Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"A Message in a Bottle": On the Pleasures of Translating Arun Kolatkar into French

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"A Message in a Bottle": On the Pleasures of Translating Arun Kolatkar into French

Article excerpt

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his exquisite translation of Prakrit love poetry compiled in the second century AD, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra observes that translating is sharing "the excitement of reading."1 There may be no better reason to explain what prompted me to translate Kala Ghoda Poems into French, apart from the anticipated pleasure of having to converse for more than two years with Arun Kolatkaťs extraordinarily personal, tender, and playful voice. Kala Ghoda, Poemes de Bombay has just appeared in the prestigious Poésie/Gallimard series directed by the French poet André Velter.2 Let me attempt to explain why this is an occasion to rejoice, while also reflecting on the process of translation per se, on the excitement, pleasures, and risks of the adventure, as well as on the exceptional singularity of Kolatkar's poetry.

The Gallimard poetry series was started in 1966 with Paul Éluard's Capital of Pain. This pioneering volume is still one of the bestsellers of the series, along with Apollinaire's Alcools, Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil, Rimbaud's Poésies, and The Nature of Things by Francis Ponge. Although Poésie/Gallimard has opened up to the world, most of the 250 published writers are twentieth-century French or francophone poets, and fewer than twenty of the almost five hundred titles are bilingual (works by Pablo Neruda, Paul Celan, and Pier Paolo Pasolini are among these). There are today four Indian poetry titles, and, apart from Kolatkar, it is telling to note that they are all related to Tagore, with two collections by the Nobel Prize Laureate (including André Gide's translation of 3Gitanjali) and a third collection of Kabiťs verse translated into French from Tagore's own English re-creations of Kabir. With a print run of 5,000 copies and paperbacks at an average price of eight euros at the time of writing, these volumes are perhaps the only poetry books that sell well in France. It was therefore nothing short of a miracle to learn that, out of the fifteen publishers to whom the Kala Ghoda manuscript was sent in September 2011, Poésie/Gallimard was accepting this one.

It seemed miraculous because, as the number of Indian titles in the collection makes clear, the interest in Indian poetry in France is - to say the least - limited. What is more, the series usually brings out texts that have already been published, either because they are already part of the Gallimard catalogue or because they come from other publishers' backlists. It thus meant that Gallimard were making an exception for Kolatkar by accepting both an original translation and a voluminous manuscript - since we were determined to bring out a bilingual edition. Finally, most of the poets published in the series are canonical figures and fairly celebrated classics. Out of the fourteen British titles, for instance, there are several Shakespeare translations followed by the 'usual suspects': Keats, Milton, Coleridge, Hardy, Wordsworth, Donne. In the American poetry section, there are two titles by Sylvia Plath, and then we come to Melville, Poe, Faulkner, and Whitman. But no William Carlos Williams, and no Allen Ginsberg (two formidable poets I mention advisedly, since they were two of Kolatkaťs literary heroes).

The Poésie/Gallimard series is not the only Gallimard series in which Indian poets can be published. There is, for instance, a UNESCO/'Connaissance de l'Orient' series,3 with a specific Indian section which includes the devotional compositions of Surdas and of the varkari Marathi 'saints' Namdev and Tukaram, beautifully rendered into French by Guy Deleury, whom Kolatkar knew well and greatly admired. What makes the publication of Kolatkar particularly significant, however, apart from the much-needed representation of a contemporary Indian voice, is that Kolatkar is not being published in a foreign, Oriental, postcolonial or South Asian literature series, but simply as a poet among other poets.

So, what might this very sketchy account of the foreign poetry scene in France, through the lens of one publisher, indicate about the knowledge and representation of Indian literature outside India? …

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