A two-year translation project seeks to bridge the gap between German and South Asian poetry
The term lost in translation may have become an idiom, but one often tends to forget how much of our literature would be lost without translation. To create a platform for poets to come together and interact and have their works translated into another language, Martin Walde, director of Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai came up with a two-year programme, Poets Translating Poets (PTP) through which poets from across the South Asian subcontinent would interact with German poets through translators who are well versed in both languages. Their works would then be translated into German and vice versa. Having started in 2015, the project brought together 51 poets from different parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as Germany. A volume of translations from South Asian languages to German and from German to South Asian languages has come out recently.
The second phase of the project starts September 15, with a tour of Germany with around 30 of the poets travelling from city to city reading out both the German and the Asian work. Pangs of translation “This project is nothing like a translator sitting lonely at his desk with a candle burning and a dictionary,” says Walde. “There is an enormous wealth of poetry in South Asian languages, which have no German translation, so I thought that repeating the project here was imperative. We began in July 2015 and had translation meets all over the country, where interlineal translators with knowledge of both languages sat with the poets and helped guide them through the process,” Walde explains. “The translators are like midwives, helping give birth to words,” he adds. Translator Jayashree Joshi, however, disagrees with this view. “A midwife feels none of the pangs of labour. We all got equally involved during the project. I like to think of myself and the other translators more like Cupid, bringing two different languages together in a romance of sorts,” she says with a laugh. As a translator with her own writings in Marathi, Jayashree faced quite a few difficulties in maintaining objectivity during the project. “I was part of two enclaves, one in Mumbai and one in Sikkim. When I was translating the works of the Mahashtrian poets, I had to restrain myself from putting in my inputs. For instance, there was a poem on a mouse by a German poet, which was actually a metaphor for a woman. Since mouse in itself is a female word in the gendered German language, I could understand this clearly. However, when translating, I kept the gender neutral.” On the other hand, she also recalls that she had to write up copious footnotes for the German poets for them to understand the undertones of Dalit Maharashtrian poetry or the conflicts in the northeast while the translation process between German and Mizo was underway in Sikkim.
The poetic perspective For the poets themselves, the experience has been both new and enriching. Although many have been a part of translation initiatives before, only the German poets had translated poetry using this method. However, even them, the enclaves brought new experiences. Berlin-based poet and playwright, Christian Filips, says that the real challenge for him was working with poets of a non-European origin. “The main difference was that I was now confronted with a non-European tradition and with an alphabet that I cannot even read. This makes it far more difficult to understand the structures.
It changes your way of understanding completely. You have to trust in instincts, gestures and feelings much more. It opens a completely new pace— a space of possible freedom in between the languages. The process was painful, hilarious, monstrous, boring, beautiful, of no consequence, important, exhausting and strengthening,” he recalls.
Kashmiri poet and Sahitya Academy Award winner, Naseem Shafaie, relates how she thought of the whole process as an adventure of sorts. “I have attended translation workshops before but translating another poet’s work is a new experience for me. Being in the group of like-minded yet different poets is an adventure of its kind. More importantly, I felt that unlike other translations, where you can insert your own thoughts and imagination in someone’s work, translating the work of a poet sitting in front of you gives you access to their innermost thoughts and the originality of the poem stays untarnished,” she says. Bengali poet and translator Sumanta Mukhopadhyay, who has translated several texts for the Sahitya Academy, says that the experience has been special for him thanks to his love of the German language. “So far it has been an amazing experience. I personally love German poetry from my school days. I started with Rilke and Hoelderlin in translation. Now I am working with Jan Wagner and Anja Utler. They are almost of my age. I tried to travel in the lanes and uncertain corridors of their thought. It is like writing. It is like love,” says the poet.
Lost in translation While translation is a way to open up cultures and literature to the world at large, there is always an apprehension that the final product will lose some of the essence of the original. However, according to Christian, getting lost is not always a bad thing. “Getting lost is not always bad, especially not in the arts. I believe that poetry is about losing yourself and becoming someone else instead. So yes, the PTP-project increases the risk to loose yourself and to get yourself back in an unexpected, new, maybe much more interesting way. Poetry for me is very much about becoming the other, not about always being the same. So, there is no such a thing as ‘wrong translation’. And you always risk to have a greater readership, in any language I’m afraid,” he reasons. Sumanta also adds that the presence of the interlineal translators gives the project a more cohesive structure, thereby reducing the chances of misinterpretations. “The interlinear translators did a terrific job. Their involvement was as intense as the poets’. We had debates, consensuses and hard work to overcome the boundary of the phrase ‘lost in translation’.”
The next chapter The next phase is going to be the German tour of at least 15 or 16 poetry meets taking place all over the country.
The poets too, are looking forward to the next leg of their journey. “In Germany, I would like to see places of historical and cultural interest,” says Somasuntharampillai Pathmanathan (SOPA), an acclaimed Tamil poet from Jaffa, Sri Lanka. Christian is also looking forward to introducing new ideas and literary works in his country, “I hope that I can introduce some of the Mizo and Nepalese poetry to the German audience which as far as I know, they know anything about.” those traditions,” he says.