture in the south is the result of roads vs. ships: it was so much faster to sail from Spain, or from North Africa, than it was to take an ox cart from, say, Switzerland…. In short, those links are buried in the geographic structure and the physical anthropology of history. That is a theme that I return to often, in my thinking and my understanding of translation: physical anthropology. And the sheer experiential nature of translation.
After this long and laborious windup, let me however come to Cervantes and translation. I think it is very significant that Rushdie, who is so much about the magic of words and the spark of imagination in the vast grim fields of life as it is lived, should have failed to grasp Don Quixote in one translation and then instantly see it in another. A strong argument for the constant retranslation of classics, but also a reason to think about exactly where the spark of the new style and insight in Grossman’s version comes from. And the answer, as in all things related to translation, in my opinion, is sort of diffuse. Like life, like writing itself, the source of inspiration and success in translation isn’t codifiable. Translation theorists are always talking about “strategy” in translation[iii], and that’s a very fine thing, but to me the important thing is tactics. Expedients and jury-rigged solutions are the only way that I really make my way forward in translation. People sometimes forget the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is an overarching plan for an undertaking, tactics are the way you solve individual snarls and knots in the work. Isaiah Berlin talked about the hedgehog and the fox: the hedgehog knows ONE thing and the fox knows a great many things. Wisdom versus cleverness? Perhaps, but I think it goes deeper than that.
In any case, the reference to Don Quixote is this. There was a great philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who died recently. His name was Hilary Putnam. I haven’t read his work, I honestly have only read his obituary and then done some further online research into his background. He had a philosophical theory called the “Twin Earth thought experiment”. The basic idea was that in this scenario there are two planets identical in every way except for one detail. The word for water describes two very slightly different versions of water. Every other aspect of water is the same. I’m guessing that whatever taste water has is described with the same adjectives, even if the reference is to something slightly different. When I read about that thought experiment — Twin Earths — in Putnam’s obituary, my scalp tingled. Perhaps it was mentioned in the obituary, or perhaps I learned it as soon as I read the Wikipedia article about him, but his father was Samuel Putnam, a prominent translator whose Don Quixote is still considered one of the best ever done (and perhaps was the version that Rushdie found wanting in college… I’d love to know[iv]). Hilary Putnam grew up in France, I read, and must have talked frequently with his father about his work.
Where does the instinct to translate come from? Is it inherited? The late great Anthea Bell[v], translator of many things but to my mind, especially, the Asterix comics[vi], to such great effect in English if not American culture, was the daughter of a man who regularly constructed the Times of London’s crossword puzzles. Ann Goldstein[vii], the translator of Elena Ferrante, was for many years the head of copy at The New Yorker, a magazine that has been America’s window into cosmopolitan culture in so many ways. William Weaver was a gay conscientious objector from Virginia who drove ambulances in the war and was injured, only to recover in the palazzo of a noted Italian writer. Life experience is certainly part of it, experience of the mind, also.
But in particular it must be the experience of the mismatch between the life experiences of cultures and the mental experiences therein. What do I mean by that? Well the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis posits that a language SHAPES your experience of the world. Maybe so, maybe not, but I think when you go into a different culture and you start to see the books they know and the books we know and how those two libraries fail to map equivalently, then you are just tempted to pitch in and say: my fellow anglophones NEED to understand this one formative work. There’s a chunk missing in their mental lives. This is certainly true of Dante. Ann Goldstein came to translation by reading Dante. So did I, in some ways. In fact, I studied Dante early and it had a huge influence on my understanding of the basic nature of Italian, the way in which it performs its mimesis. I’ve written something about that early experience and I can dig it up and send it to you if you like. But my point here is that there’s a kind of theatrical, dramatic tradition in Dante that traces its roots back (to Virgil, obviously, and to Apuleius perhaps?) but then, not as far back, to the Song of Roland and the Arthurian saga, and forward to Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso and then, of course, to Cervantes. My point, here, however, is the richness of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which was a beloved work, I know, to Ezra Pound (and that’s a can of worms I’m not going to touch), but also an amazingly prescient piece of writing for the present day.
In the great epic poem “Orlando Furioso,” Ariosto plays freely with minds, imaginations, and language. One knight, Astolfo, manages to fly to the moon on a hippogriff, where he finds the great knight Orlando’s wits (yes, he lost his wits) in a bottle and returns them to him. Even better, the sorcerer Atlante (I think called Atlantes in English transliteration) builds a castle of dreams in which he hopes to imprison Ruggero to keep him from meeting his fate as predicted by a soothsayer. Ruggero and all the other great knights and ladies are lured into this castle of dreams where each of them constantly sees, fleeing from them, their heart’s desire (in Ruggero’s case, the lady Angelica). Is this not an amazing model of what would become the internet. Even better: as these heroes and heroines stumble around in utter futility pursuing will-o’-the-wisp phantasms, they crash into each other, becoming increasingly angry and accusing each other of having STOLEN the objects of their desire. Did Mark Zuckerberg read this poem in his time at Harvard? I’ll tell you who DID read it and loved it during his time at Yale. James Jesus Angleton, the great and paranoid counterintelligence operative at the CIA who was the inspiration for many of John Le Carré’s novels. Angleton in fact founded a student literary magazine called “Furioso” during his time at Yale, and apparently reached out to Ezra Pound to ask him to become an adviser to the magazine. Angleton, by the way, is perhaps best known for his quote about espionage, calling it “a wilderness of mirrors.” To quote from an essay by John Kimsey, “It was Angleton who first used the phrase ‘a wilderness of mirrors[viii]‘ to describe the looking-glass logic of counterintelligence work.” Well, I think that Italians have this amazing artefact in their culture to understand the Internet, while we do not. Perhaps we have the works of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace instead.
I don’t think that the reference to halls of mirrors is entirely amiss when it comes to translation. Think of The Third Man, and the ending in the Hall of Mirrors. That’s about espionage in a meeting spot between two warring empires, speaking profoundly different languages. The translator’s work is very much like that, trying to glean meaning from an often ambiguous text. And the question of the “dialect problem” comes into it very adroitly: I believe that dialect is a like a sheet of transparent glass inside a hall of mirrors. Do you remember that specific trick in the halls of mirrors of your childhood? You learn to navigate your way through the mirrors, warned by the sight of your own approaching reflection, but the blank sheets of glass trick you. No reflection and so you walk into them. Well, dialect is like that. It is part of the text, and so invisible in translation into English (or whatever target language you are working in). How do you render it? Do you simply use ungrammatical speech? Then how do you deal with the fact that the sonnet is a verse form invented in Sicilian dialect by the Holy Roman Empire Frederick I? If not he, poets at his court. But I have heard that it was the emperor himself who took part in the invention. Or that Benedetto Croce, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, loved to speak in his native Neapolitan dialect? The late William Weaver, who translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, asked the question, as you’ve read in my VQR piece, “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” He declared the problem to be unsolvable[ix].
Like one of the heart’s desires vanishing around a corner in Atlante’s castle, in other words.
It really makes me wonder if Italian culture somehow understands the ultimate futility of certain ideological pursuits because of its rich literature of love, yearning, and folly. Is that why they were able to see the madness of doing anything in a time of pandemic other than hunkering down and wearing masks? Is that why they were successful and we Americans, allegedly hard-headed and pragmatic about the Real World, have failed so abjectly, so terrifyingly?
Do you know the hilarious anecdote about J.M. Austen and Sydney Morgenbesser at Columbia University, my alma mater (well for journalism school, I took my masters at the Graduate School of Journalism)? From a NY Times article about Morgenbesser.
Morgenbesser, with his Borscht Belt humour and preternaturally agile mind, was the subject of dozens. In the absence of a written record of his wisdom, this was how people related to him: by knowing the stories and wanting to know more. The most widely circulated tale — in many renditions it is even presented as a joke, not the true story that it is — was his encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the 50’s, Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”
4. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
I really don’t know. I very much taught myself the art of translation, to the extent that I know it. But then I would have had my doubts about the teaching of creative writing. I remember learning from Professor Pietro Scarpellini at the Università per Stranieri that when Perugino and other great artists of the Renaissance were small boys and apprentices in the bottegas where they learned their craft, they were all set to grind minerals and roots and all the other sources of pigments of their day. They would work grinding pigments as long as there was daylight. Working in natural light, they developed a great sense of what the natural spectrum of colours were and how pigments could emulate or reproduce those colours. Having done that work for countless hours from the age of 5 to the age of 12, they worked in colours with an intuitive sense of balance and composition. Perhaps that’s a way of teaching. I know that a great deal of my experience as a translator was translating anything: technical documents, advertising, legal agreements, you name it. And I learned from making mistakes. One of the most wonderful cheat sheets for me is always seeing badly translated material. An experienced translator can look at a badly translated piece of English and almost conjure up the original source language, for me, Italian. It’s like I can see the writer’s original intention from the missteps and false friends in the bad translation.
5. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?
It depends. If it’s a well written text by an interesting writer, the pro is a sense of elation and the con is the exhaustion of channelling such intensely gripping text. If it’s a badly written text by a dull writer, it’s like the experience of being trapped in a compartment with an unwelcome motor mouthed travelling companion. It’s excruciating. Luckily I haven’t had anything like that experience for a long, long time. There is the wonderful liberation of completing the translation, though. That’s always memorable.
Well, the first thing is that it’s a very difficult thing to do. Is dialect best rendered as some variant English accent? That seems very specific. It’s a question of WHAT dialect is. Some translators treat it as if it’s just people speaking ungrammatically. They render it with comically broken English, which dialect most decidedly is not. What’s the old joke? A language is a dialect with an army and a navy? If that’s so, then how is a dialect really any different than someone unexpectedly speaking, say, German inside a book written in Italian? You can use subtitles or else you can use other literary tricks and conventions. In movies about World War II POW camps, the enlisted German soldiers always speak English with a heavy “Choyman” accent, while the officers speak English with an Oxford accent with just the finest razor’s edge of German inflection. Very class-based.
I’ve done both things, the outright Brooklyn dese-and-dose and the incorporation of the actual words in dialect with the literary equivalent of subtitles, that is, a rendering of the dialect in English, in quotes inside parentheses. Two different critics had diametrically opposing views of what I’d done. One, missing the point, complained about the annoying presence of “the original Italian” in the text. I had explained my process in a translator’s note, but the critic must have missed that. Another critic hailed the authenticity of bits of dialect embedded in the English.
I’m going to quote from the review, by Gabino Iglesias. As an author of “barrio noir,” Iglesias may have had a more perceptive eye for the different levels of linguistic depth I was trying to encompass:
“Lastly, there is one more element that separates this novel from most contemporary crime fiction: language. It seems like Saviano worked hard to achieve a balance between Italian and dialect, and translator Antony Shugaar surely added a bit of explanation to the narrative in his translation. The result of this is a story that carries with it the rhythm and linguistic identity of its source, the unique turns of phrase, sayings, terms of endearment, and even insults of lower Naples. Most of it is offered also in translation (sometimes unnecessarily), but there are passages in which there is no direct translation, although the words used are understandable in context. This use of language adds a layer of authenticity to the text and keeps readers deep in the culture of the place.”
One other rule that I try to follow is that if the author uses X amount of dialect, then I reduce that one-quarter X or perhaps even less. No text in translation will bear as much dialect as the original. I’m not sure why, but having cooked the recipes many, many times, I’ve learned to reduce the quantity of that particular ingredient.
When is it best to involve a “living author” in the translation process? For instance, how often did you need to work with Albinati regarding this translation? What are the challenges (if any) of translating a “living vs dead” author?
I was both impressed and chastened by the very sharp and intuitive eye that Albinati showed. Even though his English is not fluent, he very perceptively came up with critiques of many areas where I had misread his intent, the underlying bones of message. The subtlety of a novelist’s instinct for meaning and nuance is an interesting early warning radar system. We spent days dealing with fine subtleties of meaning that I had misconstrued. Later Albinati wrote a widely read and discussed article in Italian, published in “Corriere della Sera,” which he opened with the statement: “I wrote ‘The Catholic School,’ but I had never read it. Until I read it in English. And it leads me to your next question…
8. You refer to the great paradox of “faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language” in your 2014 essay. How does a translator grapple with this paradox or is it subjective?
I am NOT a novelist, but I am a writer. I think that above and beyond the sort of hands-on training I alluded to when I talked about apprentice artists in the Renaissance grinding pigments as children, there is a native interest in the working of language—words and connotation and the linguistic equivalent of “body English” in the manipulation of units meaning, from particles to words to sentences and paragraphs—that is a fundamental prerequisite for language.
There are little oddities of language, little ghosts in the machine, that I see as hints at how the larger structure works. Take the expression, “You have another think coming,” as in, “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another think coming.” Roughly half the people in the United States, from the articles on the subject that I have seen, actually believe that it’s: “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another thing coming.” That makes no sense to me, but the “think coming” makes no sense to the other half of the population. And if you look at the history of the term (using the nGram Viewer, a very useful historical tracker of any term you care to put into it, and one I highly recommend), you find that “think” and “thing” are almost exactly the same age. People have been using BOTH versions for as long as the phrase has been around. And, of course, because “thing” backs up to the hard C in “coming,” there is no real difference in the pronunciation. When speaking, Person A can say “thing” and Person B can hear “think,” and no one is the wiser.
That’s a perfect metaphor for what happens in translation. However, I choose to treat dialect, it’s accepted by the reader. I mentioned the past being a different country above. Well, dialect is a piece of the fabric of a given country. Another such element, which I’ve been encountering more and more in the translations I do out of the Italian, is a listing of “Do You Remember? moments from Italian pop cultural history. Things from the 1970s and 1980s: Large “beach marbles” about the size of a billiard ball, that Italians would large along tracks scooped out of the sand in races not unlike a bocce game. Banana seat, high-handle-bar bicycles. Portable record players that you inserted a 45 rpm record into for teenage dance parties. Italian versions of Silly Putty, Play-Doh, and numerous other games. Again, units of meaning and sentiment that cannot just be substituted with their approximate American or British equivalents.
As mentioned above, Isaiah Berlin spoke of the fox and the hedgehog. The strategy with respect to dialect and to pop culture and to all manner of cultural artefacts and touchstones has to be this: try to be true to the original. Try to respect your reader’s intelligence and mental agility. Try to make your text read as if it was written by the imaginary person your author would be if they had been born and brought up speaking and writing English, not Italian or French or Spanish (even if they then would NOT have written the book in question).
Then, the tactics become very fox like: Anything you can use, any contrivance or subtle explanation or mode of speech. Be inventive!
I do my best to take that approach. Am I always or even sometimes successful? Well, I hope I am. But I’m keenly aware that the outcome is always, inevitably, a partial failure.
But I comfort myself with Wallace Shawn’s great, philosophical line from “My Dinner with Andre.”
I’m just trying to survive, you know. […] I mean, uh…ahhh… I live my life. […] I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list! I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning!
I’m a translator, dealing on a regular basis with these knotty, tricky, almost metaphysical questions of meaning and style and questionable equivalency. I’m paid to do it. And it keeps my mind constantly occupied with what I find to be intensely interesting issues of language. I feel like a translation is like Schrödinger’s Cat, possibly alive and possibly dead as long as it sits unopened in that box. If you take the translation and you read it carefully against the original (either the day after it’s published or 200 years later), then you may discover that the cat is either dead or alive. But if you leave the black box carefully untouched, and you enjoy that cup of cold coffee in the morning, and you enjoy what good has been with the text, then translation is a pretty wonderful thing. After all, Wallace Shawn, who spoke the lines above, is also a translator. As it happens, from the Italian.
I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.
But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.
It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.
The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation. A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published.
I think this is one of the wisest and most rueful comments I have ever read about the enterprise of translation and, taking a step back, the enterprise of writing, thinking, and feeling about human life. I think that this quote is, perhaps, a very small but dazzlingly brilliant cathedral made of fire.
[i] I heard this in an interview Rushdie did with Razia Iqbal in London for Intelligence Squared. ( https://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/an-evening-with-salman-rushdie/ , Aug 2019) This happened because a few years ago to commemorate the 400 years of Shakespeare and Cervantes, the UK indie publisher And Other Stories published a fantastic volume of commissioned short stories. These stories were to pay homage to these two great writers and renowned names had been asked to contribute. Rushdie wrote the preface and it remains one of my favourite introductions.
Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes I read slowly. I have not finished it but editors and writers whose work I truly admire swear by its magnificence. Here is one of her more recent interviews, published in Asymptote, Sept 2019.
[ii] “I would venture to swear,” said Don Quixote, “that your worship is not known in the world, which always begrudges their reward to rare wits and praiseworthy labours. What talents lie wasted there! What genius thrust away into corners! What worth left neglected! Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself. This estimate does not include two famous translators, Doctor Cristóbal de Figueroa, in his Pastor Fido, and Don Juan de Jáuregui, in his Aminta, wherein by their felicity they leave it in doubt which is the translation and which the original. But tell me, are you printing this book at your own risk, or have you sold the copyright to some bookseller?”
[iii] Our 10 yo daughter, Sarah, is being taught French in school. So Jacob is teaching her French at home. Jacob is a polyglot and fluent in English, Hindi, Italian, French and smattering of German. But it is about the “tactics” you speak of that he is employing. His pronunciation and vocabulary in every language is accurate. So he wants Sarah to learn accurately too. She is obviously stumbling in some French pronunciations. So he makes her write the French word, then to get the right pronunciation, he makes her write the spelling in Hindi as it is a phonetic language and then the meaning in English. It is incredible how fast the little girl is picking up French!
For a couple of years now Sarah asks translations of words in different languages without realising how significant this fact is. She takes it for granted that this is how it is in every household.
Jacob often tells her that if you learn a language correctly, you learn about a new culture.
Antony Shugaar replied:
Very nice, and congratulations. Sounds like Sarah is heading in an interesting direction. I have a nice, similar teaching trick. It is very difficult for English speakers to hear the crucial distinction between single- and double-consonanted proununciations in Italian. Anno versus ano. But it is possible to hear it in English and then apply it in Italian. “Anice” has a single “n”. Un-nice has a double n, if pronounced carefully in English. For “l” – Alice versus pill-like. “Hammett” is a single “m” but the ridiculous and improbably construction, “ham meat,” that’s a double m. It makes it easy for English speakers to hear the double. Then they know not to say “Ho 21 ani,” instead of “Ho 21 aNNi.”
[iv] Quite likely since the Putnam translation seems to have been published in 1949 and was considered the best in those days. Having said that it, it seems there were two more translations published in quick succession. These were by Cohen (1950) and Starkie (1957). Ref: https://franklycurious.com/wp/don-quixote-english/
Antony Shugaar replied: “Nice. In the Italian Asterix, there’s a very nice translator-invented joke (works only in Italian). Tapping his head, Asterix (and others) frequently like to say. “SPQR: sono pazzi questi romani!” – These Romans are crazy.”
[v] When Anthea Bell turned 80, many celebrations were planned across UK. The following was posted on FB (2016). I found it fascinating that an obituary for her former husband also gave the origins of her career as a translator of Asterix. Take a look.
Her father, Adrian Bell, the first cryptic crossword creator for The Times.
Anthea Bell married Robert Kamm, a fellow student at Oxford. Kamm’s father, George Kamm, was a founder-director of Pan Books. Kamm’s mother, Josephine, was a biographer and YA lit writer too. “Robert Kamm’s first job was with the National Book League, now known as the Book Trust, and in 1957 he married fellow Oxford student Anthea Bell. He moved to Brockhampton Press in Leicester in 1960 where he was editorial director and played a key role in the publication of the Asterix books, whose humour and original French jokes had previously been deemed impossible to translate. That task fell to his wife and a fellow translator and the first three titled were published in 1969.He spent 12 years at Brockhampton before a two-year spell as a senior education officer with the Commonwealth Secretariat, touring Commonwealth countries, discussing books and exploring the possibilities there for publishing for children. During the time he was at Brockhampton he chaired both the Children’s Book Group of the Publishers Association and the Children’s Book Circle. From 1963 to 1976 he was also a consultant to various international organisations including Unesco.” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-antony-kamm-publisher-author-historian-and-cricketer-1-1503632#ixzz49pIyI1rf )
Robert Kamm divorced Anthea. He remained in publishing including being the director of children’s literature at OUP. Where he met his second wife who outlived him. She was Eileen Dunlop, a biographer and children’s writer and one of his authors.
Anthea Bell’s brother is the well-known BBC correspondent, Martin Bell.
One of Anthea’s sons is Oliver Kamm, a left-wing politician and banker.
[vii] Seen this brilliant article on Ann Goldstein published in the New York Times?
[viii] A word/phrase that now seems to be embedded in everyone’s psyche while talking about counterintelligence work etc.
Antony: Yes, but coined by Angleton. Whose father was from Idaho, rode down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa, the same expedition on which Ambrose Bierce lost his life, and brought home a beautiful señorita, James Jesus Angleton’s mother. Then, working for the National Cash Register company (the same company that made defective voting machines used in the 2000 election), he took wife and son to live in Rome, under Fascism. There is a short history of the corruption and decline of the American republic. It all, inevitably, ends with the OSS being replaced by the CIA. All that makes perfect sense to me.
[ix] This is a big problematic area in Indian literature. Translations from various regional languages are being made available in English and it is a minefield. There are texts in English that are a nightmare to read as the translators insist on making the dialects visible to the English reader. And there are others who completely scrub the dialect out but also do not provide a translator’s note to say that the author relies on dialects to provide a texture to the novel + give the social context of their characters. It is all so complicated and an extremely sensitive topic in Indian literature. Broaching it with translators, authors, and editors is an extremely sensitive topic.
Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, translated from Italian to English by Antony Shugaar, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and is published by Enchanted Lion Books. It’s publication in 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read.
According to the press release:
The genius of Rodari lay in his commitment to the dialectical use of the imaginatinon, which he saw as necessary for passage from a passive acceptance of the world to the ability to challenge it and then to change it. Insight into Rodari’s subversive sensibility can quickly be gleaned from a casual comment he made in defense of comics: “Every now and then we hear talk about banning this or that comic: wouldn’t it be more useful to forbid teachers to hate books, which only turns them into instruments of torture instead of discovery?”
Telephone Tales is a collection of bedtime stories told by a father to his daughter over the telephone in the time allotted by a single call token, for the father is a travelling salesman and phone calls across countries are expensive. The Hans Christen Andersen Award committee said of his stories, “they are clearly and deliberately constructed. They develop according to their own natural laws, even though they may not always coincide with reality. They are truly fantastic stories rooted in our modern world which, through their playfulness, often take a very critical view of it. He wants to sharpen his young readers’ vision, so that they will learn to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials. He wants to open their eyes to true humanity, to tolerance and international understanding, to social justice and personal integrity.”
Rodari worked … for Italy’s education system and took a serious interest in pedagogy. In the 1960s, Italy’s schools were reformed to be more inclusive of poor and working-class children, but the changes sparked a conservative backlash. Rodari’s books, with their accessible style and jokes built around grammatical mistakes, were intended to empower disadvantaged children who weren’t exposed to books and formal speech at home.
“He wanted kids not to feel intimidated, to see mistakes as a tool to grow and as a creative moment,” Roghi, his biographer, said. She added that Rodari also contributed to the development of the Reggio approach, the educational philosophy born in Reggio Emilia after World War II, that saw the classroom as a self-educating community. ( Famous in Italy, Rodari Reaches U.S. Shores With ‘Telephone Tales’” The New York Times, 5 Sept 2020)
It is an absolutely gorgeous book! Impossible to put down once you begin reading it. The illustrations complement the text well but are never distracting. They add a playful element to the reading experience. Every little detail adds up to bring sheer joy in reading this magnificently produced volume of short stories.
On 8 October 2020, the French Institute of India and the Oxford Bookstores co-hosted a digital book launch. It was for the Tamil edition of noted French politician, academic and award-winning novelist, Erik Orsenna’s biography of Louis Pasteur — Pasteur, Life, Death and Beyond. Erik Orsenna is an award-winning #novelist, member of the very prestigious Académie Française and a French politician. His real name is Eric Arnoult. He has been advisor to many French presidents including President Mitterrand. Erik Orsenna has won the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. He is now an advisor to President Macron. It has been published by Amutharasan Paulraj, Thadagam Publishers. The book was translated from French into Tamil by Dr. S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar. The digital book launch was conducted in three languages — English, French and Tamil.
The panel included Erik Orsenna, Dr Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Amutharasan Paulraj, Dr. S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar, and Dr Srinivas V. Kaveri, Director, CNRS Office, New Delhi. I moderated the conversation. It was such a fantastically enriching discussion that carried on for nearly one and a half hours!
We covered a lot of bases. The conversation moved seamlessly from topic to topic, of which a wide range were covered. From Louis Pasteur, science, looking at disciplines holistically rather than only as areas of specialisation, the Victorian Age, print and ebooks, waterways, sustainable development etc. It was truly an interesting conversation. At one point, Erik Orsenna, extended an invitation to visit Brittany!
Dr Srinivas V. Kaveri and I conducted a Q&A via email. It is a very brief encapsulation of what we discussed during the live conversation. Erik Orsenna replied in French and the document was translated by Akriti Ahluwalia, French Institute in India.
Jaya: How do you define yourself — Scholar, politician, environmentalist, thinker, businessman or writer? Why Pasteur?
I have not changed since childhood. I am a curious person, always obsessed with understanding “how it works”. I am first a professor, happy to learn and happy to pass it on. And for this, I am always looking for new perspectives to cross with the old ones. To be a “specialist” in the field is the least I can do. But this least thing is not enough. The world and life are connected, “religious” in the etymological sense, without relation to a God.
2. Srini: my question is about the intriguing title of your book. Although death ends life, yet it is part of life, let’s say the last part of life. Pasteur points out at the importance of life and death of “living creatures” in several scientific ways, but you say “le domaine de la vie est bien plus large qu’on ne croyait”. if I may translate it as: “the field or subject of life is much vaster than we thought”. You have your own views on the intricate relation between life and death. Could you please tell us the significance of Life, Death, Life (again) in your title?
It is Montaigne who answers: “But you do not die because you are sick, you die because you are alive.” Our civilisation, which refuses death, which would like to prolong existence indefinitely, does not love life. For Pasteur, this title also has another, more intimate meaning: he, the researcher giving all his strength to pierce through the mysteries of Life, saw two of his little daughters, tenderly loved, die at his side.
3. Jaya: What is it that fascinates you about the Victorian period? Do you think that we are now living in a modern version of the Victorian Age where inter-disciplinary studies are again in vogue?
The Victorian Age is that of the explosion of Knowledge. It seems that tens and hundreds of Newtons hatched at the same time because their perspectives crossed. It is the same for the arts. A radical difference with today: TRUST. The future will be better. And then in the future, this suicide of Europe, broke out in 1914.
4. Srini: your book reads like ……if I may say…a “thriller”! You are a great story-teller. Curiously – the research work of a scientist is often referred to as an ‘investigation’ and the scientists are themselves are called “investigators” – and you call Pasteur as ‘Commissaire Maigret’! A hidden passion for thrillers?
I am also a novelist. I like turning the pages. For every disease, you have to find the one responsible, the serial killer. Each time, Pasteur goes out into the field. He investigates. A real investigator!
5. Jaya: Do you think that in the 21C there is a greater need to understand the importance/ relationship of history, language, natural resources/geography, humans & animals? (his last book is Cochons, voyage au pays du vivant/Pigs, journey to the land of the living)(Fayard, September 2020)
Yes! The key notion is that of Unity. Unity of life. There is only ONE HEALTH. If the environment degrades, plants will suffer, then animals, then those members of the animal kingdom who are, let’s not forget, human beings. 95% of our genes are common with the pig (40% with plants, 70% with corals and genetically speaking, we are closer to the gorilla than the gorilla is to the chimpanzee).
6. Srini : “L’arbre n’est pas séparable des fruits qu’il porte” This is such a powerful statement and extremely pertinent – particularly in India. Basic research versus applied research is a never-ending debate. While there is an elitist attitude of scientists working on purely fundamental research, Louis Pasteur showed that it is possible to do basic research which has application and commercialization. How do you yourself see this principle?
Jaya: “I miss scientists who could have explained the phenomenon to me” and “All that week that single word ‘why’ haunted me.” — Is this at the heart of what you believe? The Indies Enterprise
Pasteur is COMPLETE. The whole chain is necessary: from the lab where we discover to the factory that manufactures medicines. Pasteur’s fame allows him to gather funds which help him create the Institute. First in Paris, then in 25 other countries. A scientist has to open up and constantly explain. Especially in a world where suspicion and conspiracy theories are growing.
7. Srini: India is not new to you. Two intriguing Indian concepts: first, reincarnation and Visha Kanya. Looking at the title of your book: La Vie, La Mort and again La Vie… as an Indian, the thought of reincarnation comes to mind. Also the question « Dieu existe-t-il? » Does God exist? A never-ending debate…becomes even more challenging when a scientist is a “croyant – a believer”
I am a “horizontal” believer. For me, everything is connected. But no need for transcendence. Deus sive Natura. God or Nature. I am a religious atheist. I see gods everywhere. I am not very western.
8. Jaya: What is it that you seek in a biography? Do you think a biography should be about the life of a person from birth to death or also beyond — their impact on society/ humanity? (Much of what the Victorians achieved had a long-term impact!) Btw, why isn’t your book on Louis Pasteur translated into English?
I am passionate about the “profession of living”. How do others live? For example, Pasteur: how did he “find” it? Or Beethoven, on whom I am currently working: did he have to wait until he was deaf to create his greatest works?
9. Srini: Self – Non-Self discrimination. As a debutant or a beginner student of immunology, I understand that one of the main pillars on which stands “immunology” is: self versus non-self! The immune system is indeed most potent and aggressive against “non-self” or microbes, but if it exerts a similar violent reaction against self – it can lead to disastrous consequences leading to autoimmunity. Thus, distinction between self and non-self is absolutely crucial. Curiously both in Greek and Hindu mythology, we hear this interesting concept. “Gnothi Seauton” in Greek and “Atma” concept in Hinduism! both c oncepts point at “know thyself” or “know yourself. You have discussed extensively with Patrice Debré – my teacher and colleague in immunology. How and where do you place this idea of Self – Non-Self?
A fundamental question, and the most mysterious! Self / Non self. I am fascinated by the question of grafts. But here, it is me who awaits answers.
10. Jaya: As a writer, researcher and reader, which format do you prefer to access — print or digital or a mix of both? Why did you choose to launch an ebook reader called Cybook in France?
For a simple reason: I hate having to choose between reading (books are heavy) and travelling (always light, almost without luggage). Long live the digital! Why deprive yourself of this modernity.
11. Srini: You say that Pasteur was haunted by the idea that he was not the ‘inventor’ of Stereochemistry, it was Arago and Biot; he was not the initiator of the concept of Fermentation, it was Latour and Cagniard; he was not the ‘pioneer’ of vaccination, it was Jenner. However, you rightly position Pasteur’s greatness that a capacity “to gather all the knowledge and investigating systematically and precisely – leading to a step forward” indeed is a unique and rare quality! Please tell us about the mockery and humiliation that EVEN Pasteur had to endure!
Pasteur invented less than he discovered because he did THE SYNTHESIS of all the knowledge available at his time. And because he was able to gather a very diverse crew of explorers. Truth does not exist. Only Knowledge exists, which is a permanent movement. Pasteur’s enemies were immobile, arrested, rentiers of their status, lazy of certainty.
In June 2020, I came across on social media a series of black and white photographs that were extremely shattering. They were images from the Nigambodh crematorium in Delhi showing the cremation of Covid19 patients. These images were terrifying as the images put the spotlight on the extreme loneliness of the dead. Usually funerals in India are an excuse for a massive gathering of mourners. These black and white photographs were in stark contrast to what we normally experience, across faiths, during funerals. The photographer was Parul Sharma who it turned out was working on a book of photographs called Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown ( Roli Books).
The book is a haunting documentation of what Delhi looked like when the lockdown began in March 2020. Understandably few were out on the streets. Only essential services were permitted. News would filter through the media or there were social media posts that would give some sense of what was happening in the world. But to see a series of images in quick succession, full-page or double-page spreads, is a disturbing experience. When I posted the Open Magazine link on Facebook, many folks asked me why did I think it was necessary to post links to such distressing images. I did not have a satisfactory reply but I knew I needed to speak to Parul urgently and soon. So I did. Here is a lightly edited version of the intervew we conducted via email.
In a span of three years of her photography, Delhi based, Parul Sharma has won critical acclaim for producing a large and diverse body of work. Her metier blends architectural design, and human form in urban landscapes. Her works first debuted in July 2017 in a solo exhibition “Parulscape” at Delhi’s iconic Bikaner House. Forbes magazine marked its 10th anniversary in India by inviting her to shoot ten photographs that captured change and freedom in a decade. In December 2019, Florence’s public art centre, the Museo Marino Marini, exhibited her images of Naga Sadhus and Transgenders at Kumbh Mela. Titled “Mistico India” the two-week exhibition exposed Italian art lovers, to the fierce vibrancy and colours of devout Hindus.
Dialects of Silence, Delhi under lockdown was published and released by Roli Books on September 1 2020 and has received acclaim in India Today, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Open, and BBC among others. Her next book due for release in 2021, commissioned by Roli books is an essay on Mumbai’s historic Art Deco Colaba district.
What sparked the idea to photo-document Delhi NCR during the lockdown? NCR during the lockdown? What did you intend on documenting when you began this project? Did you achieve it or did the goalpost shift during the project?
It began as a visual archive of a city and ended up as epidemic photography. It was an attempt to seize, to put a context of this extraordinary situation that was unravelling before us against the tragic backdrop of the pandemic. Some stories just get told regardless of travesty, sacrilege or homage. The images remain as bearing witnesses.
How did you get the permission to take the pictures that you have taken?
After obtaining necessary approvals from the authorities.
It is interesting that you quote the great war photographer Robert Capa in the introduction to a book on Covid19. Did you feel that while documenting the effect of the pandemic it was like being in a war zone[i]?
Absolutely! A pandemic is a war of invasion, a tragedy, a horror. War evacuates, shatters, and breaks apart the notion of a built world. The virus did the same. Photography during such times is like being in a line of fire, you could get infected anytime.
Being a photographer is an interesting experience. It is an immersion in the space, recording moments, while the camera lens permits a distancing from the immediate events. Yet, your images are extremely respectful of the subjects in your compositions. Your photographs never come across as a violation of the individual’s privacy. How do you achieve this?
You have to put yourself in the other persons situation and share their pain. You cannot be a self-serving voyeur. You have to be very much a part of their story and their grief and their survival and their triumph. Your picture is merely a text of their context.
It is easy to pity the people in images if the viewer has never experienced or come close to experiencing the situation that is being shown. Yet, this emotional response is still valuable because it draws attention to the situation in which people can further investigate their curiosity about the image. Such images are an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations of suffering. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible?” Epidemic photography can serve as memento mori, important tokens of a nation’s collective memory.
The angles of your shots are fascinating. Sometimes you crouch, sometimes you use a telephoto lens, sometimes you are pretty close up. Do you script your stories before stepping out for the day with your cameras or do you take them spontaneously?
Mostly it jumps out of you. Photography is to seize that particular shot which if lost will never reappear. You are a surfer who can ride that visual wave or go under. I have never so far planned a shot. It’s there. You see it. You shoot it.
The portraits of the doctors scarred by the masks is alarming. The exhaustion in their eyes at the start of the lockdown is haunting. Once the book was published, did you return to photograph your subjects once more?
I started documenting in April and the book came out in September. I haven’t paused yet as I’m still documenting. I definitely plan to revisit most places and people.
The images at the crematorium are unforgettable. The loneliness and horror of the bodies trussed up and being managed by individuals well-protected in their PPE gear is devastating. Will you ever do a travelling exhibition of these images?
Why is religion a fundamental focus of your images? Was it a conscious decision to document the various kinds of rituals embedded in our culture that help us to come to terms with death and grief?
Just as religion and faith is fundamental to our being, photography is also fundamental to either the beauty or ugliness of truth.
The surreal interchangeability of workers at the crematorium or the Muslim burial ground or the cemetery were a stark testimony that in COVID deaths of any religion the bodies, were wrapped in the same grim ducted plastic to the point of indistinguishability.
How did you disinfect your cameras?
Disinfecting wipes / Soap and Water /70% Isopropyl Alcohol. After disinfecting I would leave the equipment and set it aside for 48 hours.
What would you call this collection of images — art or a witnessing in the form of photo-documentation?
To quote Sontag, “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” You may call it art or documentation; the lines are interjecting.
Where and when did you learn photography?
I have had no formal training in photography and not did I ever think I will become one. I shoot instinctively. Though someday I do want to do a formal course.
12. Who are the photographers who have influenced you?
I have deep admiration for photographers who photograph in conflict zones. Richard Drew, Hector Retamal, Nick Ut, and from the past Robert Capa, to name a few.
[i] The poet Michael Rosen who is recovering from a severe bout of Covid19 likens it to being in a war. (“Michael Rosen on his Covid-19 coma: ‘It felt like a pre-death, a nothingness’ The Guardian, 30 Sept 2020)
Mental health and related topics are at the best of times taboo subjects in India. To discuss openly about depression amongst teenagers/adolescents is unthinkable. In a country where being in therapy is still a hush-hush topic, to commission and publish a book on the topic is bold and that too in an experimental form — an illustrated memoir in rhyme. C is for Cat, D is for Depression( Scholastic India, 2020) is a much needed book for young adults in helping to break barriers about mental health and make it a socially acceptable topic to discuss openly and without any stigma.
Kairavi Bharat Ram is a young published author who is known for her previous books in rhyme — Ramayana and Krishna. Those were retellings of Hindu epics. But this is the first time she has told a story about her personal experience of battling depression as an adolescent. It is a powerful testimony to the challenges she faced. It is a vivid description of all that a patient afflicted by depression experiences and is unable to always share clearly. At the same time, it is a gentle request to caregivers of such individuals to be patient and offer a caring hand whenever required. She also equally gently plots out methods in which the person themselves or those around them can help an individual come to terms with depression and related mental health issues.
This is a precious book. A conversation starter and a handy tool for anyone interested in mental health. It should become an essential requirement in every classroom and school library.
Hopefully this will lay the foundation for a strong and well-defined yalit list on mental health in India/South Asia. Kudos to Scholastic India for publishing this book!
Priya Kuriyan’s illustrations for the text are out of this world. They complement the text well but also provide a narrative of their own to pull the reader in. While the drawings illustrate the text as beautifully and precisely as would be seen in a children’s picture book, the sophistication of the artwork is in keeping with some of the best international artists. Her eye for detail is astonishing. Her work as an illustrator begins from the cover, includes the endpapers and then the main text. To open the book and see the black endpaper that transforms brilliantly into a bright yellow at the end of the book is just one tiny detail that makes this book an extraordinary triumph. I had questions buzzing in my head for Priya while reading the book, so here is a lightly edited version of the interview conducted over email.
Priya Kuriyan is a children’s book writer-illustrator, comics maker and chronic doodler. She has directed educational films for the Sesame street show (India) and the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) and has illustrated numerous children’s books for various Indian publishers. She lives and works in the city of Bangalore and in her spare time makes funny caricatures of its residents.
How did you approach this project? What was your initial reaction upon reading the text?
I first received the manuscript from the editor and went over it a couple of times trying to really get a sense of the genre. From the start, I was sure that though there are aspects of depression and mental health that are universal, (having had experiences with it myself and read up a fair bit) this was a very personal account of Kairavi’s experience with it. Therefore, I knew I would have to consult her at every stage of creating the book and that I wanted her voice to take centre stage. She had used metaphors in her poetry that I realised could translate very well into strong and evocative visuals that lead you into the mind of someone who is suffering so I knew that these strong full page illustration spreads would do justice to the text.
I had sent a few images from the early pages as samples to Kairavi and though she liked them a lot, she did rightfully ask me also to keep in mind that ultimately the book was also about hope.
2. How long did this project take to complete?
The manuscript was sent to me sometime in July last year and I had my first conversation with Kairavi in February this year over Skype. I worked on the project in bits and parts since then, but the serious work really started in April and was done by the end of June.
3. What was the initial concept note for the illustrations? Or did Kairavi and you have separate notes/ ideas that you then merged?
There was no initial concept note for the illustrations, but what I requested Kairavi after I had that first conversation with her was to pen down some words next to her lines as to what she saw when she wrote those words; not for every line, but at least for a few. Those did give me some cues that I could expand on. I would then send Kairavi rough drawings of my interpretations of those lines and she would then write back to tell me if it complemented the feelings that she intended to convey through her poetry
4. Your artwork is synonymous with light, freshness, primary colours etc. So how challenging was it to work with such dark colours, panel after panel?
Well, I think in my personal time where I don’t have to work on a client project, I do experiment with other kinds of media and genres. So, I didn’t really find the colour palette a challenge. I think most people have seen the work that I have done in the children’s book space (which I really enjoy being in), and then, one continues to get assigned work of the same kind based on what you’ve done before. I like and enjoy breaking away from my typical style from time to time.
5. Do you illustrate on the computer or do you use other mediums and then transfer the scans to the computer?
Most of the time I work analog first – scan my artworks, do some touch ups on an appropriate software and send digital files to the publisher. In this case I used dry pastels and charcoal for my original artworks.
6. If you had to write a note about creating the artwork for this story, what would you write?
That the illustrations should immerse you into a journey of a person trapped within their own mind, who is reintroduced to the idea of hope and ultimately releases himself/herself.
7. With this particular book, I feel that you have broken many of your creative boundaries and pushed yourself in a space that is new. I do not mean in that you are an over-reacher but as someone who has leapt into a new phase of creativity. Do you think this project changed you in any way? If so, what?
Hmm..It’s definitely a genre that I had not worked on before in the children’s book category. A lot of the work I do for adults (comics/ book covers etc) has tended to fall into a more serious (in the literal sense of the word) way. So, I’m not certain at the moment whether this has changed my work in a dramatic way. I think what I do with the next couple of projects that come my way will be what answers that question.
8. Which of these illustrations is your “favourite” of the book? Which of these illustrations has developed the furthest from the initial sketch? And why?
I think the one where the girl is tied to this black figure. I like the metaphor or the paradox of trying to release yourself from the person that you don’t know or recognise and yet knowing that person is you. I think that line really spoke to me. The illustrations that changed the most from the initial drawings were perhaps some of the earlier spreads. I think they were much darker and I later realised that the darkness must creep in gradually just as the light creeps in gradually into the latter part of the book.
9. What do you think is the relationship between illustrations and text? How does it vary depending upon the type of book it is — picture book, illustrated storybook, illustrations accompanying a story, chapter book, comics/graphic novels, novels etc.
The word and the text are entwined twins. I think in the case of picture books an illustrator anchors oneself on the text and is an equal partner when it comes to telling the story along with the writer. How long the rope needs to be, is the critical decision that the illustrator takes. It does vary vastly depending on each type of book. As far as possible, the illustrations that accompany any kind of format, should ideally not be a direct representation of what is in the text. It can bring further context to the story by adding more details that are not necessarily present in the text. In the case of comics, one has to also keep in mind that the page is being viewed panel by panel and also as a whole. So, text and image is intertwined differently out there.
10. What do you think are the fundamental guidelines an author should keep in mind while creating a concept note for an illustrator?
A clear idea of the context within which the book is set. Who the book is aimed at. Any image references that are essential to the research or details of the book. Having said that, it is always best if the author is generous enough or trusting enough to let the illustrator bring in his or her own voice to the book.
11. When did you discover your love for illustrations? What is your favourite medium for creating art? What is the medium you prefer to use while illustrating texts?
I love exploring different mediums and changing them depending on the book I’m working on. Needless to say stationary stores are the only stores I enjoy being in apart from bookstores.
I used to love drawing as a kid and also story books. I ultimately ended up studying animation in design school and as part of the course, we had illustration as a module. I really enjoyed it and perhaps that was when I considered that this could perhaps be something I could take up later. It was however a something I imagined I’d be doing on the side. I think I started taking children’s books seriously only after my 3rd or 4th book was published. There are no colleges that teach Illustration specifically in India and I think there’s a bit of a lacunae there since a lot of illustrators just by instinctively finding their way into a career in Illustration.
I don’t think I have a favourite medium as such. Though I work with watercolours quite a bit. I choose mediums depending on the nature/genre of the book. And I like exploring different techniques. At the moment, I’m inclined to say that graphite pencils are my favourite, but that might change in a few months from now.
12. Who are your favourite illustrators and who has influenced you the most
My favourite illustrators are Shaun Tan, David Weisner, Emily Gravett, Atanu Roy, Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Mickey Patel. All the illustrators of Target magazine that had a huge influence in my childhood namely Atanu Roy, Jayanto Banerji, Sudhaswatta Basu, and Ajit Ninan.
May I just say that I absolutely adore such books? Books that one can dip into and emerge with information shared simply. No fussy narratives. No jargon. No back and forth in timelines. Just a story well told. A story told around an object but in good old-fashioned style with a beginning, middle and end. No clever turn of phrase. A lovely combination of historical facts with modern relevance and application. It is a style first made famous by Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. It is an easy way of retelling stories about the significant moments in history. It is a dangerous trap too for there is a tendency to over simplify and scrub out of the narratives any nuances that may prove to be uncomfortable irritants. But that is not rhe case with Tim Harford’s essays based on his popular podcasts. His selection of very unlikely collection of topics includes the postage stamp, canned food, auctions, fund-raising appeals, Santa Claus, the blockchain, stock options, RFID, movable-type printing press, menstrual pads, pornography, QWERTY, vulcanisation, dwarf wheat, gyroscope, spreadsheets and chess algorithms. These read like short stories except that they are all based in facts anre absolutely rivetting!