The quest of the word

Conversation between Abha Iyengar and Federico Federici on the theme of translation

A.: Please tell me what translation work you have done recently. What languages do you work with?

I: I’ve translated poems from English, German and French into Italian and from Italian into English lately. I also happened to work over Swedish, Russian and Norwegian ones in the past, with the help of the German/English versions by other translators.
As for the Hindi poems in One window and eight bars, I had been keeping straight in contact with Rati Saxena who first gave me her own English translation of the book. She left me quite free to feel and render her verses in my language. We usually work like this: I first get to a sort of free-draft, in which something obscure still remains. Then we further discuss about the main topic of the poem and I later turn back and finish my work. Nothing is actually left unrehearsed. But I’m totally blind before Hindi language, thus I need a safe guide who can speak a much more familiar language for me (English, for instance). If I had to express this through an image, I would say I feel like someone in a box who can perfectly hear the voices and sounds outside and breath the air in and by this make his own vision of the world. Every text in every language (also in one’s own mother tongue), is like that when you enter it for the first time.
On the contrary, while translating Nika Turbina’s First draft, I cannot get any help from her and the situation is even stranger as I’m translating the verses of an 8 year-old child being 34. Poems are in English and Russian (and I can «speak» only few words in Russian). I’ve read so much about the vicissitudes of her life that I must get from that such a strong feeling now. I often wonder whether the way I try to re-write those verses is faithful enough to the original feelings in her heart and whether she would appreciate that if she could read it.

A.: What kind of difficulties do you encounter while translating or do you find it easy /easier than writing?

I: I do not usually translate all what I read as well as I do not write all what passes through my mind. In this sense, writing and translating keep to the same root. Nevertheless, even when a text appears to be so keen to me, there may raise difficulties while attempting to save the rhythm, the images and all the other almost imperceptible nuances of the style altogether. One has really to be courageous and try to write better than translate. The original text is not the mould to be filled with other words to get an accurate copy of some shape. To my point of view, it’s rather the image itself, the real object or the situation to be watched over and written.

A.: What motivates/encourages you to translate?

I: In general, I’m motivated to translate for the same reason why I’m to write: what else could I do better? Maybe this is already not enough – what I am doing, what I wish for – but it’s the prime and easiest way for me to get acquainted with life. If we believe in what someone said once about the identification between books and men, then to translate is to meet in real another man.
Books (their paper, glue, ink and words too) are forms of life, like trees and leaves are, as much complex as the body of a man or an animal. You must have a sort of attitude of saving life to accept the effort of this task. Can you remember how Fahrenheit 451 ends? Montag, the fireman, joins the group of the book-lovers in the countryside, who memorize the books to keep them safe from the fire, till they’re again allowed to be printed and read. A text to translate is one that seeks shelter and you can offer a safe one in the heart of the millions of other unknown readers.
Finally – though this appears quite odd – translating may even turn out to be a good way to find a richer misunderstanding within some verses or even within a whole text, thus possibly discovering something new, to deepen apart.

A.: Do you get paid for this in money terms, or is it for personal satisfaction, or both?

I: No, I’m not paid for this. You see, when a book comes to me it may ask to be translated or it may not. It’s never the author himself to ask me that directly. It’s mostly the book itself to do. I was in the past somehow hurt when I asked some people for help and felt they couldn’t because I had told them that there were no money to earn, that none would pay. Well, there are «things» which must be done, and these ones are the facts. How can one choose whether to do something necessary or not, depending on the amount of money?

A.: Do you think translating works of literature and poetry helps in inter-cultural dialogue? If so, how/ and if not, why not?

I: Of course, I do believe that poetry, better than traditional prose, has the power of getting over the lacking of significance, the flattening of culture confronting just for sake of international customs.
Both Mario Fancello (Cantarena publisher) and I have planned to send some copies of One window and eight bars to Indian embassies for instance. The book will be printed in three languages altogether (the original Hindi, the original English translation by the author herself and my Italian translation): it’s one more attempt to bring the life of the text to light beyond the prime walls of languages. We wish to stress that there’s always a real, concrete meeting even between farthest people when a text meets other languages.

A.: How do you think translation work can get encouraged?

I: Translation can get encouraged by a sort of brotherhood among artists. It should come as a consequence that when you find somewhere any verse you like, you try to put it into your language, to experience it deeper than reading, through your re-writing. This is what authors can do by themselves, through the many opportunities of the net, for instance.
Furthermore, there should be the way of organizing an ever growing number of open public readings in which people from different countries take part and present their own translations.
The study of languages should be highly encouraged not only as a tool for getting one selves understood at the restaurant or by the cash desk girl, but as a matter of the language itself.
I heard many friends of mine say – those who work as professional translators, not like me – that there’s a page rate for all accurate translations. The idea of buying or selling Literature by weight is terrible: where do verses really hide their gross weight?

A.: Do you think translations can convey the culture peculiar to a geographical space or to a particular time, and how do you solve such issues when trying to translate stories/poems?

I: This is a delicate topic. It reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s sentence «No one can understand the word «cheese» unless he has a non-linguistic acquaintance with cheese».
I think that all languages grow and develop within a peculiar space (geographical, historical one) like skin on bones. That is why certain sets of words may slightly turn to be more relevant than others within one same language or have different nuances between different ones. So, how to translate, for instance, a word which has not a true corresponding one into another language? I try to avoid long periphrasis in poems or even to use just weak similar words, synonyms. If a close word is not available, then, according to the context, I can even leave the original word untranslated, like a loanword from a foreign, outer space, thus stressing the presence of a meaningful sign whose semantic value is kept intentionally half-hidden, vague. A note probably helps the reader grasp the meaning of it, if necessary.
Anyway, the problem can be even subtler when the same, exact sign should be transferred between different cultural spaces. Think of the word snow/ice: Eskimos are differently acquainted with it in comparison with people from the Mediterranean basin. To the former ones, ice/snow must somehow concern also the idea of house/dome, like the word stone to the latter ones. This multiplicity can in some cases be partially solved with the help of the whole text or some verses at least, which can altogether be rendered in such a way as to closely present the true original meaning. In some other cases the risk is that of the bare loss of something.
Furthermore each poetic text is a mystery of its own. For this reason, I first try to gather information by means of other simpler texts (such as proses) or forms of art (music, sculpture, painting) to get fully through it.
One other aspect to be taken into account is the eventual use of some slang (even just a familiar one) or a dialect, mixed with the current language. If not the new text gets simply poorer than the original one, though, at first sight, it could even seem impossible to find an adequate, vivid slang to render the original one.

A.: You have come to India, and have interacted with literary luminaries here. What is your impression of India as a culture centre? Do you think Indian languages need a voice through translation? Do you think you can help in furthering this?

I: What fascinates me about India is its capability of keeping traditions safe against all thrusts of modernity, which is instead a difficult goal for the West. While translating Hindi poems or while reading essays to gather information about the cult of the dead I had the same feeling as from certain pages by Thoreau.
As far as I could see, there’s not so much a formal research within the structures of the language, but the aim at a progressive pureness, reached by means of a poetic language whose products are first of all images with the likelihood of the sacred. The «obscure» names of plants, flowers, insects, places thus put first of all the problem of which symbols they’re meant to be, then, secondarily, of how to represent and convey them into another culture.
I think Indian languages need many a voice in this, because the risk of presenting just an English translation of the texts, made by non-mother tongue writers, is that of a comprehensible though quite formal version of the original one. In my opinion English can successfully act as go-between for translations in many other languages, but each new language should let the word-seed sprout anew. I hope my Italian work can also help a little with this.

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