Reports from South Asia

Delhi Diaries

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Andrea FernandesPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Andrea Fernandes

An Indologist, a professor and a poet walk into a bar. Well, a library actually, but the outcome is no less fun.

Rashmi Dhanwani reports on the Delhi encounter of Poets Translating Poets.

The crisp early November week of Delhi provided the perfect backdrop for poetic ruminations. Brick and clay walls punctuate the large and open, green spaces at Sanskriti Kendra which is the site for this residency. Amidst an open-air amphitheatre, an art gallery, a blue ceramic workshop, picnic benches and a library, six poets converged for the third encounter of Poets Translating Poets (PTP) in South Asia.

German poets Ulrike Almut Sandig and Gerhard Falkner delved into linguistic complexities of Hindi and Kashmiri with poets Mangalesh Dabral, Savita Singh, Naseem Shafaie and Shafi Shauq. Each poet is armed with critically acclaimed collections and a treasure trove of stories. Over five days, they negotiated, translated and transcreated each others' poems and thoughts into linguistic realms that have rarely been traversed before.

Language fields open up through such a process – an experimental literary practice of interlinear translation, which allows each poet to investigate linguistic structures of a language they don’t know. To translate in this context is to negotiate, to assume power and let go, to understand, deconstruct and repackage – hallmarks of this fascinating encounter of poets coming from three different language traditions.

Translation as Negotiation

“Sense for sense and not word for word, negotiation is the key to good translation,”said Umberto Eco. It is in understanding the context and negotiating its complexities that a good translation lies – a process we could minutely observe as it unfolded at PTP.

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Andrea FernandesPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Andrea Fernandes
At the start of the encounter, German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig and Hindi poets Mangalesh Dabral and Savita Singh translated each other’s poems. Ulrike was working on Manglesh’s poem The Accompanist. The German word she chose attributed a female ‘accompanist’, but Mangalesh insisted that the ‘accompanist’ to a musician in his poem was male, and changing its gender would transform the essence of the poem. The protracted conversation took two days to resolve until they both negotiated the use of the right word in the translation.

Later, on a sunny picnic bench, Ulrike and Kashmiri poets Naseem Shafaie and Shafi Shauq, translated each others’ poems. Ulrike is an Indologist and has lived in India in the past. Her understanding of at least one Indian language and prior context of the culture allowed for a rather intimate, negotiated process of translation. Thematically, a parleyed understanding of conflict and resistance brought the poets together – Kashmir’s recent history of violence and resistance found likeliness in Ulrike’s poem, Schlaflied fuer alle (Lullaby for all those):  

das ist ein Schlaflied für alle, die sich wehren
wenn es ans Einschlafen geht, Schlaflied
für alle, die Widerstand leisten, wenn es heißt:
Licht aus, hier wird nicht gesprochen.


this is a lullaby for all those who resist
when it’s time to go to sleep. a lullaby for all
those who put up a fight, when somebody
says: lights out, no more talking

(Translated by Karen Leeder)

The poem invoked a wide range of discussions spanning the recent spate of writers’ Sahitya Akademi award returns, the political climate of intolerance in India and the 25-year conflict in Kashmir. The ‘familiar’ exists in many pots and corners; the dark has many cousins. This is something all three poets recognised – aware of each others’ dark noises and splotches of grey – and this process was “reminiscent of a new paradigm of cultural transfer,” as Dr Martin Walde, Director - Goethe Institut, Mumbai, explained.

Ulrike also assumed a different kind of confidence about the translation process. She suggested words in Hindi to explain her poem, strongly articulating the place from where her poems emerge and where she thinks they can go. At the same time, she made room for the Kashmiri poets to take ownership of the process in their own ways. Naseem and Shafi wove their language within this negotiated understanding, reconstructing and being reconstructed in the process.

Translation and Power

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Andrea FernandesPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Andrea Fernandes
On the other side, tucked in a cool, dark library were Hindi poets Mangalesh Dabral and Savita Singh, along with German poet Gerhard Falkner. Bringing up the four to fore was interlinear translator Namita Khare. The makeup of this team was rather unique. Gerhard was very clear about what he is driving towards – detailing each word, articulating the pace of each context, and striving for clarity. One such conversation was about the right use of the word ‘water’ in Manglesh’s poem, बची हुई जगहें (The places that are left):
हम कहीं और चले जाते हैं अपने घरों लोगों अपने पानी और पेड़ों से दूर
मैं जहां से एक पत्थर की तरह खिसक कर चला आया
उस पहाड़ में भी एक छोटी सी जगह बची होगी

“We move elsewhere, leaving our homes, our people,
the water, the trees,
like a stone, I had washed away from a mountain,
that mountain must still have a little place left.”

(Translated by Akhil Katyal)


Here, Gerhard attempted to decode the word paani (water), which could have been used to mean water as the noun, or rivers, lakes and larger water bodies (of homelands). Gerhard found the ‘water’ metaphor -- in its symbolism for all of the ‘homeland's' water -- to be archaic.

Later, Gerhard explained that he found both Kashmiri and Hindi poems to possess more body: more bulk and symbolism. “We faced this situation a long time ago and cut out those extra words,” he said as he spoke of Minimalism in German poetry. “It’s my personal choice, but also a choice that poets of the western tradition have made collectively,” he added. This led to a conversation between Savita and Gerhard about the key dilemma of translation -- to keep it in its original form with all the original connotations (something that the western audience is not used to), or to make it minimalist.

This dilemma makes one recall Rudolf Pannwitz’s thoughts on the German translation tradition of early 20th century, which complains about translations that “germanize hindu greek english instead of hinduizing grecizing anglicizing german” (Pannwitz 1917:240; trans. John Zilcosky). It’s a critique that continues to trouble translators to the present day. For Pannwitz, the role of the translator was very clear: “[the translator]must broaden and deepen his own language with the foreign one.”At the PTP encounter, Pannwitz’s vision was one of the project’s outcomes, but the final translation is an agreement reached between both poets.

Considering much of South Asia was colonised until 70 years ago, one cannot talk about power structures in translations without referring to the post-colonial experience. Post-colonial translation theorists, such as Herraldo de Campos in Brazil, Harish Trivedi in India or Sherry Simon in Canada, insist that study and practice of translation is inevitably an exploration of power relationships within textual practice that reflect power structures within the wider cultural context. Here, however, each poet was acutely aware of the turns they took in holding and letting go of this power.

In the case of Savita Singh, she left the decision to Gerhard, thereby relinquishing her power over her works. “I am not possessive about my poetry. I am conscious of the cultural baggage that I come with, in terms of form and style in my poems. I don’t see why you, Gerhard, have to take that baggage forward while translating for an audience that doesn’t have it. The German tradition of poetry has evolved in a particular way, so if you wish to translate my poetry in that tradition, I am OK with that,” she said. It is negotiated hegemonic battlefield that assumes a unique construct in the context of translations where both the translator and the translate are present. Savita was later interviewed about this conversation and her perception of her power as a creator and a translator in the process.

This also brings to mind, what José Ortega y Gasset, in 1937, called the ‘misery’ of translation: its impossibility. This is mainly because the differences are not merely linguistic, but cultural too, that stem from ‘different mental pictures, from disparate intellectual systems.’

Challenges of interlinear translation

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Photo: Andrea FernandesPhoto: Goethe-Institut / Andrea Fernandes
Interlinear translation breaks the original text down to its smallest parts. For a translator who has not used this method before, this process can be slow and unsteady, often leading to cultural misunderstandings. An instance of such confusion was in a German translation of a Kashmiri poem, by Dr Bashir Ahmed. He translated a line in Shafi’s poem, The World is a Beautiful Place, which originally read as ‘a cute, youthful girl’, to ‘hot, senseless woman’. Much laughter followed in its wake, but Dr Ahmed later confided, saying, how he misunderstood the line. “There were multiple meanings to Shafi’s original line, and I got carried away by one,” Ahmed said.

The temptation in the choice to make the process comfortable for those venturing into an unknown language also presented a challenge. For Namita Dhere, she had to choose between taking the author to the reader (here, the translator), or vice versa. “In this case I chose to bring the reader to the author,” Dhere said. While she ensured the translations had thorough footnotes, and explanatory links, she was tempted to use one, instead of multiple meanings to make it easier for the translator to access the author’s work.

For the poets themselves, this impacted their own process in unforseen ways. Gerhard has been translating for years, and he came to the process with different expectations. “Every translator develops a style –  a catalogue of demands of what he wants from the translation. But you never interfere with the meaning of the original poem,” he said. To him, then, coming to interlinear translations of different degrees of subjectivity was a test and the result unexpected.

Ultimately, one can argue for creative inconsistencies in the process. For as Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, these inconsistencies need not be lamented, but celebrated and studied. Borges argues that “it is [the translator’s] infidelity, his happy and creative infidelity, that must matter to us.” Enmeshed in this creative infidelity are unimaginable possibilities of transcultural dialogue and understanding. As the PTP concept note explains, 'The result could, among other things, lead to the emergence of an unimaginable literary network and the proliferation of works far beyond the cultures in which they originated.' If the Delhi encounter is of any indication, we found the blue veins of that network throb and brave their way into a new world.

The Delhi encounter of the PTO project took place from 1-5 November 2015 at Sanskriti Kendra and Goethe-Institut Delhi.
Rashmi Dhanwani