In 2018, Geetanjali Shree gave me a copy of Ret Samadhi at the Jaipur Literature Festival and I started reading it the moment I got home. I was eager to find out what wonders the title held. I was instantly taken in by the way it was written – I finally understood why it took her nearly seven years to complete the book. Yet, I wondered what the title was all about. And when I did – little by little – I was completely hypnotised.
The language seemed to have its own rhythm. The story moved at its own pace – sometimes it would slow down while at other times it would move ahead at breakneck speed. The language was poetic, like a river – sometimes noiseless, sometimes gasping, and at times galloping. Some sentences were very long (a page or two in length) and some were no longer than a word. The voices also kept changing.
I had one more reason to translate Ret Samadhi – it would be a cultural enyclopaedia of modern India for readers abroad. The beautiful story and writing style were an added bonus.
Though I have been a literary translator for nearly 30 years, Ret Samadhi posed challenges I was yet to encounter. Just a few days after I signed the contract, in late June, I learned through Twitter that Ret Samadhi was impossible to translate, in any language!
I was in a fix, what should I do? I had already agreed to translate the book, and there was no way out. Regardless, the deed had to be done. There was no point in thinking so ahead in the future. At the time, I had translated nearly fifty pages – not the final draft, but to convince publishers why Ret Samadhi deserved to be read by French readers. I was on a tight deadline – the translation had to be completed in four and a half months so that the book could be published in time for the Paris Book Fair.
The next five months became hell for me! I will concede that there were small moments of relief, but they were few and far between! How would I face this terrific challenge?
The characters in the book were of great help to me – I was constantly surprised by the splendour that was Ma, and the others too. The elder son, who would share his sorrows with the crows; the irritable yet timid daughter-in-law; playful Rosie and firm Raza, whose mystery is unraveled by a tragedy; the streets of Lahore and the imposing doors of the house; the two who would witness and hear everything yet reveal nothing; the daughter who is also a writer along with a poet and artist; and even the minor characters like Nithari’s children, their joys, sorrows, fear, the voices of their hearts and mind – they became a part of my existence.
Geetanjali’s polyphony became a part of me, so much so that I became a crossroad for these voices!
There would be a transformation, a revival of sorts when I could successfully translate a tricky bit. This would bring me great relief and make me confident about the challenges ahead. For example, think about the lengthy index, it starts like Borges and proceeds in playful tunes – “Statue, pearl, conch, tune, breath, wing, topaz, grain, heart, tale, spirit, pebble, particles, ears, eyes”. At first, I could not do justice to any of it – sound, alliteration, rhyme-scheme – and I proceeded to translate the text literally.
Then I chanced upon three words whose rhythm I felt could be of use to me. So I put them together – œil orteil oreille (eye toe ear). Other words, which are otherwise popular and standard grammar were transformed into an index of exceptions – caillou genou hibou bijou joue (pebble knee owl jewel cheek). The sequence changed with rhythm, some with humour, and some in play. This was necessary, for Ret Samadhi could not be a simple translation.
Another example, the crows start their cawing by saying “man prostrates before science”. I changed it to “l’homme et sa science sans conscience” – this alludes to French classical literature. But I did not use it as a direct quote, but as a soft indication, a faint nod. This is because Geetanjali’s references to Indian literature would not make much sense to the French reader.
This becomes even more difficult when only half a verse or half a quote, without any citation, would appear in the text. If it’s a direct quote and properly cited, I can mention it in the footnote or find an innovative way to translate it. But there’s a limit to the number of notes I can add. So I had to find relief and encouragement in every small win!
I would also feel disappointed when there seemed to be no solution. This feeling stayed with me until the end. Even while I was doing the final proofs, I kept hoping that the solution would present itself. But that did not happen. For example, “ख़ुदाई खुदी ख़ुदा” – how could I translate this into French? I decided to leave such phrases as they were, in Hindi. I’m not very proud of that!
I have many such examples that I have translated only somewhat successfully. I do not feel particularly joyful, or sad, or helpless – only discontent. At the very beginning of the novel Geetanjali writes, “नहीं नहीं मैं नहीं उठूँगी। अब तो मैं नहीं उठूँगी। अब्ब तो मैं नइ उठूँगी। अब्ब तो मैं नइई उठूँगी। अब्ब तो मैं नयी उठूँगी। अब तो मैं नयी ही उठूँगी।” This is a challenge for every language and defeat is guaranteed.
The rhythm changes little-by-little from नहीं to नयी, and it keeps changing, in different contexts, for nearly thirty pages. What was to be done? I could translate the words literally, but this would mean many of the subtleties would be lost. I kept trying and coming up with half-hearted solutions, I reached a compromise between meaning and rhythm.
Finally, I translated the sentence as, “Non, non, je ne me lèverai pas. Maintenant je ne me lèverai plus. Je ne veux plus me lever. Maintenant jeneveupamelever jeneveujeneveu je neuve jeune je je veux je vais me lever. Maintenant je me lèverai neuve. Maintenant, je vais me lever, toute neuve.” The first two lines are literal translations. The lines following them had to be translated with more subtlety. “Ne veux” sounds similar to “neuve” and “je ne v” sounds similar to jeune (young) – yet the playfulness of the language could not be fully conveyed. Yet another example of part-success…
Geetanjali was helpful to me throughout the process. She would patiently answer all my questions. Not once did she chide me by saying it’s the author’s job to write and not answer the questions of foolish translators!
I also want to thank my editors. They were equally helpful too – not only did they let me extend the deadline but in the five months that it took me to translate, they wholeheartedly cheered me on. They read the text diligently and helped me strengthen my work. They also reminded me to not lose out on sleep! From the very beginning they were impressed by Geetanjali’s book and her writing style. And by the time they finished reading the book, they were convinced that Ret Samadhi was the Indian version of a Garcia Marquez book.
I experienced all the joys and sorrows of translating the text into French. In this short period of five months, the book seems to have coloured my entire life. It was a surreal and completely unique experience, and that’s just how special Geetanjali’s writing is. A novel about traversing borders also reminds us that there can be no constraints on resolve. By living through the characters, I felt as if I was pushing the borders of this resolve.
Ret Samadhi flows like a river and the translation can be thought of as the riverbanks. The riverbanks bring people to the river and make them aware of its existence – it’s on the horizon that people meet, love, and play. Just like the riverbank, translations also do the same – they are the link between cultures, a convergence if you will. These bonds are fast – between French and Hindi, between Annie and Geetanjali, between Annie and the characters of Ret Samadhi, between the words (said and unsaid) and their meanings.
And finally the translation was here! It had to be!
Maybe not in time for the Paris Book Fair but for something even bigger and better, as it was destined for!
Translated from the Hindi by Sayari Debnath.