Friday, October 26, 2007

Congratulations to Amit Varma

...for winning the Bastiat Prize 2007!

This comes not just from me but separately from The Middle Stage itself, as Amit used to write it till he generously allowed me to take it over in April 2005. Amit, your old blog wants to know if it can persuade you to return!

Manish Vij of Ultrabrown has a photograph here of Amit looking resplendent in a suit, in the company of wife and candlestick.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Travelling with Graham Robb

Apologies for how static this site has been all month, but this actually portends a good thing in my life, because after months of being home and sitting at my desk every day I have been travelling. Yesterday, on a halt in Delhi, I contemplated the pleasant shape of my broad semi-circle around the top half of the country, from Bombay to Delhi to Kolkata and back with stops in Dehradun, Bhubaneswar and Kharagpur. Some quick sums in my tattered notebook put the figure at about seven thousand kilometres over road and rail in two weeks.

And as it happens I’ve found the perfect book to accompany me on my travels: Graham Robb’s fabulous new work The Discovery of France. Robb’s area of specialisation is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, but thus far he has always threaded his interest in social history through literature: his books on Rimbaud and Balzac are among the finest contemporary examples of the genre of literary biography.

His new book takes the reader into the mental and physical universe of the millions of faceless people who, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were at the work of “discovering France” – gradually working their way into a sense of a world larger than that of their immediate village and province. The word pays, Robb observes, is translated today as “country” but it derives from pagus, or the area controlled by a tribe, and refers not so much to the abstract nation but to a smaller region that people thought of as home: "A pays was the area in which everything was familiar...To someone with little experience of the world, the pays could be measured in fields and furrows."

The France of this time was not "French" in any recognizable sense (just as people living on the Indian subcontinent had no sense of what the term "Indian" might mean). People's affiliations were to local places and traditions, local deities and saints, dialects highly specific to their town or village, local laws and strictures. People lived in a world where life spans were far shorter than they are today, yet the sense of time passing was far more burdensome and made life feel longer.

The limits of their universe were by the standards of our times highly circumscribed. "Until the invention of cheap bicycles," writes Robb, who himself went across France on a bicycle for his book, "the known universe, for most people, had a radius of less than fifteen miles." News of the wider world arrived on the tongues of pedlars, pilgrims, and smugglers; people lived at the mercy of disease, poverty, epidemics and catastrophes. “Life for most people was a game of snakes-and-ladders with very short snakes and very long ladders.”

Even where there were broadly shared traditions of heritage and culture, these were more obvious to outsiders than to the people themselves. France was in effect a country waiting to be discovered by its own citizens, each one of whom knew a part intimately but had only the dimmest conception of the whole.

The human relationship with the divine inspires some of Robb’s best observations. Although most of the country was nominally Roman Catholic, religious practices (as in, say, Hinduism) owed as much to pagan rituals and local customs as to any overriding theology. And the god or saint who resided in the village church or shrine was seen as a personal, embodied deity not interchangeable with those of neighbouring villages. Heavenly beings in this world, writes Robb, “were no more cosmopolitan than their worshippers.”

Robb's refulgent book reminds us powerfully of the attractions of the regional and the local in our age of globalism. Its highly detailed account of patterns of trade and migration, pilgrim routes and smuggling networks, religious traditions and proverbial and folkloric wisdom, burrows out a world loosely stitched together in motley colours, on the cusp of earthshaking changes (the railways, the telegraph, the newspaper) that would alter its sense of itself for good. It is very easy to import an Indian (or some other personal) parallel into hundreds of observations that Robb makes: his loving attention to the French past rouses us to think about our own remote familial and regional past. I'll just quote a paragraph in closing to give some sense of the richness of detail of his text. This passage seems to me to beautifully marry fact with feeling:

These seasonal migrants were once a more obvious presence, in towns as well as the countryside. On certain days, the main squares of towns and cities filled up at dawn with hundreds of families who had walked through the night with their sickles wrapped in spare clothes. The markets were known as loues or louées. Harvesters wore ears of corn, shephers sported tufts of wool and carters hung whips around their necks. Domestic servants wore their best clothes and carried a distinctive bouquet or some foliage to serve as indentification. The employer would make them walk up and down to prove that they were not crippled and inspect their hands for the calluses that showed that they were hard workers. A coin placed in the hand sealed the contract. As the day wore on, the crowd of hopefuls became smaller, older and more decrepit. Those that remained at the very end of the day might follow the harvest anyway as gleaners, covering hundreds of miles in a month or two before returning home.

Update, July 18, 2008: Claire Armitstead on The Discovery of France after it was awarded the Ondaatje Prize ("The unifying concept of the book is mobility - or, in many areas of provincial France and for most of its history, the lack of it. Therein lies the irony of being a cyclist historian of the 21st century: in its early days, the bicycle was all about speeding things up, about making distances seem smaller, and communities closer. Now, in the era of transnational autoroutes, its great virtue is slowing things down, enabling the researcher to note the particularity of people and places...")

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Some recent reviews

As I have lots and lots of work to take care of, and then more lots once those first lots are over, I haven't been able to write a post this week.

But here are links to some recent reviews for Mint: on Akbar Ahmed's Journey Into Islam, Nalini Jones's debut collection of stories What You Call Winter, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On looking through Ted Hughes's Selected Translations

Two things need to be noted at the outset about the new volume of Ted Hughes's Selected Translations, a selection that includes poems from the entire range of the European tradition, from Aeschylus, Euripides, Ovid, and Seneca to sections of the medieval long poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the moderns: Lorca, Eluard, Yehuda Amichai, János Pilinszky and Yves Bonnefoy.

One is that, unlike most translators, who are comfortably multilingual or at the very least bilingual, Hughes was far more at home in English than in any other language: in producing these translations he often worked with preliminary versions produced by collaborators or sometimes by the poets themselves (such as those of his contemporary Amichai, a close friend). And secondly - and perhaps following naturally from Hughes's position, his particular competency as well as his limitations - is his minimalist, literalist theory of translation, reflected not only in these poems but explicitly articulated in the editorials he wrote for the influential journal Modern Poetry in Translation, which he founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort.

If Hughes was not among those skeptics and naysayers who believe that poetry is always lost in translation, he also believed that there was nothing to be gained by a certain kind of translation: one in which a translator is not so much a conduit as an active player. In an editorial for the third number of MPT (1967) he wrote that he and Weissbort held that in translation "the first ideal is literalness. The very oddity and struggling dumbness of word for word versions is what makes our own imagination jump."

In the 1982 edition of MPT he wrote, looking back, that instead of translations that somehow domesticised the original, "we favoured the translations that best revealed the individuality and strangeness of the original. This usually meant a translation that interposed the minimum of the reflexes and inventions of the translator….We were happily resigned, that is, to all the losses sustained by the most literal translation of the verbal sense. Most often, oddly enough, we found the closest thing [to the ideal] in translations made by poets whose first language is not English, or by scholars who did not regard themselves as poets….Yehuda Amichai seemed good in any translation, but the best, the most touching and haunting, were by himself."

Whatever the problems with this approach - and note that in emphasising a scrupulous word-for-word fidelity to the original, Hughes does not simultaneously call for a similarly close rendition of the poem's form, which is arguably as much a site of its meaning as its language - I took a great deal of pleasure in dipping into this beautifully produced and meticulously annotated volume (the notes are by Weissbort) and found lots of poems in it that I liked, some by poets I'd never read before.

Here is one, "Harbach 1944", by János Pilinszky, translated by Hughes from a crib made by the poet János Csokits. Pilinzsky (1921-1981), a Hungarian, saw from up close the horrors of the Second World War, doing time in German prison camps. His poem evokes, in a series of unforgettable images, the spectacle of a band of exhausted and doomed labourers working at night - a memory that, as the first line asserts, the speaker has never been able to leave behind:
Harbach 1944

At all times I see them.
The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up.
Beneath it, harnessed men
haul an immense cart.

Dragging that giant wagon
which grows bigger as the night grows
their bodies are divided among
the dust, their hunger and their trembling.

They are carrying the road, they are carrying the land,
the bleak potato fields,
and all they know is the weight of everything,
the burden of the skylines

and the falling bodies of their companions
which almost grow into their own
as they lurch, living layers,
treading each other's footsteps.

The villages stay clear of them,
the gateways withdraw.
The distance, that has come to meet them,
reels away back.

Staggering, they wade knee deep
in the low, darkly muffled clatter
of their wooden clogs
as through invisible leaf litter.

Already their bodies belong to silence.
And they thrust their faces towards the height
as if they strained for a scent
of the faraway celestial troughs

because, prepared for their coming
like an opened cattle-yard,
its gates flung savagely back,
death gapes to its hinges.

The faraway celestial troughs, death with its gates "flung savagely back" - these scything images are a reminder to us prose writers that we should always read poetry. Regular encounters with the intensity and concision of verse serve to discipline our work, our forms which encourage and allow for expansion, and can sometimes lead to us making lazy choices of words or phrases in the knowledge that there are masses of other words to distract the reader's attention.

And here is a very different kind of suffering - a lack with which the speaker has more or less made his peace - in Hughes's translation (in collaboration with Antonela Glavinic) of the Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran's "A Blind Man Sings To His City":

A Blind Man Sings To His City

The rain stops. Now from the drains,
From the attics, from under the floorboards
Of the shattered homes in the suburbs
Oozes the stench of the corpses
Of mice. I walk seeking
No special meaning in this. A blind man,
To whom it has been given to see
Only what others don't. This
Makes up for my deprivation: in the south wind
That touches me I recognise the voices
Of those who left this city. As if they were crying.
There, scent of the linden trees, close.
I know
The bridge is near, where my step and my stick
Will ring differently - more light
In the sound.There, now, right by my ear
Two flies mate in the air.
It will be scorching hot again
Brush past me,hot
Smelling of bed, smelling of lust. I walk muttering
To God, as if He were beside me:
'Surely nobody in this city
Better than me - better than me, God,
To whom you have given never to see
The face he loves.'

I like very much the absolute certainty (and the rhyme) of "There, now, right by my ear/Two flies mate in the air" as well as the closing lines, both plaintive and gruff, aggressive and defensive. The blind man says that he has never been given the opportunity to see the face of God, but surely he knows that even those blessed with sight do not get to see the face of God either. One might propose then that his meaning is angular: the face of God is the world itself, from which he is walled off by his blindness even though he is part of the same order of creation.

An essay by Hughes on János Pilinszky can be found here, and some more translations of Pilinzsky's poems by Michael Castro and Gabor Gyukics here. You might also want to read Lajos Koncz's essay "Ted Hughes and János Pilinszky". An exchange between Daniel Weissbort and David McDuff on issues of translation in The New York Review of Books in 1982 is here. Some more poems from Selected Translations are here, including the very fine “O fold me away between blankets . . .” by Mário de Sá Carneiro.

And an old post about another fine Hungarian poet - "The despair of Attila Jozsef" - and two recent posts on other poets in translation: Constantine Cavafy and Wislawa Szymborska.