The Sickleby Anita Agnihotri, translated by Arunava Sinha is a very powerful story. It is hard to believe that it is pure fiction. There are far too many instances in the book that seem like a thinly veiled account of reality. For instance:
The sugar mill owners had in fact opened up a toddy shop right here inside the toli. There may not have been taps or toilets, water for bathing, or a dependable roof over one’s head, but the men still dropped in to drink on their way back to their shanties. It was the only way to get rid of their aches and pains. …The men weren’t concerned about how the women managed to keep their households running in the toli. No matter how hard they worked, they would never have hard cash since they had taken their payment in advance. And yet they needed flour and rice, vegetables and kerosene. And it was the women who would have to do the cooking. What they did was save the tips of the sugarcane stalks, which had no juice but only leaves, from the acquisitive hands of the farmers and sell them for a little money. The inhabitants of the districts on the West turned up here to buy cattle fodder and kindling. From sugarcane leaves to slices sugarcane bristles, all of it could be sold. …
The kitchens in the banjari households are under the control of women. It is the men who say this proudly. Of course, they’re the ones who continue to keep the women behind the veil. From leaving the house to going to high or college, it all depends on the whims of the menfolk. But their writ doesn’t run in the kitchen. Many banjari kitchens don’t allow meat or fish. The men are not permitted to bring any home, though they can eat it elsewhere. But they cannot enter the house immediately after eating meat — summer or winter, a man’s wife must upend a bucket of water over his head first to purify him.
The kitchen’s in your hands — this is how the banjari men boast. In behaviour, rituals and modes of worship, they have fashioned themselves after the Maratha community. Which is hardly a tall order. Running the kitchen means that everything from fetching the water to getting hold of kerosene, vegetables, flour and rice is the headache of the women. They are shackled for life in exchange for the privilege of being able to pour a bucket of water over their huabands’ heads now and then. The implication? Whether at home or in the toli, the husband will never check on whether there are enough provisions, or where the kindling is coming from. The woman calls the man malak, for malik, her lord and master.
Somethings never change. Anita Agnihotri, an ex-bureacrat, is known for depicting social realism in her novels. One of the responsibilities she held was member secretary of the National Commission for Women. She retired in 2016 as Secretary, Social Justice Department, Government of India.
The Sickle is set in the Marathwada region of India. This novel about migrant sugarcane cutters emerged after extensive conversations with farmers, activists, women leaders, students, researchers and young girls from Marathwada, Vidarbha and Nashik. She also consulted Kota Neelima for her research on farmers suicides. The details that are in the novel range from the horrors of sexual violence where women are preyed upon by the men as the shanties that they live in are flimsy structures and do not provide any security. Another form of sexual violence is that the women are actively encouraged to have hysterectomies, so that they do not impede the work flow by absences due to menstrual pain or more pregnancies than are necessary. The drought afflicting the region, the corruption that runs so deep that economic exploitation has become a way of life, even if it is unjust, are narrated in all their brutal honesty. As Anita Agnihotri said in a recent interview to The Mint:
In our profession, we were told, ‘If you see something, don’t carry it back’,” …. “But I followed precisely the opposite advice as a writer.” Just as there can never be a “non-committal bureaucracy,” she adds, “there is no non-political writing.
The Sickle can only be read in small doses as it is extremely disturbing in the truth it portrays. This is not going away in a hurry. Hence, it is unsurprising that the anger welling up in the ongoing farmers protests in Delhi ( on other farming related issues) is summed up by the image of women farmers on the cover of TIME magazine. It was published to commemorate Women’s Day. But the equal rights and liberties that women seek is a long time coming as Anita Agnihotri shows — the patriarchal attitudes towards women are deeply embedded in society. Such systemic violence can be combated but for it to be completely done away with is still a distant dream. It is a long and at times a debilitating struggle, but it is worth fighting for.
Read The Sickle. It has been translated brilliantly by Arunava Sinha .
Baby Dollby Gracy is a very bold, sparkling and forthright collection of short stories, written over a span of thirty years. The stories have been translated by award-winning translator, Fathima E.V. The stories have been arranged chronologically, so there is a sense of the evolution of Gracy as a writer. These stories delve into the ordinary lives of ordinary people but go a little beyond. Gracy unearths and makes visible thoughts, conversations, describes actions of women that would otherwise be unheard of in the written word. In these stories characters are persuasively drawn, irrespective of whether you agree with their thoughts, words and deeds. These are very unexpected stories but I am glad they have been made available in English. It is time that storytellers like Gracy were eligible to participate in literary prizes such as The Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist will be announced next week, on 10 March 2021. There needs to be a broader literary landscape to be made available to readers worldwide.
Fathima ‘s translation is superb. It reads effortlessly in English while recreating the local landscapes beautifully. Unlike some translations where there is a constant struggle between the original and destination language, it does not occur in Baby Doll. The translator’s note is exactly how it should be — written with care and deep understanding of the writer’s body of work, a textual analysis of the short stories included in this anthology and contextualising Gracy’s style of writing within the world of Malayalam literature. Also, without forgetting the significant contribution that these stories make to feminist understanding of being a woman and making visible to the lay reader the many, many ways in which women are oppressed in the name of tradition and social norms. This is truly an excellent collection.
On 23 Jan 2021, the Romain Rolland Prize was announced. At first there was a session on the “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 French Institute in India, Maina Bhagat, Director, Oxford Bookstores & Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, Chinmoy Guha, translator, Dr Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, INSTITUT FRANÇAIS, Delhi with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.
The winners of the prize are translator Dr S A Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and publisher Amutharasan Paulraj of Thadagam Publishers for the #Tamil translation of the French novel ‘Le mariage de plaisir’ (“A Marriage of Pleasure”). by the eminent award-winning French-Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun. The publisher and translator will be invited by the French Institute in India to the Paris Book Fair 2021 (Livre Paris 2021) where India will be the guest of honour.
Romain Rolland Book Prize, started in 2017, aims at awarding the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English. An Indo-French jury takes into account the qualities of the translation and the publication.
The presentation of the prize was followed by a fascinating conversation between the author, translator and publisher with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose. Interesting details emerged from the discussion especially since Tahar Ben Jelloun firmly believes that “Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture.” There were some wonderful insights from Dr Nayagar regarding the process of translating and facing the challenges of communicating cultural practices accurately without any faux pax.
This AKLF event is in association with Institut Francais and Alliance Du Bengale.
The recording of the conversation is available at: https://www.facebook.com/TheAKLF/videos/247540610074687/
Those Who Forget by Geraldine Schwarz, published by Pushkin Press. It has been translated from French into English by Laura Marris. It is about Schwarz discovering that her paternal grandparents were Nazis but more than that she meticulously puts together sufficient evidence to show how Nazi sympathisers continues to exist in society and have ultimately contributed to the rise of the modern right wing movements.
This memoir is about the rize of Nazis, end of WWII, denazification by the Allied forces, the new Chancellor of Germany while agreeing to pay “blood money” to the newly formed country Israel also gave prominent positions in his cabinet to former Nazis. Schwarz’s argument is that the rise of the alt-Right in Europe should be no surprise as the sentiments that ruled Nazi supporters were allowed to exist in societies even after the war. All this despite efforts like the Nuremberg trials or tribunals set up by the Allied forces to weed out Nazi supporters and sympathisers. She interviews people who lived through Nazi Germany and are now in their 90s. Jews who fled but also Germans who continue to believe in their Fuhrer. She talks about the collective and personal memories and the tangle of guilt, denial and confession that has characterized Germany since the Second World War. She talks about the impact of right wing forces on a nation and then the politics of memory, remembrance culture, work of memory vs tyranny of memory etc.
It is an absorbing read albeit chilling at times for the historical details she documents have parallels in modern politics. Stunning book.
I first came across Antony Shugaar’s work as a translator in the magnificently translated novel, The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati. It has been translated from Italian to English. It was an extraordinary translation. I was reading English but with the rhythm and cadences of Italian without massacring any language in the process. Instead it made the thrill of reading a translated work so much richer as it was so easy to get into. Perhaps having a husband who shifts smoothly between English and Italian made it easier for me to recognise this truth. The utter joy of being able to appreciate translated literature from the very first page is inexplicable. It is the rare translator who is able to achieve this feat of being able to convey the beauty of the original language in the destination language.
Then I came across his essay “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook” ( 19 Feb 2014) I loved. I made extensive scribbles in the margins of the hard copy while reading it and kept saying, “yes, yes, yes!” There are so many points he raised that interested me.
Translators put in all the hard work and make literature available in other languages. There is so much variety. Without being a translator myself, I find I “judge” the quality of translations. Very peculiar space to inhabit. I judge based predominantly on the basis of “readability” of the destination language. Obviously not being familiar with the source text or language it makes it difficult to ascertain whether the translation is accurate or not. Yet there is something in “uneven” or “poor” translations that sets my teeth on edge. With a poor translation I find that there are texts I seem to be hitting my head against the wall for the clunkiness of text. There is no rhythm and it is tough to read. This is probably what Antony Shugaar refers to in the “dialect problem” — “the reductio ad absurdum of translation. There are workarounds, but basically, when a translator runs into this kind of issue, she simply leaves it out. And the reader is none the wiser.”
Another of his recently translated books that I have read is Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and published by Enchanted Lion Books. 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christen Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read.
I wrote to Antony Shugaar after reading The Catholic School. He very kindly replied. Subsequently he also agreed to be interviewed for my blog. The following is the result of a lovely, long correspondence we had discussing various aspects of translation.
Antony Shugaar is a writer and a translator from the Italian and the French. He’s translated dozens of articles for the New York Review of Books and close to forty novels for Europa Editions. He has translated many novels that were awarded Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize (the 2011 winner, Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People, Resistance Is Futile, by Walter Siti , Francesco Piccolo’s Wanna Be Like Everyone , Ferocity, by Nicola Lagioia , and the 2016 winner, The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati). In the realm of Italian noir, aside from some of the work of Gianfranco Carofiglio, he’s also translated books by many of the leading figures in the field: Massimo Carlotto, Sandrone Dazieri, Maurizio de Giovanni, the late Giorgio Faletti, Antonio Manzini, and others. He’s received two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships. He translated two books in the W. W. Norton Collected Works of Primo Levi, published in 2015.And his translation of Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado was shortlisted for both the PEN and the ALTA Italian translation awards. He has translated TV series and movies for HBO, Netflix, and Amazon.
What prompted you to become a professional translator?
I forget the name of the professor who said it, but the great translator Richard Howard quoted the line in a lovely essay he wrote many, many decades ago in a book on translation published by University of Texas Press: “No one ever set out to become a professional translator.” That may no longer be true, but it is a wise and wry observation. Languages are such vast and demarcated pools that any attempt to breach the levees separating them almost feels like a rash and ill-advised act. Certainly, comparative literature studies these huge inland seas and “compares” them, but the act of channelling one into another seems to violate some sort of taboo. So there’s a secret thrill to cutting a hole in the wall and letting water out of one reservoir and into another… an act which can be dangerous. The word “rival” comes very much out of the lore of riparian law and the banks of rivers… (in linguistics, “p” and “v” are close neighbours, as the two conjoined words “separate” and “several), in turn connected to “sever”, clearly show). A friend of mine told me a folk etymology that I believe is illustrative. My friend is from a land of canals and rivers, near Venice, a place of flooding and dam-building. He tells me that a “rival” is someone who lives on the opposite river bank. If a river’s level rises dangerously to flood state, he is the first to come over to YOUR side of the river and dig a hole at the top of YOUR levee. Because if YOUR side of the river floods, then HIS doesn’t. That being said, I think it’s clear why there is an age-old suspicion of the act of alchemy and magic that accompanies translation. It seems intrinsically DANGEROUS to unleash the uncontrollable elements of nature that cause floods. Language groups are also known as linguistic reservoirs. I compare translation to time travel. In fact, the classic quote about foreign countries compares them to other times. And rarely do people complete the famous sentence with its second half, separated by a semicolon: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So I became a translator for a couple of reasons, ostensibly to earn money while living in a foreign country, and therefore in order to stay there. But also because it felt like an act of magic, and also a way of sharing with others of my own language the things I was seeing in this amazing new place where I lived. If I travelled to the past, I would certainly want to be able to share my experience with those of the present. The same of course is true for the future. Italy always felt like a mix of past and future to me, blended into a startlingly vivid present. I could say more about the details of how I started, and would be glad to. Suffice it to say that it involved doing translations via Telex, a now-antiquated means of communication that used a huge and clumsy keyboard and a long yellow strip of paper with holes punched into a bizarre and fragile arabesque of meaning. More information on those years in the Italian Alps working as a fledgling translator will happily be provided upon request.
2. You make a powerful statement with “there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live.” So what does it take to become a professional translator?
I should start by pointing out that an editor added the concluding phrase about bridges from one world to another. To my mind, that add-on was optimistic and pat, and not entirely unwarranted, but it wasn’t part of what I wanted to say. I’m not such a positivist, and I definitely feel that there’s an enormous reservoir of lost meaning in the whole process of translation. But then you can hardly help but look around right now at the shambles of our society and wonder if loss isn’t just a standard part of any human interaction. That said, I would probably want to ally myself with the fantastic theorist of translation, Jorge Luis Borges, and say that there are actually no untranslatable worlds, but a full translation of certain sentences might require a multi-volume encyclopaedia to translate them. I’d hearken back to my early years in Italy, when I went to a café in Perugia, where I was studying, and sat down with an espresso at a small table. So far, perfectly translatable. But then I looked out and realized that there was the high-pitched musical sound of hammers tapping on chisels and chisels biting into stone. I looked closer and realized that there were four or five workmen seated on low wooden benches, laboriously shaping large grey stone slabs that formed part of the road surface. These slabs were perhaps a pietra serena, a Tuscan grey stone very similar to the bluestone used for sidewalks in, say, Brooklyn. The crew were all wearing work clothes, possibly the jumpsuits or overalls typical of Italian manual labourers. Certainly, I remember, they wore ingeniously folded hats made out of that morning’s newspaper. The slabs of stone they were working on must have weighed a hundred pounds. The chorus of hammers on metal sounded like something out of Italian high opera or a Japanese abstract composition. Hard to say which. Now if this scene were described in Italian as a “road repair crew,” without any additional description, how could I claim to have translated it accurately? This is an endless problem in translation. Someone opens a door and walks into a restaurant. Well in America by law that door opens outward, to avoid the danger of a panic in case of a fire, with people crushed against a door that cannot be opened inward. I’ve often wondered why Italian doors in public facilities open inward, and I’ve come up with a bit of a joke about it. Since cars park on the sidewalk in Italy, a door that opened outward might easily be blocked by a too-large car parked too close to the building’s facade. Not as unreasonable as it sounds, especially in my early days in Italy. Sometimes these patterns or customs are established and then left in place. William Weaver, a great translator from the Italian who is, sadly, no longer with us, used to say that the hardest word to translate out of Italian is “buongiorno,” a Swiss-Army-knife of a word that has all kinds of subtle aspects to its use and is decidedly not equivalent to “good day.” The Italian “portone” is often translated as “front door” or “street entrance” but neither of those terms really describe the richness and articulation of the “portone” as a filter, a diaphragm, and a scrim between the inner world of the Italian “condominio,” or community of apartment dwellers, and the outside street and sidewalk. The door itself is a double panel, massive thing, large enough for a horse-drawn carriage to drive through and into the courtyard. Often the building in question actually was built when horse-and-carriage was the prime conveyance. You can often see narrow ruts running across the sidewalk and past the doorman’s booth and on into the courtyard. There is usually a small pedestrian door cut into one of the large panels. When the large doors are closed, of course, this door can be buzzed open by any of the inhabitants of the “palazzo.” When the doors are open, there is the entire rich declension of interactions with the doorman or doorwoman. To translate portone with “front door,” like an apartment house aluminum-and-glass door seems impossibly reductive. I could go on. There are window systems called “miradors” in Spain that reach their high point in the Atlantic coast city of La Coruña. Just google “miradors” and “La Coruña” and start scrolling. They’re amazing structures designed to allow light and wind to be calibrated as elaborately as the suit of sails on a clipper ship at the height of the mariner’s art. The windows can be set at an angle, just so, and sunlight can be modulated with precision. To call that a “bow” or “bay window” is to miss and to overlook a world.
3. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation? How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project? How would you define a “good” translation?
I’m going to take the three questions as a prompt for a somewhat independent “riff.” Please bear with me, and I imagine this feels a little bit like herding cats. I will gladly address some of your questions about more specific matters but I’d like to range a little freer on the “metaphysics” of translation.
I did not know about this latest interaction between Cervantes and Rushdie through the person of Edith Grossman[i]. It is almost ironic (as if there were a ghost hand at play) that I sent you a photo of a mirador in La Coruña with a comment on how it resembled Indian vernacular architecture (with a possible British intermediation) two days ago, when we are now talking about a Spanish author and his gnomic influence on a British-Indian novelist and essayist. But there you are. I cannot comment on this interaction and I confess I haven’t read either of the books in question, Quichotte or Grossman’s rendering of Don Quixote. I can say that Cervantes is the source of one of my favourite quotes (we can discuss the detail on this) on translation, saying that a translation is like looking at the reverse of a Turkish carpet, where you see the knots and the warp and weft, but only indistinctly. He specifies, as I recall, that this is true of vernacular languages, not the great classical languages of Latin and Greek. I’ve never quite understood that distinction. Also, I love that Sciascia references a line from Don Quixote in his understanding of the origins of Mafia culture. “Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”[ii] It is quite a brilliant reference: something about how a gentleman doesn’t pry into other people’s business. And of course the Spanish influence on Southern Italian culture is enormous, a result of long centuries of occupation, a Bourbon dynasty ruling over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with its tradition of “¿si hay algo que se puede hacer porque te preocupes y si no hay nada que se puede hacer porque te preocupes?” But especially the role of Spanish culture in the south is the result of roads vs. ships: it was so much faster to sail from Spain, or from North Africa, than it was to take an ox cart from, say, Switzerland…. In short, those links are buried in the geographic structure and the physical anthropology of history. That is a theme that I return to often, in my thinking and my understanding of translation: physical anthropology. And the sheer experiential nature of translation.
After this long and laborious windup, let me however come to Cervantes and translation. I think it is very significant that Rushdie, who is so much about the magic of words and the spark of imagination in the vast grim fields of life as it is lived, should have failed to grasp Don Quixote in one translation and then instantly see it in another. A strong argument for the constant retranslation of classics, but also a reason to think about exactly where the spark of the new style and insight in Grossman’s version comes from. And the answer, as in all things related to translation, in my opinion, is sort of diffuse. Like life, like writing itself, the source of inspiration and success in translation isn’t codifiable. Translation theorists are always talking about “strategy” in translation[iii], and that’s a very fine thing, but to me the important thing is tactics. Expedients and jury-rigged solutions are the only way that I really make my way forward in translation. People sometimes forget the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is an overarching plan for an undertaking, tactics are the way you solve individual snarls and knots in the work. Isaiah Berlin talked about the hedgehog and the fox: the hedgehog knows ONE thing and the fox knows a great many things. Wisdom versus cleverness? Perhaps, but I think it goes deeper than that.
In any case, the reference to Don Quixote is this. There was a great philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who died recently. His name was Hilary Putnam. I haven’t read his work, I honestly have only read his obituary and then done some further online research into his background. He had a philosophical theory called the “Twin Earth thought experiment”. The basic idea was that in this scenario there are two planets identical in every way except for one detail. The word for water describes two very slightly different versions of water. Every other aspect of water is the same. I’m guessing that whatever taste water has is described with the same adjectives, even if the reference is to something slightly different. When I read about that thought experiment — Twin Earths — in Putnam’s obituary, my scalp tingled. Perhaps it was mentioned in the obituary, or perhaps I learned it as soon as I read the Wikipedia article about him, but his father was Samuel Putnam, a prominent translator whose Don Quixote is still considered one of the best ever done (and perhaps was the version that Rushdie found wanting in college… I’d love to know[iv]). Hilary Putnam grew up in France, I read, and must have talked frequently with his father about his work.
Where does the instinct to translate come from? Is it inherited? The late great Anthea Bell[v], translator of many things but to my mind, especially, the Asterix comics[vi], to such great effect in English if not American culture, was the daughter of a man who regularly constructed the Times of London’s crossword puzzles. Ann Goldstein[vii], the translator of Elena Ferrante, was for many years the head of copy at The New Yorker, a magazine that has been America’s window into cosmopolitan culture in so many ways. William Weaver was a gay conscientious objector from Virginia who drove ambulances in the war and was injured, only to recover in the palazzo of a noted Italian writer. Life experience is certainly part of it, experience of the mind, also.
But in particular it must be the experience of the mismatch between the life experiences of cultures and the mental experiences therein. What do I mean by that? Well the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis posits that a language SHAPES your experience of the world. Maybe so, maybe not, but I think when you go into a different culture and you start to see the books they know and the books we know and how those two libraries fail to map equivalently, then you are just tempted to pitch in and say: my fellow anglophones NEED to understand this one formative work. There’s a chunk missing in their mental lives. This is certainly true of Dante. Ann Goldstein came to translation by reading Dante. So did I, in some ways. In fact, I studied Dante early and it had a huge influence on my understanding of the basic nature of Italian, the way in which it performs its mimesis. I’ve written something about that early experience and I can dig it up and send it to you if you like. But my point here is that there’s a kind of theatrical, dramatic tradition in Dante that traces its roots back (to Virgil, obviously, and to Apuleius perhaps?) but then, not as far back, to the Song of Roland and the Arthurian saga, and forward to Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso and then, of course, to Cervantes. My point, here, however, is the richness of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which was a beloved work, I know, to Ezra Pound (and that’s a can of worms I’m not going to touch), but also an amazingly prescient piece of writing for the present day.
In the great epic poem “Orlando Furioso,” Ariosto plays freely with minds, imaginations, and language. One knight, Astolfo, manages to fly to the moon on a hippogriff, where he finds the great knight Orlando’s wits (yes, he lost his wits) in a bottle and returns them to him. Even better, the sorcerer Atlante (I think called Atlantes in English transliteration) builds a castle of dreams in which he hopes to imprison Ruggero to keep him from meeting his fate as predicted by a soothsayer. Ruggero and all the other great knights and ladies are lured into this castle of dreams where each of them constantly sees, fleeing from them, their heart’s desire (in Ruggero’s case, the lady Angelica). Is this not an amazing model of what would become the internet. Even better: as these heroes and heroines stumble around in utter futility pursuing will-o’-the-wisp phantasms, they crash into each other, becoming increasingly angry and accusing each other of having STOLEN the objects of their desire. Did Mark Zuckerberg read this poem in his time at Harvard? I’ll tell you who DID read it and loved it during his time at Yale. James Jesus Angleton, the great and paranoid counterintelligence operative at the CIA who was the inspiration for many of John Le Carré’s novels. Angleton in fact founded a student literary magazine called “Furioso” during his time at Yale, and apparently reached out to Ezra Pound to ask him to become an adviser to the magazine. Angleton, by the way, is perhaps best known for his quote about espionage, calling it “a wilderness of mirrors.” To quote from an essay by John Kimsey, “It was Angleton who first used the phrase ‘a wilderness of mirrors[viii]‘ to describe the looking-glass logic of counterintelligence work.” Well, I think that Italians have this amazing artefact in their culture to understand the Internet, while we do not. Perhaps we have the works of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace instead.
I don’t think that the reference to halls of mirrors is entirely amiss when it comes to translation. Think of The Third Man, and the ending in the Hall of Mirrors. That’s about espionage in a meeting spot between two warring empires, speaking profoundly different languages. The translator’s work is very much like that, trying to glean meaning from an often ambiguous text. And the question of the “dialect problem” comes into it very adroitly: I believe that dialect is a like a sheet of transparent glass inside a hall of mirrors. Do you remember that specific trick in the halls of mirrors of your childhood? You learn to navigate your way through the mirrors, warned by the sight of your own approaching reflection, but the blank sheets of glass trick you. No reflection and so you walk into them. Well, dialect is like that. It is part of the text, and so invisible in translation into English (or whatever target language you are working in). How do you render it? Do you simply use ungrammatical speech? Then how do you deal with the fact that the sonnet is a verse form invented in Sicilian dialect by the Holy Roman Empire Frederick I? If not he, poets at his court. But I have heard that it was the emperor himself who took part in the invention. Or that Benedetto Croce, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, loved to speak in his native Neapolitan dialect? The late William Weaver, who translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, asked the question, as you’ve read in my VQR piece, “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” He declared the problem to be unsolvable[ix].
Like one of the heart’s desires vanishing around a corner in Atlante’s castle, in other words.
It really makes me wonder if Italian culture somehow understands the ultimate futility of certain ideological pursuits because of its rich literature of love, yearning, and folly. Is that why they were able to see the madness of doing anything in a time of pandemic other than hunkering down and wearing masks? Is that why they were successful and we Americans, allegedly hard-headed and pragmatic about the Real World, have failed so abjectly, so terrifyingly?
Do you know the hilarious anecdote about J.M. Austen and Sydney Morgenbesser at Columbia University, my alma mater (well for journalism school, I took my masters at the Graduate School of Journalism)? From a NY Times article about Morgenbesser.
Morgenbesser, with his Borscht Belt humour and preternaturally agile mind, was the subject of dozens. In the absence of a written record of his wisdom, this was how people related to him: by knowing the stories and wanting to know more. The most widely circulated tale — in many renditions it is even presented as a joke, not the true story that it is — was his encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the 50’s, Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”
4. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
I really don’t know. I very much taught myself the art of translation, to the extent that I know it. But then I would have had my doubts about the teaching of creative writing. I remember learning from Professor Pietro Scarpellini at the Università per Stranieri that when Perugino and other great artists of the Renaissance were small boys and apprentices in the bottegas where they learned their craft, they were all set to grind minerals and roots and all the other sources of pigments of their day. They would work grinding pigments as long as there was daylight. Working in natural light, they developed a great sense of what the natural spectrum of colours were and how pigments could emulate or reproduce those colours. Having done that work for countless hours from the age of 5 to the age of 12, they worked in colours with an intuitive sense of balance and composition. Perhaps that’s a way of teaching. I know that a great deal of my experience as a translator was translating anything: technical documents, advertising, legal agreements, you name it. And I learned from making mistakes. One of the most wonderful cheat sheets for me is always seeing badly translated material. An experienced translator can look at a badly translated piece of English and almost conjure up the original source language, for me, Italian. It’s like I can see the writer’s original intention from the missteps and false friends in the bad translation.
5. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?
It depends. If it’s a well written text by an interesting writer, the pro is a sense of elation and the con is the exhaustion of channelling such intensely gripping text. If it’s a badly written text by a dull writer, it’s like the experience of being trapped in a compartment with an unwelcome motor mouthed travelling companion. It’s excruciating. Luckily I haven’t had anything like that experience for a long, long time. There is the wonderful liberation of completing the translation, though. That’s always memorable.
Well, the first thing is that it’s a very difficult thing to do. Is dialect best rendered as some variant English accent? That seems very specific. It’s a question of WHAT dialect is. Some translators treat it as if it’s just people speaking ungrammatically. They render it with comically broken English, which dialect most decidedly is not. What’s the old joke? A language is a dialect with an army and a navy? If that’s so, then how is a dialect really any different than someone unexpectedly speaking, say, German inside a book written in Italian? You can use subtitles or else you can use other literary tricks and conventions. In movies about World War II POW camps, the enlisted German soldiers always speak English with a heavy “Choyman” accent, while the officers speak English with an Oxford accent with just the finest razor’s edge of German inflection. Very class-based.
I’ve done both things, the outright Brooklyn dese-and-dose and the incorporation of the actual words in dialect with the literary equivalent of subtitles, that is, a rendering of the dialect in English, in quotes inside parentheses. Two different critics had diametrically opposing views of what I’d done. One, missing the point, complained about the annoying presence of “the original Italian” in the text. I had explained my process in a translator’s note, but the critic must have missed that. Another critic hailed the authenticity of bits of dialect embedded in the English.
I’m going to quote from the review, by Gabino Iglesias. As an author of “barrio noir,” Iglesias may have had a more perceptive eye for the different levels of linguistic depth I was trying to encompass:
“Lastly, there is one more element that separates this novel from most contemporary crime fiction: language. It seems like Saviano worked hard to achieve a balance between Italian and dialect, and translator Antony Shugaar surely added a bit of explanation to the narrative in his translation. The result of this is a story that carries with it the rhythm and linguistic identity of its source, the unique turns of phrase, sayings, terms of endearment, and even insults of lower Naples. Most of it is offered also in translation (sometimes unnecessarily), but there are passages in which there is no direct translation, although the words used are understandable in context. This use of language adds a layer of authenticity to the text and keeps readers deep in the culture of the place.”
One other rule that I try to follow is that if the author uses X amount of dialect, then I reduce that one-quarter X or perhaps even less. No text in translation will bear as much dialect as the original. I’m not sure why, but having cooked the recipes many, many times, I’ve learned to reduce the quantity of that particular ingredient.
When is it best to involve a “living author” in the translation process? For instance, how often did you need to work with Albinati regarding this translation? What are the challenges (if any) of translating a “living vs dead” author?
I was both impressed and chastened by the very sharp and intuitive eye that Albinati showed. Even though his English is not fluent, he very perceptively came up with critiques of many areas where I had misread his intent, the underlying bones of message. The subtlety of a novelist’s instinct for meaning and nuance is an interesting early warning radar system. We spent days dealing with fine subtleties of meaning that I had misconstrued. Later Albinati wrote a widely read and discussed article in Italian, published in “Corriere della Sera,” which he opened with the statement: “I wrote ‘The Catholic School,’ but I had never read it. Until I read it in English. And it leads me to your next question…
8. You refer to the great paradox of “faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language” in your 2014 essay. How does a translator grapple with this paradox or is it subjective?
I am NOT a novelist, but I am a writer. I think that above and beyond the sort of hands-on training I alluded to when I talked about apprentice artists in the Renaissance grinding pigments as children, there is a native interest in the working of language—words and connotation and the linguistic equivalent of “body English” in the manipulation of units meaning, from particles to words to sentences and paragraphs—that is a fundamental prerequisite for language.
There are little oddities of language, little ghosts in the machine, that I see as hints at how the larger structure works. Take the expression, “You have another think coming,” as in, “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another think coming.” Roughly half the people in the United States, from the articles on the subject that I have seen, actually believe that it’s: “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another thing coming.” That makes no sense to me, but the “think coming” makes no sense to the other half of the population. And if you look at the history of the term (using the nGram Viewer, a very useful historical tracker of any term you care to put into it, and one I highly recommend), you find that “think” and “thing” are almost exactly the same age. People have been using BOTH versions for as long as the phrase has been around. And, of course, because “thing” backs up to the hard C in “coming,” there is no real difference in the pronunciation. When speaking, Person A can say “thing” and Person B can hear “think,” and no one is the wiser.
That’s a perfect metaphor for what happens in translation. However, I choose to treat dialect, it’s accepted by the reader. I mentioned the past being a different country above. Well, dialect is a piece of the fabric of a given country. Another such element, which I’ve been encountering more and more in the translations I do out of the Italian, is a listing of “Do You Remember? moments from Italian pop cultural history. Things from the 1970s and 1980s: Large “beach marbles” about the size of a billiard ball, that Italians would large along tracks scooped out of the sand in races not unlike a bocce game. Banana seat, high-handle-bar bicycles. Portable record players that you inserted a 45 rpm record into for teenage dance parties. Italian versions of Silly Putty, Play-Doh, and numerous other games. Again, units of meaning and sentiment that cannot just be substituted with their approximate American or British equivalents.
As mentioned above, Isaiah Berlin spoke of the fox and the hedgehog. The strategy with respect to dialect and to pop culture and to all manner of cultural artefacts and touchstones has to be this: try to be true to the original. Try to respect your reader’s intelligence and mental agility. Try to make your text read as if it was written by the imaginary person your author would be if they had been born and brought up speaking and writing English, not Italian or French or Spanish (even if they then would NOT have written the book in question).
Then, the tactics become very fox like: Anything you can use, any contrivance or subtle explanation or mode of speech. Be inventive!
I do my best to take that approach. Am I always or even sometimes successful? Well, I hope I am. But I’m keenly aware that the outcome is always, inevitably, a partial failure.
But I comfort myself with Wallace Shawn’s great, philosophical line from “My Dinner with Andre.”
I’m just trying to survive, you know. […] I mean, uh…ahhh… I live my life. […] I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list! I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning!
I’m a translator, dealing on a regular basis with these knotty, tricky, almost metaphysical questions of meaning and style and questionable equivalency. I’m paid to do it. And it keeps my mind constantly occupied with what I find to be intensely interesting issues of language. I feel like a translation is like Schrödinger’s Cat, possibly alive and possibly dead as long as it sits unopened in that box. If you take the translation and you read it carefully against the original (either the day after it’s published or 200 years later), then you may discover that the cat is either dead or alive. But if you leave the black box carefully untouched, and you enjoy that cup of cold coffee in the morning, and you enjoy what good has been with the text, then translation is a pretty wonderful thing. After all, Wallace Shawn, who spoke the lines above, is also a translator. As it happens, from the Italian.
I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.
But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.
It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.
The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation. A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published.
I think this is one of the wisest and most rueful comments I have ever read about the enterprise of translation and, taking a step back, the enterprise of writing, thinking, and feeling about human life. I think that this quote is, perhaps, a very small but dazzlingly brilliant cathedral made of fire.
[i] I heard this in an interview Rushdie did with Razia Iqbal in London for Intelligence Squared. ( https://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/an-evening-with-salman-rushdie/ , Aug 2019) This happened because a few years ago to commemorate the 400 years of Shakespeare and Cervantes, the UK indie publisher And Other Stories published a fantastic volume of commissioned short stories. These stories were to pay homage to these two great writers and renowned names had been asked to contribute. Rushdie wrote the preface and it remains one of my favourite introductions.
Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes I read slowly. I have not finished it but editors and writers whose work I truly admire swear by its magnificence. Here is one of her more recent interviews, published in Asymptote, Sept 2019.
[ii] “I would venture to swear,” said Don Quixote, “that your worship is not known in the world, which always begrudges their reward to rare wits and praiseworthy labours. What talents lie wasted there! What genius thrust away into corners! What worth left neglected! Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself. This estimate does not include two famous translators, Doctor Cristóbal de Figueroa, in his Pastor Fido, and Don Juan de Jáuregui, in his Aminta, wherein by their felicity they leave it in doubt which is the translation and which the original. But tell me, are you printing this book at your own risk, or have you sold the copyright to some bookseller?”
[iii] Our 10 yo daughter, Sarah, is being taught French in school. So Jacob is teaching her French at home. Jacob is a polyglot and fluent in English, Hindi, Italian, French and smattering of German. But it is about the “tactics” you speak of that he is employing. His pronunciation and vocabulary in every language is accurate. So he wants Sarah to learn accurately too. She is obviously stumbling in some French pronunciations. So he makes her write the French word, then to get the right pronunciation, he makes her write the spelling in Hindi as it is a phonetic language and then the meaning in English. It is incredible how fast the little girl is picking up French!
For a couple of years now Sarah asks translations of words in different languages without realising how significant this fact is. She takes it for granted that this is how it is in every household.
Jacob often tells her that if you learn a language correctly, you learn about a new culture.
Antony Shugaar replied:
Very nice, and congratulations. Sounds like Sarah is heading in an interesting direction. I have a nice, similar teaching trick. It is very difficult for English speakers to hear the crucial distinction between single- and double-consonanted proununciations in Italian. Anno versus ano. But it is possible to hear it in English and then apply it in Italian. “Anice” has a single “n”. Un-nice has a double n, if pronounced carefully in English. For “l” – Alice versus pill-like. “Hammett” is a single “m” but the ridiculous and improbably construction, “ham meat,” that’s a double m. It makes it easy for English speakers to hear the double. Then they know not to say “Ho 21 ani,” instead of “Ho 21 aNNi.”
[iv] Quite likely since the Putnam translation seems to have been published in 1949 and was considered the best in those days. Having said that it, it seems there were two more translations published in quick succession. These were by Cohen (1950) and Starkie (1957). Ref: https://franklycurious.com/wp/don-quixote-english/
Antony Shugaar replied: “Nice. In the Italian Asterix, there’s a very nice translator-invented joke (works only in Italian). Tapping his head, Asterix (and others) frequently like to say. “SPQR: sono pazzi questi romani!” – These Romans are crazy.”
[v] When Anthea Bell turned 80, many celebrations were planned across UK. The following was posted on FB (2016). I found it fascinating that an obituary for her former husband also gave the origins of her career as a translator of Asterix. Take a look.
Her father, Adrian Bell, the first cryptic crossword creator for The Times.
Anthea Bell married Robert Kamm, a fellow student at Oxford. Kamm’s father, George Kamm, was a founder-director of Pan Books. Kamm’s mother, Josephine, was a biographer and YA lit writer too. “Robert Kamm’s first job was with the National Book League, now known as the Book Trust, and in 1957 he married fellow Oxford student Anthea Bell. He moved to Brockhampton Press in Leicester in 1960 where he was editorial director and played a key role in the publication of the Asterix books, whose humour and original French jokes had previously been deemed impossible to translate. That task fell to his wife and a fellow translator and the first three titled were published in 1969.He spent 12 years at Brockhampton before a two-year spell as a senior education officer with the Commonwealth Secretariat, touring Commonwealth countries, discussing books and exploring the possibilities there for publishing for children. During the time he was at Brockhampton he chaired both the Children’s Book Group of the Publishers Association and the Children’s Book Circle. From 1963 to 1976 he was also a consultant to various international organisations including Unesco.” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-antony-kamm-publisher-author-historian-and-cricketer-1-1503632#ixzz49pIyI1rf )
Robert Kamm divorced Anthea. He remained in publishing including being the director of children’s literature at OUP. Where he met his second wife who outlived him. She was Eileen Dunlop, a biographer and children’s writer and one of his authors.
Anthea Bell’s brother is the well-known BBC correspondent, Martin Bell.
One of Anthea’s sons is Oliver Kamm, a left-wing politician and banker.
[vii] Seen this brilliant article on Ann Goldstein published in the New York Times?
[viii] A word/phrase that now seems to be embedded in everyone’s psyche while talking about counterintelligence work etc.
Antony: Yes, but coined by Angleton. Whose father was from Idaho, rode down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa, the same expedition on which Ambrose Bierce lost his life, and brought home a beautiful señorita, James Jesus Angleton’s mother. Then, working for the National Cash Register company (the same company that made defective voting machines used in the 2000 election), he took wife and son to live in Rome, under Fascism. There is a short history of the corruption and decline of the American republic. It all, inevitably, ends with the OSS being replaced by the CIA. All that makes perfect sense to me.
[ix] This is a big problematic area in Indian literature. Translations from various regional languages are being made available in English and it is a minefield. There are texts in English that are a nightmare to read as the translators insist on making the dialects visible to the English reader. And there are others who completely scrub the dialect out but also do not provide a translator’s note to say that the author relies on dialects to provide a texture to the novel + give the social context of their characters. It is all so complicated and an extremely sensitive topic in Indian literature. Broaching it with translators, authors, and editors is an extremely sensitive topic.
Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, translated from Italian to English by Antony Shugaar, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and is published by Enchanted Lion Books. It’s publication in 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read.
According to the press release:
The genius of Rodari lay in his commitment to the dialectical use of the imaginatinon, which he saw as necessary for passage from a passive acceptance of the world to the ability to challenge it and then to change it. Insight into Rodari’s subversive sensibility can quickly be gleaned from a casual comment he made in defense of comics: “Every now and then we hear talk about banning this or that comic: wouldn’t it be more useful to forbid teachers to hate books, which only turns them into instruments of torture instead of discovery?”
Telephone Tales is a collection of bedtime stories told by a father to his daughter over the telephone in the time allotted by a single call token, for the father is a travelling salesman and phone calls across countries are expensive. The Hans Christen Andersen Award committee said of his stories, “they are clearly and deliberately constructed. They develop according to their own natural laws, even though they may not always coincide with reality. They are truly fantastic stories rooted in our modern world which, through their playfulness, often take a very critical view of it. He wants to sharpen his young readers’ vision, so that they will learn to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials. He wants to open their eyes to true humanity, to tolerance and international understanding, to social justice and personal integrity.”
Rodari worked … for Italy’s education system and took a serious interest in pedagogy. In the 1960s, Italy’s schools were reformed to be more inclusive of poor and working-class children, but the changes sparked a conservative backlash. Rodari’s books, with their accessible style and jokes built around grammatical mistakes, were intended to empower disadvantaged children who weren’t exposed to books and formal speech at home.
“He wanted kids not to feel intimidated, to see mistakes as a tool to grow and as a creative moment,” Roghi, his biographer, said. She added that Rodari also contributed to the development of the Reggio approach, the educational philosophy born in Reggio Emilia after World War II, that saw the classroom as a self-educating community. ( Famous in Italy, Rodari Reaches U.S. Shores With ‘Telephone Tales’” The New York Times, 5 Sept 2020)
It is an absolutely gorgeous book! Impossible to put down once you begin reading it. The illustrations complement the text well but are never distracting. They add a playful element to the reading experience. Every little detail adds up to bring sheer joy in reading this magnificently produced volume of short stories.
In May 2020, I was sent a YouTube link by academic and novelist Tabish Khair. It was a short clip of film actress Shabana Azmi reading a story. I began to listen. I realised it was a brand new story written by Tabish Khair. Soon we were exchanging furious messages over WhatsApp. I had a 1001 questions to ask him about the project — The Decameron 2020. Ever since I discovered the project, I have been listening to the stories on a loop.
The Decameron 2020 is a collaborative project of like-minded creative folks. The unifying factor is their ability to tell stories magnificently. The differentiating factor is the medium they opt to tell their stories. This extraordinary project is the brainchild of the Italian novelist, translator and poet Erri de Luca. According to him, “We imagined short novels because, in times of distress, we need to concentrate our words in the same narrow place we are restricted in. We imagined isolated actresses and actors around the world who give their voices as oxygen for the breathless.” His colleagues are producer Paola Bisson, filmmaker Michael Mayer, the Spanish publisher Elena Ramirez and Jim Hicks, Executive Editor, The Massachusetts Review. The Decameron 2020 project invites storytellers around the world to submit original stories for the project. These stories are then read out aloud by professional storytellers, mostly film actors such as Julian Sands, Fanny Ardant, Pom Klementieff and Alessandro Gassman. They read against a backdrop created by Richard Petit, co-founder and Creative Director, The Archers, whose mesmerising artwork unites these distinctive stories. Commenting upon the creation of these unique backdrops for the Decameron performances, Richard Petit says, “The experiences – both reading these extraordinary texts and responding to them visually – have marked this period of social isolation in an unforgettable way. Beginning by depopulating the masterworks of Florentine artists – in many cases, contemporaneous to Giovanni Boccaccio’s original setting – and collaging them with fragments from works by Italian Futurist painters, my goal has been to create beautiful but somewhat disquieting stage settings that visually connect these stories of quarantine, separated by nearly seven hundred years.”
It is an extraordinary layering to the original story. Much more than just a dramatic performance. There is something quite special about the telling. It is almost as if one has to as a listener be present “within” the storytelling, shut out all the sounds of life around one, and be wholly immersed in the storytelling. It is like recreating the experience of being “locked in” the story to experience it. I have no other way of describing it.
These are surreal times. I like the parallels drawn with a war zone by Jim in his essay since it enables an experimentation with the story form too. There are no expectations of the writer / actor / listener about the act of storytelling. The story gets completed in the classic sense by the listener’s participation. Yet it is storytelling at a global level with the stories/performances such as Luigi Lo Cascio’s having a very rich local texture. What comes through beautifully is the shock everyone feels at the sudden end of life as we knew it. There is no precedence for such a global catastrophe. So behavioural changes cannot be mimicked. Nor is there any memory of such an experience being handed down generations. There is no witnessing of it either by those alive today. As a disaster management expert told me recently, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
It is also precisely why I am very intrigued by The Decameron 2020 project as it tries to make sense of our new world. The creative experimentation of making writers and film actors to collaborate while in isolation and across time zones is extraordinary. It lends itself to many interpretations in the performance of putting the readings together. If everyone had been together in a room ideating, there would have been multiple layers and I am guessing a completely different output. Instead working remotely, across time zones, the onus is upon every individual involved at different stages of production to interpret the story for themselves. Ultimately every stage — writing, reading out aloud, recording, editing, adding a unique backdrop, publishing on YouTube, listening — add layers to the performance. It is palpable but not disruptive to the experience.
The Decameron 2020 team were very kind in replying to some of my questions. So here is an edited version of the interview:
Q1. What sparked this idea for The Decameron 2020? ( Btw, did you know that #DecameronCorona has been started by Daniel Mendelsohn on Twitter?)
Erri: The Decameron and Boccaccio are pillars of our literature, so the idea sprang shape to Paola Bisson and me. We imagined short novels because, in times of distress, we need to concentrate our words in the same narrow place we are restricted in. We imagined isolated actresses and actors around the world who give their voices as oxygen for the breathless.
Paola: I can add that I had a personal need to reverse my isolation and discomfort in this “pandemic” time into a new alliance. I felt like a truck driver who sends radio messages looking for other drivers on the same highway, to share the journey.
Michael: When Paola talked to me about it for the first time I had to wrap my head around the logistics of such a project. We all knew it was going to be a challenge, but the creativity and ingenuity of everybody involved was really inspiring to me. Everybody who joined us has had such a positive and easy attitude that we were able to tackle all the practical obstacles.
Q2. How were the authors for this project selected? Who are the writers and actors invited to participate in this series?
Erri: As the epidemic covers the planet, we wished to invite writers of all the continents, to form an ideal chain with the exceptional readers of their tales.
Paola: The authors of this project were suggested by us (Erri, Michael and me), and by the precious help of professor Jim Hicks and the Spanish publisher Elena Rico Ramirez. The French publisher Gallimard (they publish Erri’s books) connected us with Violaine Huisman…but the “brigata” is still growing with new suggestions.
Michael: Erri and Paola know so many wonderful and talented writers and with the help of Elena Rico Ramirez and Professor Jim Hicks were able to reach even more.
Q3. What is the brief given to the author when commissioning the story?
Erri: We asked authors to write pages from the unpredicted siege, no limit to the argument, just to be read in around five minutes. Then the director Michael Mayer gave hints and guidelines for the video.
Paola: The brief was written by heart, at least for me…I learned English in the US, watching movies. For once in a while, I have been shameless writing to everybody.
Michael: No brief, except trying to keep it around 700-1000 words. Some writers submitted a short story, one wrote a letter, another a poem, while others gave us their personal journal entries. So far it has been an absolute privilege reading all their wonderful contributions.
Q4. Are the actors decided beforehand or are they selected after the story is submitted? Is it imperative that the writer and the actor have to belong to the same nation as in the case of Tabish Khair and Shabana Azmi?
Erri: There are no rules for the interpreters; with my story, the British actor Julian Sands accepted to give his voice and talent for the character of the tale.
Paola: Everything has been a pure collaboration and mutual suggestion. Still, The Decameron 2020 is growing this way.
Michael: Every case is different. Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet, asked that her poem be read in Arabic, by a woman. Fang Fang asked that her diary, originally in Chinese, be read in Spanish, or English. Other writers had no specific requests. Naturally, we treat every request with utmost respect, even if it means taking longer to find the right talent for each story.
Q5. When will the project conclude? Or will it continue as long as the lockdown continues?
Erri: Paola Porrini Bisson and Michael Mayer decide the terms.
Paola: I hope it will last forever, like an anti-pandemic vaccine.
Michael: We originally intended to do 10 stories, but soon realized we had so many beautiful tales, we had to extend the project. To me, The Decameron 2020 is no longer about the pandemic, but about the connections created among artists and about having a chance to collaborate with people you wouldn’t necessarily have had the opportunity, or even the reason to collaborate with.
Q6. How was the production team selected? How did the collaboration happen? What are the pros and cons of working remotely to put together such a magnificent creative project?
Erri: Paola was the producer of last Michael Mayer’s movie, Happy Times, so the essential team was there. We got the strong help of Elena Rico Ramirez, Spanish publisher. From my point of view, there is no pro, working in distant time zones, which reduces the mutual exchange of a few hours. To match it, we are engaged at every hour.
Paola: I work since ever with Erri. I am also the President of his Foundation. With Michael, I started collaborating a few years ago in a film project. With time we became friends too. Last year we made a movie together.
Michael: Paola, Erri and I recently finished working on a feature film together, so luckily we had a pool of talented people we already had a relationship with.
A big con is the challenge of communication.
The biggest pro for me is the necessity to learn to let go. This project forces me to let go a lot of control, as actors film themselves on the other side of the world. It’s a humbling experience as a director.
Q7. How do you accommodate diverse languages?
Erri: In my case, my Italian has been translated into English by professor Jim Hicks, a good friend who has supported in every way the project since the beginning.
Michael: Between all the members of our little team, we cover 6 or 7 languages.
And we’re not shy when it’s time to ask for help!
Q8. How is The Decameron 2020 being promoted across platforms? How do you find your audience?
Erri: I am poor in this matter; I just agreed about everyone’s free contributions, and the network.
Michael: Social media, personal contacts, press announcements and word of mouth.
Q9. What are the pros and cons of creating stories solely for the Internet?
Erri: No publishers, no paper, no cellulose from trees: I think that a writer has to be generous and share for free a part of his tales.
Michael: The ease of use and the ability to reach a global audience. For a project of this sort, I can’t think of a con.
Q10. In the past year there have been major shifts in the way films have been released in theatres and on subscription TV. Now the pandemic has forced many film producers (at least in India) to consider releasing their films first on television and later when cinema halls reopen via traditional distribution channels. Plus, the Global Film Festival has been made available for free on YouTube. Do you think these rapid shifts in storytellers finding their audiences will impact the future of storytelling? If so, how?
Michael: I am not much for making predictions but I believe there is room for all types of media and formats and I believe new technologies add to our media landscape rather than cannibalize it.
Q11. What next? When the world opens up, will you develop similar projects?
Michael: Having worked now with all this diverse talent from all over the world I can’t imagine restricting my work to just one nationality or language. So yes, I definitely hope so.
Jim Hicks sums up the project beautifully in this note he emailed:
I suspect that, like most good ideas (and, of course, Margaret Mead is invariably quoted in such contexts), everything begins with a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” You begin by working together, and inevitably each person brings in others, and the network expands progressively, sometimes exponentially, getting richer and stronger as it grows. Though I believe that Erri’s original idea was for a “Decamerino” of ten writers and ten actors each telling one story, and I also believe that there are already at least that number in the pipeline, as Paola writes, when something is clearly working, there’s certainly no reason to quit, so this “Decamerino” could well add additional rooms, even becoming a house with many mansions, so to speak. And it is exciting to see Boccaccio inspiring so many projects today… another is unfolding at the online magazine Words Without Borders.
Personally, what excites me most about this project is Erri’s idea that from a variety of corners, all across the globes, collaborators can come together, sharing a great variety of stories and styles that, like a grand quilt, create a record and response to this global lockdown, but also a refusal of imposed isolation. Breaking the siege. Years back, I heard a talk given by another friend and frequent collaborator, the activist, poet, essayist, and translator Ammiel Alcalay; he described how a rather simple project of translation and editing, in the right place and time, could have a truly profound effect, and help to break a different sort of siege. Not that long ago, Ammiel worked to put together an anthology of Israeli Arab writers, some of whom had never before appeared in print, and some of whom lived literally blocks away from each other, but had never even met until their work appeared in the pages of a single book. For me, the chance to find great work, and great souls, from all around the planet, makes Decameron 2020 an incredibly exciting project, one that I’m both honored and enthused to put my energies, and what little talent I have, into…
For now, have a listen to the stories uploaded (at the time of writing) on YouTube:
Luigi Lo Cascio – “A message for my friends in isolation.”
Julian Sands reading Erri De Luca – “A Novella from a Former Time”
Shabana Azmi reading Tabish Khair “River of no return”
Pom Klementieff reading Violaine Huisman – Field Munitions
Mouna Hawa reading Dareen Tatour – “I… Who am I?”
Alessandro Gassmann reading Álvaro Rodríguez – “The Eternal Return of Chet”
In 1993 Taslima Nasreen wrote Lajja ( “Shame”) in Bengali. It was her response to the anti-Hindu riots that had broken out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, India on 6 December 1992. The novel was published in Bengali and within six months sold over 50,000 copies. It brought the author “fame” that till then had been unheard of in the subcontinent. Prior to this, the only other author to have had fatwas issued against them was Salman Rushdie, an author of South Asian origin but residing in UK at the time. Lajja became one of the first books in translation to be talked about by many readers internationally and this was at a time even before the Internet. ( Dial-up modems, with limited email access, were introduced in India in 1996!) Lajja became a bestseller rapidly. The English edition for the subcontinent was published by Penguin India. Subsequently a new translation was commissioned by Penguin India in 2014-15. The translator of the later edition was Anchita Ghatak. The book was banned in Bangladesh and fatwas were issued against the author. Taslima Nasreen fled to Europe and later laid roots in India. At first she chose to live in Calcutta/ Kolkatta and is now based in Delhi. Years later, Taslima Nasreen still needs security cover wherever she travels.
Lajja was explosive when it was first published as it was a Muslim author, upset by the communal riots in her land, who was writing sympathetically about a Hindu family. The story details the progressive radicalisaion of Suranjan who firmly believes in a nationalist Hindu outlook. So much so it is a belief he continues to nurture even after he, along with his family, flee Bangladesh to become refugees in India. In India he becomes a member of a Hindu nationalist party. Pirated editions of Lajja were sold in India. It became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. Taslima Nasreen, a doctor by training, has become an established writer with more forty publications. She defines herself as “a secular humanist, a human rights activist, and a prolific and bestselling author, who has faced multiple fatwas calling for her death”.
More than twenty-five years later, Taslima Nasreen is back with a sequel to Lajja. It is called Shameless. Arunava Sinha, the translator, told me “the original title was Besharam but eventually the Bengali book was published, also in 2020, with a very tame title, e kul o kul. The book was written more than ten years though.” Nevertheless Shameless is a unique experiment in writing a novel. It has shades of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with Suranjan as the protagonist but in conversation with Taslima Nasreen. The opening pages of the novel have Suranjan, the character, visit Taslima Nasreen, the author, and bring her up-to-date with the events in his life. It then develops into a fascinating narrative where a novel is obviously being drafted but it has so many overlaps with reality. With the author-turned-character (or is it character-turned-author?) providing pithy comments and at times intervening in the story by persuading the characters to act in one way or the other. It is a work of art. Shameless is a sequel to Lajja but seems more that that — Taslima Nasreen seems to have sort of trickled into the space between reality and fiction to put herself under the lens. But the conversation is more than that. It is a conversation between writer and character, commentary on the turbulent times. Taslima Nasreen’s was an emotional response to the increased communalisation in the subcontinent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. It was not necessarily literary writing. But in the intervening years Taslima Nasreen has evolved as a writer. With Shameless she has given herself space to speak frankly without hopefully attracting any more bounties for her head. Also the writing is very close to her memoir (Dwikhondito, 2003, translated into English as Split: In Two, 2018 — translated by Maharghya Chakraborty). Interestingly in recent years her voice as an author comes through very strongly in the English translations despite her experimentation with a gamut of translators. A testament to her strong writing. There are sufficient examples in the novel that indicate her belief in being a secular humanist stem from having experienced or witnessed firsthand many incidents in the name of religion. Much of this she distills into her writing of Shameless, exemplifying how much of the personal informs the political.
Arunava Sinha’s translation is superb. He is a renowned translator who has made available many Bengali writers in English but with Shameless his professional expertise as a translator par excellence is established. He channels Taslima Nasreen’s authorial voice beautifully. His past experience of working with Bengali authors has helped him tremendously to hone his expertise in being utterly respectful to the desire of the author to be heard in the original language and carry it forth impeccably into the destination language, enabling the readers in English to appreciate the text for what it is. It works brilliantly in a translation like Shameless where the author herself has a lot to say, much of it tricky.
The time lapse between the publication of Lajja (1993) and Shameless (2020) marks a significant period of socio-political history in the subcontinent as well. With Shameless Taslima Nasreen seals her place as a relevant author who creates political art, a need of the times when plainspeak is not necessarily always welcome.
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard is a Bengali translator, author, and professor of English and world literature. She lives in Virginia with her husband and plants. She has translated the late Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Blood. Set in Britain and America of the late 60s and early 70s, it is about a highly successful Bengali physicist Tapan who settles abroad. Despite all the successes he has garnered he is unable to put to rest the trauma he suffered as a child when his father was killed by a British officer. This occurred a little before India attained Independence. Coincidentally he meets Alice in London; she is the daughter of his father’s killer. Tapan’s world goes topsy-turvy as he tries to figure out what to do since he nurses a visceral hatred for the former colonial rulers of India. It is a peculiar situation to be in given that he has more or less decided to relocate abroad and never to return to India. It impacts his relationship with Alice too who is more than sympathetic to his feelings and is willing to let the past be bygones but it is a demon that Tapan finds hard to forget. He does go to India briefly to attend a wedding and meet his paternal grandmother — someone whom he loves dearly and who had lost two sons in the Indian Freedom Struggle. So much so that the Indian politicians are now keen to bestow upon her a monthly allowance recognising her sons’ contribution as freedom fighters. It is upon meeting his grandmother, who is past eighty and who witnessed much sorrow in her lifetime, that Tapan realises it is best to forget and forgive that which happened in the past and move on. Otherwise the past becomes an impossible burden to shed. Blood is a brilliantly translated novel that does not seem dated despite its preoccupations with the Indian Freedom struggle and a newly independent India. For all the stories and their intersections, it is evident that Blood is a modern novel which is worth resurrecting in the twenty-first century. The issues it raises regarding immigrants, familial ties, free will, social acceptance, loneliness, etc will resonate with many readers. As Debali says in the interview that “As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.”
Sunil Gangopadhyay, who died in 2012, was one of Bengal’s best-loved and most-acclaimed writers. He is the author of over a hundred books, including fiction, poetry, travelogues and works for children. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Those Days. This novel Blood was first published in 1973.
Here is a lightly edited interview conducted via email with the translator:
1 . How long did it take you to translate Blood? In the translator’s note you refer to two editions of the novel. What are the differences in the two editions?
I was on sabbatical during the spring semester of 2018 and Blood was my new project. I began working on it around the middle of January and completed the first draft in May. However, I let it sit for a year before returning to revise it.
I chose to use the second edition (1974) of Blood, rather than the first (1973), because the author made a few revisions. The alterations are minor, mostly cosmetic, and include replacing a few words in the text. These are mostly English words transliterated into Bengali: For instance, in Chapter 1, when Tapan asks Alice if she has the right glasses for serving champagne she responds, in the first edition, with “Don’t be fussy, Tapan” whereas, in the second, she says, “Don’t be funny, Tapan.” The revised second edition also corrects spelling errors and misprints.
2. The book may have been first published in 1973 but it seems a very modern text in terms of its preoccupations especially the immigrants. What were the thoughts zipping through your mind while translating the story?
To me the novel’s handling of immigrant concerns feels brutally honest. Blood refuses to romanticise the expatriate condition as exile and, instead, adopts an ironic stance towards immigrant angst, homesickness, and nostalgia. Yet, the irony is tempered with pathos in the narration’s uncovering of immigrant dilemmas. For instance, an Indian immigrant uneasy about her fluency in English chooses to stay indoors, but remains enamoured with England which she nevertheless cannot fully experience. Through the exchanges between the novel’s protagonist Tapan and his friend Dibakar, Blood also offers the realistic view that immigration is often driven by practical considerations. As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.
This does not mean that western societies get a pass in the novel. Through situations both small and large the novel exposes the racist and anti-immigration views prevailing in the United Kingdom, during the 1960s. That said, Blood is also critical of racial prejudice amongst Indians. Given current debates around immigration and citizenship both in India and across the globe, the novel’s treatment of this subject remains relevant.
Connected to issues of migration and home, the novel brings to the fore complex questions about homeland and belonging, uncovering how the location of “home” has been rendered unstable through the Partition’s severing of birthplace and homeland.
3. What is the methodology you adopt while translating? For instance, some translators make rough translations at first and then edit the text. There are others who work painstakingly on every sentence before proceeding to the next passage/section. How do you work?
For me it is a mix of both. I typically plan on translating a text it in its entirety before proceeding with the revisions but this intention is usually short-lived and seldom lasts beyond the first few pages. I find it difficult to progress until the translation feels most appropriate to the context, fits the voice, and fully conveys the meaning of the original. While translating Blood I have spent entire mornings deciding between synonyms. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle because there is only one piece/word that fits. And sometimes I have had to redraft an entire sentence (even entire paragraphs) to elegantly capture the sense of the whole!
4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?
First, the cons, the impulse to interpret. And the pros: the joy of being able to partake in the (re-)making of something beautiful.
5. Are there any questions that you wished you could have asked Sunil Gangopadhyay while translating his novel?
Were he alive, I would have requested him to read a completed draft of my translation.
6. What prompted you to become a professional translator?
My translation-work is driven primarily by the love of the text and the desire to find it a larger audience. In the future, I hope to be able to devote more time to it.
There is also a pedagogical dimension to this. In my capacity as a teacher of world literature, I aim to expose students to the vast and rich body of vernacular writings from the Indian subcontinent, inevitably through translations. And from personal experiences in the classroom, I know that many of my students are genuinely curious about writings from around the world. Blood is a small step in that direction. It is a book I want to teach.
7. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation?
I believe the first translated book I read was one of the many “Adventures of Tintin”, The Secret of the Unicorn. But children’s books aside, the book that came to mind immediately upon reading your question is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It may not have been the first translated work I read, but it ranks among the most memorable ones. This is because while I knew that Marquez wrote in Spanish, Rabassa’s translation preserved the novel’s artistic qualities so meticulously that it lulled me into thinking that I was reading the original. It is a quality I aspire to bring to my work.
8. How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project?
Not to sound self-absorbed, but my decision is based largely on how deeply the work moves me. My first translation project involved a short story by the Bengali author Jyotirmoyee Devi, entitled “Shei Chheleta” (“That Little Boy”). It depicts the predicament of a young woman who lost a family-member in the Partition riots. The author handled the subject with great sensitivity without resorting to the maudlin. The story would not leave me alone. I had to translate it because I needed to share it, and discuss it with friends and colleagues who did not read Bengali. Similarly, Gangopadhyay’s novel intrigued me when I first read it. I thought about the characters long after I had finished the book, imagined their lives beyond the novel. I knew that one day I would translate it. It hibernated within me for years because, in the meanwhile, there were Ph.D. dissertations to write and research to publish. Finally, a sabbatical gave me the gift of time, and I just had to do it.
9. How would you define a “good” translation?
Preserving the artistic, poetic, and, of course, propositional content of the original is central to my understanding of a good translation. To resort to the old cliché, it is about conveying the letter and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the original. The translated text, I feel, must itself be a literary work, a work imbued with the beauty of the original. Additionally, readability is fundamental. Therefore, I asked family members and friends to read the draft translation for lucidity and fluency. For this reason, I am immensely gratified by your observation about Blood that, “It has been a long time since I managed to read a translation effortlessly and not having to wonder about the original language. There is no awkwardness in the English translation”.
10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
It is difficult for me to say since I never received any formal training in translation-work. To me, translation is more than just an academic exercise, it is an act of love — love for the text itself, love of the language, and the love of reading. For me the best preparation was reading, and reading widely, even indiscriminately. While my love of reading was nurtured from early childhood by my mother, I had the privilege of being exposed to some of the finest works of world literature through my training in comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Calcutta and, later, in literature departments in America.
11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
The translator walks a tightrope between the two, where tipping towards either side is perilous. A translation is, by definition, derivative, so fidelity to the original text is essential. Yet, a translation of a literary work is much more than a stringing together of words in another language. It is itself a literary work. And it is incumbent upon the translator not only to make the work accurate and readable but also literary in a way that is faithful to the literary qualities of the original.
12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; J.M. Cohen’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; and A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.
More recently, Supriya Chaudhuri, Daisy Rockwell, and Arunava Sinha have produced quality translations from Indian languages.
Book Post 50 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.