& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Of Tagore, Tolstoy & translations - I

A week ago, I attended a play reading organised by Sally Jones (Rasik Arts) of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office

We read from the translation published by St. Martin's Press, New York in 1996. The play is translated by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson with woodcut illustrations by Michael McCurdy).

In her introduction of the play in this edition, Anita Desai, says, “In appearance the play is as modest as a dewdrop, in effect it is as profound as the ocean.”

Tagore’s Nobel laureate status notwithstanding (or perhaps because of the intimidating effect that status has on most lovers of literature), his work remains largely unknown to non-Bengali audiences.

Lyricist Gulzar explained the reason for this succinctly in an interview recently to Calcutta’s The Telegraph, “Tagore was and is still looked upon as a Bengali poet. He is our national poet but is identified as a regional poet. There should be a feeling in every Indian, whether he is Marathi or Punjabi or Tamilian, that Tagore is our poet. But what happened was... yeh Bangalion ka jo Tagore hai, woh bahut bada shayyar hai. We as a nation have always had a bad habit of living in fragments...It’s true. Bengalis have been very, very proud of Tagore but also very possessive about him. That’s because he is part of the culture of every home. Every child starts with Tagore and then moves on to other Bengali poets. The possessiveness about him in Bengalis, I mean in a positive way. But it’s also true that there were too many restrictions on translating Tagore. You had to get permission from Visva-Bharati and then you had to get the translation approved. Not just translation, even film adaptations.”

On the other hand, The Post Office has a universal and enduring appeal, having been translated in several languages. 

In the Translators’ Preface to The Post Office Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson observe, “Each artist coming to it has made it speak afresh to his own place and time in his own idiom. Its Spanish translator, the celebrated poet Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote of ‘my hand that helped to give our Spanish form to the rhythm of Tagore’s immense heart.’ In 1940, the evening before Paris fell to the Nazis, Andre Gide’s French translation was read over the radio. 

"And in 1942, in Warsaw ghetto, a Polish version was the last play performed in the orphanage of Janusz Korczak. When, after the performance, Korczak was asked why he chose the play, he answered that ‘eventually one had to learn to accept serenely the angel of death. Within a month, he and his children were taken away and gassed.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why Tagore’s creative genius remains largely unexplored even as the world celebrates his sesquicentennial is the indifferent quality of translations of his work, especially his poetry.

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Of Tagore, Tolstoy & translations - II

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Earlier this week, I got Leo Tolstoy’s How much land does a man need published by Calypso Editions. The publishing venture established in 2010 describes itself thus: “An artist-run, not-for-profit press dedicated to publishing quality literary books of poetry and fiction with a global perspective.”

Boris Dralyuk has translated Tolstoy’s short story. I learnt from author Brian Evenson’s Introduction to the new translation that James Joyce described it as “the greatest short story the literature of the world knows.”

Evenson explains that the story is written in skaz tradition – a Russian oral folktale tradition. Skaz is a literary mode inclined towards the informal expressions of oral speech by a simple rural narrator, which creates potential distance between the narrator and the author (Boris Eikhenbaum, a Russian literary scholar and historian).

Dralyuk’s translation retains the skaz tradition that the earlier translations didn’t.

Evenson says, “Tolstoy offers a complex and irregular narrative texture, one that seems much close to modernist impulses than to the realism of Tolstoy’s novels...Earlier translations have generally smoothed out these deliberate irregularities, de-skazifying the skaz, making the story less oral and less informal, making it more deliberately literary, “correcting” the way in which the narrator’s voice from time to time infects the language of the characters themselves and even occasionally just out, disrupting the surface of the prose like a spine of jagged rocks zigzagging brokenly but sublimely through an otherwise placid lake.

"(Boris) Dralyuk’s translation of the character’s speech is deliberately a little more frenetic and disconnected, more like the rhythms of natural speech. It gives the impression that Pakhom (the protagonist) has just arrived at this particular thought and said it without thinking it through. In the (earlier) translation, on the other hand, Pakhom feels like a courtly stage actor trying to mine a peasant. We are already experiencing the tale at a distance, are already firmly ensconced in the realm of the ‘literary’ and the ‘significant,’ a realm that is hostile to the quickness and lightness (in Italo Calvino’s sense of the words) of the skaz tradition...These aspects of the story are precisely what separate it from Tolstoy’s work, making it distinct and powerful. Yet these aspects are precisely what have been minimised or effaced in earlier English translations. And that is why Dralyuk’s new translations is so important.”

Click here to buy the book: Calyspo Editions

Saturday, April 16, 2011

TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 6

On April 20, nineteen writers from different neighbourhoods in Toronto will celebrate their writing in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 6 at their book launch in the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom.

For many of the writers, this anthology of new Toronto-set short stories and poetry is their first publication – the result of participating in Diaspora Dialogues’ annual free-of-charge mentoring and commissioning program.

Through an open call and juried process, these talented emerging writers were mentored by established writers over a number of months. Both the emerging and established writers were invited to create and submit original Toronto-set work for the book.

Emerging writer Pradeep Solanki, who contributed his story “Vivek” to the book, says that “the desire to be a writer had always been with me but it took a near-death experience to alight that fire. I would heartily recommend this program to any writer serious about getting published. It is certainly a leg up on a path that is often steep and slippery.”

“From a post-war Spadina Avenue to the charred remains of Queen Street West; from a Malton garden to Morningside Park; from a church pew to the TTC subway, TOK Book 6 will take you on a tour of your city that you won’t soon forget,” says Helen Walsh, editor of the TOK series and President of Diaspora Dialogues.

The launch will feature short readings from the book and a moderated conversation about writing the urban space, with contributors David Layton, Rishma Dunlop, Karen Connelly, Pradeep Solanki, Joanne Pak and Phoebe Wang, and a short reading from emerging playwright Claire Jarrold's Rats with Good PR.

TOK Book 6’s contributors include: Jo Simalaya Alcampo, Lynda Allison, Mahlikah Awe:ri, Karen Connelly, Rishma Dunlop, Alicia Elliott, Dorianne Emmerton, Terri Favro, Sarah Feldbloom, Faye Guenther, David Layton, Jennifer Marston, Martin Mordecai, Sheila Murray, Joanne Pak, Alicia Peres, Pradeep Solanki, Phoebe Wang and Joyce Wayne.

Currently Diaspora Dialogues is inviting submissions to its 2011-2012 annual mentoring program from emerging GTA writers of short stories, poetry and creative nonfiction. Successful mentees will then invited to submit to TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 7. Deadline is May 16th 2011. First and second-generation immigrants, and First Nations writers are especially welcome.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The launch of Indian Voices - 1

Mayank: Old, Fat, Bald, Blind

Andy Warhol declared in 1968 that in future everyone would have his or her 15 minutes of fame.

Thanks to Jasmine D’Costa, I had my 15 minutes of fame on April 7 at the Canadian launch of Indian Voices 1 in Toronto was quite simply the best literary event in Toronto in a long time.  

I was among the four authors who read at the launch, the other three were Shameeda Saffee, Meena Chopra and Farzana Doctor.

Several Toronto-based authors whose stories have been published in the anthology were also present; several friends – all of them who have helped in some way – cheered us on.

Ruksana's Journey in Indian Voices 1
The audience comprised some A listers
  • Preeti Saran, Consul General of India in Toronto (quotable quote: “Not only does the Empire Writes Back, it even plays back,” – a reference to India’s World Cup victory and the audience went wild)
  • R. Venkatesan, Commercial Consul
  • MG Vassanji, eminent , multiple award-winning writer
  • Pankaj Mehra, Director, Scotiabank
  • Nurjehan Aziz, publisher TSAR Books
  • Gavin Barrett, Poet and Partner, Creative Director of Barrett & Walsh
  • Sunil Rao, Editor, South Asian Focus
  • Binoy Thomas, Editor-in-chief, Weekly Voice
  • Dawn Promislow, author
  • Nonica Datta, historian
  •  Bhupinder Virdi, publisher Starbuzz Weekly
  • Niranjana Iyer, literary critic, blogger
... and many others...the list is endless...if I've forgotten to mention someone, my sincere apologies.

A strong contingent of Brazilians was also present thanks to the simultaneous launch of Hearts & Souls, a collection of poems by Leo Paradela

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Parallel histories

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an interesting talk by Nonica Datta (Visiting Professor at the Centre for South Asian Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs; Associate Professor of History, University of Delhi) at the Munk Centre.

Datta’s lecture Crafting a Parallel History of India's Partition was based on her book Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony published last year.

It is story of a daughter Subhashini and her father Bhagatji developed based on the daughter's oral testimonies. During the course of the interviews, Subhashini (1914-2003) was the head of an Arya Samaj institution for women's education in Haryana.

The book is an attempt at recording histories of the non-elites -- people whose lives were irreversibly changed by the trauma of Partition. The study of the subalterns in the post-colonial South Asian context has taken many forms with equally interesting results, especially in the context of Partition, this approach has acquired considerable significance, acceptance and respectability, with many interesting results.

As Datta succinctly summarised: “Subhashini is absent from history, but history is not absent from her.” She read from the book and discussed several nuances of recording the memories of her subject. 

Datta spoke of the challenges of having to deal with “memory, narrative and event,” and “memory being more than an event,” and the “difficulty of finding an academic language to combine memory and history.”

Perhaps the toughest challenge she may have faced was to keep her ideology in check as she embarked on a journey of discovery with her subject who had a strong opposing worldview.

Datta said she adopted an approach more suited to fiction writing than academic writing to capture the nuances of the narrative and to move away from familiar and easy categorisations and notions of the victim and the victimiser.