Reports from South Asia

Goethe-Institut in Gangtok

Poets translating Poets Goethe-Institut; Foto: Yawan Rai Photo: Goethe-Institut / Yawan Rai

The hills came alive with the sound of syllables from four languages. Going where few Germans have gone before, the Goethe-Institut concluded its first phase of the Poets Translating Poets project with an encounter in Gangtok, Sikkim.

Perched on the hills of Gangtok is the charming Rehnock Guest House, where the ninth and final encounter of project Poets Translating Poets (PTP) took place. The workshop featured four languages – German, Nepali, Mizo and English – and the far flung worlds they inhabit. In East India, Goethe-Institut’s presence is limited to Kolkata with few interventions made in North East India. The decision to include the North East Indian languages into the PTP project was a conscious one. “This was an opportunity for us to expand our own landscape of work in India,” explained Dr Martin Wälde, Director, Goethe-Institut/ Max Muller Bhavan Mumbai. So the brief was to work with languages from the North East with a rich literary heritage, and most critically, one where we could find a fluent German language speaker and translator. Translators were sought from Universities in Heidelberg, and Shillong, from Nepal and Mumbai… boundaries not part of that encounter were touched in a quest most unusual.

New frontiers for German poetry

The Goethe-Institut in Kolkata (founded in 1957) organises and promotes a wide spectrum of cultural events in Kolkata and other north eastern Indian cities. A good number of Kendriya Vidyalaya Schools have introduced German Language in 2011-2012, and this has helped generate interest in the German language. However, a single institute for the entire region is a significant, but small endeavour, and penetrating the vast areas of North East India has been challenging. This encounter stretched the boundaries of cultural conversations, and sent contemporary German poetry to new frontiers.

Photo: Goethe-Institut / Yawan Rai
Nepali is the lingua franca of the State of Sikkim, and the two poets from Gangtok brought their Nepali poems to the table. In the very act of choosing a language that was also situated in its own country (Nepal), we challenged the idea of one India and revelled in the diversity of the region. The poets and their poems did the rest.

Poet Rajendra Bhandari is an Associate Professor of Nepali Language and Literature at the Sikkim Government College, Gangtok. The poetry he values employs an ‘uncluttered cadence, a colloquial diction and a lucid style’. Like his poetry, his questions too espoused a deeper understanding. “Poverty,” he said, “has made us travel all over the world and settle in new places and new cultures. We bring all those sounds and words into our poems – enriching our poetry, and yet making it accessible.” Thus, mobile phones and towers make frequent appearances in his poems, which were chosen, according to Rajendra, for their socio-political context as he “wanted to situate his poems for the visiting poets.”

Nepali poet Sudha Rai works with NCERT in Gangtok on textbooks for schools in the State of Sikkim. Much like Rajendra, her poems too revel in simplicity and help stretch the boundaries of what India means. A line from her poem reads: From Siachen to Kanyakumari, from Kutch to Dimapur… It is a line that stretches the more mainstream Idea of India from Kutch to Kolkata and Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In popular imagination, these are the battlegrounds and spaces for agreement and dissent. But in a room where the elasticity of national identity is tested, new worlds opened up.

On the Mizo side were Dawngi Chawngthu of Aizawl on Mizoram and Lalnunsanga Ralte (Sanga Says) of Shillong on Meghalaya. While Dawngi is the Director of State Council of Education and Training in Mizoram, Sanga teaches English literature in Shillong and is currently a PhD scholar at Nehu (Northeast Hill University). Their poems dealt with identity and gender, nature and nurture, evoking a sense of simple self in the larger complex universal narrative.

Balancing the equation were Christian Filips, a poet, playwright and performer from Berlin, and Judith Zander, a freelance writer, poet and literary translator originally from Anklam in the north-east of Germany. Together, they rose above differences and sought connections. As Christian said of both languages, “In both cases, the social system is closed. You know who you are talking to, but also to whom you are not – insiders and outsiders. Sanga’s poem Fak You and Rajendra’s poem शब्दहरुको पुनर्वास address India as a whole society. We Germans, on the other hand, don’t work with the idea of “we” – it’s a German tradition of not being a part of ‘a population’, of being more pluralistic.”

Poets from distant worlds were brought to the same mindscape. In this literary encounter foreign texts were decoded and conquered and made familiar, guided by the voice and presence of the original poet, often with surprising results. Emerging from here, abstraction was articulated, entrenched etymologies dug out, and poetry was read, sung and performed.

Decoding German Poetry

On the reverse swing was the experience of the Mizo and Sikkimese poets in translating German poetry, for whom translating contemporary German poetry was a completely new experience. Sanga explained, “Our main experience of German has been through English translations – Rilke et al. This is completely different from what we are used to reading.” The “different” in Christian and Judith’s poems, according to the Indian poets lay in the aesthetic of minimalism. “Unlike Nepali poems, German poems were less direct and more codified. The few words that they use are potent with their complex meanings, which have to first be decoded and then translated,” explained Sudha. Dwangi further enumerated, “In Judith and Christian’s poems, there is a word to describe each thought. For us in Mizo, to describe snow, eating ice cream, sleet, glacier and anything else that is cold there is one word – “vur”. Ours is a tonal language. The tone is very important. It will be tricky to translate the specificity in the German poems.”

Given this new context of German poetry, the Indian poets approached it with a certain structure. The poetic form was investigated. “To understand the form approach, we tried to stretch the contours of poetic form, imagery and philosophy,” said Rajendra Bhandari. The images were then broken down. “Its metaphors, tropes, images – are all very modern. We tried to find structural explanations for these in our language,” emphasises Sanga. The contexts and content were drawn out further, decoded and common connections drawn. While Sanga found Christian’s poems to evoke the emotions, neurosis of city life in Germany, Judith’s poems drew him to nature. “Her poems suggest a life from the German countryside, which she internalises in her poems. In Mizo, we see nature as an outward object and write about it as such,” says Sanga. For Dwangi, translating German poetry into Mizo required her “to have a whole new way of thinking.”

The Indian poets firmly put a spotlight on the ‘internal search’ as a flaming feature of contemporary German poetry that they encountered in this workshop. It’s this search for ‘inner and outer identity’ that renowned poet, translator and literature critic Ulrike Draesner echoes in her own essay on contemporary German poetry: ‘Who do we want to be, who can we be? I hear the echoes of this question, I read its restless flickering in German contemporary poetry: How can history find room in poetry? How do we deal with "nature"? How and who are we as individuals in it? Or as humans? Or as animals? Today's German poetry hasn't become "political" in the 1970s meaning (as a political pamphlet). Yet it is contemporary in the best sense of the word: referring to our roles, circumstances, feelings, and our external world. Processing them linguistically, altering and shifting them – into their recognisability.’

Language Lab: exploring challenges

Both Mizo and Nepali have unique origins. Nepali is an Indo-Aryan language that is spoken by a majority of the inhabitants of Nepal, a sizeable population in India – particularly in Sikkim – and a significant number of Bhutanese and Burmese people.1. The ‘Nepali experience’ in India itself was an interesting challenge for both, the German poets and the interlinear translator. Micheal D Chand, the Nepali-German interlinear translator was the Director of Goethe Zentrum Kathmandu for 15 years. Even though Micheal knew the language, the Indian Nepali context in its entirety was new ground for him. “I, too, in some sense was identifying and situating myself in the Sikkimese-Nepali context through this encounter, even if the world view wasn't exactly familiar. My role was to bridge the communication gap between Nepali and German. It's like building a temporary Bailey bridge2, - a portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge built by the Army for a purpose and taken down soon after it has achieved its purpose,” Micheal explained.

Mizo language is spoken by the Mizo people in the Mizoram state of India, Chin State in Burma, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh3 . Sie gehört zu den Kuki-Chin-Sprachen als Untereinheit des Sinotibetischen und ist der am weitesten verbreitete Dialekt unter den Mizo-Stämmen. It belongs to the Kukish branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, and is the most common dialect of the many Mizo tribes. It is a tonal language and is written using the Roman script. Christian missionaries developed a way to write Mizo based on the Hunterian translation system, which was developed in India during the 18th century and derived from a system devised by William Jones4 . In terms of its written expression, it’s a fairly young language. “We have a Mizo optic diction, Tawng Upa, from where most of our poetry emerges. Here, the ways of writing are already set: the images, tropes, expressions. Our themes are mainly patriotism, nature, romance and spiritual. The form is narrative… there is hardly anything abstract. Translating German poetry allowed me to do something with my language that I have been wanting to do for a very long time – experiment with the form, the idioms. It allowed me to create new words in a language that doesn’t have the kind of scope to describe what Christian is trying to say,” said Sanga.

Photo: Goethe-Institut / Yawan Rai
The regional poets spent an inordinate amount of time splicing the motives behind German poems, and their perspectives. Philosophers and mystics were brought to fore, and psychoanalysis was used to puncture meaning. Simultaneously, language’s existential motives were explored, in its ability to not be a passive tool, but to create existence by verbalising it. “When you look at something, and it looks back at you and within that process, the gaze emerges. Much like language – when you describe the white cube, you create the idea of emptiness to support it,” offered Christian. Within these existentialist questions, cultural differences too were explored. Sanga said, “We consider dark as nothingness. The Germans consider a white cube to hold that nothingness.” To which Christian snidely remarked: "German is a language invented by Philosophers".

There is a sense of loss that comes with translation, of the original, of the images it evokes, fossilizing cultural experiences as connections and rootedness. How do you deal with this sense of what Parthapratim Chattopadhyay, our Bangla-German interlinear translator in the Dhaka and Kolkata encounters, called the “transmission” or “generation loss”? In an encounter of this sort, where there is an elasticity of approaches and a commitment to negotiate an agreement, you find new ways in the comfort that your work will reveal itself in a form that might be new to you but actually is a transformation into something more meaningful for the new culture.

Photo: Goethe-Institut / Yawan Rai
And so, in a gesture of negotiated agreement (and excitement), Christian, recognising the tonal quality of Mizo offered an alternative in a traditional text translation of ein weißer Schnürsenkel. “You would be equally very loyal to my original poems if you were to make translations only on the basis of sound, rather than a word for word translation. My poem is about sub conscious movements and as long as you retain that ethos, you can go ahead and work it your own way,” Christian said, spawning a completely new way approach to the translation process in the PTP context – the vocal translation.

Such approaches can only be developed in a context of a residency that allows a safe space to experiment with both form and language. “It’s like creating a sort of language lab,” explained Jayashree Joshi, Head, Information and Library at Goethe-Institut Mumbai. Jayashree has been in the unique position of being involved with the PTP project both at the management and translation levels. She was the interlinear translator for Marathi-German at the first encounter in Mumbai in July 2015 and for English-German at this last encounter at Gangtok. Jayashree speaks of the spectrum of learning from the Mumbai encounter, where all rules were being laid town, the idea of translatability reexamined, and a new experience brought to the table, to the Gangtok encounter, where poets personalities changed these very rules repeatedly. "In the Mumbai encounter, we peeled every poem to understand concepts and words, and broke down assumptions. For instance, it took us 2 1/2 hours to explain the concept of Dalit and Dalit poetry as a genre. Ulrike Draesner in Mumbai got us all to look at the form of the poem, while Christian in Gangtok got us to look at the sound. We could see the Mizo language emerge through the English, and Christian made sound the final frontier for the Mizo-German translations.".

The exercise afforded the poets a carte blanche to experiment. “I can embark on it with a certain kind of legitimacy because it is a translation (and one which is in agreement with the poet),” said Sanga. Language is constantly in a flux, I ventured, and continued: “So are you saying that Mizo language speakers aren’t creating new words all the time?” Sanga paused and said, “They are. They are mostly young people and these changes first originate in street slang. I am excited that I can be the one to bring it to page,” he concluded.


Rashmi Dhanwani