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Book review: The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi (translated by Jonathan Wright)

Reviewed by Krishnasruthi Srivalsan

The Bamboo Stalk

Title: The Bamboo Stalk
Author: Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
Pages: 384
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The protagonist of Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk is a deeply conflicted man. Jose Mendoza is raised in his mother’s country as a god fearing Catholic who was baptised in the church at the age of ten. Yet, his mother prepares him for a life in the promised ‘paradise’, his father’s country, Kuwait. Jose has a Kuwaiti passport, a Kuwaiti name – Isa al Tarouf – but as the son of his father’s Filipino maid, he’ll never be accepted by his father’s family, despite being the only male heir to carry forward the family name.

Expertly translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, this is an immensely moving novel, weighing heavily on metaphors, that explores multiple themes like race and religion, identity and class, and highlights the often humiliating immigrant experience overseas, especially in the Gulf.

Alsanousi, a Kuwaiti journalist and novelist whose earlier work includes the novel The Prisoner of Mirrors, explores the concept of ‘the other’ in this book. Often the underdog, the ‘other’ is viewed negatively by the majority. Not being able to fit into clear boxes, the ‘other’ find themselves in a murky marshland of mixed up identities, rootless and unwanted. Blinded by one’s own prejudices, society fails to acknowledge and empathise with the ‘other’ and it is precisely for this reason that al Sanousi modelled Jose as his protagonist.

Jose’s story begins with his mother, Josephine, who leaves the squalor of poverty back home in the Philippines and goes to Kuwait in search of a better paying job. She lands at the house of the illustrious al Tarouf family whose matriarch, Ghanima, is as superstitious as she is stubborn. Joza, as Ghanima refers to the Filipino servant girl, arrives on the day a bomb explodes near the Kuwaiti Emir’s motorcade, narrowly missing him. Ever since, Ghanima has viewed Joza’s arrival as a sign of bad luck. Rashid, Ghanima’s only son, an aspiring idealistic writer, is taken by Joza’s good looks, and she agrees to a ‘temporary marriage’ which ends the day Jose is born. Josephine returns home and her son is raised with the promise that he will one day go back to Kuwait.

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The truth about literary translations

(From The Hindu)

After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when the king of Persia sent his interpreter with a message to the Greeks asking for earth and water as a sign of their submission, Themistocles had the visitor put to death for presuming to announce the barbarian message in Greek. A thousand years later in 1536, William Tyndale was strangled and burned because his English translation of The Bible displeased Henry VIII. Ten years later, Étienne Dolet, an advocate of the Bible-for-all, was burned at the stake because his French translations carried a few words that were not in the Church-endorsed Latin version.

Compared to these terminal terrors, literary translation today is not difficult at all. Because, really, you can do what you like and more often than not get away with it. It isn’t, for instance, like scientific or technical or medical translations where a mistake might cause serious damage to an experiment or a building or a life.

Linguistic choices

While there is little or no money in literary translation, there could be some glory if you listen to your publisher. The more people there are in the chain of desks leading to the printer, the safer you are because every cliché-slayer will work on your writing before passing you on to the next and the next.

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Book Review: A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil (Trans. Keerti Ramachandra)

Reviewed by Sheila Kumar

A Faceless Evening

Title: A Faceless evening and other stories
Author: Gangadhar Gadgil
Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra
Publisher: Ratna Books
Pages: 201
Price: Rs 299

 

Of the human condition…

Fourteen evocative short stories by the Marathi master

Gangadhar Gadgil carved a niche for himself in Marathi literature decades ago and is a known name to those who read translations but is yet unknown to scores of other readers. Ratna Books and translator Keerti Ramachandra have rectified that omission with this book – A Faceless Evening and Other Stories.

In this book, Gadgil runs the gamut of human emotions and the human condition. Life plays out in full intensity on these pages, each story a microcosm of people like us, people unlike us. A couple travelling in a train are locked in a bittersweet battle for emotional control. Ten years ago, she was a toy to him, now a shackle. On her part, hatred raises its hood, poised to strike, before pragmatism overcomes both of them. And so the journey continues, just as the deadlock between the two continues.

There is Bandu (a favourite character of the writer) is desirous of getting himself a new umbrella, but his luck with brollies has never been good. Plastic handles come off in his hand; old umbrellas shower rat droppings, dead roaches and such detritus on his unsuspecting head; umbrellas with wooden shafts just refuse to open, leading to unseemly struggles. Then he buys a stainless steel one that he can ill afford, but soon, one cloud tells another of his new acquisition and Bandu is given no opportunity to use the dratted umbrella.

There is a take that lays bare the politics of a joint family with all its attendant drama: the shrewish mother-in-law, the faintly sinister father-in-law, the victimised elder sister-in-law, the conniving younger sister-in-law and the narrator, a cheerful bahu of the house. Things reach a flashpoint but like all domestic crises, this one too blows over and the members of the family prepare to face another day and take things as they come.

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Is Indonesian literature written in English still Indonesian literature

In 2015, a short story collection “Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories” by Indonesian author Rain Chudori was published by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), one of the biggest publishers of serious literature in Indonesia. The entire book was written originally in English.

Rain published another book in English last year, a novel called “Imaginary City,” under KPG’s new imprint Comma Books, where Rain also works as a curator.

Rain said she chooses to write in English because of all the languages she uses everyday – from Minang to French – it’s the one she finds most comfortable writing in.

“English was the predominant language when I grew up, at home, at school – I attended international schools my entire life – and then later on, when I lived abroad,” she told the Jakarta Globe.

Rain was not the first Indonesian to publish a book in English. Laksmi Pamuntjak and Maggie Tiojakin had already gone down the same path.

Laksmi, also famous for her Jakarta Good Food Guide series, writes in both English and Indonesian.

Some of her books in English include the poetry collections “Ellipsis” and “The Anagram,” and a short story collection, “The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art.”

Nevertheless, English works by local authors are still largely ignored – or if paid attention to, denounced as not fit to be part of Indonesian literature.

According to poet Gratiagusti Chananya “Anya” Rompas, who had also just published a book of personal essays in English titled “Familiar Messes,” there are literary discussions almost every week in the country, but few critics would bat an eyelid when Indonesian authors publish works in English.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were already a bunch of people who wrote in English on the internet, but senior authors back then said online stuff was all rubbish,” she said.

But that has not stopped younger writers to keep writing in English.

Novelist Alanda Kariza, whose previous books were all in Indonesian, released her romance novel “Beats Apart” in 2015.

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A rare conversation with the cult Chinese writer Xi Xi

I first became entranced with Xi Xi through one of her most famous short stories, “A Girl Like Me,” about a young woman working as a make-up artist for the dead. The girl sits in a café, struggling with the uneasy love of a man who doesn’t really know her and his anticipated reaction to her secret life in the morgue. Xi Xi’s gentle subversion of what is normal and monstrous had all the mastery of an Angela Carter story.

“Oh everyone loves her,” my Chinese professor told me, adding that Xi Xi has had an almost cult-like following in the Chinese speaking world since publishing her first story in 1965.

What little of her work that is available in English (two short story collections, two novels and a recently published book of poetry Not Written Words) provides a tantalizing teaser for what lies out of reach: seven novels, 21 short story and essay collections, several screenplays (including a re-telling of West Side Story), her therapeutic memoir Elegy for a Breast. The titles for her newspaper columns alone give a sense of her enchanting range: “Movies and Me,” “My Scrawling Room,” “The Flower Column,” “Ear man,” and “How Xi Xi views soccer.” Most recently she published The Teddy Bear Chronicles, a hybrid text in which her own handcrafted bears complement myths from our real and imagined past.

It’s a dexterity of form reflected in her pen name (her real name is Zhang Yan). In Chinese xi (西) means west. Doubled up, the characters 西西, resemble the legs of a girl playing hopscotch, she says. And this reflects one of Xi Xi’s most distinctive tools; her use of “childlike perception” to zoom in on liminal, overlooked characters and to glimpse grand historical narratives afresh: she has often reinterpreted fairytales to challenge social mores, most notably Hong Kong’s disputed status and the traditional happily-ever-after narratives imposed upon young women.

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English kills the creativity of a bhasha-writer, says Sahitya Akademi president

Kannada writer Chandrashekhara Kambara dons many hats. He is a poet, playwright, novelist and critic who has been honoured with the Padmashree, Sahitya Akademi Award, Kabir Samman and the Jnanpith Award. Kambara has been passionate in his advocacy of the regional traditions of art and literature, and of plurality in social structure. Recently elected the president of Sahitya Akademi, when I met him at its regional office in Bengaluru, he firmly defended the Akademi’s autonomy and underlined the necessity of writing in one’s mother tongue.

You are heading this institution at a time when there is a strong feeling among writers and thinkers that freedom of expression is under threat and that the Sahitya Akademi has remained a “passive, powerless body.” How do you view this?

There are many issues involved here, and I shall try to be brief in explaining them. First, the Sahitya Akademi is a non-partisan and non-political institution, and its sole function is to “develop literature and literary culture in all Indian languages and to promote through them plurality and cultural unity of the country.” You cannot expect one institution to do the job of another. Secondly, it is an autonomous and independent body…

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India’s potential wealth of translation: Many languages, uncharted

India may have 22 officially recognized languages, but as many as 122 languages are spoken throughout the vast country.

And when the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) organized a debate on what this means for publishing today in India, it brought together four key experts in the factors impacting the industry there today:

  • Ravi DeeCee, CEO of DC Books, one of the leading book publishers in India in Malayalam; he also runs a chain of bookshops and is president of the Kerala Publishers and Booksellers Association
  • Subrahmanian Seshadri, an education and publishing consultant with a long career in the publishing industry as executive director of Dorling Kindersley, India, regional director of Oxford University Press, India; Seshadri also launched Lonely Planet for the Indian traveler
  • Tina Narang is the publisher of the children’s list of the one-year-old children’s imprint, HarperCollins India; prior to HarperCollins she was at Scholastic India
  • Esha Chatterjee, CEO of the family-run independent English-language publishing house, BEE Books; that house also provides content support for the International Kolkata Literature Festival and Chatterjee is one of the curators of the festival

FICCI’s senior director, Sumeet Gupta, was on-hand to moderate the session, “Translation: Trends and Opportunities,” held on the “middle morning” of London Book Fair earlier this month

As the program reflected, each of India’s languages has its own literature, and much of this literature remains available for translation into other Indian languages—and for foreign publishers to discover.

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New translation funding for Arabic Literature from the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

This year, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is offering translation funding for literary and children’s titles that have won the award, with the goal of increasing the readership for Arabic books.

Along with the recent announcement of its 2018 winners, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) is also launching a new translation funding initiative to encourage more publishers to translate Arabic literature.

Organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism- Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award recognizes writers and academics writing in Arabic and those promoting Arab culture in other languages.

Literary and children’s titles that have won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award are eligible for translation grants of up to approximately US$19,000. (See a list of eligible titles.) Additional grants for certain types of production and promotion are also available. Priority will be given to publishers translating into English, German, and French, though other languages will also be considered.

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Short story: Coming Home by Pravinsinh Chavda

Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai (from Pravinsinh Chavda’s short story collection Ek Evun Ghar Maley, published by Gurjar Granthratna Karyalaya, 2005)

Pravinsinh Chavda

Ranjit dressed in clothes that he’d carefully ironed and told his father, ‘I’ll be back in a while.’

His father would drape a napkin on his shoulder and sit in an armchair on the front porch all day; his loss of vision had bestowed a certain grace to his posture. If he heard a vehicle pass by or footsteps approaching, he would smile in expectation and his smile would last even after the footsteps had faded away. Ranjit was at a loss as to how to fill in the vacuum of unending time even on Sundays, so he’d pick any direction and begin to walk, enjoying whatever he encountered along the way. His vision had been sharpened, so everything that he saw sprang to life.

Where will you go, son? His father didn’t ask such questions. There wasn’t much that was different in sitting idle on the otlo, the porch, or wandering about like his son did; perhaps he knew this.

That morning Ranjit walked with a special energy; he’d remembered Shriram Mulay as if he’d stepped forth from an old sepia photograph, dressed in his school uniform khakhi shorts and a toothy smile. They didn’t meet very often now; at times a gap of six months or a year would pass before they met, but Shriram’s riverside house and the surrounding backyard often impinged on his memory. When he’d reach Salvivad with his schoolbag on his way to school, Shriram’s Ayi would be waiting on the porch to see him off. All the happenings and news that they collected during the course of the day would be brought out carefully and shared in the evening by that house. Shriram would lead him indoor for a drink of water, and from there they’d step into the backyard as if drawn there. He could still see Shriram’s Ayi walking up to them with a bowlful of goodies, a ladoo or perhaps a til sweet.

The rustic tea stall and the flour mill at the entrance to the neighbourhood were still there. There weren’t too many changes in the locality either; he felt as if he were stepping into the past as he climbed up the steps to the porch. He stood there quite a while after he had gently knocked on the screen door. After what seemed like infinity, Shriram trudged to the door pulling his shirt into place and stared at him quizzically from behind the door-bars.

‘Who is it, bhai?’

‘Just a passer-by. I’ve come here for some water.’

Shriram didn’t laugh out loud. ‘Come,’ he said indifferently and turned away. This was a new way of greeting. Whenever they met in the past, they would trade accusations by way of greeting: You’ve become an important person. Your time is too precious… Only after both of them were satisfied that neither had become overly important would Shaliniben offer a cup of tea as a peace offering.

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How do we judge translations?

Look to the whole, the translator asked.

The line comes from Helen Lowe-Porter’s correspondence, and can be read as an early plea (from a letter to her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, dated 11 November 1943) against the kind of translation review which proceeds by finding and scrutinizing the apparent lapse, the moments of inattention, the local mistake or infelicity—which might always be of the order of a conscious decision on the translator’s part—and making these stand in for the quality of the full translation.

Michelle Woods discusses this very common form of translation-evaluation in the section titled “Gotcha!” of her account of Kafka’s English-language translators and translations. The expression comes from the translator Mark Harman, whose 1998 translation of Kafka’s The Castle was widely reviewed and discussed. In this kind of review, as Woods writes, “reviewers often hone in on perceived ‘mistakes’ in order to justify their own taste preferences and to present their own legitimacy as experts in judging a translation. Rarely glimpsed is a consideration of the translator, or where translation fits into their career and their background. . . and what the nature of their contribution should be.”

Looking to the whole is a call to consider the way the thing is working and reading altogether, the way its many parts work in relation to one another, and the larger ways in which the translation relates to the circumstances and motivations for making it (a call that, as Woods points out, Lawrence Venuti makes repeatedly throughout his work).

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