Wednesday, Mar 29, 2023

‘How I Translated Ret Samadhi To French’: Annie Montaut


‘How I Translated Ret Samadhi To French’: Annie Montaut

Let us hope that with the stamp of the Booker Prize on Geetanjali Shree’s novel, it will be more present in the storefront of book-sellers. And after it, other books translated from the bhashas

Photograph: Shutterstock
Photograph: Shutterstock Photograph: Shutterstock

When I first read the fabulous novel, Ret Samadhi, fresh from the press in January 2019, I immediately thought that it was an invitation to translation. I was entranced by the style and the ever­-changing rhythm of the writing, sometimes flowing like a peaceful river with its meanders or its wide open elegiac pauses, sometimes almost gaping in a breathless motionless race, sometimes running mad in a fury of intensity. One sentence has three pages, one chapter has three words. The content too was mesmerising to me, starting with the initial mystery of the title, which discloses step by step, very enigmatically too, by imperceptible hints during the first two parts, fully only in the third part—the frantic exodus during Partition through the sand dunes of the Thar desert, then with the meeting of the main protagonist Amma, the 80-year-old mother and grandmother in a Delhi Hindu surrounding, with her first Muslim lover and husband in the now Pakistan. Sand (ret) is also discretely ref­erred to as more than physical sand in various parts of the novel, echoing rare ways of taking the samadhi—the highest stage of meditation leading to liberation, sometimes by means of death—or of the Buddha’s statues being des­troyed, buried and re-emerging in the sandy Afghan earth. A quivering hint at first not even palpable, then more and more recognisable.

And the characters: Amma, the old quasi-dying mute lady turning her back to the world and suddenly reborn as an intrepid woman full of fantasy, wishes, dreams, crazy moves and powerful initiatives; Rosy Raza, the fanciful transgender nurse speaking with the birds/the serious austere tailor; the elder brother trapped by his family and professional obligations, yet secretly in love with his favourite crow; the daughter-in-law with her caustic comic quarrels with her husband; the always enthusiastic grandson and his friend, the embodiment of dashing youth; the crows debating human foolishness and the environment; the door and the trans-border road which have seen the Partition massacres, both fully fleshed out characters which hear and see everything and think without articulated words.

ALSO READ: Our Stories, Their Words: Why More Writers From The West Are Now Translating In Indian Languages

It took about three months to convince a publisher, thanks to the French literary agents Astier-Pécher. Thanks also to the immediate ent­husiasm of the French publisher, Editions des Femmes, on the basis of a few translated exc­erpts. And it so happened that the day after signing my contract, someone forwarded to me an Indian tweet circulating in India that the book is so original that it is simply untranslatable, in any language. I took up the challenge, frightened and entranced. My life immediately started looking like a stormy tempest, never-ending anxious struggles, with occasional strands of relief and even bliss whenever I found a solution for tricky passes. Not only because of the extremely short deadline, five months, but also because of the constant difficulty of the style if one wants to properly render it. Little sleep, little food, no leisure at all, nothing else in my life. A never-experienced intensity in a translator’s life. But how rewarding, seen in retrospect.

ALSO READ: For Good And For Verse: What The Booker Prize Can Do For Indian Poetry

La Traversée des Frontières

Why? Precisely because I lost my unquestioned self for a time. I was Amma, I was Rosy Raza, the elder brother, I was the crows, the door, I was the road. Alternately, or even simultaneously, when I re-read a long sequence of my translation before submitting it to the publisher, a new agreement evolved between us to cope with the mortal deadline. They proofread and formatted it while I carried on. Many, many solitary successive drafts before I could send something echoing the splendour of the original. Much distress, few happy moments. For instance, when, after weeks, an idea came out of the blue of how to resolve an “untranslatable” situation. For instance, an enumeration of the body parts emerging out of broken statues, 16 words in Hindi proceeding by groups of alliterating words. I wanted to keep the factual meaning but also the syllabic rhythm and the play on sounds, and finally decided to retain the meaning for only those words which contained alliterations in French (oeil orteil oreille: eye, toe, ear) and then to jump to a rhythmic list of grammatical exceptions everybody has learnt and sung, all ending in the same way, my own way of having fun with language and its rhymes. Elsewhere, I introduced well-known poetic verses from various sources to compensate for the impossibility of echoing the poetic quotations of famous lyricists in Hindi—whose literal translation would convey no memory, no shared emotion. As for the initial play on words, part of most of the readings by the author, which propels the old lady to a new life, with a play on sounds (high/spoken pronunciation) in Hindi, I transferred it into a kind of shlesha in French. Here is the Hindi for “I won’t get up…I will get up new”: main nahin uthoogi … mai na.i uthoongi. French has, of course, no way to play on a double level of pronunciation of the negation, the spoken way is a syntactic change, not a sound change. How to manage that? I don’t want to get up is “je ne veux pas me lever” (sounds ‘jeneuveupa’), and “new” is “neuve” (sounds: ‘neuv’). So it ended like je ne ne veux pas me lever je ne veux pas je ne veux je ne veux je neuve me lever. A shlesha instead of a play on level of speech, that was ok for me since in other places I had to miss a shlesha and substitute some other figure of style.

Sand (ret) is also discretely ref­erred to as more than physical sand in various parts of the novel, echoing rare ways of taking the samadhi...

So my life ceased to be mine, it became Amma’s life, KK’s, the Elder’s, the Daughter’s, the road’s. And above all, the life of Geetanjali’s language. That was the major reward. Geetanjali has said in an int­erview to Doordarshan that a good translation should create a text as rich as the original in a different way (obviously, her constantly inventive play with sounds, alliterations, rhythms have to be rendered in a different way for echoing a similar dhvani, but similarly the larger flow of a sentence or paragraph for achieving a similar rasa), so that it finds a new life in a different language.

ALSO READ: Booker Prize For Geetanjali Shree May Be A Great Moment For Hindi Literature, But Not Enough For Indian Translations

Sands of time Bodies of Partition riot victims being removed from  Delhi streets.
Sands of time Bodies of Partition riot victims being removed from Delhi streets. Photograph: Getty Images

For the translator, that means entering a different language and culture, hence stepping out of one’s own in order to re-enter it differently. It means re-appropriating his/her own language as if it were another language, a language in between languages, a place you go out and re-enter. Like the border in the novel which makes both sides more themselves, providing you step-in, step-out to enjoy and celebrate this moving across, being in-between and in both.

Geetanjali has said in an int­erview to Doordarshan that a good translation should create a text as rich as the original in a different way.

This is, in my eyes, is the prerequisite for the translated text to find a home in another language (French, for that matter), be at home in this other home, rather than simply being a welcome guest, as claimed in today’s translation studies with their emphasis on hospitality. Ultimately, that equates to truly knowing one’s self (language/culture), as beautifully stated by Hannah Arendt, “For being confirmed in my identity, I entirely depend on others”, since I only truly understand my real self through the perception of the other’s understanding. It also reminds us of the great ancient translator Kumarajiva who lived in-between the Sanskrit and Chinese languages 10 centuries before us. At least, as rendered by Kunwar Narain in his last long poem Kumarajiva, which grants him with a very deep perception of the essence of translation: entering the other’s world by opening the door of language is like building an enlightenment path, a sutra-marg, between two cultures. It is a celebration of a deep blissful friendship between two languages and cultures, without fusion, with no domination of one on the other and no claims of loss or gains, just a festive encounter.

ALSO READ: The Business Of Translations: How Badly Translators Are Paid And The Minimal Attention They Get

Ret Samadhi, with the crossing of so many borders—age, gender, land, speaking/non-speaking creatures, breathing/non-breathing parts of the cosmos, et al—transformed into bridges and places for true knowledge and joy. It is a gem any translator can dream of, because translation aims at this very same horizon: a blissful sangam of the aut­hor and the translator, of each’s own language and culture, for the enrichment of both.

ALSO READ: Journey Of An Accidental Translator: Two Decades Of ‘Bengalification’ And A Long Engagement With Bangla Language

The reception of the book in France will really be known during the next months: since it was published just before our first lockdown and the launching events (including the 2020 Paris Salon du livre) could not take place; it was not properly promoted before last month. However, those who have read it were extremely imp­ressed; but it remained a critical success, all the more limited since the French media tend to ign­ore Indian literature not written in English and not previously promoted by the American media. For instance, even Manto, the only South Asian non-English writing author saved by Salman Rushdie in his shocking declaration in the nineties, is practically unknown in France, although his works have been translated, as compared to some Anglophone novelists and essayists who are quite appreciated, including second or third rank authors.

ALSO READ: Awaiting Discovery: World’s 7th-Most-Spoken Language, Yet Bengali Literature Has Very Little Translations

There is a huge disproportion between the visibility of the bhasha-s of Indian literature and availability of the translations: not that as many are available as from the English language. One can get some idea of the translated works through Eva Tartakowsky’s book L’Inde des 1001 pages (2017, Peter Lang), or more focused on literature and more recently, the literary Dictionary DELI with its digital version set to be published in 2023. And let us hope that with the stamp of the Booker Prize on Geetanjali’s novel, it will be more present in the storefront of book-sellers. And after it, other books translated from the bhasha-s.

ALSO READ: Anuvad, Tarjuma, Bhashantar, Rupantar, Teeka, Vivartnam: The Story Of Indian Translation

(This appeared in the print edition as "La Traversée des Frontières")

(Views expressed are personal)

Annie Montaut Is a literary translator who has translated several Hindi texts into French