Relishing new poetry

Savita Singh; Photo: Andrea FernandesFoto: Goethe-Institut / Andrea Fernandes

A professor-poet, Savita Singh, traverses many worlds. She is a Professor at the School of Gender and Development, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Delhi. Her poems are written in English and Hindi and have been translated into various languages. Savita Singh's poems often revolve around the issue of Feminism. Her collection Apne Jaisa Jeevan (A Life Like its Own) won the 2002 Delhi Hindi Academy Award.

Savita participated in the Delhi encounter of the South Asia-wide project, Poets Translating Poets. Here, we talked to her about her experience of the encounter and her poetic state of mind.

Could you tell us a little about how you found the experience of translating here?

I found this to be an extremely professional process. You have a schedule, a certain number of poems to finish and a complex process to follow to get there. The complexity comes from its simplicity of two people trying to translate each others' works directly and literally - there is no room for convenience, aside from the 'specialised' help that you get from your inter-linear translator.

I was also quite taken by the insistence of not using English for translations. English allows people to look for easier ways; with English, there is great ambition to produce knowledge because it is much more accessible. Once you remove that language as a medium, a direct relationship between Hindi and German becomes a harder, but much more rewarding process.

How was it trying to translate a contemporary German poet?

You are trying to understand the other's perspective -- there is inter-contextual and inter-subjective space that needs to be reinvented. It brings a newness to poetry. Some German images are so 'original'. So you try to translate those to the best of your ability; and yet, differences have to be respected. I have read classical German poets, but this space of contemporary German poets is new. The experience of translating their work in their presence is quite special.

Do you feel like the weight of your Hindi audience while translating works from an unfamiliar context?

I am very sensitive to the reader. Poetry is for the readers. They are the ones who preserve your poetry; they are the keepers. I always keep my readers in view while writing or translating. You have to acknowledge that poetry can also make you narcissistic - and that knowledge has allowed me to open up my work. So in attempting to translate the German poems into Hindi, I am quite conscious of my reader and his/ her comfort level.

How do you plan to tackle it in your translation? 

Well, poetry has a way of coming to you, even if it's someone else's poetry. If you are serious about it, and really try to understand, you will get it. For instance, I found one of Gerhard's poems to be quite complex and dense. It took me two days of thinking and literally translating. And then it begins to open up to you.

His poems become my poems, because they are in my hands. In that sense, it's not translation, but transcreation. For the reader, you need to make it comprehensible. Poetic elements have to be recreated. It all depends on how much of and in which way do you know your language.

What keeps you awake at night, during this encounter workshop?

Relishing new poetry that has come to me. I often think of the images of these poems - they invoke many feelings. I keep thinking about them. Secondly, it's the thought about what am I writing and how am I writing these works - and how long can I write. It is a pulsating time.

And what about the negotiation with the other poet - can you tell us a little about the power equation?

Translation is a process where power relations are invoked. There is a certain kind of social hierarchy that the process replicates -- such as patriarchy. It can be a replication of all patriarchal relationships. Generally, women were not considered as writers, not even the good writers - women have always had to take recourse to translating to stay in the publishing business. Either that or take up male pen names such as Gorge Elliot.

In this case, we are both the translators and poets -- there is a role reversal that takes place. In the first half, I am the poet; in the second, I am the translator. Because of this possibility of role reversal, the constant struggle is to equalise. There is sufficient dignity we have brought to others and to ourselves, while keeping our own individual voices alive. It doesn't merely produce translation, but actually creates 'poetry in translation'.
Rashmi Dhanwani conducted the interview.
She is the Founder of The Art X Company, and is an Editorial consultant on with Goethe-Institut Mumbai.