When I read the fabulous novel for the first time, Ret Samadhi, fresh off the press in January 2019, I immediately thought it was an invitation to translate. I was fascinated by the style and the ever-changing rhythm of the writing, sometimes flowing like a peaceful river with its meanders or its great open elegiac pauses, sometimes almost gaping in a panting motionless race, sometimes mad in a fury of intensity. A sentence has three pages, a chapter has three words. The content also fascinated me, starting with the initial mystery of the title, which unfolds step by step, also very enigmatically, with imperceptible allusions during the first two parts, fully only in the third part – the frenzied exodus during the 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 Hindu environment of Delhi, with her first lover and Muslim husband in the current Pakistan. The sand (back) is also quietly 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 through death – or Buddha statues destroyed, buried and re-emerging in the sandy Afghan soil. A quivering suspicion at first not even palpable, then more and more recognizable.
And the characters: Amma, the almost dying mute woman turning her back on the world and suddenly reborn as an intrepid woman full of fantasy, desires, dreams, madness and powerful initiatives; Rosy Raza, the whimsical bird-talking transgender nurse/serious and austere tailor; the eldest brother prisoner of his family and professional obligations, but secretly in love with his favorite crow; the daughter-in-law with her caustic and comic quarrels with her husband; the ever-enthusiastic grandson and his friend, the epitome of dashing youth; crows debate human folly and the environment; the gate and cross-border road that saw the massacres of the Partition, two well-fleshed characters who hear and see everything and think without articulate words.
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It took about three months to convince a publisher, thanks to French literary agents Astier-Pécher. Thanks also to the immediate enthusiasm of the French publisher, Editions des Femmes, based on a few translated extracts. And it turns out that the day after I signed my contract, someone sent me an Indian tweet circulating in India saying that the book is so original that it is simply untranslatable, in any language. I took up the challenge, scared and thrilled. My life immediately began to feel like a stormy storm, endless anxious struggles, with occasional wisps of relief and even happiness whenever I found a solution for the 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 render it correctly. Little sleep, little food, no leisure at all, nothing else in my life. An intensity never seen in the life of a translator. But how gratifying, seen in retrospect.
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Why? Precisely because I lost my unchallenged self for a while. I was Amma, I was Rosy Raza, the older brother, I was the crows, the door, I was the road. Alternately, even simultaneously, when I reread a long sequence of my translation before handing it over to the editor, a new agreement was forged between us to face the deadly deadline. They proofread and formatted it as I continued. Many, many lonely successive drafts before I could send something that echoed the splendor of the original. Much distress, few happy moments. For example, when, after weeks, an idea came out of nowhere to solve an “untranslatable” situation. For example, an enumeration of body parts emerging from broken statues, 16 words in Hindi proceeding in alliterative groups of words. I wanted to keep the factual meaning but also the syllabic rhythm and the play on sounds, and I finally decided to retain the meaning only for the words that contained alliterations in French (eye toe ear: eye, toe, ear) and then moving on to a rhythmic list of grammatical exceptions that everyone has learned and sung about, all ending the same way, my own way of having fun with the language and its rhymes. Elsewhere, I have introduced well-known poetic verses from various sources to compensate for the impossibility of echoing poetic quotes from famous Hindi lyricists – the literal translation of which would convey no memory, no shared emotion. As for the initial pun, present in most of the author’s readings, which propels the old lady into a new life, with sound play (high/spoken pronunciation) in Hindi, I transferred it to a sort of shlesha in French. Here is the Hindi for “I will not rise…I will rise again”: main nahin uthoogi … mai na.i uthoongi. French of course has no way of playing on a double level of pronunciation of the negation, the spoken way is a syntactic change, not a sound change. How to handle this? I don’t want to get up “I don’t want to get up” (sounds ‘jeneuveupa’), and “new” is “new” (sounds: ‘new’). So it ended like I don’t want I don’t want I don’t want I don’t want I don’t want I don’t want. A shlesha instead of playing at the floor level it suited me because in other places I had to miss a shlesha and substitute another figure of speech.
The sand (back) is also quietly 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 life, Elder’s life, Daughter’s life, road life. And above all, the life of the language of Geetanjali. It was the main reward. Geetanjali said in an interview with Doordarshan that a good translation should create a text as rich as the original in a different way (obviously his constantly inventive play with sounds, alliterations, rhythms must be rendered in a different way to echo similar text dvani, but so does the larger flow of a sentence or paragraph to achieve a similar rasa), so that it finds new life in a different language.
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For the translator, this means entering a different language and culture, therefore leaving his own to enter it differently. It is reclaiming one’s own language as if it were another language, a language between languages, a place where one leaves and where one returns. Like the boundary in the novel that makes the two sides more themselves, allowing you to come in, to come out to enjoy and celebrate this shift, being between and in both.
Geetanjali said in an interview with Doordarshan that a good translation should create a text as rich as the original in a different way.
This is, in my view, the sine qua non condition for the translated text to find a home in another language (French, for that matter), either at home in this other home, rather than to be merely a welcome guest, as the translation of today’s studies focused on hospitality claims. In the end, this amounts to really knowing oneself (language/culture), as Hannah Arendt beautifully stated, “To be confirmed in my identity, I depend entirely on others”, since I only truly understand my true me only through the perception of the understanding of the other. It also reminds us of the great ancient translator Kumarajiva who lived between Sanskrit and Chinese languages 10 centuries before us. At least, as Kunwar Narain makes it in his last long poem Kumarajiva, which gives him a very deep perception of the essence of translation: entering the world of the other by opening the door of language is like constructing a path of enlightenment, a sutra-marg, between two cultures. It is a celebration of a deep and happy friendship between two languages and cultures, without fusion, without domination of one over the other and without claims of loss or gain, just a festive meeting.
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Ret Samadhi, with the crossing of so many boundaries – age, gender, land, speaking/non-speaking creatures, breathing/non-breathing parts of the cosmos, etc. – transformed into bridges and places of true knowledge and joy. It is a jewel of which any translator can dream, because the translation aims at this same horizon: a bliss sangham of the author and the translator, of the language and culture of each, for the enrichment of each other.
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The reception of the book in France will really be known over the next few months: since it was published just before our first confinement and the launch events (including the Salon du livre de Paris 2020) could not take place; he was not properly promoted until last month. However, those who read it were extremely impressed; but it remained a critical success, all the more limited as French media tended to ignore Indian literature not written in English and not previously promoted by American media. For example, even Manto, the only non-English speaking South Asian writer rescued by Salman Rushdie in his shocking statement of the 90s, is virtually unknown in France, although his works have been translated, unlike some English-speaking novelists and essayists who highly regarded, including second- and third-tier authors.
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There is a huge disproportion between the visibility of the bhasha-s of Indian literature and availability of translations: not that there are as many available as from the English language. We can get an idea of the translated works through Eva Tartakowsky’s book The India of 1001 pages (2017, Peter Lang), or more centered on literature and more recently, literature DELI Dictionary with its digital version which will be released in 2023. And hope that with the stamp of the Booker Prize on Geetanjali’s novel, it will be more present in the windows of booksellers. And after that, other books translated from bhasha-s.
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(This appeared in the print edition as “La Traversée des Frontières”)
(The opinions expressed are personal)
Annie Montaut is a literary translator who has translated several Hindi texts into French