Award-winning writer Sayaka Murata has sold more than 2 million copies of her book Convenience Store Woman and it has been translated into more than 30 languages. After which she published the English translation of Earthlings but in Japanese she has written over ten novels and many short stories. Life Ceremony is her first collection of short stories. As with Murata’s previous English publications, the translator is Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Sayaka Murata’s fascination with science fiction as a young girl has resulted in a unique form of storytelling. It is impossible to tell at times if the stories are set in the present times or in the near future or in an imaginative realm. “Present times” because some of the stories in Life Ceremony can be disturbing but also the actions of a cult group. Nothing can be put past human oddities. Murata has a knack of exploring human emotions to certain basic situations such as an engagement ceremony, attraction between couples, marital relationships ( hetero or same sex is not the point), procreation, love etc. But it is the angles that she explores — the traditional Japanese ceremonies that are upturned on its head such as the title story which is about a “life ceremony”. It is meant to be a wake but with a difference. Cannibalisation is encouraged where the human meat of the dead is prepared for a feast. Everyone tucks into the hotpot, the stir fry and much else that is prepared with human meat. Guests are then encouraged to find their partners amongst those seated around the table and copulate for the preservation of the human race. The children born are usually left at a centre where they are well looked after. Otherwise, parents can bring them as well though it is never clear who the father is. By today’s standards this is a bizarre concept that is very recent, less than thirty years, but no one in society finds it unethical or immoral.
Life Ceremony ( published by Granta) brings together many of Murata’s themes — social taboos, exploring sexuality, gender, love and of course, conforming to Japanese traditions. In “A Clean Marriage“, the asexual relationship of a married couple while they had multiple sexual partners outside the marriage is explored. It is not as if it is a polyamory concept but that the couple were prepared to cohabit but not necessarily be each other’s sexual partners until they decide to have a child. When they do have to have sex, they take the help of medical experts! Social and cultural taboos are explored in the “A Magnificent Spread” and “Eating the City”. The list is endless. But it is the manner in which Murata challenges the reader to think out of their comfort zones and explore imaginatevely the “what if” angle. “A First -Rate Material” is about transforming parts of the human anatomy such as bones, teeth, hair and even skin into furniture and other decorative items. The skin can be converted into a form of material that can draped like a veil or a curtain. Creepy!
A question that begs to be asked is what does the translator Ginny Tapley Takemori feel like while engaged in these translation projects? How have the stories changed her as a translator? Has working closely with Sayaka Murata influenced her translation craft? There is a surreal magical element to the quality of these stories that possibly existed in the original stories but the translator is the medium who conveys the very spirit into the destination language. The very Japanese-like nature of conformity and obedience remains at the core of the stories.
Life Ceremony is an incredible book. It leaves the reader incredulous. It is what stories are meant to do —pull the reader into the story but also make them think of the immense possibilities. It is going to be a very long time before the reader’s ability to see hair, human skin, bone, frozen foods, chemically-engineered food, fusion food, parallel realities, gendered conversations and relationships can return to an even keel. The stories in this collection are read easily once the reader’s moral compass is firmly put away. There should be no scope for judgement upon the actions of the characters or the fantastically wild imagination of Sayaka Murata.
Life Ceremony is worth reading once it is available in July 2022.
Manon Uphoff’s Falling is like Flying is her first book translated from Dutch into English and published by Pushkin Press. The translator is Sam Garrett. This book of hers is autobiographical to the extent that she documents her childhood, the trauma she and her other twelve siblings faced with the Minotaur ( her father), her resilience and the magnificent ending in a gathering of the sisters ( “the witches’ sabbath”) reminiscing before they returned to their respective homes:
“Then it’s home again, home again astride the broom-mobile where we put on our disguises of writer, artist, housewife, single parent, senior citizen of independent means.”
It is a powerful account of a violent and abusive home. Uphoff began recalling details on the day her eldest sister died. It was an upwelling of painful memories that could not be suppressed any more. Her story had to be told.
“Excuse me for going on about myself for so long. I feel as though I need to tell you what I was and what I wanted to be, before descending step by step to the first place I ever lived. Of which I was reminded in those cheerless days when the beat of an old, familiar drum grew louder and louder.
Yes, turmoil, and alarum. . . . and then ignition.”
In the book, the most horrific incidents are never explicitly described but there are references made to them. Also, Uphoff relies extensively on literary references, including in the naming of some of her siblings, almost as if she is distancing herself to a few degrees from her memories. It may be a literary device that she uses to her advantage in telling her story but this act of the narrator distancing themselves at the precise moment of recounting a traumatic incident is a defense mechanism found often in survivor’s testimonies. They usually speak on the third person but Uphoff chooses to speak via a range of literary frameworks. Even so, the power of the storytelling or the incidents she narrates are not diminished. Parts of the book are vile and nauseating to read. At times, I had to put the book down as it was becoming difficult to read and I would discover that I was holding my breath. So much violence perpetrated constantly within the “safe” confines of a family home are despicable. Even offering the rationale at the beginning of the book that Uphoff’s father had been born in 1914 and grew to adulthood during the two world wars, is insufficient reason for the abuse he perpetrated upon his young family. The only time Manon Uphoff confronted her mother about the truth regarding the Minotaur especially since she had been plagued by terrifying nightmares; her mother’s response was to collapse on tears and never again was the topic ever broached.
Uphoff asks the reader helplessly,
“So tell me. What’s a girl got to do?”
In Uphoff’s case, she writes. She wrote this book. There is so much to unpack in “Falling is Like Flying”. A memoir. A devastating story about child abuse. Patriarchy at its worst on display. A dysfunctional family where some of the children went on to replicate some of it in their lives as well. The fact that Uphoff has the insight and literary knowhow to tell an extremely personal and difficult story makes this book an absorbing read. The triumphant ending where she upturns many of the preconceived notions about women using terminology such as witches that are usually hurled as slurs by society ( and was often used to describe her eldest sister), Uphoff reclaims for herself and her sisters a space and identity. The siblings speak frankly about the abuse they faced and agree to gather every year for a meal on their father’s death anniversary. It is a very liberating act to break these shackles. Life will never repair the physical and mental trauma that this family has to live with, but they can certainly begin to heal.
This is an unforgettable book. Slim. Excruciatingly painful to read in parts.
Baby Dollby Gracy is a very bold, sparkling and forthright collection of short stories, written over a span of thirty years. The stories have been translated by award-winning translator, Fathima E.V. The stories have been arranged chronologically, so there is a sense of the evolution of Gracy as a writer. These stories delve into the ordinary lives of ordinary people but go a little beyond. Gracy unearths and makes visible thoughts, conversations, describes actions of women that would otherwise be unheard of in the written word. In these stories characters are persuasively drawn, irrespective of whether you agree with their thoughts, words and deeds. These are very unexpected stories but I am glad they have been made available in English. It is time that storytellers like Gracy were eligible to participate in literary prizes such as The Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist will be announced next week, on 10 March 2021. There needs to be a broader literary landscape to be made available to readers worldwide.
Fathima ‘s translation is superb. It reads effortlessly in English while recreating the local landscapes beautifully. Unlike some translations where there is a constant struggle between the original and destination language, it does not occur in Baby Doll. The translator’s note is exactly how it should be — written with care and deep understanding of the writer’s body of work, a textual analysis of the short stories included in this anthology and contextualising Gracy’s style of writing within the world of Malayalam literature. Also, without forgetting the significant contribution that these stories make to feminist understanding of being a woman and making visible to the lay reader the many, many ways in which women are oppressed in the name of tradition and social norms. This is truly an excellent collection.
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.
Award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s latest novel Estuary has been translated by Nandini Krishnan. Estuary is a curious book. Flat in its tone but the preoccupation of the government clerk Kumarasurar for his son, Meghas’s, welfare is universal. Many parents will identify with it. Perumal Muruagan captures the parental anxiety very well. Bulk of the story revolves around Meghas’s request for a fancy smartphone that Kumarasurar may or not be able to afford. It sort of is in step with Kumarasurar’s general anathema towards electronic devices. It is illustrated well in his locking up the government issued computer into a cupboard instead of using it. It is only when he is introduced to the vast possibilities browsing the Internet can unleash that Kumarasurar begins to understand the younger generation’s fascination with smartphones too. The enthusiasm of the younger man for edevices rubs off on to his father, a Luddite where digital technology was concerned, and transforms Kumarasurar into a new man.
Estuary is a commentary on society and a gentle dig at people who are immune to external influences and refuse to evolve. Estuary drives home the point beautifully that as the elder person you must evolve even if it means graciously acknowledging your limits. By stonewalling and refusing to understand the needs of the younger generation, you will merely alienate them and perhaps lose them forever. In a peculiar way Estuary is a bildungsroman but not of the young man Meghas but that of his father. So the metaphor of “Estuary”, the mixing of the salt water with fresh water, works beautifully in the conclusion of the book, when tables are turned where the father now hankers after the smartphone unlike his son.
Estuary is contemplative and relatable. But as with many translated works, credit has to also be accorded to the translator. Namely, Nandini Krishnan. I am unable to pinpoint what exactly it is, but her translation really soars. The sentences click. There is a rhythm but it is ever so slightly different to that of reading a text written originally in English. Yet the translation is breezy. At no point does one get the feeling that the translator is getting carried away with their art and losing the author. On the contrary. Her respect for the storyteller and his story comes through. I do not even know how to explain that any further than except urge others to read the book. Of course there are instances in the book where the dreariness and monotony of Kumarasurar’s anxiety gets to the reader. The dullness of the storytelling is an art in itself and probably intentionally created by Murugan. At such moments in the novel the only reason for reading further is the exquisite quality of translation.
Nandini Krishnan is the author of Hitched: The Modern Indian Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013) and Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks (2018). Perumal Murugan’s Estuary is her first translation from Tamil. She lives in Madras, among nine dogs, eight cats, and several thousand books!
Here is an interview with her conducted via email:
Q1. How long did it take to translate Estuary?
It’s hard to calculate the man hours, but going by the calendar, I started in November 2019 and the novel went to print in May 2020. I’d promised V K Karthika, Publisher, Westland Books, that I would have a first draft ready in a month so that Westland could publish the following summer. And so, I pushed aside all my other writing projects and dedicated myself entirely to the novel. Of course, I had read it twice already, and had perhaps translated it in my head to some extent. I must have spent between five and eighteen hours on Estuary each day, depending on the sections I was doing. I had a break until they got back to me with a line edit and copy edit, and that was another intense period of immersion in Asuralokam.
Q2. What was your methodology in translating? For instance, did you translate it in snatches, refine and then proceed or did you first translate the entire novel and then edit it further?
Actually, all of the above!
I had a very tight self-imposed deadline, and I had to translate at least one chapter a day, more if I could. If I had doubts or dilemmas about which words to use, I would shortlist my options in parentheses to deal with later.
I’d take a few hours off to get mauled by my dogs and then return, entice my kitten off my laptop with food, and start restructuring and rephrasing each sentence after comparing it with the Tamil original.
Once I was done with all forty chapters, I took two days off, and then spent a few more days re-reading and editing the entire novel.
By the time it came back to me with a line edit, I had made a new document with notes on which words I must replace in the first draft, after yet another re-read of the original and my translation. So my second and third drafts were done with at least four windows open at once on the computer. While I was waiting for a final copy edit, I read the Tamil novel for maybe a fifth time, so I ended up doing a fourth draft of the entire novel before it was typeset.
Q3. Do you pause and read other translations while working on a project?
As you can probably tell from my previous answer, I don’t really have a pause mode. But I can’t eat or sleep or even sit without a book in hand, so I’m always reading. Some of the books I read while working on Estuary—and indeed my own books—were or are, inevitably, translations.
Perhaps I’m a little more tuned in to a translator’s role in my reading as well, now that I’ve translated a book. While reading Banaphool’s Wildfire (Seagull Books), translated by Somnath Zutshi, I found myself analysing the translator’s craft in particular—something I haven’t consciously done before.
Q4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in the translation?
I used to be fond of saying that I’m in something of a trance when I write fiction, that I write intuitively and it feels as if I’m simply a medium for a story that wants to be told. But I began to rethink this when I heard Akhil Sharma—a writer I admire hugely—talk about how only writers can sense the craft in his novels, at the Festivals des Écrivains du Monde, 2014, in Paris. He went on to analyse some of his sentences, and the use of a particular word instead of a synonym. For the first time, I found myself applying this principle instinctively, and could relate to what he’d said. This exercise really develops your language and craft.
I also feel being in such a long relationship with a work of literature in another language makes a certain cadence percolate one’s own language and enrich it. I can speak only one language so that it can be understood by its native speakers—English—but I read many, and therefore I can access various literatures in the original. I find that each new language adds a layer of nuance to one’s thinking and a lilt to one’s vocabulary in other languages, rendering one’s writing more versatile and one’s imagery more vivid.
I’m making the first of many references to Vikram Seth in this interview, but I think the beauty of his English has a lot to do with his being not just a polyglot, but also a translator.
The only “con” is the sense of heartbreak at the end. As mother of a houseful of dogs and cats, I can make something of a comparison to fostering a fur baby. You love this little puppy that needs you for nourishment, and he or she loves you too, but then you’re always aware you’re not the parent and that you eventually have to let go.
Q5. Did you have to consult Perumal Murugan during the translation?
I have a funny story to tell you. The first time I spoke to him about the translation, he asked me, “Andha pagadiye aangilathule konduvara mudiyumaa?” which means, “Will the pagadi translate into English?”
And it was a most inauspicious start because I had to ask sheepishly, “Sir, what does ‘pagadi’ mean?” He explained that it was parody, and then said, “You must have heard people say ‘pagadi-ya pesuvaan’—he is sarcastic—surely?” I had to admit I never had. I did a quick survey around my house and told him none of the Tamil speakers in my family had heard of the word either, and he began to laugh. He must have thought about how different the milieus in which we were raised are. My only brush with rural life has been through cinema and literature. And although I studied Tamil for thirteen years in school and college, I find it easier to translate Sangam poetry than contemporary literature because the syllabus was partial to the former.
Now, Perumal Murugan uses certain words and describes certain traditions which are so particular to a region that even Tamil dictionaries draw a blank. So he was often my only dictionary and encyclopaedia. I also consulted him when I had to make a choice between two phrases or idioms—I would translate the English literally into Tamil and ask him which he preferred.
I had the advantage of having read nearly all his Tamil novels and several of his short stories, because of which I’m tuned in to his style and rhythm. I’ve met him in person often, and I can hear his writing in his voice, which helps me render it with some authenticity into English.
Q6. Has your translation been absolutely faithful to the original Tamil text or did you (with the concurrence of the author) have to tweak portions of the novel?
That’s a layered question, and it deserves a layered answer.
Let me assemble the first layer with an example. The opening lines in Tamil are:
Yaman azhaippu urudhi
Magan azhaippu aridhu
Now, even if you don’t understand Tamil, you can feel the music and sense the significance of wordplay in those lines. This is a crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
“Azhaippu” can mean both “call” and “invitation”. “Aridhu” means “rare”, but also has the connotation “precious”. This is another crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
It would be impossible to be absolutely faithful to the sense of irony and the semantic meaning of the first line. If I were to write “Yama’s invitation is certain”, the reader would be bewildered. I eventually went with “The call of Yama is certain”, but this doesn’t contain the wryness of the Tamil sentence. So I would have to find a way to bring that into the next line.
I also had to bring in the musicality of the two sentences, almost a couplet. If I were to write, “The call of Yama is a certainty. A call from one’s son is a rarity”, it would sound like those cringe-worthy traffic police slogans—you know, “Accident brings tears, safety brings cheers” or “Rash driving is crash driving.”
I had three options for the second line—“A call from one’s son is rare”, which is faithful to the semantic sense; “A call from one’s son is cause for celebration”, which is faithful to the emotional connotations; “A call from one’s son is an event”, which was the Goldilocks mean for me. It conveys the meaning and emotion; it has almost the same syllabic count as “The call of Yama is certain”. The last word of each sentence is dental, with emphasis on the
“t” and “en” sounds. And the second sentence contains the wryness that I wasn’t able to bring into the first, so the “couplet” works in translation.
Now, for the second layer—there are various vocabularies to be translated, because the third-person narrative is not always the author’s voice. Sometimes, it is a disguised first-person narrative. When the third-person narrative describes a character’s thoughts, it often assumes the voice of that character. I had to translate that character’s vocabulary accurately.
There are lyrical passages and empathetic ones and scholarly ones and playful ones, all of which carry Perumal Murugan’s signature. Then, there are passages in Kumarasurar’s voice. This man is a government employee who believes he is a gifted poet. But Perumal Murugan does not appear to think too highly of Kumarasurar’s poetic sensibilities. When Kumarasurar’s thoughts are narrated, his whimsical self-indulgence is interrupted by another tone—imagine a man who spends most of the day typing letters that probably go something like, “Dear Sir/ Regarding the statistics requested by you, kindly find enclosed forthwith the numbers as also a circular issued by the Department of Revenue regarding…/Kindly acknowledge receipt of the same.” The drudgery of this, the monotony will naturally seep into his thoughts too, and this is illustrated by flatness in tone. As for Mangasuri, she probably spends most of the day watching television soap operas and devotional programmes, and therefore she has a tendency to make dramatic pronouncements and perhaps imagines her reactions to be replayed twice. Meghas is clearly a caring son, but also has the impatience, quickness, and dry humour of an intelligent teen dealing with wide-eyed parents.
This is why the foreword is so important—when Prof. Murugan speaks of “deviance”, he could be referring to this little game he has played, where not just the vocalised dialogue but the internal dialogue too is in the voices of his characters.
And the voice of the narrator is not uniformed either. Sometimes, the author has a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes, he is seething with rage. And in the tightness of his clipped sentences, one feels the immense pain and fear he underwent during his years of exile.
So to be truly faithful to the novel, I had to extrapolate the lives of all the characters as well as the author himself, and rent some space in his head for the duration of the translation.
Q7. In an article you said that there were portions of the text you had enjoyed so much that you could recite them from memory. I found that such an extraordinary comment. As if you were more than just a translator but channelling it before making it your own and yet very clear that it was a Perumal Murugan story. So, what are your favourite sections in the novel? Does it have to do with the story or the style of storytelling? And the fondness that you have for these sections remain true for Tamil and English or only in Tamil?
I’m gratified by what you said about the translation. I haven’t quite articulated my modusoperandi to myself, but you put it quite beautifully.
Initially, my favourite sections in the novel were perhaps the ones I translated for Kannan Sundaram, Kalachuvadu, Perumal Murugan’s Tamil publisher, to pitch to prospective English publishers, even before the translation was commissioned—the opening chapter where Kumarasurar goes on his morning walk, his analysis of the seven questions he asks his son, their visits to these draconian colleges with over-the-top controlling mechanisms for their students, reports on selfies causing accidents, and the chapter where Kumarasurar has a psychotic episode. But one sentence hit me so hard I had to put the Tamil novel aside—it is the moment when Kumarasurar goes to bring Meghas home on the last day of school and hears of a “curated cemetery”. The paragraph about students passing away in college and their families not being informed about it comes out of nowhere, and it breaks the reader. I would not call it a “favourite”, because one would have to be particularly perverse to enjoy that scene, but I felt a great sense of responsibility because the English paragraph had to be as powerful.
Having completed the translation, I think my favourite chapter is the one which describes Kumarasurar’s second visit to the estuary. I’m satisfied that I have captured the tone, imagery, mood, and undercurrents in this very complex portion, and it is my greatest triumph with the novel.
To explain why I like these sections so much, I have to make an admission. When I read the Tamil novel for the first time, I kept searching for the Perumal Murugan I knew and couldn’t find him. It seemed such a mild novel, without the bite of his previous work. The premise seemed so light. I knew I was missing something, because Perumal Murugan wouldn’t write a simple story about the generation gap. So I read it again, and only to realise that was not the subject of the novel at all. It is, in some ways, a microcosmic, twenty-first century parallel to A House for Mr. Biswas, a quiet yet searing contemplation of the wrenching failure of an unremarkable life, the devastation of a man who was once the talk of town at the notion that he might be the only one who imagines that he is important.
It took me, an avid admirer of Perumal Murugan, two readings and a lifetime’s consumption of his works to understand the essence of the novel. His English readership has only received him in translation, and so far, his plots have stood the test of language. This novel is a work of art which is carried as much by style as by story. These sections were the ones that brought this fact home to me, and they were my own pookkuzhi—trial by fire. Because, unlike Prof. Murugan with me, I would have only one shot with the reader. And both he and Kannan had placed a lot of faith in me by insisting that I be the translator. I had to repay that trust by conjuring the same magic in English, and by fighting over every word on behalf of the writer.
I was terribly nervous until a brilliant review by Saudamini Jain in the Hindustan Times reassured me that my job was done. So, with a smug little pat on my own back and a sheepish smile, I can confess that I like the sections in both Tamil and English.
Q8. How do you assess/ decide when to take on a translation project?
To be honest with you, money is an important consideration. Respect and transparency are others. I’ve taken on two translation projects so far, and both were largely because of how beautifully both editors wrote to me and how my interactions with them made me feel.
This is particularly relevant because I’ve had unpleasant experiences with representatives from tight-fisted publishing firms who’ve tried various tactics to get me on board. It feels almost like you’re being sold insurance, really. Or dealing with an HR person who’s trying to convince you to stay on after a pay cut. “See, you have to look at the unquantifiable factors. Think of what this could do for your career.” “Our profits have taken a beating this year. We need people like you to pitch in at this critical time.” “Think of this as a service you’re doing a profession that you love.” “This is actually a much better deal than anything we’ve offered anyone else.” “You need to be realistic here.” “If you don’t want it enough, I can’t do anything except say we’re sorry to see you walk away from an opportunity.”
This is yet another reason I admire Vikram Seth—he has never allowed the publishing industry to dictate his worth to him, and he has justified every penny spent on him. He has taught writers that weighing one’s efforts is not mercenary. I also owe Jeet Thayil for this—he’s one of the kindest, most generous people I know, and perhaps an unconscious mentor to writers who are just about finding their feet. From him, I’ve learned not to be embarrassed about asking for what ought rightly to be offered.
Q9. How would you define a good translation?
A good translation must strike a fine balance—it should not read like a translation, but should also carry some of the flavour of the original. The reader must hear the syllables of a language that is not-quite-English and yet not explicitly so. He should feel he is exploring, but never be lost. I guess it’s like holidaying in an exotic country and staying at a resort that caters mainly to tourists.
Often, the choice or arrangement of words can give the reader a whiff of an unknown language. For example, if I were translating from French, I may go with “armoire” over “cabinet” or “cupboard”, and “boudoir” over “dressing room”, because these are French words assimilated into English. If I were translating a Hindi novel, I wouldn’t change “Dadima” to “Granny” or “Jiju” to “brother-in-law”. If it were a Delhi novel, I’d make sure I used “By god” instead of “I swear” and “Mom-Dad” instead of “my parents”.
If you read the first few pages of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, you feel the place might as well be London as Cairo. This is perhaps because most of his early works were translated by teams—someone would translate it literally, someone else would correct the grammar, and yet someone else would Anglicise it for a global readership. The work that kept coming to mind when I visited Egypt was Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Bulding. It was translated by Humphrey T. Davies, who has been based in Cairo for decades.
Q10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
A translator is really a writer who is fluent in more than one language. I don’t believe writing can be taught. Perhaps one can find the tools to be a better writer, but it is also an instinct, a flair. One can always tell which translators are creative writers in their own right.
If you’ll forgive yet another analogy, I might liken a translator to an artist who is creating a portrait. One’s craft must come into play, but the artist must not encroach into the territory of the creator of the original. He cannot make the model’s nose sharper, and cannot afford to miss a single sinew. The artist may be Picasso, but this is not his palette for expression.
Often, translations fail either because the translator is not a writer or because the translator is a writer whose footprint contaminates the original author’s.
A case in point is Salma, whose novels and poetry in Tamil have not been done justice in English. Many of her translators focus on the “shocking” aspect, without contextualising her work within their milieu. The shock value is incidental to Salma’s craft. It is also a pitfall to see her work through the prism of one’s own politics, of gender or religion. It would be far more important for the translator to ask himself: “Can the reader hear the language of a Tamil Muslim household?” “Should I say ‘death’ here or retain ‘mowthu’ or use the uncorrupted Urdu original ‘maut’?”
Q11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
No. I think poor translations exist because most publishing firms sacrifice literary value at the altar of profit margins.
A skilled translator will find ways to make any sentence work. If you think about it, even books written in English but set in a milieu where English is not spoken contain the dialogue in translation—such as Junot Diaz’s entire oeuvre and a fair bit of J M Coetzee’s and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. An example that comes to mind right away is a line from Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song, where two friends are speaking to each other:
‘You should get a walking-stick, Mini,’ said Khuku. ‘It’ll be much easier for you. Your leg,’ and in Bengali the words ‘tor pa’ sounded so affectionate, as if she were referring to her leg as if it were her daughter, ‘won’t have to take the weight.’
I remember reading this when I was in college, and thinking “If I ever have to translate the phrase kaadhal-kathirikka, this is what I will do.” Google Translate will tell you I’ve written “love-eggplant”.
We’re fond of repeating received notions, like “English can never have the beauty of the mother tongue” or that the elegance or poetry in prose is lost in translation, without analysing them for truth. As someone with no real “mother tongue” and a passion for languages, I feel English is the most beautiful language I know, because it absorbs something of every other language I learn—it is my home, which somehow accommodates souvenirs from around the world.
Q12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
My favourite translator is Vikram Seth—he translates not only between languages, but between genres and disciplines and art forms. Who else would marry music and calligraphy and poetry (as he does in The Rivered Earth)? His Three Chinese Poets, from which I recently read poems, is a revelation to me—he dismantles and reassembles poems to stay faithful to rhythm and sense and imagery. He seems to be my gold standard in everything, no? J But we had poems from Beastly Tales when I was in Class 6 and 7, and I can never forget “Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks/Insults or complaints or bricks/Stilled the frog’s determination/To display his heart’s elation.”
In terms of translated texts I admire, I thought Aniruddhan Vasudevan achieved the near-impossible with his translation of Lara Fergus’ quite stunning My Sister Chaos. He translated it into Tamil as Izhappin Varaipadam, and the sections I read were just as stunning. Mr Kalyan Raman’s translation of Ashokamitran’s Manasarovar carries all the heartache and intensity and ethereality and complexity of the original.
I’m not sure it would be fair for me to speak about translated texts whose source language I don’t read, but I enjoyed Srinath Perur’s translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar-Ghochar, Rimli Bhattacharya’s translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak, Arunava Sinha’s translation of Sankar’s Chowringhee, all of Maureen Freely’s translations of Orhan Pamuk, and all of Howard Goldblatt’s translations of Mo Yan.
On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir ( A Marriage of Pleasure). The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Thadagam Publications. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.
This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!
To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!
Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy Marriage, This Blinding Absence of Light, The Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).
Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision?
When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.
When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!
This was my debut as a writer.
Q2.You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?
Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.
Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter?
For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.
Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.
Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion. Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco?
For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.
In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.
Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working. Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)
This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.
Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction?
Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.
Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative?
An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.
Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?
When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.
Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?
The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.
To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.
Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?
France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.
Q11. What next?
What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.
In 1993 Taslima Nasreen wrote Lajja ( “Shame”) in Bengali. It was her response to the anti-Hindu riots that had broken out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, India on 6 December 1992. The novel was published in Bengali and within six months sold over 50,000 copies. It brought the author “fame” that till then had been unheard of in the subcontinent. Prior to this, the only other author to have had fatwas issued against them was Salman Rushdie, an author of South Asian origin but residing in UK at the time. Lajja became one of the first books in translation to be talked about by many readers internationally and this was at a time even before the Internet. ( Dial-up modems, with limited email access, were introduced in India in 1996!) Lajja became a bestseller rapidly. The English edition for the subcontinent was published by Penguin India. Subsequently a new translation was commissioned by Penguin India in 2014-15. The translator of the later edition was Anchita Ghatak. The book was banned in Bangladesh and fatwas were issued against the author. Taslima Nasreen fled to Europe and later laid roots in India. At first she chose to live in Calcutta/ Kolkatta and is now based in Delhi. Years later, Taslima Nasreen still needs security cover wherever she travels.
Lajja was explosive when it was first published as it was a Muslim author, upset by the communal riots in her land, who was writing sympathetically about a Hindu family. The story details the progressive radicalisaion of Suranjan who firmly believes in a nationalist Hindu outlook. So much so it is a belief he continues to nurture even after he, along with his family, flee Bangladesh to become refugees in India. In India he becomes a member of a Hindu nationalist party. Pirated editions of Lajja were sold in India. It became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. Taslima Nasreen, a doctor by training, has become an established writer with more forty publications. She defines herself as “a secular humanist, a human rights activist, and a prolific and bestselling author, who has faced multiple fatwas calling for her death”.
More than twenty-five years later, Taslima Nasreen is back with a sequel to Lajja. It is called Shameless. Arunava Sinha, the translator, told me “the original title was Besharam but eventually the Bengali book was published, also in 2020, with a very tame title, e kul o kul. The book was written more than ten years though.” Nevertheless Shameless is a unique experiment in writing a novel. It has shades of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with Suranjan as the protagonist but in conversation with Taslima Nasreen. The opening pages of the novel have Suranjan, the character, visit Taslima Nasreen, the author, and bring her up-to-date with the events in his life. It then develops into a fascinating narrative where a novel is obviously being drafted but it has so many overlaps with reality. With the author-turned-character (or is it character-turned-author?) providing pithy comments and at times intervening in the story by persuading the characters to act in one way or the other. It is a work of art. Shameless is a sequel to Lajja but seems more that that — Taslima Nasreen seems to have sort of trickled into the space between reality and fiction to put herself under the lens. But the conversation is more than that. It is a conversation between writer and character, commentary on the turbulent times. Taslima Nasreen’s was an emotional response to the increased communalisation in the subcontinent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. It was not necessarily literary writing. But in the intervening years Taslima Nasreen has evolved as a writer. With Shameless she has given herself space to speak frankly without hopefully attracting any more bounties for her head. Also the writing is very close to her memoir (Dwikhondito, 2003, translated into English as Split: In Two, 2018 — translated by Maharghya Chakraborty). Interestingly in recent years her voice as an author comes through very strongly in the English translations despite her experimentation with a gamut of translators. A testament to her strong writing. There are sufficient examples in the novel that indicate her belief in being a secular humanist stem from having experienced or witnessed firsthand many incidents in the name of religion. Much of this she distills into her writing of Shameless, exemplifying how much of the personal informs the political.
Arunava Sinha’s translation is superb. He is a renowned translator who has made available many Bengali writers in English but with Shameless his professional expertise as a translator par excellence is established. He channels Taslima Nasreen’s authorial voice beautifully. His past experience of working with Bengali authors has helped him tremendously to hone his expertise in being utterly respectful to the desire of the author to be heard in the original language and carry it forth impeccably into the destination language, enabling the readers in English to appreciate the text for what it is. It works brilliantly in a translation like Shameless where the author herself has a lot to say, much of it tricky.
The time lapse between the publication of Lajja (1993) and Shameless (2020) marks a significant period of socio-political history in the subcontinent as well. With Shameless Taslima Nasreen seals her place as a relevant author who creates political art, a need of the times when plainspeak is not necessarily always welcome.
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard is a Bengali translator, author, and professor of English and world literature. She lives in Virginia with her husband and plants. She has translated the late Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Blood. Set in Britain and America of the late 60s and early 70s, it is about a highly successful Bengali physicist Tapan who settles abroad. Despite all the successes he has garnered he is unable to put to rest the trauma he suffered as a child when his father was killed by a British officer. This occurred a little before India attained Independence. Coincidentally he meets Alice in London; she is the daughter of his father’s killer. Tapan’s world goes topsy-turvy as he tries to figure out what to do since he nurses a visceral hatred for the former colonial rulers of India. It is a peculiar situation to be in given that he has more or less decided to relocate abroad and never to return to India. It impacts his relationship with Alice too who is more than sympathetic to his feelings and is willing to let the past be bygones but it is a demon that Tapan finds hard to forget. He does go to India briefly to attend a wedding and meet his paternal grandmother — someone whom he loves dearly and who had lost two sons in the Indian Freedom Struggle. So much so that the Indian politicians are now keen to bestow upon her a monthly allowance recognising her sons’ contribution as freedom fighters. It is upon meeting his grandmother, who is past eighty and who witnessed much sorrow in her lifetime, that Tapan realises it is best to forget and forgive that which happened in the past and move on. Otherwise the past becomes an impossible burden to shed. Blood is a brilliantly translated novel that does not seem dated despite its preoccupations with the Indian Freedom struggle and a newly independent India. For all the stories and their intersections, it is evident that Blood is a modern novel which is worth resurrecting in the twenty-first century. The issues it raises regarding immigrants, familial ties, free will, social acceptance, loneliness, etc will resonate with many readers. As Debali says in the interview that “As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.”
Sunil Gangopadhyay, who died in 2012, was one of Bengal’s best-loved and most-acclaimed writers. He is the author of over a hundred books, including fiction, poetry, travelogues and works for children. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Those Days. This novel Blood was first published in 1973.
Here is a lightly edited interview conducted via email with the translator:
1 . How long did it take you to translate Blood? In the translator’s note you refer to two editions of the novel. What are the differences in the two editions?
I was on sabbatical during the spring semester of 2018 and Blood was my new project. I began working on it around the middle of January and completed the first draft in May. However, I let it sit for a year before returning to revise it.
I chose to use the second edition (1974) of Blood, rather than the first (1973), because the author made a few revisions. The alterations are minor, mostly cosmetic, and include replacing a few words in the text. These are mostly English words transliterated into Bengali: For instance, in Chapter 1, when Tapan asks Alice if she has the right glasses for serving champagne she responds, in the first edition, with “Don’t be fussy, Tapan” whereas, in the second, she says, “Don’t be funny, Tapan.” The revised second edition also corrects spelling errors and misprints.
2. The book may have been first published in 1973 but it seems a very modern text in terms of its preoccupations especially the immigrants. What were the thoughts zipping through your mind while translating the story?
To me the novel’s handling of immigrant concerns feels brutally honest. Blood refuses to romanticise the expatriate condition as exile and, instead, adopts an ironic stance towards immigrant angst, homesickness, and nostalgia. Yet, the irony is tempered with pathos in the narration’s uncovering of immigrant dilemmas. For instance, an Indian immigrant uneasy about her fluency in English chooses to stay indoors, but remains enamoured with England which she nevertheless cannot fully experience. Through the exchanges between the novel’s protagonist Tapan and his friend Dibakar, Blood also offers the realistic view that immigration is often driven by practical considerations. As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.
This does not mean that western societies get a pass in the novel. Through situations both small and large the novel exposes the racist and anti-immigration views prevailing in the United Kingdom, during the 1960s. That said, Blood is also critical of racial prejudice amongst Indians. Given current debates around immigration and citizenship both in India and across the globe, the novel’s treatment of this subject remains relevant.
Connected to issues of migration and home, the novel brings to the fore complex questions about homeland and belonging, uncovering how the location of “home” has been rendered unstable through the Partition’s severing of birthplace and homeland.
3. What is the methodology you adopt while translating? For instance, some translators make rough translations at first and then edit the text. There are others who work painstakingly on every sentence before proceeding to the next passage/section. How do you work?
For me it is a mix of both. I typically plan on translating a text it in its entirety before proceeding with the revisions but this intention is usually short-lived and seldom lasts beyond the first few pages. I find it difficult to progress until the translation feels most appropriate to the context, fits the voice, and fully conveys the meaning of the original. While translating Blood I have spent entire mornings deciding between synonyms. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle because there is only one piece/word that fits. And sometimes I have had to redraft an entire sentence (even entire paragraphs) to elegantly capture the sense of the whole!
4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?
First, the cons, the impulse to interpret. And the pros: the joy of being able to partake in the (re-)making of something beautiful.
5. Are there any questions that you wished you could have asked Sunil Gangopadhyay while translating his novel?
Were he alive, I would have requested him to read a completed draft of my translation.
6. What prompted you to become a professional translator?
My translation-work is driven primarily by the love of the text and the desire to find it a larger audience. In the future, I hope to be able to devote more time to it.
There is also a pedagogical dimension to this. In my capacity as a teacher of world literature, I aim to expose students to the vast and rich body of vernacular writings from the Indian subcontinent, inevitably through translations. And from personal experiences in the classroom, I know that many of my students are genuinely curious about writings from around the world. Blood is a small step in that direction. It is a book I want to teach.
7. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation?
I believe the first translated book I read was one of the many “Adventures of Tintin”, The Secret of the Unicorn. But children’s books aside, the book that came to mind immediately upon reading your question is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It may not have been the first translated work I read, but it ranks among the most memorable ones. This is because while I knew that Marquez wrote in Spanish, Rabassa’s translation preserved the novel’s artistic qualities so meticulously that it lulled me into thinking that I was reading the original. It is a quality I aspire to bring to my work.
8. How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project?
Not to sound self-absorbed, but my decision is based largely on how deeply the work moves me. My first translation project involved a short story by the Bengali author Jyotirmoyee Devi, entitled “Shei Chheleta” (“That Little Boy”). It depicts the predicament of a young woman who lost a family-member in the Partition riots. The author handled the subject with great sensitivity without resorting to the maudlin. The story would not leave me alone. I had to translate it because I needed to share it, and discuss it with friends and colleagues who did not read Bengali. Similarly, Gangopadhyay’s novel intrigued me when I first read it. I thought about the characters long after I had finished the book, imagined their lives beyond the novel. I knew that one day I would translate it. It hibernated within me for years because, in the meanwhile, there were Ph.D. dissertations to write and research to publish. Finally, a sabbatical gave me the gift of time, and I just had to do it.
9. How would you define a “good” translation?
Preserving the artistic, poetic, and, of course, propositional content of the original is central to my understanding of a good translation. To resort to the old cliché, it is about conveying the letter and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the original. The translated text, I feel, must itself be a literary work, a work imbued with the beauty of the original. Additionally, readability is fundamental. Therefore, I asked family members and friends to read the draft translation for lucidity and fluency. For this reason, I am immensely gratified by your observation about Blood that, “It has been a long time since I managed to read a translation effortlessly and not having to wonder about the original language. There is no awkwardness in the English translation”.
10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
It is difficult for me to say since I never received any formal training in translation-work. To me, translation is more than just an academic exercise, it is an act of love — love for the text itself, love of the language, and the love of reading. For me the best preparation was reading, and reading widely, even indiscriminately. While my love of reading was nurtured from early childhood by my mother, I had the privilege of being exposed to some of the finest works of world literature through my training in comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Calcutta and, later, in literature departments in America.
11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
The translator walks a tightrope between the two, where tipping towards either side is perilous. A translation is, by definition, derivative, so fidelity to the original text is essential. Yet, a translation of a literary work is much more than a stringing together of words in another language. It is itself a literary work. And it is incumbent upon the translator not only to make the work accurate and readable but also literary in a way that is faithful to the literary qualities of the original.
12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; J.M. Cohen’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; and A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.
More recently, Supriya Chaudhuri, Daisy Rockwell, and Arunava Sinha have produced quality translations from Indian languages.
I read Gaël Faye’s book more than a year ago. Loved every word of it even though the story itself is horrific about the Rwanda genocide. The genocide began in April 1994 and lasted 100 days. Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed. Gaël Faye’s French-Rwandan wife’s Tutsi grandmother was also killed after taking refuge in a church. Small Country is a heartbreakingly painful story to read but it does not leave you in a hurry. It is magnificently translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone. For ever so long I had wanted to meet/interview Gaël Faye. In Jan 2020, Gael Faye was invited to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. I did get the opportunity to meet him at the French Institute in Delhi. Unfortunately, due to a set of unusual circumstances I was caught in a traffic snarl and could not make it to the venue in time. Instead Isabelle Jaitly stepped in to interview Gael Faye on my behalf. She asked him the questions I had drafted and added some of her splendid ones as well. The interview was conducted in French since they are both fluent in the language. Isabelle has translated it from French into English. It has taken time as it is a long and complicated process. It involved first transcribing the interview from an audio recording and then translating it into English. The translation was also delayed by factors beyond our control — the Covid19 pandemic. It effectively forced the French government to cancel the Book Fair in Paris where India was going to be the guest of honour. Isabelle who works at the French Institute in Delhi was inundated with first the planning for the fair and then helping with the aftermath. It has been a surreal year. So I am truly delighted to publish on my blog this extraordinary interview with an extraordinary singer-cum-author and an extraordinary backstory!
Gaël Faye is an author, songwriter and hip-hop artist. He released his first solo album in 2013, with his first novel following in 2016. Born in 1982 in Burundi to a French father and Rwandan mother, Faye moved with his family to France in 1995 after the outbreak of the civil war and Rwandan genocide. His debut novel Small Country was published to international acclaim. Written in French it has been translated brilliantly by Sarah Ardizzone. A lot must have been called upon her to invest in this translation. To delve into another language, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but Sarah has done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading.
Gaël Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people, then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text.
In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gaël Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gaël Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gaël Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? The translation too would have been tough leaving its mark on the translator. This is not a passage easily forgotten.
The fluidity of the prose is breath-taking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening.
The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve. But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her nieces and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. I had a zillion questions for Gael. So when presented with an opportunity to interview him, I posed some of them.
Here are lightly edited excerpts of the interview conducted by Isabelle Jaitly and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.
1. Why write a novel, rather than a long poem?
That’s a form I had never tried and I had been wanting to write a novel for a long time. And as I already write songs, which are for me some kind of poems, I felt there was a certain limit to this form. At the same time I imagine that this novel is in a way a long poem, because I tried to introduce poetry in it as much as I could, as indeed I try to put poetry in everything I write.
Was it unsettling going from a very constraining form to a very free form?
One has to find one’s bearing. I used some ‘devices’ to help myself in this. I wrote letters inside the novel; the narrator sends letters to someone and these letters acted in a way as milestones, which gave a sense of time and frame to the action. A little bit like rhymes in a song. That said, one never knows how to write a novel, it’s through trials and errors.
2. What do you prefer: prose or poetry?
It depends on the mood… I like to navigate from one to the other. But in a way, poetry is not a form in itself. Poetry can be found everywhere. There is such a thing as a prose poem! There is no tight limit, no frontier between the two.
3. Can reading a book change a person? How do you think your book may have impacted others?
Yes, a book can alter the way you see the world, alter things within oneself. I have been through it, and I imagine others have as well. About my book, it’s difficult to speak on behalf of my readers, but from what I have seen through the feedback I have got, it has helped many people unlock silences in their families, or admit things to themselves that they have been able to own, like the experience of exile, or a trauma from the war or genocide. I have received these kinds of feedbacks. In a lighter vein, many people have discovered a reality they had no idea about though my novel. I have received feedback from Afghan readers, from Iran. But not from India, and I am looking forward to it.
And you, have you ever been changed by a book?
Yes, and even by several books. One author who had a great influence on me is René Duprestre, from Haiti. I was overwhelmed when I started reading him. He was for me like a mentor, a sort of Pygmalion. Another book answered many questions I had in my childhood, about my metis, the book of ‘peau noire, masques blancs’ (Black Skin, White Masks) a book by Frantz Fanon, a writer from Martinique. it helped me come to terms with my origins without being in conflict with them. And the list can go on. I go on reading amazing books, which in a way change my outlook. But the books we read as teenagers have a very strong effect on us. As teenagers, we are in the process of being formed, so my strongest emotions as a reader happened during that time.
4. Was it difficult to write about the genocide?
Not really. I spend part of the year in Rwanda, I come from a family who went through the genocide, who are survivors. We live with this. And I find that my novel, on the contrary, considerably minimizes what happened. I didn’t open a wardrobe full of memories I wanted to forget. These are things with which I live, because around me the society lives with it, the society in Rwanda lives with the genocide. So the biggest difficulty for me was to make this part of history accessible to those who have not gone through it. So, in a way, to bring it to a universal level. And avoid thinking: this is a genocide that concerns a far away country in Africa, so it’s not my story, it’s not my business. I wanted to make this story a topic of discussion to anybody anywhere
5. What about the pain?
No, there was no pain. I am always surprised to see how people want it to have been painful. No, this is work, so there are days when it’s harder than others, but not emotionally. It is painful for the narrator, but not for me, I am the writer! It is my job to make it feel real, to give the feeling that for the character, there are doubts, there is pain and suffering. But me, as a writer, I sit at my table, and some days the writing comes easily, and I am pleased, and some days, I am depressed, because I haven’t been able to express my thoughts the way I wanted. This is the daily life of any writer. It may be surprising, but I wrote this novel with a lot of joy, a real lightness. Only one scene was difficult for me to write, and that is the scene of the mother being violent towards her daughter. It wasn’t easy, this scene, because I have children, and somehow I did a transfer, of a parent hitting their child, and that was probably the hardest scene. Of course the scene of the mother who comes back from Rwanda and, sitting at the table with her family, tells about what she has seen there, that was not easy, but here again, it so much falls short of what really happened, of what I hear everyday, of the story told by those who have survived, that, in the end, writing about it was not as hard as one could think. The hardest for me is to find the form through which to express all this. The ideas are there. There are so many topics I want to write about in my songs, in novels. but the hardest for me is to find the angle, the right angle. And this, you can not learn, you have to try out, and that’s always the hardest thing, whether you write a song or a novel. Let’s say, I want to write about peace: It’s so cliché, everyone has written a song about peace! But actually, nothing is ever cliché, you just have to find the right angle. Same about love.
So what may be surprising here is to see that this novel is not an autobiography, it is a novel. Although the title Small Country refers to one of your most popular songs, “Petit Pays”.
Yes, that’s right, it’s not an autobiography. But here again, it’s complicated… I think every novel is a form of autobiography. Here, there’s a great closeness between me and the character: his origins, the context in which he spends his childhood, what he goes through during his childhood, this time of war, and indeed I have gone through this myself, the transition from a time of peace to war… but if you go into details, what happens to him is not at all what happened to me. Of course I used my feelings at the time to write about him, but everyone does that when writing a novel. It’s a material, and everything becomes a material.
7. What prompted you to write this book?
First it’s the frustration of not being able to put all this in a song. I wrote a song called ‘L’ennui des après midi sans fin’ (‘The boredom of never ending afternoons’), which was very long, with a long text, and I had the frustration of not having said everything: about childhood, about the time of insouciance. So that’s how I started the novel: I wanted to expand on this song. Then, there were the events, in my area of Paris, the attack against Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, there were scenes of war in Paris. It took me back 20 years. Hearing the Kalashnikov, the atmosphere of fear, or terror even. I lived for two years in the war. So there was a feeling of déja vu, a feeling well buried which came back in the everyday setting of Paris, it was very strange. That also fed the desire I had to write about the cocoons one creates around oneself. In the novel, there is a space that is that of the impasse (dead-end). This is a symbolic space for me: it’s the space where one withdraws, a space which is a cocoon, and at the same time this space becomes a trap. So there’s a swaying between the two. And to me, life in France has this feature: a mix between the cocoon, the desire to see the world through an idealised typical image, as if everything is fine and going well. It creates a distance with the world and its violence. At the same time, the world and its violence catch up, because there is no frontier between human interactions, and a conflict that happens at the other end of the world can impact France. So there was this ambivalence. And this child, in the novel, finds himself in this desire to create a distance between him and the violence around him.
8. Why do you use a child, a boy-narrator, as a literary device? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement?
This too was through trial and errors. At the beginning, I wrote the novel through the voice of an adult, and actually this voice still comes through here and there. Finally, I chose the voice of the child. It gave me an angle, because it allowed me to unfold the story through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the environment he is in, more than the reader. Adults tend to always be one step ahead. The child is innocent in the political environment; he will discover it at the same time as the reader. That allowed to be didactic without showing it. And it was essential for a story that speaks about a country, Burundi, about a history, the history of the Great Lakes region, that nobody knows anything about. This way, the character goes forward at the same time as the reader. This way I don’t have to explain and justify feelings and motives. Adults, especially on the issue of ethnicity, find reasons to explain even absurd situations. I liked the naive point of view of the child, who will ask questions, because he doesn’t understand, and actually there is nothing to understand, because it is absurd. This is what comes through at the beginning with the explanations about ethnicity being divided according to the shape of their noses. This is a reality. But it’s absurd of course Children don’t find excuses. They look at the world as it is.
Beforehand, I wasn’t conscious about it, but now, I am very aware of how much the reader looks for the writer in a book. It think it is a mistake (a flaw). Maybe it goes with the society we live in, where everyone stages himself, stages his life, this world of reality shows… for me, a novel is a novel, it’s a story. Whether the writer has lived this story or not, what matters is whether one is carried away, touched by the story. Being invented doesn’t, for me, affect the power of a story. But I do wonder… my book has been translated in more than 40 languages, I have travelled a lot, met a lot of readers, and this question keeps coming back.
10. If people believe so much that it happened to you, it’s a compliment to the power of conviction of your writing.
Yes, it maybe a compliment, but what if it hadn’t happened? What does it take away from the book? If everything had been invented from beginning to end, for me that wouldn’t take anything away from the book, from a story. Actually I am very shy about my life, I don’t share anything about it. Unless someone is an historic figure, like Mandela, or Martin Luther King, I don’t feel there is a point to write an autobiography, according to me at least. And real lives are always so much more complex that lives in novels. If I wrote about my life, nobody would believe me, because my life is 100 times more complex. A novel allows to give the broad lines, so that the reader can identify with the character or the story. Going into complexity, one looses the link we have with the reader. I believe this is the role of artists: what is the common denominator between human beings, that allows to bring human beings together. These are often banalities, such as love, friendship, hate, war, things that are experienced everywhere. The story has to be simple. If you go too much into complexities, you lose the distancing. And this is not what a novel is about; at least, it is my point of view.
11. With the intentional blurring of the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape, it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why did you choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt.
It is not a device. The voice of the adult at the beginning comes back at the end. I did it to speak about something that is close to my heart: the feeling of exile. If I had started with the voice of the child, this feeling would have not been there, and I wanted it to hang over the novel (suffuse?). I wanted it to be a novel about exile. Because I would never have written a book, if I had stayed in Burundi. I feel this very deeply. It is the distance with my country that allowed it. Actually, when I went to live in Rwanda, went back to the region where I spent my childhood, the writing dried up. I couldn’t write any more about the country, the environment: it was here, under my eyes, and I needed the distance. It’s like love letters. It fills a vacuum. Writing for me had this function for many years. So I wanted there to be a character that made the reader feel certain things. This character says things that are essential, for example about exile being a door that is left ajar. Saying that the exiled person is not the one who decides to leave, but the one who has to flee. Another important aspect is that we know, we guess from the beginning that this child is going to be confronted to war, and that either it will end badly for him, or he will have to flee. That’s what happens. But I wanted to show that the region I come from is not an open sky cemetery. Yes, there is war and violence, but life goes on. Businesses spring back on their feet, they go on. So it was important for me that the character should leave, and also come back. Africa is not a continent that the character leaves, and nothing else happens, it falls into oblivion. The link with one’s past is always there. So it was important for me to have this voice, this point of view too in the novel. It also shows, through this, what happens to a child who goes through all this, what kind of an adult he can become. If one stops at childhood, there is no hint about what this child may become later. And I am passionate about imagining the trajectory of people, where they come from and what they become. In my family, people have had incredible destinies. Born in a village, with nothing, they go on to live in world capitals, do long studies, get jobs. I am always fascinated to see how, in a few years, one can change one’s condition. So, emotionally, I find this interesting.
You say we can be changed by a book. What changes do you hope to see though this book?
My hope is simply to make life in Burundi human and tangible. It’s not just a statistic. Burundi, Rwanda, these are countries one only see through the prism of war and violence. So obviously the point of view is distorted. One cannot imagine that families there may live normal, simple, happy lives. There are no novels about Burundi. I certainly have never seen one. So this is like a manifest: we existed, we had simple, banal lives. I wanted to give it a voice. It’s not much, but it’s already something. I want to remove the exotic, the set images, set ideas. I am part of a new generation of writers writing about the region. And as such, we constantly have to go back to explain things from the beginning. We have to explain the history of the place, because it is unknown. When I got an award in 2016 from high school students (Prix Goncourt des Lycéens), many young people told me they didn’t know about the Great Lakes region. The hope is that one day we can write stories without having to go through this didactic process. I hope we will allow this to happen for the younger, next generation… They will be able to write about lighter, more banal stories, love stories, and science fiction.
12 Has the success of Small Country been paralyzing for you?
Writing has moments of epiphany, great joy, where I feel: this is why I write! But it is also great suffering. You have to give a part of yourself, to put part of yourself on the line. I need this to feel that the work is sincere. This is probably due to the fact that I started writing for reasons that were not light reasons: war, being a witness etc. So my pointer is always this: Am I being sincere? There is already so much noise on this planet, everywhere, non stop. Why add to it? I need to feel that my writing is not gratuitous. If I take the attention of people, it is to bring something to them, not to say, hello, I exist. It is so tempting today to exist just for existing. When we open a book, we try to create silence around us, in us. Great songs are the same for me. They bring you something that you can’t hear otherwise. The artist has to fight the urgency. We are pushed into it. But it’s like a child who needs nine months to be born. The artist needs a gestation period which cannot be dictated. It’s only an intimate feeling that can tell us that we are ready, we have found the right angle, the right voice. So I know that the process I am in at the moment, of writing a new novel, is complicated. There is an expectation: but that, I have to forget about. But mainly it is complicated because I want to put myself on the line. It’s fascinating, but it’s crazy, so much work! Put oneself on the line and at the same time remember that nobody is waiting for it, it remains something superfluous. Radicalism is dangerous. There is no radicalism; the most radical thing in the world is to find a balance — take it from a metis person!