Poetry and Translation: “A superb overload of all the senses”

„Das Überraschende war, dass wir so viel gemeinsam haben“: Die Dichter Salman Abbas and Sylvia Geist im angeregten Gespräch
Photo: Goethe-Institut Mumbai / Vivek Muthuramalingam

Fifty poets, twenty languages, nine cities in South Asia: The Goethe-Institut got a translation project off the ground that builds bridges where others are putting up walls.

Not long after our arrival, two Indian colleagues give us a decisive bit of advice. To our astonishment, they say, “Please, don’t mention the m-word.” While I had planned to avoid the word Bombay and say Mumbai instead, now Mumbai was the vilified “m-wort.” But why?

India is experiencing an unprecedented wave of ideological and physical violence. It is aimed against those who eschew the new Hindu enthusiasm. Sanskrit and Yoga are touted as panaceas, Hindu-critical books and movies are being censored and the mood has become so heated that violent clashes have broken out repeatedly.

But if one specific culture is the measure of all things in the largest democracy in the world, many writers such as Chandrahas Choudhury and Nayantara Sahgal claim it betrays the principles of a nation with twenty-two official regional languages (and more than a hundred spoken) in which Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsees, Buddhists, Jews and Jains live alongside Hindus. In an ideological community, millions feel excluded.

In the midst of this troubled situation, the Goethe-Institut, together with the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin and UNESCO, launched a multilingual poetry project that established a dialogue between German and South Asian poets from diverse regions. There is something compelling about the idea of initiating a conversation at a time when walls are being built and entire ethnic groups are being marginalized. Poets Translating Poets is the title of a project that is probably unique in nature and magnitude, which took place now in eight cities of South Asia under the aegis of Martin Walde, director of the Goethe-Institut in Bombay.

The project could also be called Verse Smuggling: gather fifty poets from Germany and India, each with four poems in their luggage, in small groups for a week in one place. Goethe-Instituts, whether in Dhaka, Colombo, Karachi or Chennai, are promptly turned to translation workshops, and poets translate like mad. Babel, you might think, was nothing by comparison.

Amazement, admiration, despair...

As a form of expression, poetry has always played a prominent role in the subcontinent. Here in Germany, Indian poems are virtually unknown, unlike the prose of Indian writers widely read around the world. But German contemporary poetry is also a blank slate in India; nothing has been translated, at least until now. Poets Translating Poets will change that. Not only will the results be presented at poetry festivals in Berlin and Bombay, but they will also appear in a publication.

How can an experiment like Poets Translating Poets be realized at all? The authors dispatched from Germany, including Jan Wagner, Ulrike Draesner, Hendrik Jackson, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Ulf Stolterfoht, Tom Schulz und Sylvia Geist, to name only a few, are not only confronted with English but also with Tamil, Bengali , Gujarati, Kashmiri and Sindhi. Interlinear translators made the language transfer possible by initially transcribing the poems word for word and explaining contexts of meaning and linguistic subtleties. When they were finished, the poets sat down two by two for a discussion (also with the help of interpreters) to create new poetry from those rough drafts.

“We translated ideas, compared our different poetic traditions, were amazed again how difficult it is to translate humour, admired each other, despaired, hardly recognized ourselves,” says Ulrike Draesner. Jan Wagner, who took part in the workshop in Kolkata, speaks of a “superb, seven-day overload of all the senses.”

After meetings in New Delhi, Chennai, Dhaka, Colombo and Karachi, another meeting now took place in the city of Hyderabad in central India. The Berlin poets Tom Schulz and Sylvia Geist met their Indian colleagues Jameela Nishat, Jayaprabha, Jeet Thayil and Sridala Swami among the palms and bougainvillea at the Goethe-Zentrum there. The languages to translate were German, English, Telugu and Urdu.

Telugu meets German

The language rally often lasted until the late evening hours. The simple question of how to express “Zeitgeist” in Telugu enmeshes Sylvia Geist and her colleague Jayaprabha in an intense debate. What does it mean for Sridala Swami that she wove lines by Paul Celan in her poem G_h_ngt_, which can be read both forwards and backwards? While the air conditioner hums reliably, Jeet Thayil labours over “Erlebnishungerkäfig,” looking for a match for this typical German compound word.

It is a rare thing to experience poets so close-up at their work. You certainly won’t catch them thinking at their desk every day. But here, watching them as they recreate poems in translation with their counterparts, we acquire insights into an otherwise closed world.

Urdu, the language traditionally used by Indian Muslims that, as the “language of poetry” has produced many significant works of Indian literature, is one of the languages used in the Hyderabad translation workshop. Making up thirty percent of the residents, more Muslims live here than in any other Indian city. Gradually, the Berlin author Tom Schulz grasps the socio-political backdrop while he works alongside Jameela Nishat on her Urdu poem “I pulled on my burqa and went off to work.”

Sylvia Geist was initially expecting to encounter the foreignness in a poem in Urdu or Telugu. “But when, say, Jameela Nishat, a poet of the middle generation, refers to an image from the calligraphic tradition of her native language and connects it with observations and activities from social media,” then, says Sylvia Geist, she experienced a moment of unexpected familiarity – not so much with regard to the reality of life, but to the poetic approach. “What’s surprising for us is not what differs about us, but that we have so much in common in our ideas of what a poem should accomplish today.”

Even Jeet Thayil, one of India’s most famous authors, who writes in English and whose feverish Bombay novel Narcopolis leads readers deep into the world of prostitutes, poets and dealers, had very similar experiences. “Unexpectedly, we did not get lost in the translations, but found ourselves.” Sylvia Geist translated his “Heroinsestine” so concisely that one passage seems even more meaningful to him now in the German than in his own original.