French Institute in India Posts

In conversation with 2021 International Booker Prize winners David Diop and Anna Moschovakis, 3 Sept 2021

On 3 Sept 2021, I moderated a conversation with the 2021 International Booker winners David Diop and his translator from French to English, Anna Moschovakis for the book At Night All Blood is Black. It was conducted in two languages — French and English. This was organised in collaboration with the French Embassy in India/ French Book Office and UPES University. It was the inaugural event for Espace France at UPES. It was also an exclusive as this was the first ( and so far the only) event that had been organised in India/South Asia with David Diop and Anna Moschovakis. This event assumed significance for another special reason: France is the Guest of Honour at the New Delhi World Book Fair, Jan 2022 and India at the Paris Book Fair, April 2022.

The International Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious and richest literary prizes in the world @ US$ 50,000. It is meant exclusively for literature in translation/world literature. The author and the translator share the prize equally.

David Diop is a French-Senegalese writer who spent most of his childhood in Senegal before returning to France for his studies. In 1998, he became a professor of literature at the Université de Pau et des pays de l’Adour. In 2018, he won the prestigious French literary award, Prix Goncourt des lycéens, for his first novel, Frère d’ame. It was published by the renowned French publishing firm, Éditions du Seuil. In 2021, he won the International Booker Prize. The English translation, At Night All Blood Is Black. has been published by the fabulous independent press Pushkin Press, UK.

Anna Moschovakis is a Greek American poet, author, and translator. She divides her time between the USA and Greece. Moschovakis is a founding member of Bushel Collective and the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse. She is a faculty member of Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, as well as an adjunct associate professor in the Writing MFA program at Pratt Institute. Her writing has appeared in eminent literary journals such as The Paris Review, The Believer and The Iowa Review. Moschovakis’ book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, won the James Laughlin Award in 2011. Her first novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, was published in 2018.

It turned out to be a phenomenal success! We had over 500+ registerations on Zoom for the event. As happens with these events, ultimately only a smaller proportion sign in and attend the event. So approximately 150+ people logged in to watch the conversation in real time. Interestingly enough we discovered that except for about 5 or 6 people, everyone stayed glued to their screens for the entire duration of the discussion. This is unusual given that internet fatigue has set in during the pandemic. We had participants joining across time zones in real time —Canada, USA, UK, France, Germany, Nepal, India and Australia. For the next few days, the organisers were getting correspondence from a wide range of people lauding them. The impact factor was fantastic as the remarks were coming in from academics, institution heads, students, translators, journalists, readers, publishers etc. It was cutting across communities. In fact, while we were on air, the French Institute in India received a request to translate the novel into Hindi! This, after it was announced at the event that under the Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore) of the IFI, the novel is already being translated into Malayalam ( DC Books) and Tamil ( Kalachuvadu)

Here are some comments:

Vidya Vencatesan à Conférenciers et participants (6:31 PM)
M. Diop vous êtes au programme de maîtrise depuis deux ans, succès inouï
Excellante initiative par IFI. FELICITATIONS!!
Sukrita Paul Kumar à Conférenciers (6:52 PM)
Very perceptive questions, Jaya
Jyotsna Paliwal à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM)
émerveillant, Merci bcp!
Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM)
Superbe!!! Extraordinaire!!
Jayanti Pandey à Conférenciers (7:07 PM)
Merci beaucoup
Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM)
Super David et Anna!!!
Preeti Bhutani à Conférenciers (7:07 PM)
très intense. Super!
Rohit Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:08 PM)

it’s the best catchy Title I ever encountered!!
HARSHALI Harshali à Conférenciers et participants (7:09 PM)
Bravo!! émerveillant
Dhritiman Das à Conférenciers (7:09 PM)
Thank you for this extraordinary opportunity to get introduced to the stream of consciousness method.
Gaurav Arya à Conférenciers (7:14 PM)
Fabulously put together panel, with so many varied perspectives are threading so seamlessly
Surely the experiences of men and women for WW I will be different, since women were not recruited as soldiers then. Women were left behind, caring for the sick and wounded, or grieving for loved ones lost.
Aslam Khan à Conférenciers et participants (7:23 PM)
what a wonderful discussion, thanks to the writer, translator and specially the organisers ❤
Shauna Singh Baldwin à Conférenciers (7:25 PM)
The senegalese soldiers were going into a battle for their colonial masters — this has not been documented before. Did you know the major differences between the Senegalese soldiers feelings in contrast to their French masters before or was that revealed by your research?
Mandira Sen à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM)
Fascinating, much to learn and think about
Thanks for organizing this. Mandira Sen
Anaheeta Irani à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM)
Merci.C’etait excellent
Chandan Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM)
Very informative session ..Merci de vous
Maitrayi Nag à Conférenciers (7:35 PM)
Oui, j’ai beaucoup aimé.
Nidhi Singh à Conférenciers (7:35 PM)
excellent session.. thankyou to organisers
Kamala Narasimhan à Conférenciers et participants (7:36 PM)
Thanks to David and Anna for their interaction and also to Jaya for moderating brilliantly. A special thanks to Uma for interpreting so wonderfully David! And thanks also to IFI for organising this!
Namrata Singhvi à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM)
Merci beaucoup ! Une discussion très intéressante !
Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM)
Recit bouleversant! Grande impatience de lire le roman prochainement.
Chris Raja à Conférenciers et participants (7:38 PM)
Thank you very much David and Jaya. Best wishes from Melbourne
My Anglo Indian grandfather was involved in WW1
Elsa mathews à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM)
beautiful discussion!
lot to learn
Ena Panda à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM)
Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français
Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM)
Merci Christine pour avoir organise cet evenement!!

Some messages that came in separately:

Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français!

Good morning. It was a wonderful conversation last evening. You steered it along very well. I really enjoyed it. 🙂

I enjoyed this conversation. I wish it could have gone on for another hour!

fantastic event it was. and was so accomodating for a naive like me. simple english. understandable; felt the connect wth author/ Translator and more with the audience. swift as breeze. i many time dont get converstaions but this was so easy and right from the heart. bulls eye it was.

More power to you and such wonderful lectures. God knows the poor students need such knowledge that frees them and gives them joy. I also liked Anna and her candid unaffected responses. So lovely! A five-star event overall, in my most humble opinion!! 👍👍

***

Watch the conversation on Facebook. The panelists include David Diop, Anna Moschokovis, Uma Sridhar (translator), Dr. Christine Cornet, Attachée Livre et débat d’idées, Institut français India/Embassy of France and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, co-founder, ACE Literary Consulting and Associate Professor, School of Modern Media Studies, UPES University.

The UPES University posted a fabulous blog post on the conversation by Ekta Kashyap, “David Diop’s guide to writing an award-winning novel” (15 September 2021). It is an account of the conversation with an edited version of the transcript. Well worth reading!

This was a tremendous event as we spoke in two languages, it moved seamlessly between the languages even though I do not speak French but we had Uma Sridhar translating for us brilliantly. It seemed as if we were having an excellent in-depth conversation about war literature, the canon of war literature, whether the gender of the writer makes a difference to the style of storytelling, translations, working with nonfiction material and converting it into fiction, use of folklore and magic realism etc. I am not listing the questions here but it is best that you hear the recording on Facebook. We covered a fair bit of ground and if time had permitted us, we would have spoken longer. Alas, it was not to be! Perhaps another time.

Many thanks to the French Institute in India, the French Embassy in India, UPES University, and Editions du Seuil for collaborating to organise this exclusive event in South Asia.

27 Sept 2021

Celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Baudelaire

On 9 April 2021, I was invited by the French Institute in India to moderate a panel discussion on Charles Baudelaire. It was to celebrate the French poet, essayist and translator’s bicentenary. His dates are 1821 – 1867. It was a daunting task as the panelists included poets/writers such as Jeet Thayil, Amrita Narayanan, Ranjit Hoskote and Anupama Raju. Nevertheless the conversation went off beautifully. It was almost magical. Here is the link to the recording. It is available on the French Institute of India’s Facebook page. Take a look:

https://www.facebook.com/IFInde/videos/762611194439425

In anticipation of the event, I had prepared a bunch of questions to pose to the panellists. Fortunately, the need never arose since many of the points were addressed in the individual speeches everyone gave. Anyhow, I am posting the list of questions here as well:

  1. Love is a significant portion of Baudelaire’s poetry. Would you say that it is a crucial element in your own writings? If yes, what is the ideal form of treating love as a subject in poetry, assuming that there is an “ideal” notion to be achieved.

2. There is a very modern quality to Baudelaire’s essays and poems especially in his emphasis on the present. It permeates the style of his writing and the vocabulary he chooses. It is not what you expect in nineteenth century literature, especially French literature, with its emphasis on the formal. Would you say that this “modern” tenor is to be emulated and if yes, is it harder to do so than it seems? (Of course, I can only access his works in translation.)

3. In his essay on “The Universal Exhibition of 1835”, he asks, “What are the laws that determine this shifting of artistic vitality?” It seems to be a question that he ponders over even in his poetry. What do you think? Are there any such laws governing “artistic vitality”?

4. For a poet, how important is the imagination and how important is it to remain alive to events, stories, people etc? These could be contemporary or historical.

5. Role of a poet/critic as a social commentator? Is it essential to communicate with readers in the language that they will understand and appreciate or deign to create flowery poetry? 

6. What is the function of a critic? What should be the nature of his/her criticism? Is this reflected in your poetry and prose?

7. Playing with form comes naturally to Baudelaire, as it seems to all of you. Is it a natural progression for a poet to prose or are there a different set of rules governing each form? Are rules meant to be broken as exhibited by Baudelaire?

8. Does art have to be useful or can it focus upon being aesthetically pleasing?

9. What is the responsibility of the poet/writer in defining the cultural landscape? Or do they only create for themselves solely?

10. What is the purpose of art? Is to create beauty, pursue truths? Be concerned with the ethics of goodness and morality?

11. For Baudelaire, a work of art was measured by the impact it had upon its subject rather than how it conformed to objective standards of proportion. Do you agree with this statement vis-à-vis your own works and its impact upon readers?

12. Baudelaire believed that the poet and critic within him are inseparable. Would you agree with the statement while analysing your own body of work?

13. Do you think technology has in anyway impacted the speed of movement and execution it imposes upon the artist? It is a conundrum that Baudelaire addresses in his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” where he advocates time is spent fruitfully in creating something of beauty as it will make it more valuable. Yet, external factors do not necessarily permit this to happen. This was in the nineteenth century when technological advancements such as the printing presses and mass production were happening at a very rapid pace. It is much like what we are witnessing today as well. Almost like a second Industrial Revolution, if you will. So has the speed of the Internet dissemination, affected your creativity?

14. Always Be A Poet, Even In Prose!

9 April 2021

“Challenges of Translation”, 23 Jan 2021, AKLF and French Institute in India

I will be moderating a panel discussion on the “Challenges of Translation” on Saturday, 23 Jan 2021, 4:15-5:15pm IST.

Romain Rolland Prize
Challenges of Translation

with Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Diplomat. Counsellor for Education, Science and Culture at French Embassy in India / Ambassade de France en Inde & Director of @IFInde / French Institute in India, Maina Bhagat, Director, Oxford Bookstores & Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, Chinmoy Guha, translator, Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Institut français India/Embassy of France with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Followed by the announcement of the winners of the prize with Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Virginie Corteval, Consul General of France in Kolkata, Maina Bhagat and Chinmoy Guha.

This AKLF event is in association with Institut Francais and Alliance Du Bengale.

As soon as the link of the recording will be available, I will post it here as well. But it will be LIVE on all the @AKLF social media platforms. Details are in the poster.

19 Jan 2021

Interview with French politician, academic and novelist, Erik Orsenna

On 8 October 2020, the French Institute of India and the Oxford Bookstores co-hosted a digital book launch. It was for the Tamil edition of noted French politician, academic and award-winning novelist, Erik Orsenna’s biography of Louis Pasteur — Pasteur, Life, Death and Beyond. Erik Orsenna is an award-winning #novelist, member of the very prestigious Académie Française and a French politician. His real name is Eric Arnoult. He has been advisor to many French presidents including President Mitterrand. Erik Orsenna has won the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. He is now an advisor to President Macron. It has been published by Amutharasan Paulraj, Thadagam Publishers. The book was translated from French into Tamil by Dr. S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar. The digital book launch was conducted in three languages — English, French and Tamil.

The panel included Erik Orsenna, Dr Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Amutharasan Paulraj, Dr. S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar, and Dr Srinivas V. Kaveri, Director, CNRS Office, New Delhi. I moderated the conversation. It was such a fantastically enriching discussion that carried on for nearly one and a half hours!

We covered a lot of bases. The conversation moved seamlessly from topic to topic, of which a wide range were covered. From Louis Pasteur, science, looking at disciplines holistically rather than only as areas of specialisation, the Victorian Age, print and ebooks, waterways, sustainable development etc. It was truly an interesting conversation. At one point, Erik Orsenna, extended an invitation to visit Brittany!

Dr Srinivas V. Kaveri and I conducted a Q&A via email. It is a very brief encapsulation of what we discussed during the live conversation. Erik Orsenna replied in French and the document was translated by Akriti Ahluwalia, French Institute in India.

  1. Jaya: How do you define yourself — Scholar, politician, environmentalist, thinker, businessman or writer?  Why Pasteur?

I have not changed since childhood. I am a curious person, always obsessed with understanding “how it works”. I am first a professor, happy to learn and happy to pass it on. And for this, I am always looking for new perspectives to cross with the old ones. To be a “specialist” in the field is the least I can do. But this least thing is not enough. The world and life are connected, “religious” in the etymological sense, without relation to a God.

2. Srini: my question is about the intriguing title of your book. Although death ends life, yet it is part of life, let’s say the last part of life.  Pasteur points out at the importance of life and death of “living creatures” in several scientific ways, but you say “le domaine de la vie est bien plus large qu’on ne croyait”. if I may translate it as: “the field or subject of life is much vaster than we thought”. You have your own views on the intricate relation between life and death. Could you please tell us the significance of Life, Death, Life (again) in your title?

It is Montaigne who answers: “But you do not die because you are sick, you die because you are alive.” Our civilisation, which refuses death, which would like to prolong existence indefinitely, does not love life. For Pasteur, this title also has another, more intimate meaning: he, the researcher giving all his strength to pierce through the mysteries of Life, saw two of his little daughters, tenderly loved, die at his side.

3. Jaya: What is it that fascinates you about the Victorian period?   Do you think that we are now living in a modern version of the Victorian Age where inter-disciplinary studies are again in vogue?

The Victorian Age is that of the explosion of Knowledge. It seems that tens and hundreds of Newtons hatched at the same time because their perspectives crossed. It is the same for the arts. A radical difference with today: TRUST. The future will be better. And then in the future, this suicide of Europe, broke out in 1914.

4. Srini: your book reads like ……if I may say…a “thriller”! You are a great story-teller. Curiously – the research work of a scientist is often referred to as an ‘investigation’ and the scientists are themselves are called “investigators” – and you call Pasteur as ‘Commissaire Maigret’! A hidden passion for thrillers?

I am also a novelist. I like turning the pages. For every disease, you have to find the one responsible, the serial killer. Each time, Pasteur goes out into the field. He investigates. A real investigator!

5. Jaya: Do you think that in the 21C there is a greater need to understand the importance/ relationship of history, language, natural resources/geography, humans & animals? (his last book is Cochons, voyage au pays du vivant/Pigs, journey to the land of the living)(Fayard, September 2020)

Yes! The key notion is that of Unity. Unity of life. There is only ONE HEALTH. If the environment degrades, plants will suffer, then animals, then those members of the animal kingdom who are, let’s not forget, human beings. 95% of our genes are common with the pig (40% with plants, 70% with corals and genetically speaking, we are closer to the gorilla than the gorilla is to the chimpanzee).

6. Srini : “L’arbre n’est pas séparable des fruits qu’il porte” This is such a powerful statement and extremely pertinent – particularly in India. Basic research versus applied research is a never-ending debate. While there is an elitist attitude of scientists working on purely fundamental research, Louis Pasteur showed that it is possible to do basic research which has application and commercialization. How do you yourself see this principle?

Jaya: “I miss scientists who could have explained the phenomenon to me” and “All that week that single word ‘why’ haunted me.” — Is this at the heart of what you believe? The Indies Enterprise

Pasteur is COMPLETE. The whole chain is necessary: from the lab where we discover to the factory that manufactures medicines. Pasteur’s fame allows him to gather funds which help him create the Institute. First in Paris, then in 25 other countries. A scientist has to open up and constantly explain. Especially in a world where suspicion and conspiracy theories are growing.

7. Srini: India is not new to you. Two intriguing Indian concepts: first, reincarnation and Visha Kanya. Looking at the title of your book: La Vie, La Mort and again La Vie… as an Indian, the thought of reincarnation comes to mind. Also the question « Dieu existe-t-il? »  Does God exist? A never-ending debate…becomes even more challenging when a scientist is a “croyant – a believer”

I am a “horizontal” believer. For me, everything is connected. But no need for transcendence. Deus sive Natura. God or Nature. I am a religious atheist. I see gods everywhere. I am not very western.

8. Jaya: What is it that you seek in a biography? Do you think a biography should be about the life of a person from birth to death or also beyond — their impact on society/ humanity? (Much of what the Victorians achieved had a long-term impact!) Btw, why isn’t your book on Louis Pasteur translated into English? 

I am passionate about the “profession of living”. How do others live? For example, Pasteur: how did he “find” it? Or Beethoven, on whom I am currently working: did he have to wait until he was deaf to create his greatest works?

9. Srini: Self – Non-Self discrimination. As a debutant or a beginner student of immunology, I understand that one of the main pillars on which stands “immunology” is: self versus non-self! The immune system is indeed most potent and aggressive against “non-self” or microbes, but if it exerts a similar violent reaction against self – it can lead to disastrous consequences leading to autoimmunity. Thus, distinction between self and non-self is absolutely crucial. Curiously both in Greek and Hindu mythology, we hear this interesting concept. “Gnothi Seauton” in Greek and “Atma” concept in Hinduism! both c oncepts point at “know thyself” or “know yourself. You have discussed extensively with Patrice Debré – my teacher and colleague in immunology. How and where do you place this idea of Self – Non-Self?

A fundamental question, and the most mysterious! Self / Non self. I am fascinated by the question of grafts. But here, it is me who awaits answers.

10. Jaya: As a writer, researcher and reader, which format do you prefer to access — print or digital or a mix of both? Why did you choose to launch an ebook reader called Cybook in France? 

For a simple reason: I hate having to choose between reading (books are heavy) and travelling (always light, almost without luggage). Long live the digital! Why deprive yourself of this modernity.

11. Srini: You say that Pasteur was haunted by the idea that he was not the ‘inventor’ of Stereochemistry, it was Arago and Biot; he was not the initiator of the concept of Fermentation, it was Latour and Cagniard; he was not the ‘pioneer’ of vaccination, it was Jenner. However, you rightly position Pasteur’s greatness that a capacity “to gather all the knowledge and investigating systematically and precisely – leading to a step forward” indeed is a unique and rare quality! Please tell us about the mockery and humiliation that EVEN Pasteur had to endure!

Pasteur invented less than he discovered because he did THE SYNTHESIS of all the knowledge available at his time. And because he was able to gather a very diverse crew of explorers. Truth does not exist. Only Knowledge exists, which is a permanent movement. Pasteur’s enemies were immobile, arrested, rentiers of their status, lazy of certainty.

16 Oct 2020

In conversation with Tahar Ben Jelloun

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 MarriageThis Blinding Absence of LightThe 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.

Here is the video recording of the session:

https://www.facebook.com/oxfordbookstoredotcom/videos/261569195105137

4 July 2020

French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains: An interview with the ambassador about plans for translations of French literature into Indian languages and collaborations at books fairs.

I interviewed the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. The interview has been published in the online news portal Scroll. The text of the interview has been c&p below while the original url is here.

What’s brewing between Indian and French publishing? French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains
The Ambassador of France to India, Alexandre Ziegler at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019.

Alexandre Ziegler, the French Ambassador to India, was at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year to announce the winner of the 2019 Romain Rolland Book Prize. Recognising the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English, the Indo-French jury takes into account the quality of the translation and the publication itself while selecting the winner.

The award comes with an invitation to the Paris Book Fair 2019 in March for the publisher of the work and an invitation for the translator to attend a one-month residency in France.

This year, the longlist included essays as well as fiction and a very strong contribution from Indian languages apart from English, with four translations into Malayalam, two into Hindi, and one each into Tamil and Bengali. The winning title was The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine, published in France by Le Seuil, in India by Kalachuvadu, translated into Tamil by SR Kichenamourty.

Publisher Kannan Sunadaran, Kalachuvadu. Jury member Chinmoy Guha with R. Cheran, poet.
Jury members Annie Montaud, Renuka George, Michèle Albaret

The Romain Rolland Book Prize is just one of the actions of the French Institute in India to support translations of French books in India. It runs the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme and also launched a special training programme for translators this year. The first step was a one-day translation workshop focused on Indian regional languages, which took place on January 22 at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and brought together more than 60 participants from various universities in Delhi. Ros Schwartz, the acclaimed translator, conducted the workshop. The long-term translation programme is part of the roadmap leading up to, on the one hand, the Paris Book Fair 2020, where India will be the focus country, and on the other, the New Delhi Book Fair 2022, where France will be the guest of honour.

Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, 25 January 2019

Ziegler, who has been the Ambassador of France to India since 2016, spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival about these initiatives. Edited excerpts:

Why was the Romain Rolland Prize instituted and what is its main focus? Does France have similar prizes in other countries too?
The Romain Rolland Book Prize is a translation prize that aims to support publishers and translators involved in the translation of French titles into Indian languages. The purpose is to find the best book and to be able to negotiate for it on best possible terms while also promoting texts in translation. My feeling is that we speak about strategic and economic partnerships, of which both are growing well but we still have to invest more in culture.

In this age of machine translations, we often forget the human touch of a translator is critical. Translators are at the very core of the relationship between books and the world. What we have realised through our interventions is that it is not just texts in English and Hindi but we got very good texts from other languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam, too. It makes one realise that languages are very crucial to reaching out to other cultures, not necessarily in entire diversity of language. This is very reassuring for us.

The second Romain Rolland Book Prize is being awarded because of the quality of text. Creating the prize happened organically through the ongoing Tagore programme to recognise translations. We wanted to reinforce the initiative. As a result we are also co-organising a translations workshop with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The first one happened in January with acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz.

France has an active book trade, bookstores and book fairs. How receptive are the French to literature from India? Recently you released Over & Underground, a joint production between French and Indian writers and illustrators. How successful are such literary experiments? Does the cross-pollination of such cultural experiences help foster bilateral relationships, not necessarily confined to the literary domain?
Translation of the work of Indian authors in France has experienced several waves. Today there is a renewed interest among the French public for Indian authors. The dynamism of Indian publishing, its diversity and India’s international outreach have created a new curiosity for India and its authors and thinkers. The example of Over & Underground shows the combination of creativity between Indian and French authors, poets and illustrators. These co-publications need to be further encouraged and that is what we are working on.

Cross pollination of cultural experiences is exactly what we strive for to strengthen the ties between India and France. Books and other expressions of cultural diplomacy are a significant part of fostering bilateral relations.

What is the size of the French book market ? What are its characteristic features such as which genre sells the most, are print books preferred to ebooks, what is its growth rate etc? Is digital publishing making inroads with French readers?
The French publishing market is worth 4 billion euros, 300 million of which is in e-books. Overall, the French reader prefers printed books but there is a real growth in e-books. For consumer books, it represents only 3% of the market but for the B2B and books on law or medicine, this market reaches 9% with an annual growth of 10%. The e-book is also directly linked to the presence or absence of bookstores. E-books sell better where bookstores are not available.

The time of traditional reading has decreased but a recent survey conducted in November 2018 shows that 69% of the French population is connected: they read online but not necessarily literature! Each day, the French spend an average of 33 minutes on a computer and 52 minutes on a mobile phone. Reading is therefore omnipresent on other platforms but basically there is an attachment to the printed book in France: an average 5000 copies are printed but real successes vary between 200,000 and 300,000 copies. This is the case of [Michel] Houellebecq’s latest book, which will reach 400,000 copies. The trend is also to publish more titles each year. The number of prints is hence lower today than it was ten years ago.

France is known for its robust independent booksellers. Globally independent bookstores are finding it difficult to thrive but not necessarily in France. It is a remarkable success story. Do you have any interesting case study/report to share about how these independent bookstores have managed to continue?
There are about 1,000 independent bookstores in France. All those located in city centres are working well with an annual growth rate of 0.8%. This is a stable figure. Since 1981, the single price of the book has also allowed these bookstores to diversify. 37 countries, including 11 European countries, are currently applying the single price on books.

Recently the French Book Office (FBO) participated in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). What was the response from the locals to your participation? Did the FBO gain significant learnings from its presence at the fair? 
The French Institute in India invited four publishers of children’s literature and social sciences, and organised four professional panels. The exchanges between Indian and French publishers were very constructive but the NDWBF is not the ideal place for professional meetings. On the other hand, the invitation of a French author whose work has been translated in India and invited for a dialogue with an Indian author would allow exchanges with a wider audience. But our four publishers were very satisfied with their discovery of the Indian market and the prospects for collaboration in social sciences and children’s literature.

In 2003 I attended the Salon de livre Jeunesse at the invitation of the French government. It was extraordinary to see the throngs of children attending the book fair and buying books. I would be curious to know if the children’s book fair continues to be as popular. If so what are the kinds of books for children and young adults that are trending in France? Would you consider collaborating on projects for children’s and young adult literature with Indian publishers?
The Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse in Montreuil attracts a large number of visitors each year. In 2018, for the 34th edition, there were no less than 179,000 visitors in 6 days, 4,000 more than in 2017. So I think we can say that children’s publishing is a booming sector in France. The dynamism of publishers and all those involved in books and reading contributes greatly to this success. Access to the fair was free for a good number of visitors and it is a real desire for cultural democratisation. As well as the multitude of actions that take place throughout the country and throughout the year around reading: meetings, workshops, debates, readings, competitions, prizes, etc.

Children’s literature in France is a market that knows how to renew itself, to question itself and, finally, to innovate. Thus, the early childhood segment develops real nuggets with sounds and materials to touch. The album is full of creativity with an incredible diversity of illustrators. The documentary is now close to coffee-table books by offering books that appeal to adults and children alike, whose aesthetics are so neat that it gives one pleasure to open and read them. As for fiction, from its first readings to “young adult” literature, publishers are increasingly perfecting their skills by offering books of high quality, covering all the themes that may interest young readers.

Would you consider instituting a prize similar to the Romain Rolland Book Prize for children’s literature as well?
We are in fact planning to consider children’s books as potential winners of the Romain Rolland Prize. This will be discussed in Jaipur with the jury members.

How well are translations of world literature received in France? How have you fostered and continue to manage a cross-pollination of literary traditions in France and India?
The French market is also influenced by Dan Brown and other Anglo-Saxon authors. But the phenomena of great success such as Elena Ferrante (Italian) or Arundhati Roy also shows that the French readership is open to world literature beyond Anglo-Saxons. This is why we believe that Indian authors have their rightful place in the French market.

Do you have any details that may be shared publicly of a road map planned for the 2020 Paris Book Fair where India is the guest of honour? What are the significant features of such an extraordinary event?
We are hoping to select many writers including children’s and young adult writers, across genres, as well as initiating new translations. We do not want only established writers to be invited to the festival. We would prefer to have a range of outreach programmes too. For instance, conferences, debates, collaborations with libraries, bookstores, universities etc.

What are the events planned at the 2020 Paris Book Fair? Anything exciting that the Indian publishers and readers should be aware of?
The Syndicat National de l’Edition and the National Book Trust have just signed the partnership agreement on 22 January 2019 for Livre Paris 2020. This book fair is a meeting place for the French public and Indian authors. We would like to organise panel discussions between French and Indian authors. For example we could have our two Nobel Prize winners in Economics enter into a dialogue. We also wish to encourage translation of Indian authors who have not yet been translated into French in order to introduce the French public to new young authors from all over the Indian Union. We also hope that this meeting will foster professional exchanges between Indian and French publishers. Several steps are planned. Pre-meetings in March 2019, a breakfast networking at Frankfurt between French and Indian publishers; invitation of French publishers to Jaipur 2020 and a professional training session on publishing that we would like to organise in India at the beginning of 2020. Not to mention the translation training programme that we recently launched with Jawaharlal Nehru University.

3 February 2019

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