“Is the Bulgarian word ‘taga’ (sorrow, melancholy) truly translatable? Are we, and our childhoods, translatable? Our bodies? How are we to translate what never happened to us?
Some smuggle cigarettes, others alcohol – or weapons. Our contraband is more dangerous. [For what] we conceal is stories, our own and those of others. I come from a place where people are accustomed to holding their peace, or to recounting their stories in secret. A place of unarticulated taga – vast hidden fields of it.
Writers, translators, smugglers, we are all engaged in a similar task. We translate – which is to say, we literally carry over – what is desired, valued, missing, suppressed, forbidden.”— Georgi Gospodinov, “The Story Smuggler, Cahier 29”
Ownership. Every thought. Every memory. Every emotion has a landowner. Things that “happened”. Are meant to belong. To you. Or to me. Like a privilege acquired at birth. A litany made up of “this is mine, yours, ours”. Often it is nations that appropriate entire histories. Lives. Other nations. People. Writing and the re-writing of things that later become our truth. Yours and mine. Living under the heel of collective ownership can be crippling. To say the least.
How does one free the “event” of one’s life from the clutches of a possessive, even dictatorial, memory, and turn it into a literature of resistance?
Translation as need. Need to right that which is wrong. Writing wrong – describing through your writing the ills the injustices that remain hidden in the midst of a dailyness that is so taken for granted as a way of life, as in, “this is the way things are, have been, will be, nothing to be done”. So: translating these stories into existence.
Translation as midwifery, then? Perhaps. Challenge the language you have so carefully cultivated. Revisit the meaning of words you have since childhood imbibed as universal truths. Consider the act of translation as impulse, as motivation, as a “telling” of that which would otherwise remain “untold”. So: speaking out and speaking about the forbidden? Maybe. Even perhaps. Do not the frames that rule the act of translating from one language into another blinker your vision into thinking the job is done? Translation as action. As activism. As a tool for translators who take up causes. Body phele debo as a translatable act of not just the body being thrown into the fray should the situation demand this of you – but the soul too. The soul translated as body made visible. Made passion. So: translate your passion. Singular. Plural. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the subverting of the status quo. Translation therefore as subversion.
So far so good. But I am also preoccupied with this:
Translation as autobiography. As memoir? Maybe. After all that which needs telling. Lies within. In that place where silences reign. Silences full of stories in a language that is sensed. Not always heard. Breaking silences? Maybe. Learning to hear them? Maybe.
I once asked Romila-di [Romila Thapar]:
As a historian translating a past that needs to be shared in a present crying out for signs of resistance, what do you think that a past, any past, may offer? And what do you think as a human being without access to your learning and training as a historian? How much of your practice over these last so many decades comes in the way of the poet you don’t see yourself to be? Or even the seer who, Cassandra-like, interprets a past so that signs of a possible future may appear as weapons of resistance?
Here is what she said:
“One is translating all the time. Isn’t living a way of translating one’s thoughts? Although the translation may take an unexpected form, one sees something of oneself and one’s life.
Yes, the historian is translating a past which demands to be shared. We all think that our translation is the only valid one, although we know that translations can vary. The translation of the past is open to debate. I may hate it when people contradict what I have said, but I concede that they have a right to do so – provided their translation of the past is based on reliable evidence. And this is when the translation moves away a little from evidence to imagination. I have never quite worked out what thrills of imagination are present in a translation. The choice of words can differ so much as also the nuances of the meaning. When a number of historians see the past as being translated and start a debate, then it begins to take another form.
I don’t see myself as a poet because I don’t allow poetry to influence my translation. Yet I did at one point in my early life think of writing poetry.
Nor am I a seer. The world is too much with me and I’m just going along with its rollercoaster ride, for I don’t know where to get off.
Translation as memoir makes for a better enterprise of thinking, speaking and writing. Maybe that is why I run away from it. Can’t quite figure out how to do it, how not to resist not just my times but also my life.
If I am speaking out, I must ask myself: Why I am doing so? What am I translating and why? Translation in one sense is what one is doing all the time – translating one’s thoughts into speech or into action.”— Romila Thapar
What if. What if you never had to resist your times or your life? What if the inhibition of learning was consciously, deliberately, rejected laid aside cast off for a moment, and we had the possibility of mixing the fact and the fiction of our lives, as writers and poets often do, and to write tracts for our times that combined an awareness – a sharp clear responsive worldview as our lives and times unfold – with an instinct to study imbibe predict possible futures. Not as prophecies. But as reasoned detective work that suggests the possibility of things becoming from things as they are. Perhaps the science of deduction? Perhaps.
Let me beseech you to be patient with me. To read what follows.
This is about Mahasweta-di [Mahasweta Devi]. And her ability to combine the fact of her daily life with her fiction. And her activism that instinctively made her decipher realities and then translate them into a literature of resistance. Not just as an extension of her own “fighter” self but also as a human being with an evolving growing concerned vision.
“Forensic writing. Disclosing, documenting, revealing everything. . .
On 10 February, Budhan Sabar and his wife Shaonli Sabar were going to the Bara Bazar area, bordering Purulia. Suddenly the police came from the Bara Bazar police station and snatched Budhan away. On a trumped-up charge. From the 10th to the 12th, the police subjected him to kambal dhulai – wrapped him in a blanket and beat him, so that there were no marks on his body. Forced him to drink country liquor. Repeatedly. Charged him with all the dacoities happening in the area. And he kept saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ Thinking that if he said yes to everything, they’d let him go. But no. On the 12th he was produced in court, and an order was obtained by the police for further inquiries. And so he was taken back to jail. On the 16th evening he was taken to court again, then back to jail again. In between, he was beaten mercilessly.
On the 17th morning, he was taken from his cell. He had no gamchhaa or anything with him. He was asked to sweep the yard. So he did. Then he was beaten again. Then he was taken to a solitary cell. All day, the door was not opened. In the evening, the jail authorities casually declared that he had committed suicide by hanging. With what? With a gamchhaa. In a solitary cell, how can one commit suicide with a gamchhaa that one does not have?
On the 18th, in the morning, a reporter telephoned me and the Samiti, and we all rushed over. His wife and the others also got there. By then the first post-mortem was done. The police were insisting on the instant cremation of the body. The Sabars said, ‘No, we don’t cremate our dead – we’ll take him home.’ So they took Budhan’s body back to their village.
The police came, searched the village for the body. But the Sabars had buried him in a hidden spot. To hoodwink the police, they cremated a straw carcass, shouted ‘Hari bol!’ So everyone thought Budhan had been cremated. Then they shifted the body to his hut. The young widow placed her husband’s corpse in a hole in the ground, then spread a mat over the spot and slept on it. Shaonli could sleep peacefully at night, she was content . . . after all, Budhan was there, she had managed to keep him.
Then the High Court ordered a second post-mortem. This shocked and angered the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police. They went to the village with vans full of policemen, asking everyone, ‘Why did you not cremate the body?’ The women went up to the policemen and said: ‘What will you do? Kill us? Shoot? Go ahead, shoot me, shoot us all! We won’t let you have Budhan!’
The entire process was being videotaped by our organisation, so the police stopped harassing them.
Finally, they took Budhan’s body to Purulia. A bloated, rotting carcass. After the post-mortem, they wanted the family to collect the body, of which only maggots remained. The wife said, ‘I’m too ill to collect it. If you have to give back the body, come and give it to us in the village.’
But the police couldn’t face up to that.
So Budhan is sitting there. A rotting Budhan Sabar sits, waiting . . .
This is not made up by me – it is what has happened. And I have to chronicle it. I’m carrying Budhan’s body somewhere here. I feel heavy, I’m burdened with him . . .
Writing is my real world. It is where I have lived. And survived.”.— Mahasweta Devi
After reading this, this is what Romila-di wrote back to me:
I am now saying to myself that my thoughts are also the end point of a certain translation – the translation of the senses that take the form of thoughts. Isn’t that what Mahasweta-di is doing? She is not really using her five senses but, metaphorically, it is all coming to her through how she imagines her senses would feel it. She senses the kidnap, the torture, the death. She can see it, smell it, hear it, touch it, through willing herself to be there. The poet can will herself to be there, and possibly even try to experience what is happening.
But all this the not-poet cannot do.
And when it has all been translated into thought, there is another translation – into words that can be spoken or written. As long as poetry was oral, words meant speech. Now they are more often read. We rarely read poetry aloud to ourselves. Translating thoughts into words raises a whole other experience that involves a choice of word, a nuance, a flavour, and these are things that one struggles with each time one writes. The struggle is much harder if it is all in the mind, however close or far one’s mind may be from one’s senses.
Some of us struggle to get away from trying to be precise all the time. Trying to be because one can never be precise since one is using words. We yearn to let thoughts and words float as they wish. Some of us don’t know how to float them, and so we just give up.
And one ends up with your question of: What if . . . I can’t think of the number of times in my life I have said to myself: What if . . . ? Not in a counter-factual way, but simply as an alternative or a number of alternatives.
But the ‘if’ tends to fade away.”— Romila Thapar
I hear you. Audibly. My ears trained in theatre. I writetalkhearread in an act of simultaneous translation. Across languages.
Dining tables I grew up at had a mother from Lahore gently talking in Punjabi – not just talking but narrating, an entire Hindi film scene in smooth polite intuitively visual Punjabi while my father translated into shudh Hindi the finer points to his mother, my grandmother who was from Uttar Pradesh. And I? Listening with barely concealed excitement to this magical description of a Raj Kapoor and Nargis scene being enacted in Punjabi and, in my head, translating it all into my “first language” English and then asking questions that interrupted her performance!
This is common enough in our homes. Thoughts and words jostle with nuance and emphasis, with tone and accent – all of which can be lost in translation if we read them, but they do pinpoint our language origins when they are heard.
“As long as poetry was oral”, you say and I salute this thought even as I continue to suggest that the act of reading poetry in one’s mind is still an “audible” one. Only the level of whispering has changed! If written the way it is heard, there is the possibility of a silent hearing during the very act of reading.
There is of course the “I”, the “me” of the writer as we perceive her and then there is the “I”, the “me” of the writer as she is. One that remains hidden until the act of writing translates it. Making it “unhidden”. Translating the “other” within. The other that lies in wait while she, the writer, battles language, struggling to find words and meanings and emotions that will shed light on her hidden otherself. The act of writing that is also translation?
Writing as an act of intuition, actively, even furiously, translating thought into language.
This desperate storytelling does not always position itself in the objective. It is, rather, personal. And political. It also allows space for the reader to take away what they can or wish to and attribute their own meanings to the stories. It is left to the reader to find motivation or strategy or allusion or method in her texts. A “readerly” act of translation? Perhaps. Maybe.
The act of reading is also as translation. To decipher. Decode. Make assumptions. Reading as objective. Reading objectively. The personal and the objective versus the subjective reader who filters through her own lenses.
For Mahasweta-di, the positions she took through the many lives and many characters she sired was born out of an instinct to bear witness. Literature as an act of witnessing. Documenting the dark times under the guise of story-telling. Another act of translation? Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows.
Instead. Of opening up possibilities. We set up nation-states that ghettoise the book. Make it a commodity. To be hounded. Chased to the ground. Bought. And sold across territories. Across languages. Like literary slaves.
I guess what I am attempting to express is that in this. Our world. Of publishing. Too much time. Energy. Money is spent. On creating structures that ultimately box us in.
And yet. These precise boundaries do melt. And blur. When so many emotions spring. From what you do. And what we do. The way you do them. The way we do them. The tingle and the excitement of the words we find. Translate secure bind in the nicest possible manner. For a community of interested readers who don’t really know. Or if they did. Know. Don’t always give a damn. About labels. And territories. And conveniences both public and private. They know very little about how a book makes its way into their hands. As long as it continues to do so. With a regularity that can only be described as unrelenting and reliable. And timely.
It is the task of the publisher to act as a conduit between the writerly act of telling untold stories, sharing new ideas, shedding light on older ones, with readers that may not always find their way to these books. So translation as a bridging activity? Perhaps. Maybe.
My juxtaposition of these two voices at the cost of underplaying mine is a deliberate act suggesting that this is what publishers do. They resist. The personal “frontstaging” that any act of presentation of this nature assumes as a given. They translate other voices, other stories, other poems into books that readers can then hold and…read.
I find this business of setting goals a restraining exercise. Allowing yourself to be handcuffed. A constraint. A boundary. A fence. A limit. A confining. Achieve. Implement. Be result-oriented. Within a given timeframe. Swords hanging overhead. Self-imposed targets. The bane of a world governed by the marketplace. Perform. Or perish. Disappear. Vanish. Fade away. Be replaced. By others. Till they too meet the same fate. Line after line of tin soldiers. Stretching into the distance.
Ideas need a free rein. To be able to roam freely. Sometimes this can be a very exhilarating thing. The thrill of not knowing what lies ahead. The nervous pleasure that stems from taking a risk. Trusting that which is intuitive. In you. Not being able to predict or foresee is not a sign of foolhardiness. Or a crime. After all it is the future. No amount of mathematics and spending sleepless nights over an abacus of uncertainty will accurately foretell the future. Let it arrive. This future.
When it does. Embrace it. As your present. See what it unfolds. Observe the process. Learn. After all what we do as publishers of reasonable independence is creative. There is an art. And a logic. Even a method to our passion. Only it is different from the dictates of a world desperate to clone itself. Replicate. Bringing something that stems from the minds and hearts of people we call authors and poets. Into this world. Is unique. Something that did not exist. In quite that way. Before.
You made it happen. You translated it from idea into word. From imagination into reality. You made it into that which we hold in our hands.
You made it into a book.