Zoom back to November 2011 – a cliff top overlooking the Arabian Sea, an hour’s drive from Thiruvananthapuram, India. Five egrets with yellow toes, giant waves of warm sea water, eight poets.
This was the third chink in the Wales-India writer’s chain. Robert Minhinnick, Twm Morys and Eurig Salisbury and myself collaborated with four Indian poets: the Malayali literary legend K. Satchidanandan; renowned contemporary Hindi poet Anamika; Mumbai-based Bengali poet, author and children’s writer, Sampurna Chattarji and Malayali poet and translator, Anitha Thampi. This chink of the Writers’ Chain fell into two parts: the first a week’s workshop by the sea and the second being the Hay Festival Kerala at the end of the week. There, we choreographed a multilingual performance of the fruit of our work and took part in a second poets-in-conversation event. Et voila. We then had one afternoon which was officially an ‘afternoon off’ during which we ate cake on a poet’s floor and exchanged poems, and we flew home.
The previous chink in the chain had been in June of the same year, at Aberystwyth University and at Tŷ Newydd where Menna Elfyn, Eurig Salisbury, Hywel Griffiths and Karen Owen joined K. Satchidanandan, Sampurna Chattarji and Robin Ngangom from Shilong. The chinks of the Writers’ Chain go back to 2008 when Mererid Hopwood collaborated with poets from the UK and India.
And so, this is how my desk became a different universe. Not only does it now have a pile of books by the aforementioned writers from India whom I’d never heard of before, but also by others – their friends, or writers whose names have come up in discussion. We’ve started our own chains. One thing leads to another until you’re amazed at where you find yourself. I’ll mention Karthika Nairas as just one recent unexpected link. Did the funders schedule and foresee that thanks to a friendship and continual poetry-tennis with Sampurna Chattarji, I read the work of the Indian poet and dancer, Karthika Nair, reviewed by Sampurna early in her career. And did they imagine we’d both meet in Paris and discuss our common love of working in collaboration with dancers. (Watch this space for further collaborations!) Did they imagine that two years down the line I’d have sticky-notes of Sanskrit vocabulary as confetti all over my writing desk? No, I guess not. A leap of faith on behalf of the funders. Personally, I never would have thought I was capable of the things I’ve tackled and achieved since that November in Thiruvananthapuram and, I’ll touch on my personal journey a little bit here, I also want to draw in the voices of those who took part in the chain with me.
What was for us an experience, for others was an investment – Wales Literature Exchange who lead the workshop, organised in partnership with Wales Arts International and the British Council. As always when I take part in these kinds of events, the line between the desire to show gratitude and the responsibility to ‘give back’ is blurred. Rightly, the question is asked about the return for that investment. Two years later, Wales Arts Review asks, with curiosity, so what? We drank coconut water, we dipped our toes in warm sea water every day if we wanted to (and if we had time before we started workshop and before sunset), we hardly slept from the high, high energy of collaboration and new ideas, new discoveries, new words, and the need to put it all down. Buzzing minds at bedtime kept us awake further – and lizard room-mates. But what now?
I am asked, is there another, more effective, less expensive, more ecological or less complicated way of carrying out international exchanges than accommodating writers together for days on end to work quietly in a way that doesn’t even cause much of a media-splash? We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together for a week; we exchanged recipes, songs, philosophies, words. Many words. Ancient words and newly coined words. Words for chilli, potatoes, fruit we’d never tasted nor seen, light-switches (a full line long in Malayalam), socks (not much need for them in India to be honest). Words that carry more meanings than any translation could ever achieve. Others that need no translation. We were our own island. We exchanged. We sat, we discussed among ourselves and we went home. Well, okay, we came out of our writerly bubble and also held events at Hay Festival Kerala at the end of the week (two types of literary exchange rolled into one international air-ticket), ate dinner on a hotel roof, sat in the same greenroom as Germaine Greer. But if we concentrate on the first part of the experience to begin with: it is quiet, it is not news-worthy and writers-at-work doesn’t usually make for a good photo opportunity either. So, two years later, is it worth it? If translation moves us into unfamiliar languages and territories, what happens when the translators and poets move physically to the place in question? What extra comes from sitting side by side?
I invited my fellow writers to ponder the same questions. We are regularly in touch. We swap new poems, ask for advice, co-ordinate if we happen to be travelling to similar parts of the world in case we can meet up again. Asking for their opinions, therefore, was easy – just part of an ongoing dialogue. It seems that a week together has formed, in K. Satchidanandan’s words, ‘a family’.
Eurig Salisbury wrote back first. One of his first words: friendship. This word is in each e-mail. So if I were to be difficult, wouldn’t I ask, is money for the arts meant to be used so we can make friends? Well, yes. This whole article is in the defence of friendships. But here, I’ll get back to Eurig’s comment. He has also travelled to India as Wales’ Children’s poet and, by now, is Hay on Wye’s International Ambassador. He says that if it were not for that first workshop in Kerala, his horizons may not have widened as they did to realise the creative worth of displacement as a poet and translator. He would not be where he is now.
Menna Elfyn wrote to say that she finished a poem called ‘Drws yr Epynt’ (which was also part of a larger collaboration with the artist, Iwan Bala) after translating K. Satchidanandan’s poem about a man walking and carrying a door.
Menna Elfyn touches on why, at times, it is worth distinguishing between a translator and a poet-translator and their presence in this sort of workshop. Many of us have used a translation as a springboard, with the poet’s blessing, to write an entirely new work. Twm Morys’ re-interpretation of Anamika’s work as poems in the Welsh ‘canu penillion’ tradition, for example. Robert Minhinnick felt a particular affinity to K. Satchidanandan’s poem ‘Stammer’. Together with another poem, ‘Jewellery’, this translation will be woven into a longer poem of his. ‘I see it as a song lyric,’ he says, and the Malayalam poet’s voice now becomes part of his own.
In her introduction to Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems translated by her, Sampurna Chattarji best conveys this shape-shifting process of translation in the sifting, malleable discovery of the ‘voice’ of the translation, long after a first draft is done:
The time when I am tested most. Tested as a poet, as a translator, as a reader. This is when I must restrain myself from kidnapping the poem, pulling a bag over its eyes and driving it to a place where I can extort from it a great ransom, or shoot it, if it doesn’t pay up. This is when I must return, gently, to the original, with translation in hand, and read them out to each other, like introducing two people who forgot they knew each other. Are they listening to each other, are they in dialogue? Or are they quarrelling, getting angry, each wanting to win this round of battle. I find this stage the most terrifying and revealing. If, as Eliot Weinberger said, ‘Translation is a way of listening that changes the way we speak’ it is at this stage that I think – this English poem (for it must be in translation a poem) is not mine, I would never write like this, unless I were freed of what I have fixed as the ‘I’. This is me speaking differently, sliding into another set of rules, me as I never knew I was.
Sampurna’s ‘me, speaking differently,’ can be applied to both translation and the ‘other’ when the act of translation works like watering the roots of a tree, and we grow to write new work, with new voices – me, speaking differently. In my case, this is the most striking long-term effect of the workshop. Perhaps it isn’t directly identifiable in two of my poems that were in the recent Poetry Wales, ‘Milonga that wasn’t meant,’ and ‘Bit Cats’ but I feel their rhythmical difference, a new scope, a new vocabulary even. I’ve re-discovered one of my own languages and how it fits as a ‘voice’ for me, thanks to this workshop in Kerala.
A good year after our workshop, the Wales Literary Exchange got together with Taliesin to publish a booklet of translations into the Welsh language from the Writer’s Chain. Cyfieithu Cymru Darllen y Byd: India was distributed as a gift to all Taliesin readers in summer 2013. The greatest difficulty in this process was selecting the poems. Back home, after the workshop, the re-writes began, the re-thinking, percolating. The numerous versions of poems that followed until something began to ring true, where a Malayalam word and world and dream collided with the Welsh and settled there. Cyfieithu Cymru Darllen y Byd: India is a glimpse of that world. Already, K. Satchidanandan and Anita Thampi are beavering away on fine-tuning the translations of our poetry which will feature in the new poetry magazine edited by K. Satchidanandan, Kerala Kavita. Robert Minihnnik’s ‘The Elvises’ was translated by Anita Thampi during the workshop. She says, ‘as a take-off and continuation of that translation’ she wrote two more pieces following the same tone, but about two Malayalam cult figures – one on the poet Ayyappan and the other on a film maker, John Abraham. The three, starting with the original translation of ‘The Elvises’ were published to much acclaim and cultural understanding.
‘Time to percolate’: these are Robert Minhinnick’s words. Time, after the workshops, for the ideas to find their place, the voices to become versions of our own. I believe that when international literary exchange takes the form that it did, in the first part of our Writer’s Chain: living together as we did, working together, feeding off each other and taking the time to let things come to the surface – that it’s a long-term investment. We will never really cease looking into that pool of inspiration. We continue to translate each other’s work, to look at each other’s work in progress. Robert, known for his short stories as much as his poetry, taking us to the deep guts of a society in a far-flung place that we couldn’t hope to understand, but through his sights, we get a slice of something meaty, real. He says that yes, short stories will come. They come in their own time. First he wrestles with them and then, in the queue there are Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew as well as Indian stories in the making. In particular he mentions the things we did which were ‘off the beaten track’ and off schedule. The snatched times together outside of official engagements.
Lastly, Robert brings up an interesting subject that might baffle some. The workshop in India lead to him catching up with – not an Indian writer, but a Welsh writer, again: Tom Morys. This, I loved. Couldn’t they have met in Chapter Arts Center, in Tŷ Newydd? Yes, but no. Sometimes there are interesting by-products of international work and this is one. You see the writers from your own country in a new light, you’re forced to discuss the literature your own country and present it to a new audience, which often brings new realisations just by having to express yourself differently, re-visit classics. As the yogi calms the fluctuations of the mind as he stands on his head, the writer does the same when his world is upside down: the constant chatter of the mind quietens, new ideas come and the familiar has new possibilities. Perhaps international exchange is not made in order to have this as an objective, but let’s celebrate it when it happens. As a result of this meeting on the Keralan coast, Twm Morys and Robert Minhinnick have re-visiting Harri Gwynn’s Y Creadur (The Creature) for a reading in Aberystwyth Arts Centre (October 30th 2013) ‘Now that is one terrifying poem,’ he says; ‘Twm will read the original, I’ll do my fersiwn…’
K. Satchidanandan wrote from his travels. He has recently been reading in London, Havana, Lima and many other countries but says that the most intimate workshops he ever attended were the two Wales-India Writers’ Chain in Trivandrum and Wales. He speaks of the ‘bond’ between us as we worked and then prepared for a performance at the Hay Festival in Trivandrum. ‘And then the hours spent near the river at the artist Sajitha’s studio-home where all of us spoke about our own poetry and to some extent our lives.’ I am indebted to him and the other Indian poets for their continued advice on my own writing but also for the constant flow of poetry between us, the poetry-gifts, the translation-gifts. We inspire each other to re-evaluate our own traditions and present it anew, we are engaged to continue translating each other’s work and who knows where that will lead, there are gifted poems, gifted translations.
I’d like to include here a gift-translation from Sampurna to Hywel Griffiths from The Golden Boat (ed. K. Satchidanandan) – inspired by his fascination with rivers, she felt that the existing translations of this Bangala poem did not speak to her in English and so translated them again for him, ‘for pleasure, if not for work,’ she says:
Prayer to the river
by Birendra Chattopadhyay
I have seen many hearts
Not one deep as yours,
I have known many poems
None like your alluvial soil.
I made peacocks dance in the snow
Your estuary struck them dumb,
I made deities in the stone
Your beauty washed them away so easily.
Now I’m in my second childhood
In your lap, at your breast, Ma
I’ve come to cleanse myself, to redden
The dawn’s awareness with my feeling.
Take me into the deep.
Teach me all your thoughts.
It is from a personal desire that creative work thrives, of course. And here, the translation above is a perfect example. And so, I share these personal memories in order to emphasise the way in which literary tradition is made up of living moments. One workshop, ten days of company to make me realise that literature is not only an accepted (or ignored) inheritance. Yes there are traces of our native tradition in all that we do, but sometimes what gives our work a stronger beat, a breathlessness, a whiplash is the influence of otherness.
And now I want to return to November 2011 again – and the second part of our work in Kerala. K. Satchidanandan speaks of preparing a performance and reading together with affection, but he is the only writer to highlight the ‘festival’ part of our collaboration. It seems the workshop and living together far, far outshines the festivities, in its lasting effects. This is not to suggest of course that the ‘show’ has no value. Speak to the writers who heard the Welsh language for the first time, speak to the audiences who were able to share the thoughts and presentations of the writers: oh yes it has value. We stood together, and we heard each other’s voices unite: I believe we all appreciated this. But what makes us changes writers, translators with a better tuned-ear, able to produce new work for other festivals one day: that would be the invaluable first part, the workshop, the work in union, in silence.
Italo Calvino wrote in If on a winter’s night a traveller, ‘To read a book, to love a person, it is necessary to be other than that book and that person, and we read in order to overcome our otherness.’
Perhaps we translate and engage in the wrangling and mind-mazes of translation also to overcome our otherness. But also to unite.
As I have mentioned, almost all the poets involved spoke of new work inspired by our collaborations so here, with kind permission of the poet, I present one of those, inspired directly by our union, our joined otherness:
(Dedicated to all the fellow-poets and friends who took part with me in the Welsh-Indian Poetry Translation Workshops in Wales and Kerala : Menna, Karen, Hywel, Eurig, Twm, Siân, Robert, Sioned, Alexandra, Nia, Robin, Sampurna, Anita, Anamika and Aksahy)
(Tŷ newydd, 25 June, 2011)
The sun turned into eighteen horses.
The chill was grazing on the meadow
chewing the cud.
We seven poets
from four languages
peered from the bridge
into the water below.
A folksong was flowing there.
The images of seven swans
fell on the stream.
Seven nameless trees peeped
into it and whistled.
Seven winds carried us
to a far-away beach
Sunlight dressed in mist
flew as sea-gulls there
and taught us Welsh.
A hare was flitting about in Manipuri.
A fish spoke Malayalam it had learnt
in its previous birth in the Arabian sea.
The mother-cat on the hillside
sang a song in Bengali.
Rain translated everything.
We got drenched in poetry.
And we remained drenched ever after.
And so, back home, we are not really alone as we continue to work, be it on translations as part of the Chain or other work. Whatever we do, it is never untangled from what we learned. The ‘perculating’ continues. While translating, you can only work on one poem at a time. But I would come to realize that while each individual poem presented its own mysteries and language twists, it was the accumulative effect of a poet’s works that allowed their voice to ring true – and this, at home, over time, with the benefit of having both an intense encounter with the writer and the ability to contact them again.
Leafing through the poems sent to us before the workshop, it was clear that the poems themselves spoke to another culture. In most cases it was clear that in the ‘exterior’ of most of the poems, there was a ‘reality’ that was far removed from ours and a dream world also far removed. A reality and dream that we couldn’t always see in our mind’s eye (what was a chakka? It was clearly edible, it was clearly a sexual symbol for women, but what was it?). But to access the interior world of the poems, that which we couldn’t in our most educated or wildest imaginations approach, for that, we needed to be displaced, shaken up.
This translating workshop was not a translating workshop. First it was that; then it was many things. It was all the shape-shifting creatures who inhabit Sampurna Chattarji’s poems, it was Ceridwen in nature, it was a chain I dearly hope will continue so that others get the opportunity creatively to stand on their heads (and literally, since there are enough yogis in Kerala to teach them how). The translations, as well as all the other texts and collaborations that sprang from the Chain will appear, no doubt, over time. Sometimes, unrecognisable as products of this workshop but I’d like to take this opportunity to stop and express gratitude.
Its effect on me as a writer and translator brings to mind something I learned recently, which is that a great many birds, especially song-birds can create more than one sound at any given time. Rather than having a larynx at the top end of their wind pipe, they have an organ called ‘syrinx’ which is found where the wind pipe becomes two. As a result, they can create voice in two separate places at once. As a writer and translator, this is how I feel these workshops leave me: allowing me to speak differently, to hear another song in my own. It is me as I never knew. New work I have written since November 2011 have a different rhythm and song to it, even if it doesn’t refer directly to things you’d recognise as ‘Indian’. A new confidence, a new love, an excitement born of a bond, the disappearance of the ‘I’ in Sampurna’s article, the ego replaced by song.
Again I quote one of my fellow poets, this time Sampurna Chattarji – part of her poem, ‘Translations’ from Absent Muses:
No explanation for madness.
From the place where listening
becomes a movement towards sound,
I am following the traces,
quicksilver, joy, sadness,
trawling for the word
that will be exact and unmerciful,
that will be synonymous
A quote from ‘Absent Muses’ is an appropriate cue to stop and I turn back to my Sanskrit study. Physically absent, but present in my imagination and my communications – four poets from India as well as some of their friends. As K. Satchidanandan wrote in his e-mail: ‘even when we are not in touch with each other, we are now present in one another.’
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis