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In a Crowd of Thousands—A Translation Dispatch from the Jaipur Literature Festival

By Poorna Swami


Poorna Swami attended the Jaipur Literature Festival, which took place January 18–23 in Jaipur, India.

Bodies pushing against each other, limbs undeciphered, a mass of people stirring in more directions than any compass can tell. It is uncomfortable to move between the six stages at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). But as you battle the crowd of thousands to reach the mecca that is your chosen panel of the hour, you find yourself slowing down. After all, it is impossible to run among these multitudes. Pushing a teenager here, dodging a grandma there, you soon discover you are walking the world. A writer curses in English as his foot is trampled by some other unidentified foot. A schoolteacher takes a headcount of her eighth graders in Hindi (she is one kid short). And a couple waving a cell phone loudly discusses in Spanish their most flattering selfie angle.

Advertised as the “greatest literary show on Earth,” the Jaipur Literature Festival draws audiences from far beyond India, and along with them a wonderful soundscape of languages, accents, and the choicest swear words. To decrypt these unfamiliar sounds and guess their languages as you walk around becomes an exciting game. But this translation puzzle of matching word with language, language with person, person with place, takes on more a formal political meaning in the festival’s panel discussions.

Each of the five days of the 2017 festival had at least a handful of panels centered either on translation or on non-Anglophone literature. There were even those panels, such as “The Tamil Story,” in which authors used interpreters to help share their words with the hundreds of listeners. Within the festival, in a smaller venue, was Jaipur BookMark, a B2B program dedicated largely to translation. But with so much activity and so many conversations about literary translation, translation itself—its meaning, its purpose—grew contentious, frayed.


“The Politics of Literary Translation” panel. Courtesy Jaipur BookMark/Teamwork Arts.

Throughout the festival, the loudest argument made for translation rested on the political capital it holds. In a panel titled “The Politics of Literary Translation,” eleven writers, translators, and publishers shared their insights into the relevance of, and problems surrounding, literary translation. A common grievance voiced was about the English language’s hegemony over translation markets and the aesthetic distortion that dynamic produces. Vivek Shanbhag, author of the Kannada novella Ghachar Ghochar (translated into English by Srinath Perur), insisted the aesthetics of Indian texts might be better served if they were translated into other Indian languages that share similar grammatical structures.

Beyond the semantics and supposed limitations of English, an interesting debate emerged around the purpose of translation and the form a translation must take if it wants to serve that purpose. “Translation is a political act,” Urvashi Butalia, founder of the feminist press Kali for Women and director of Zubaan Books, declared early on. World literature, she argued, carries within it “the invisibilization of race, class, gender.” A female Asian language writer, for instance, must render female characters that are miserable in their homelands—miserable enough by a North American/European yardstick—if they are to be published beyond their own political borders, in foreign languages.

“Translation is a political act,” Urvashi Butalia . . . declared early on. World literature, she argued, carries within it “the invisibilization of race, class, gender.”

Deborah Smith, the Man Booker-winning translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, also spoke of this pervasive bias. In her own practice, to check such culturally exploitative impulses, Smith tries to be aware of how she sources what she translates. She says she doesn’t want to “just replicate existing canons.”

For translator Chandan Gowda, the “issue” of translation often manifested in what words he chose to italicize in his translation of U. R. Ananthamurthy’s Kannada short story Bara. The upright or leaning position of a given word, he said, changed its cultural valency—what it informed its foreign reader about its own geographic, social, and communal origins.

In the impassioned back-and-forth about the need to translate, translation invariably surfaced as a cultural object, literary ammo with the firepower to cause impact beyond the page. During a panel titled “Lost in Translation,” Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpé asserted, “It is our moral duty to translate . . . translation bridges the chasm between cultures and people.”


“10/10: Reading South Asia in Translation” panel. Courtesy Jaipur BookMark/Teamwork Arts.

Of course, literature—and by extension, translation—can both make and be made by history. George Orwell’s 1984, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex—the list is endless. But to limit translation to an “issue,” a tessellation of syntax and cultural references, is almost a disservice to its literary pulse. Prolific Bengali translator Arunava Sinha, during the “Translators Center Stage,” offered a much-needed reminder: “If a book reflects its culture,” he said, “it’s because of its subject.” At the end of the day, which word is italicized and which holds its axis does not change how the story is felt.

The way Sinha shifts an operational definition of translation away from a sense of education and cultural obligation is essential. For him, to effectively translate from Bengali is to “understand the emotional underpinnings” of his “mother tongue.” Deborah Smith, on the same panel, agreed about finding these deeper resonances. Having learned Korean as an adult, Smith spoke of the difficulty of navigating Korean as a “literary language” rather than as a “lived experience.” During the “Lost in Translation” panel, she said that translation demands a “physical relationship” with words—that is how one can stay faithful to the effect the original has on its readers. Sholeh Wolpé echoed the idea beautifully—“Whatever language you’re writing into, you need to dream in it.”


“The Politics of Literary Translation” panel. Courtesy Jaipur BookMark/Teamwork Arts.

On a panel about Caribbean writing, St. Lucian poet Vladimir Lucien explained how his writing must “travel” to the UK to be published. He warned, “Don’t think my words are untouched there.” Although Lucien writes in English, his experience of having his words interpreted and edited by people unfamiliar with his country is useful to understanding translation. Like Lucien’s words, translation—any translation—carries within it a sense of history and place. And a translator must be aware of these various inflections; it was disheartening, for example, to hear Tamil writer Imayam lament how translators who live outside India often mistranslate his words because they cannot grasp the story’s “context.”

The notion that translation is an “issue” in need of being addressed is a persistent one, but perhaps it is also necessary. It constantly reminds us that translations must engage tangibly with the worlds they are trying to recreate. But translation framed as an “issue” also urges us to shake translation up, turn it on its head, find new meaning in its practice.

But translation framed as an “issue” also urges us to shake translation up, turn it on its head, find new meaning in its practice.

Sandwiched between the thousands of scuttling bodies at the Jaipur Literature Festival, you hear foreign sounds, try to locate them, and perhaps learn in translation your Word of the Day. In those crowds, translation plays out—literally—between bodies; unwittingly, it becomes the physical practice Smith described. Maybe this proximity is telling of how we might move translation away from “issue,” if only on occasion, and closer to our skin. That intimacy could be political. By bringing translation nearer to emotional spaces than to the cultural battlefield, we might find what British novelist Adam Thirwlell called the “pleasure of translation,” an embodied capacity of language—and literature—to move. Sharing such pleasures in telling one story in another language would then perhaps realize the intended purpose of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s translation panels—to encourage people to read more literature in translation or translate themselves. 


Published Feb 9, 2017   Copyright 2017 Poorna Swami

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