translations Posts

Guest post: On Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic”

My mother, Dr Shobhana Bhattacharji, taught the Odyssey for many years to her undergraduate classes. She would return home to tell my brother and me the stories as well. I still recall the neat little chart she created of the adventures of Odysseus and how beautifully structured the epic was —- split into two neat halves of storytelling. These adventures have remained with us over the decades. The love for the epic she has now transmitted to my daughter as well who while getting ready for school every morning wants to hear the next episode of Odysseus’s adventures.

Recently I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s  An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic and loved it. I gave it to mum to read since I knew she would enjoy it immensely. I was right. The moment she finished it she gushed about the book as being the best she had read in recent years — and mum reads a LOT! So I asked her to write a blog post on it. 

 

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Decades ago I was dragged kicking and screaming into teaching the Odyssey. I had no idea what to do with it. It was repetitious. It had no point. Nothing in the literature I was used to teaching was like it. These were soon to become famous last thoughts. I discovered the Cambridge History volumes on Troy, or what was not Troy. I learnt about the clay tablets that had some information about administration but Homer’s heroes didn’t figure in them. I discovered the lovely story of the Iliad-obsessed German Schliemann who – at a time when Homer’s stories were thought to be merely stories—believed every word of the description of places in the epics, and using Homer as his guide he uncovered Troy. Only it was not Troy but one of the many cities built above what was possibly Priam’s glorious city.  When I finally visited Troy, our knowledgeable young guide was almost in tears as he showed us the deep trenches Schliemann had dug at the site to get to the ‘real’ Troy, ruthlessly destroying valuable archaeological treasures that had no meaning for him. To my delight and amazement, there really are windy plains around Troy where the Trojan War was fought for ten years. I read M.I.Finley’s The World of Odysseus, and everything about the Odyssey became clear. Its social structure, economy, ship-building, the oikos, burials, marriages, gifts, hospitality, looting, war. Everything that made up the texture of Odysseus’ world, that is, but not the nitty gritty of the tale itself. What did the gods have against Odysseus? Why does Athena pop in and out of his life? What exactly were the arabesques created by the relationships of gods and men? Jenny Strauss Clay’s The Wrath of Athena explained a lot of that and more, especially the tales within tales, such as how Odysseus got the scar on his thigh, why boars’ teeth form a motif in the epic, and why Odysseus is such a wily teller of tales. Most of all, she showed how the Odyssey is a story about the cleverness of man, of how much man can do without the gods who are largely unconcerned about mankind. There is a magnificent sarcophagus in the National Museum in Beirut with a relief of the most moving moment in the Iliad when the grieving Trojan king Priam begs the arrogant Achaean hero Achilles for the body of his son Hector whom Achilles has killed in battle. Instead of allowing Hector the funeral rites due to a hero, Achilles has desecrated his body, dragging it behind his chariot round and round the walls of Troy so that Hector’s elderly parents can see this terrible dishonour being inflicted on their first born son. On the top of the sarcophagus are two giant, half reclining gods who gaze serenely into the distance, unmoved by the human misery below, all of which they have caused. I would have been blind to its meanings had I not read Homer, Finley, Strauss Clay and a host of others. In short, I was and still am besotted by Homer’s epics. As I grow old and wear the bottom of one trouser leg rolled to accommodate the plaster on my foot, and books of complete enchantment become more and more infrequent, I return to Homer. I read as many translations as I can find. I read Pope’s translations over and over again with more happiness than I have words for. I read re-workings of the stories, some recent ones pretty thin, others pretty good.

I have just read An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn. Mr Mendelsohn teaches at Bard College in New York. One year he decided to offer a undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey. He’d been deeply interested in Homer and Virgil for decades, but had not taught the Odyssey before. To his surprise his 82 year old father–a retired Maths professor–asked if he could attend the seminars. Daniel Mendelsohn was slightly hesitant at first. He knew his dad’s contempt for the humanities and had a feeling that he could never measure up to his father’s expectations of him in anything he did. But he said OK, and there was this 82 year old sitting a bit apart from the seventeen year olds but never absent from class, neither physically nor mentally. Mendelsohn talks about his initial difficulty in getting the students interested in the subject. His dad growling every now and then that Odysseus is no hero (he cries, he cheats on his wife, he is helped by the gods through every difficulty) is not helpful. The kids giggle, amused by Mendelsohn senior’s comments and their teacher’s discomfiture. But over the weeks, the students become more involved. They have insights that are new to Daniel Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn senior (Jay) also has new ways of looking at the Odyssey which the son may not agree with but the young students listen with respect, and add to what Jay says. With each seminar, the seasons change a bit and Daniel Mendelsohn begins to find similarities between the Telemachus-Odysseus son-father story and his life. He talks about his growing up, his parents, grandparents, siblings, his teachers — one of whom was the very Jenny Strauss Clay who so influenced my love for Homer, and whom Daniel consults during a knotty period in the semester. Quite unobtrusively, with the tiniest of nudges from Mendelsohn, you realize that his account of his life is like a modern retelling of the Odyssey. It is beautifully done. The pace is slow and graceful, like Homeric verse, and as packed with detail. Another of Mendelsohn’s old teachers suggests that when the course is over, he should he take his dad on a theme cruise retracing the journey of Odysseus. He does. The cruise takes ten days to cover the journey Odysseus took ten years to complete. The last stop of the cruise was to be Ithaka but that is cancelled. Passengers are understandably disappointed. The captain knows that Mendelsohn has translated all of Cavafy’s poetry, so he asks him to step in and talk about Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka.” Mendelsohn senior is not only impressed by his son’s talk, he actually tells Daniel as much. It is as if Odysseus has admired Telemachus. Daniel thought his dad hated travelling. But on the cruise Jay unfurls, in a manner of speaking. He loses his habitual sour expression and makes friends. He is the life and soul of the evenings. He loves the Great American Song Book, knows the words to every song, and soon has the passengers singing along with him around the piano. Jay loves it all but after seeing Troy he mutters to Daniel “The poem exceeds the place.” Indeed it does. The father dies a year after the course is over. In the early days of the course, Jay would drive from New Jersey to Bard, but then he began to travel by train. Daniel thought this was because he found the traffic too much. Jay’s complaining about the traffic in exactly the same words over and over again since Daniel was little had become as much of a formula as Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn, but he was clearly slowing down and driving was may have become a problem. After his death, Daniel Mendelsohn discovers that several of his students used to meet the old man at the station. He had found out their train timings and would wait for them. They would chat about the Odyssey in a sort of parallel seminar, occasionally sharing their discoveries with the class in the regular seminars. One of the many things I liked about the book is that Mendelsohn translates the Odyssey himself. It sounds fresh and fits well with whatever point he’s making. And then there are his many digressions into the etymology of words that one has to linger over. So much learning and compassion and yet there is nothing heavy handed about the book.  Quite the best thing I’ve read in years.

Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2017)

5 February 2018

New imprints launched in India

In the past few months new imprints have been announced by publishing houses in India.

The first was Niyogi Books launching  their three imprints — Thornbird for translation ( H S Shivprakash), Olive Turtle for Original Fiction ( Keki Daruwalla) and Paper Missile for Non fiction ( Udaya Narayan Singh).

The second was the translation programme announced by Ratna Sagar led by Dinesh Sinha. They have launched with three titles and have a few more planned in 2018.

The third is the children’s imprint launched by Readomania.

This afternoon Westland ( an Amazon company) announced the launch of a new literary imprint called “Context”. It will include serious, thoughtful, politically engaged fiction and non-fiction, mostly in hardback, by writers from the Indian subcontinent.

And if the rumours are true then there are some more to be announced later this year.

16 January 2018 

Poetry in India

For some peculiar reason poetry is quoted and used extensively everywhere but rarely does it get a regular space in a publishing house. It is often said poetry is too complicated to publish and to sell. It is subjective. Also many customers prefer to read poetry at the store and put the book back on the shelf. For many poets in India, self-publishing their poems has been popular. For generations of poets the go-to place was Writers Workshop begun by the late P. Lal. Some of the poets published by Writers Workshop included Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nissim Ezekiel, and Ruskin Bond. Some of the other publishing houses published occasional volumes of poetry too.

Of late the practice has continued. Only the rare volume or two is published. Aleph Book Company has published some fine volumes of poetry which has included translations ( Mirabai and Tirukkal) and contemporary poets such as Jeet Thayil, Sridala Swami and Vikram Seth. Some years ago Harper Collins India published The HarperCollins Book Of English Poetry (ed. Sudeep Sen) and recently the excellent collection of poems by Tishani Doshi Girls are Coming Out of the Woods. Also that of  Sharanya Manivannan ‘s The Altar of the Only World which is considered as well to be a very good volume. Penguin Random House India has a reputation for publishing good volumes of poetry particularly of established poets such as 60 Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil. A volume to look forward to in 2018 will be Ranjit Hoskote’s Jonahwhale . The feminist publishing house Zubaan books published a fascinating experimental volume Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess edited and translated by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra and Ravi Shankar.

Speaking Tiger Books has begun to actively publish poetry — at least far more frequently than the other firms. In the past few months alone some of their titles include Rohinton Daruwala’s The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu: Poems  ; Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017) ;  C.P. Surendran’s Available Light: New and Collected Poems ; Guru T. Ladakhi’s Monk on a Hill: Poems ; Ralph Russell’s translations and edited by Marion Molteno A Thousand Yearnings: A Book of Urdu Poetry & Prose  ; Ruskin Bond’s I Was the Wind Last Night: New and Collected Poems ; Michael Creighton’s New Delhi Love Songs: PoemsLater this year the Sahitya Akademi is publishing what looks to be a promising collection of poetry by “younger Indians”, edited and selected by noted poet Sudeep Sen.

Having said that the self-publishing initiatives still continue. For instance a young poet and writer ( and journalist) Debyajyoti Sarma launched the i, write, imprint, press to publish poetry. Some of the poets published ( apart from him) include noted playwright Ramu Ramanathan, Uttaran Das Gupta, Sananta Tanty  and Paresh Tiwari. 

Now there are more opportunities for poets to publish in literary magazines as well. For instance well-known poet Sampurna Chattarji has been appointed the poetry editor of IQ magazine and is looking for submissions and hoping to be read as well! She writes about it on her blog. Another active space for poets is Poetry at Sangam which is edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra. It showcases poetry in English and translations as well as essays on poetics and news of new releases. Another vibrant space for poetry especially Urdu is the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival. 

There are plenty more initiatives in other local languages, meet ups, open mike sessions etc where poets can recite/perform their work. In the past decade there has been a noticeable increase in these events whether informal groups that meet at local parks or coffee shops to more formal settings as a curated evening.

Undoubtedly poets and their poetry is thriving, just more publishers are needed to publish the poets.

6 January 2018 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Sugata Ghosh on OUP India’s Indian Language Publishing programme

I interviewed Sugata Ghosh, Director, Global Academic Publishing, Oxford University Press on their newly launched Indian Languages Publishing Programme.

Please tell me more newly launched Indian Language Publishing programme? Who is the target audience — academics or general readers? How many titles / year will you consider publishing? 

The Indian Languages Publishing Programme was initiated with OUP’s desire to expand its product offerings to an audience whose primary language is not English. OUP’s existence in India as an established academic press spans more than 100 years. In this long span of its existence it has published a pool of formidable authors and widely acclaimed academic and knowledge-based resources. Our only limitation in a diverse country such as ourselves was language –– though we have been doing the dictionaries and in other Indian languages. In a glocalized world however, limiting ourselves is not an option. As readers change, so should publishers. The increasing demand for resources in Indian languages is not so new; the changing economic and socio-political climate has long been the harbinger of this change. Today we are only heeding its call by beginning publications in these languages. In the first phase of the programme, we have shortlisted two major Indian languages Hindi and Bengali, and a basket of our classics for translation into Hindi and Bengali. We aim to hit the market with 12 such titles by January of 2018. Our target is around 15-20 titles per year to begin with.

Does this imply it is a separate editorial team? Will you have in-house translators? Over time will the list expand to include contemporary stories from regional languages?

We currently do not have any extra resource helping us with the programme. We plan to have new editorial members for both the languages, they will be on board by next year, depending on how well the programme takes off. We do not plan to have in-house translators. We are only working with freelancers and individuals and plan to do so in the future. We might collaborate with other publishers to help seek translators and develop the translation programme further. We have no plans of expanding into fiction at the moment. We are sticking to non-fiction, academic, and general interest titles.

The first phase is of course translation heavy as we begin to establish ourselves in the market, however, there are new acquisitions currently underway for the coming years. As the programme develops, a healthy mix of translations and new books in Indian languages will be made available in both print and digital formats. While beginning with these two languages were accessible, given our resources, our long-term plan is to venture into new Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi etc. For now we are  taking one step at a time to build this programme with the mature languages. When the time comes to include new languages, we will do so.

Our core audience remain the same as our English language books, mostly students, teachers, scholars, researchers, civil society activists, think tanks, as well as general readers. While researching the market for Hindi and Bengali books, we realized that reading habits differ from one to the other. While the Hindi heartland is more inclined towards reading books that are lucidly written around a given issue, free from academic jargon, Bengali readers are more accustomed to reading academic titles spanning multiple disciplines.

Our publication lists will be tailor made to suit its respective audience. To customise specific language lists we will select titles for each market on the basis of the theme of the book, its appeal to readers in the respective language, style of translation, etc. Also, as our books start selling from next calendar year, we will begin accumulating and analyzing appropriate sales data. This data will help us understand what we are doing right and what not – in some ways at least. We will accordingly make decisions on the titles we are doing for each group.

However, we are always ready to experiment and jazz things up a little if the need be. It is in the themes, topics, subjects etc. of the books we will publish and the forms with which we will experiment.

What is the focus of the Oxford Global Languages project and how long has it been running?

The Oxford Global Languages (OGL) project aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available online. The OGL programme targets learners of all age groups. In short, it is a digital dictionary of diverse languages. OGL is part of OUP’s core publication programme –   the programme aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available wildly, digitally. It includes curating large quantities of quality lexical information for a wide range of languages in a single, linked repository for use by speakers, learners, and developers. This project began in 2014 and launched its first two language sites, isiZulu and Northern Sotho, in 2015, followed by Malay, Urdu, Setswana, Indonesian, Romanian, Latvian, Hindi, and Swahili. Many more will be added over the next few years.

How are these two programmes linked as well as maintain their distinct identities?

The global languages programme is aimed at building large lexical repositories for diverse language speakers across the world. Our programme will feed into this programme by helping coin new terms and as well as borrow terms from the resources that would have already been developed and stored in these repositories by experts in different languages. The two programmes thus seamlessly merge into each other as they together help develop a given language. We expect that these two projects would also help multiple stakeholders, for instance, translators, new authors, students, researchers, speakers, etc. in constantly enriching their reading and writing skills.

 

The new terms will be initially in Hindi and Bengali (such as say post-modern, ecology etc. ) that are being coined by translators or new authors, over time with frequent use, will get incorporated in dictionaries such as OGL as well as borrow terms from the resources. Similarly, terms that will be developed by OGL could be borrowed by translators or new authors in their works.

OUP India for many years ran a very successful translations programme that published regional language authors in to English such as Karukku and then the monographs (?). How will this newly launched programme be any different? What are the learnings from the previous programme which are going to be incorporated into this new launch?

The existing translations programme from Indian Languages to English was aimed at enriching the English speaking and reading world with the diversity in our regional literature. This programme translates works of fiction and non-fiction from diverse languages to English and it has been immensely successful in creatively rethinking our societies through exceptional works of regional and folk literature.  We will not create any new imprint, all books in all languages will be included under the Oxford banner.

The Indian languages publishing programme does not aim to publish fiction or poetry at all. It will only publish non-fiction/academic works both in translation and new works in Indian languages. Our core and traditional strength has been — academic, nonfiction and general reads titles, also a bit of translations into English. This is a mandate that we follow in every part of the Press, globally – and we do not see any change during the immediate future. We will definitely do books on Film studies, yet again only non-fiction titles.

The take away from the earlier programme is that translations are always tricky business. Translations of academic titles are tricky for multiple reasons, including:

  • Unlike English, formal writing styles for Hindi and Bengali are still being developed.
  • Lack of terms for new concepts in Indian Languages.
  • Essence of the original is at times lost in translation, retaining authenticity is tricky.

It is true that some things are always lost in translation, there is no way around it. We are trying to compensate this loss by rigorously reviewing our manuscripts by external peer reviewers —- scholars, academics, researchers, journalists, translators, who are well versed in English and Hindi or English and Bengali, with background knowledge in the disciplines of the books they are reviewing.

Such reviews are helping us develop the language further, making it lucid, readable, and accessible. Similarly, for the new books that we plan to publish under the Indian languages programme will be reviewed for their academic authenticity, clarity in expressions etc.

How many languages are you launching it in? What is to be the focus — academic, trade and children or is will OUP stick to the niche area of academic titles?

As already mentioned earlier, we are beginning with two languages, Hindi and Bengali. The focus will be serious non-fiction and academic. We are breaking the boundaries of our usual core competencies and planning to attract readers that fall outside it as well.

As an academic publisher whose business model relies considerably upon peer review, will such a rigorous process also be instituted for this project?

Yes of course, we plan to stick to our professionalism and ethical way of doing business. Language no bar. Quality is our top most priority and from our experiences in the English language programme, we understand and appreciate the value of peer reviews. The time and effort that goes into developing each manuscript in such a way is worthwhile.

How will OUP India create a demand for these titles as you are venturing into a territory that is not easily identified by readers and institutions with OUP’s mandate?

OUP as an academic press and publisher of quality knowledge resources is well identified by students, researchers, scholars, teachers across the length and the breadth of the country. Not only our academic books but our school and higher education books are frequently refereed to and stand out in quality from the rest. To say the least, we are a household name in the country. Also, we already cater to a group of readers whose primary language is not English by publishing classic texts such as those by Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Veena Das, Austin Granville, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Ramachandra Guha to name a few, which are used by students and teachers and readers across disciplines. Indian language editions of these rare classics are not easily available and students end up either reading from summary notes made by teachers or poorly done translations. Therefore an audience for our books already exists, we only need fill the gap by doing what we do best, publish quality content.

Our plans for attracting new readers have also already been discussed above. There does not exist much resources, academic and otherwise in Indian languages, as publishers we should be encouraging new authors to read and write in their native languages. We hope that our enthusiasm for this programme will also enthuse our stakeholders, mostly readers, writers, thinkers, learners, distributors. Our aim through this programme is to create new and diverse public spheres and reach out to as many readers as possible in its wake.

Will these books only be offered in print or will there also be a digital version available too?

Digital versions of our books will also be made available along with print versions and we are ensuring that we are able to launch the two simultaneously – to start with in Hindi.

If  you are making classical texts from the regional languages available in English will OUP India also encourage translations from its English list into the local languages? If so, how will these projects be funded or will also these be fostered by OUP?

Our programme involves translating English titles into Hindi and Bengali within the programme. We also have plans to translate from Hindi and Bengali to English thereby ensuring that there exists a free flow of thoughts and knowledge between languages. We also hope that as we establish this translation programme, we are able to encourage close associations with groups of individual experts, institutions, and organization to develop a network of people enriched in the art of translation, such that our native languages are not lost to oblivion. We aspire to give diverse languages a new lease of life in the long-term.

Will you explore co-publishing arrangements with local publishers to drive this programme?

We are open to ideas and appropriate opportunities – that fit our quality aspirations, as well as the mission of the Press.

To maintain a quality and a standard in the translations will OUP consider empanelling translators whose skills will be upgraded regularly or will you commission work depending on the nature of every book?

We empanel translators based on their subject and language competencies and these are constantly developed in the process of translation itself with the help of continuous reviews.

What are your expectations of this project? How will you measure the success of this new project?

We expect this project to enrich readers, writers, speakers, and learners of diverse languages in our country. We also hope for it to become as successful as our English language publication and to be recognized as formidable publishers of quality books across languages and disciplines. The long-term plan is to grow and develop in these languages simultaneously with our own growth as a truly global and diverse publisher.  We believe that success for such programmes can be measured in the publishing world by the kind of impact we have on our users and readers. If we inspire new and existing readership and help grow interest in good and quality content, we think we will have succeeded.

24 Oct 2017 

Amazon for Authors, KDP in Delhi, 30 November 2017

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Author Academy is hosting an event over lunch at Hotel Le Meredien, New Delhi . It is to introduce and discuss their self-publishing programme– Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP.  The panel will include Sanjeev Jha, Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon. I will moderate the conversation.

Anyone who is interested in selfpublishing their book online is welcome to attend. It could be a book or a manual ranging from fiction, non-fiction, self-help, parenting, career advice, spirituality, horoscopes, philosophy, first aid manuals, medicine, science, gardening, cooking, collection of recipes, automobiles, sports, finance, memoir, biographies, histories, children’s literature, textbooks, science articles, on Nature, poetry, translations, drama, interviews, essays, travel, religion, hospitality, narrative non-fiction, reportage, short stories, education, teaching, yoga etc. Any form of text that is to be made available as an ebook using Amazon’s Kindle programme.

In December 2016 Amazon announced that Kindle books would be available in five regional languages in India — Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. This is a game changing move as it enables writers in other languages apart from English to have access to a worldwide platform such as the Kindle. Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.

Sanjeev Jha
Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon

cordially invites you for a session on

Amazon for Authors:

Navigating the Road to Self-Publishing Success

Hear how Indian authors have used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to build and reach audiences across a variety of genres

Date: Thursday, 30 November 2017

Time: 12 -1pm (followed by lunch)

Venue: Hotel Le Meredien, Delhi

This event is free. Registration is mandatory. Please email to confirm participation: jayabhattacharjirose1@gmail.com .

 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
International publishing consultant

 

Guest post: On Krishna Baldev Vaid

(Dr Shobhana Bhattacharji retired as professor of English Literature from Delhi University a few years ago. Her doctorate is in Lord Byron’s drama. She is fluent in English and Hindi. She reviewed Krishna Baldev Vaid’s novels when they were first published by Penguin India in the 1990s. Now the books have been rejacketed and reissued. Here is her review with a short introductory note.)

The translations of Krishna Baldev Vaid‘s two autobiographical novels were so different to each other that I read the Hindi versions to see whether the difference was in the originals. Till then, I had not read the original of a translated work I had to review on the principle that a translation is meant for a target audience and I tried to read it like an ideal target reader. Reading these novels in Hindi, however, taught me how much a translator, even if the translator is the author himself, can alter a novel. The Hindi title of Steps in Darkness is Uska Bachpan. The title of the second novel in Hindi, written 25 years later, was Guzra Hua Zamaana, which was also a famous Madhubala/Lata film song from the sad love story Shirin Farhad, filmed in 1956. It is Shirin’s final goodbye to her beloved Farhad as her ‘doli’ (bridal conveyance) leaves for her husband’s home. She begs Farhad not to accuse her of infidelity; her marriage to another man was not of her making. Vaid‘s novel is a searing farewell to his beloved pre-Partition India.

 I met Krishna Baldev Vaid for the first time soon after the review was published two decades ago — August 1996. He told me he had liked it very much. All these years later, I am still honoured and delighted that he did.
Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji ( June 2017) 

These two novels, written a quarter of a century apart, centre around Beero, who lives in a small town in undivided Punjab. In the first novel, confused by the adult world, and suffocated by the poverty of his home, Beero is young enough to enjoy snuggling in his grandmother’s lap. His parents are embarrassed to beg the shopkeeper for goods they cannot pay for, so they send Beero, whose dignity is lacerated by this as it is by his torn shorts and having to fetch his father from the gambling den. He escapes into his dreams. The filth and stink of their slum assail the reader but Beero entertains himself with a hornets’ nest in the drain. He dreams of tying some hornets together by their legs and making a kite for himself. None of his dreams is fulfilled. There is no money to buy or make kites. His happiness in his grandmother’s stinking lap is free, but is taken away because his mother hates it.

His friends unwittingly remind him of his unhappiness. Aslam, for instance, has a happy home and a beautiful married sister, Hafeeza, whom Beero gets a crush on. Beero’s mother hates “Muslas” and warns her son against them, but Beero eats at Aslam’s home and becomes “half a Muslim,” as he says in the second novel in which he also recites the kalma. Beero’s own home is riven with misery. The parents have terrible fights over money, the father’s drinking, gambling, and friendship with a sardar, called “Miser” by Beero’s mother who suspects her husband–rightly, as it turns out in the second book–of sleeping with the Miser’s beautiful wife. The mother spits venom and turns everything into tense misery. Her rages dominate Beero’s life but not his understanding. There is a searing passage where a bored Beero, who wants to hear about kings and princesses, listens to what he considers his mother’s complicated repetitious story of her early married life:

O, it was hell. Your Granny used to starve me for days on end. She used to lock me up in the lumber-room; I wonder I didn’t die of fear. No one ever cared for me. Neglected, I used to cry all by myself all the twenty-four hours. Your father was even then addicted to loafing. He never came home from school. Your Granny is to blame for spoiling him. She was always reproachful toward me because I had no sense. What sense could I have at that age?. . . Girls of my age were still playing hide-and-seek in the lanes while I had to wash mounds of clothes. In winter my tiny hands were always numb. I had fever every night; my bones used to ache; and all I had to sleep in was a worn-out blanket. Oh, the long dark frightful winter nights I spent shivering and crying, silently, for at the slightest sound your Granny would get up and start cursing the day she married her son to me. . . .Very often just as I lay down late at night after a day’s drudgery I would be commanded to press your Granny’s legs. While doing that if I happened to doze off I was kicked and beaten. (49-50).

Stories weave a complex pattern through the novel. There is, for instance, the richly ironic echo of the Ramayan in Beero’s mother’s name, Janaki. Beero’s love for fairy stories is soon replaced with fantasies of a fight-free home. Once he actually makes a fantasy come true. Anticipating a storm if his mother comes out of the kitchen and sees a hated neighbour talking to Devi, Beero’s sister, he efficiently lies to both parties of the potential war and gets the neighbour out of the house. Beero has two aims: to comprehend the world and to make it a less anxious place. When the domestic violence gets out of hand, he tries to die, but even that escape is not permitted. We leave him looking into a mirror which he has broken.

The wonder of Steps in Darkness lies in its graceful intermingling of the child’s confusion with solid details of the place, its people and their relationships. Its power is in its language. When one responds in two languages to a book, one wonders how much of Tolstoy and others one has missed. Some translation, of course, is better than none, and some translations are better than others. In this one, for instance, the curses, especially the vivid “progeny of swine” or “progeny of a dog,” require less than a second to translate back into the original and with it come stomach-knotting memories of school in Punjab where either curse would result in furious battles. Because of such violent consequences, “kutte ka bachcha” means much more–at least, it did forty years ago–as an insult than “son of a bitch,” and one is grateful that the author did not use “son of a bitch” in his translation. There are few glitches. For instance, “loaves” for “chapatis” doesn’t work. “Loaves” would probably remind most middle-class readers of Britannia bread. For readers unfamiliar with chapatis, to speak of two or three loaves per person, even among the well off, would be unbelievable.

On the whole, however, the translation has a cultural flavour that the second book does not. Its English is smoother, less defamiliarized, but sometimes, as in “soul” of a singer’s voice (27), one is uncertain what the original might have been. (It is “soz”.) Occasionally, the translation  illuminates both versions, e.g. “gorilla” for “pehlwan.” Of course, not every reader will respond in two or, as these books require, three languages, but one misses the immediacy of Steps in Darkness.

There is a lot of mysteriousness in the novel. Why do Devi and her father weep at the end of the novel? What is Naresh’s relationship with his “mother”? Why is Aslam withdrawn after his sister leaves for Lahore? Some of the incomprehensibility is consistent with the child’s steps in darkness, but there should have been some way of making the reader know more than Beero.

The wonderful preface of Guzara Hua Zamana has been dropped in The Broken Mirror. In it, the character Beero talks of how the writer created an incomplete Beero in the first novel and then tried to flesh him out in later stories. Twenty-five years later, Beero tells him that he cannot escape another novel about Beero and that if the novelist is going to drag his feet over it, Beero himself will write it. At this point, he says, he fainted and when he recovered, the novel had been written.

In this first person narrative, Beero tries to piece together the images split by the shattered mirror of the end of the previous story but gives up the attempt because, as he says in passing, the partial stories he had written were lost in the Partition riots. The Broken Mirror is composed of his different worlds–Lanes, Bazaar, Lahore, and Borderlands. The English version does not have Beero’s caustic critique of the first novel. Other minor details that have been dropped also take away from a richness that Guzara Hua Zamana has. For instance, Allah Ditta’s incompetence is wonderfully conveyed in the casual comment that he must have murdered some Iranian doctor, stolen his degree, and set up practice here. No one believes this, of course, but the remark has a vigorous and delighted inventiveness which is characteristic of much Punjabi speech (and Bombay filmi dialogue).

Still, The Broken Mirror resolves much of the mysteriousness of Steps in Darkness. Although the publication details in this edition wrongly suggest that it was written nineteen years after Steps in Darkness, the style bears out that it is more than a sequel. The hesitation of the earlier novel which may have been the child’s as well as the author’s, and which resulted in withholding information from the reader, is replaced with a crisp narration of details. The powerful story of Beero’s adolescence and the unlooked for political freedom which incarcerates them in fear and Bakka’s barn does not need stylistic fancy footwork to impress the reader.

The most powerful aspect of The Broken Mirror is the building up of events towards Partition. Initially, the idea of separation remains in the background. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu friends hang out together. Then Aslam notices that the two Sikhs in their group have begun to talk strangely and advises Beero to be circumspect before them. Language and humour are the first casualties of this growing monster of hatred. Occasionally people mention the possibility of Pakistan. Then, with a mere change of tense, they talk of “when the riot occurs,” and Hindus begin to send their belongings to the “other” side. Finally, Pakistan is a reality. Communal positions harden, bewildering Beero even more than the adult world did in Steps in Darkness. In a magnificent few pages, Krishna Baldev Vaid narrates the activity of a Peace Committee meeting which has been called by the marginalized of the town: a Congress man, Keshav, In-Other-Words, and an aging prostitute who says she is like Gandhi because she does not discriminate against any community in her work. The unpredictable swings from hostility to brotherhood and back again are terrifying because they defy rationality, and because we have seen them again in the run-up to and aftermath of the breaking of the Babri Masjid. Then come the engulfing madness and killings of 1947.

Hiding in Bakka’s barn, Beero’s mind is a spate of words. Narrative breaks down just as everything else has. He struggles to understand events and himself. All he knows is that he lacks Keshav’s courage to die for a cause, and that he cannot kill anyone or blame any one side for being the prime mover of the violence. Eventually, in tearless bewilderment and with heads down, they go to the makeshift refugee camp in the school. There, beside an abandoned, bloodied baby girl, Beero finally cries.

With a book that achieves the nearly impossible business of hiding its craftsmanship, there is little one can do except break the unwritten code for reviewers and tell the story. But no retelling can capture the delicacy, intricacy, and strength of this extremely moving novel.

Krishna Baldev Vaid  Steps in Darkness (trans. from Hindi by the author); The Broken Mirror (trans. from Hindi by Charles Sparrows in collaboration with the author) New Delhi: Penguin India, rpt 2017, 1995 (first publd. New York, 1962); New Delhi: Penguin, rpt 2017, 1994 (first publd. In Hindi, 1981)

14 June 2017 

” Translating the ‘Panchatantra’ ” by Rohini Chowdhury

( Puffin India has recently released a new translation of Panchatantra translated from Sanskrity by well-known writer Rohini Chowdhury. Reproduced below with the author’s permission is her essay included in the book on why she translated these beloved tales. Here is a lovely trailer for the book released by the publishers, Penguin Random House India. They have also illustrated some of the stories as cartoon strips.)   

Those who pay no heed to good counsel are destroyed halfway to their goal.

The fables of the Panchatantra have always been a part of the landscape of my life, and so, when my daughters were born and grew old enough to listen to bedtime tales and ask for them, these were amongst the first stories I told them. It was in searching for more Panchatantra tales for my daughters that I realised the absence of a complete translation for children, and one that maintained the structural integrity of the original work.  Now, one of the most interesting features of the Panchatantra is its story-within-a-story structure – stories contain stories, which contain more

One who anticipates disaster and plans ahead, survives and lives a long happy life

stories, somewhat like a Russian matryoshka doll that contains doll within doll within doll. In every translation and retelling that I could find, though the stories had been charmingly retold and often beautifully illustrated, they had been presented as stand-alone tales without the context or frame-story within which they occur in the Panchatantra. This, I felt, took away from the tales substantially. I therefore decided to translate the complete Panchatantra myself, keeping intact its original form and structure.

The translation went much slower than I had expected; the children

The one who gives a stranger all his friendship while forsaking his own kind, meets an unhappy end.

grew much faster and had soon outgrown these tales. So, for many years, I put this translation aside and became busy writing and translating other books – till a conversation with Puffin India in July 2015 brought me back to it.  I looked at the Panchatantra again, with different eyes, and realised its true significance: not only was it a masterly treatise on politics and government and a manual for conducting our daily lives with wisdom and common sense, but devised to educate the three foolish sons of a king in the ways of the world, it was also a revolutionary, and successful, experiment in teaching young people. Where traditional methods had failed with the princes, the fables of the Panchatantra succeeded – by teaching them practical wisdom, and by awakening in them a curiosity about the world. Within six months, the blockhead princes had become wise and knowledgeable young men. Since then, says the Panchatantra, its stories have been used to educate young people everywhere, a claim that is borne out by the many translations and retellings of this work that are found all over the world, even today.

We know very little about the author of the Panchatantra, except what the introduction to the work itself tells us – that his name was Vishnusharma, that he was a Brahman, exceptionally learned, a renowned teacher, and eighty years of age at the time he composed this work.  Since we have no other evidence regarding Vishnusharma, it is difficult to say whether he really was the author of the Panchatantra or himself a fictional character, invented as a literary device for the purpose of narrating the stories. Some versions of the Panchatantra – from southern India and South-east Asia – give the author’s name as Vasubhaga. Again, there is not enough evidence to confirm his identity or his existence.

The original Panchatantra is in Sanskrit, and has been written in a mixture of prose and verse, in a style that is simple and direct. The work is divided into five parts (hence the name: pancha: five and tantram: parts), each part dealing with a particular aspect of kingship, government, life and living. The stories are narrated mainly in prose, but the lessons derived from the tales are usually given in verse form.  The Panchatantra’s ‘story within a story’ structure—individual stories are placed within other stories, and each individual part or tantra replicates the structure of the work as a whole—serves to keep its audience engrossed as it takes them into a series of stories, deeper and deeper, from one level to the next.

Most of the characters of the Panchatantra are animals that behave, think and speak like humans. In every culture across the world, people have given human characteristics to animals. But the qualities that people see in particular animals vary across cultures. Thus, an owl is considered wise in England, but evil and unlucky in India. The animals of the Panchatantra conform to the ideas held about them in Indian culture. So, a heron is regarded as deceitful and cruel, for he stands still for hours on one leg pretending to be an ascetic doing penance when we all know that he is actually waiting to grab the next unwary fish that swims too close. Similarly, an elephant is noble and proud, a jackal is greedy and cunning, and a lion, though the king of the animals, is arrogant and often easily fooled by a weaker, more intelligent animal. An ox is loyal, a dog is unclean and greedy, and a cobra dangerous and untrustworthy. The audience for which the stories of the Panchatantra were meant would have known these qualities of particular animals, and so would have known instantly what to expect of them in the stories.

The author of the Panchatantra has used one more device to make it easy for his audience to understand the nature of his characters, and that is their names.  He has given his characters, whether human or animal, names that highlight certain aspects of their appearance or behaviour, or give insights into their nature. Thus we have Pingalaka the lion, whose name means ‘one who is red-gold’, named for his fiery coat, Dantila the jeweller whose name means ‘one who has big and projecting teeth’ and immediately gives us a vivid image of the man, Chaturaka the wily jackal whose name means ‘one who is sly and cunning’, and Agnimukha the bedbug, whose name means ‘fire-mouth’ and almost makes us go ‘ouch’ as we imagine his bite!

The appeal of the Panchatantra is not limited only to the young.  Apart from its wonderful stories and ageless wisdom, it is a work that looks at life head-on.  Rather than seeking to present linear solutions where good wins over evil, moral behaviour wins over the immoral or even amoral, it acknowledges that life, love and friendship can be complex, that politics, government, human interactions are not always straightforward, and even right and wrong, truth and falsehood can often be a matter of circumstance, expediency, or what is practical.

As a result, the stories of the Panchatantra became immensely popular, and travelled across the world – in translations, or carried by scholars, merchants, and travellers. Even today, the tales resonate with people of all ages, at different levels, in different ways, everywhere. In its Arabic translation, the Panchatantra became famous as Kalila wa Dimna (after the names of two of the principal characters, the jackals Karataka and Damanaka); in Europe it became known as the Fables of Bidpai. Many of the stories of the Panchatantra can be found in the fables of La Fontaine in the 17th century, and their influence can be seen in the stories of the Arabian Nights, as well as in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The stories also travelled to Indonesia in both oral and written forms.  Today there may be found more than two hundred versions of the Panchatantra across the world, in more than fifty languages. The oldest recension is probably the Sanskrit Tantrakhyayika from Kashmir; this predates the Panchatantra version available to us today. The most famous retelling of the original work is the 13th century version by Narayana, known as the Hitopdesa.

My translation, a labour of love for my daughters, is my attempt to make this great work available to the young people of today.

Rohini Chowdhury is an established children’s writer and literary translator. Her books can be bought on Amazon.

Copyright © Rohini Chowdhury, 2017.

Seagull Books ( 2017)

One of my favouritest independent publishers is Seagull Books. They have a magnificent stable of writers. They specialise in world literature making translations from across the world available in English. They have distinct lists too. For instance Africa, French, German, Swiss, Italian and India lists. Their lists on Art, Cinema, Conversations  , Culture Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies etc are equally delicious and worth exploring.  As for their Fiction list — it is stupendous! 

Seagull Books has been publishing exquisite books for some decades now. What is truly remarkable about their publishing programme is that they do accord equal respect to their readers worldwide. So it is immaterial where you may purchase a Seagull title but the quality of production will always be the same. Seagull Books have now signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to make Seagull World Literature available in India.

The founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, believes in publishing what he wishes to as he told me in an interview ( 2013). In fact for his work he has been awarded the Goethe Medal. Every year the publishers produce a fine catalogue which is a collector’s item by itself for the author contributions and Sunandini Banerjee’s incredible designs. Take a look at the current Seagull catalogue ( order form). It is delicious!

16 March 2017 

“Beowulf” A translation and commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Beowulf” is the longest Anglo-Saxon epic poem in Old English, and is dated to the early 11th century. It is about Geatish prince Beowulf who comes to the aid of Danish king Hroðgar, slaying the monster Grendel and his mother and fifty years later a dragon guarding treasure. Tolkien’s date for the poem is the 8th century. In 1920 Tolkien began teaching Old English at the University of Leeds. He finished translating the poem in 1926 but never published it. He was thirty-four.  He was in a dilemma which he expressed in a letter to Rayner Unwin of November 1965 concerning his inability to compose the ‘editorial’ matter to accompany his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

 I am finding the selection of notes, and compressing them, and the introduction, difficult. Too much to say, and not sure of my target. The main target is, of course, the general reader of literary bent but with no knowledge of Middle English; but it cannot be doubted that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters. 

Forty years after his death Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, decided to publish the translation along with his father’s series of lectures given at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s and the unpublished ballad Sellic Spell — an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form. Also included in the book are two versions of Lay of Beowulf. As Christopher recalls in the Preface: “His singing of the Lay remains for me a clear memory after more than eighty years, my first acquaintance with Beowulf and the golden hall of Heorot.”

For years now there has been speculation about the translation. In fact in 1999 Seamus Heaney published a brilliant translation of the poem which won the Whitbread prize too. In 2014 Tolkien’s estate announced the publication of Beowulf. Tolkien has in his translation retained the spirit of the poem, its descriptions and rawness but changed the alliteration in the original to run-on lines — a prose translation. There is considerable debate about this dramatic restructuring of the form in the “modern-day” translation by Tolkien. The majority view is that the clunkiness of Old English forced an alliterative structure to the poem for it to be narrated but this was no longer a necessity with modern English. It was possible to create a story in a nuanced fashion and hence Tolkien’s preference ( or presumably ease) with a prose version. Yet the shift in structure does little to spoil the beauty of the poem. There is a wonderful review-article of the book in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella. It was published within weeks of the book’s release in 2014. She gives a brilliant background to the possible compulsions ( read monetary) that drove Tolkien to consider a translation of this long poem before embarking upon an exquisite textual analysis of the poem. She compares the new translation with the original while comparing it to the Seamus Heaney translation. At the same time Joan Acocella brings in Tolkien’s fascination with languages — already told to fabricating new ones as he did famously for the Hobbit series with Elvish or the private language, Nevbosh, that he shared only with his cousin Mary. All these talents of Tolkien go into making the wonderful new translation of Beowulf.

It is a delicious translation enriched further by the endnotes and lectures. This volume is a keeper.

Beowulf ( Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) Edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers , London, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 799 

“The Communist Manifesto” and its publishing history

While browsing through the fine collection of titles of Penguin Little Black Classics I was interested to note that title 20 was The Communist Manifesto ( 1948). Of the entire collection which is a magnificent sweep of literature through the ages and different nations it is curious to see the manifesto included. It was probably included for its impact globally as it is amongst the most widely read and disseminated texts worldwide even a 170 years after it was first published. In fact Leftword Books published a collection of essays on the manifesto called A World To Win  (1999). One of the essays is on the publishing history of the manifesto in India ( available at this link  for free download with the publisher’s permission). It is a fascinating account of how the manifesto was first published in British India. The first Indian translator of the Manifesto had an interesting career. Soumyendranath was the grand nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. It is fitting that the Manifesto got published first in Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, and Tamil, as it is in the centres where these languages predominate that the Communist movement first struck roots. The early Communist groups were based in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and Madras. Later it was translated into Malayalam, Gujarati, Oriya, Hindi and Punjabi. In the fifties and later, the Manifesto was published regularly in different Indian languages by Progress Publishers, Moscow.

 

No wonder Penguin Random House included The Communist Manifesto in its Little Black Classics series.

27 February 2017