Novelist Marion Molteno in talks with Tanvir Ratul
Marion Molteno is a South-African novelist. She grew up in South Africa but had to leave it after being involved in student protests against the apartheid regime. She spent 8 years in Zambia also. She has been living in London since 1977. She has worked as an adult education organiser in a culturally diverse area, and helped to set up support for asylum seekers. Afterwards, she became a senior advisor in Save the Children, working to the benefit of disadvantaged children across the world. Her working experience enabled her to meet and get to know people from an unimaginable background who struggle every moment to cope with poverty, political oppression, and war. She has won David Thomas prize for A shield of coolest air, 1993 and (best book) Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, for If you can walk, you can dance, 1999.
Her latest novel, Uncertain Light is published and sold in India online by Speaking Tiger Books. Please click on the name of the book to buy it online. If you can walk, you can dance will be published in India by Niyogi Books in April 2017.
Marion speaks with Tanvir Ratul about her books, her philosophy, the changing dynamics of language, nuances of translation and so on.
You’ve come a long way since your fight against apartheid. Later, you’ve taken part in other fights in other parts of the world. Aren’t all fights somehow similar in nature of the expansion of energy and sacrifice?
I think any one growing up in a deeply divided society carries the legacy through life. As a child in apartheid South Africa I gradually became aware of the injustices around me, and that sensitivity to injustice has remained with me wherever I have lived and worked. The fundamental issues are similar everywhere. For instance in India there is such extreme inequality, and violence around caste or religious divisions – so many issues that need addressing; and the same across the world today. It’s easy to feel helpless – the important thing is to do whatever we can, where we are.
Urdu has an age-old tradition of carrying Sufism on its wings. Besides Ghalib, who are your favourite shayars?
I didn’t grow up hearing Urdu poetry, so the poets I know are the ones I have been introduced to by my teacher and mentor, Ralph Russell. He spent much of his life studying and translating Ghalib’s poetry, and I have edited his books about Ghalib, so he’s the poet I know best. But also Mir, who was also very inspiring.
Sufism is an intensified and more fundamental devotion of Islamic practice which is similarly found in Persian linguistic existence. How would you say the contemporary poets of the places where you’ve been, relate to the changing dynamics of the language and the religious practice that has been linked to it?
Poets like Mir and Ghalib were not themselves sufis but the kind of poetry they wrote comes originally from Persian sufi traditions. The way it shows up in their poetry is that when they write about love, it can be personal (someone you love) – or mystical (desire to be united with God) – or more abstract – like values you are committed to. So their verses can be inspirational as we face challenges in the world. Mir says,
I seek you like the morning breeze that with each dawn goes forth again
From house to house, from door to door, from town to town, from lane to lane
This is like saying, ‘Wherever I am, I will search for what is good, and try to work for that.’ So I find that highly relevant to our lives today.
As for contemporary English language poets, the ones that I know and respond to write from their own deeply felt experience, and that reflects what’s going on in contemporary society.
Uncertain Light has been a journey in itself as you’ve connected to so many lives, mostly through your readings. How would you like to describe it? Would you like to share any memorable incident with us that has left you speechless?
Yes, sharing my novel Uncertain Light with readers in many different places has taken me on an extraordinary journey. Something that always moves me is when someone in the group I am talking to tells us about an experience in their own lives which is similar to things that happen in the story. For instance, the story starts when the central character – Rahul Khan – is taken hostage; he has been trying to negotiate a cease fire during a civil war in Tajikistan. Twice during my travels there was someone in the audience to whom something similar had happened – once in the UK, and once in India. I’ve written about these in my blog, Journeys with a book, if any of your readers would be interested to hear more. www.marionmolteno.co.uk
If you can walk, you can dance had been awarded as the best book in the Africa region. Would you say that it has been able to reach a certain number of readership in Africa—among the people who are the prime subject of the plot?
If you can walk, you can dance is about a young woman who is active in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and has to flee. She can’t go back and has to find a new role in life in the places she moves through, and a lot of the later part of the book is set in Zambia. I know it’s been read by lots of people in South Africa – I donated about 1,000 copies to libraries in poorer communities. I would like to think it is read in Zambia too, but I’m not optimistic – books are so expensive there, not many people can afford to buy them, and there are few libraries. But recently I had a wonderful surprise when I was contacted (via FaceBook) by some of the girls I taught years ago in Zambia – but of course they are women now, some of them grandmothers like me. One of them lives in Mumbai and runs a theatre company. Another is in the UK and will be coming to the UK re-launch of the book. The others are still in Zambia, and I sent them a copy of the book, so at least they will have read it.
If we consider that poetry translation should be semantic translation for a poem, then how to tackle aesthetic and expressive values at the same time?
Translation can’t just be a word-for-word thing. It has to capture the full intention of the original language. My teacher, Ralph Russell, who spent his life translating Urdu poetry into English, said what he hoped to do was to express the poet’s thought as he would have expressed it if English had been his language instead of Urdu. It is still entirely the poet’s thought – Ralph never departed from what the poet had said, or added anything of his own that wasn’t in the original; but he tried to express it in ways that would be natural in English.
There’s always some sort of linguistic, literary and aesthetic, and socio-cultural problems in translating poetry. Let’s start with linguistic problems such as collocation and obscured syntactic structure. Even for a native speaker reading a poem in the original language can have variation in interpreting the meaning. Then, isn’t it impossible to translate any poem from that aspect?
Definitely, different readers will interpret a poem differently. I think it’s really helpful if translators give a literal translation alongside their poetic one, so that the reader can see how far they would agree with their interpretation. But this is not just a personal matter, it also changes over time. Translations in very flowery English don’t work for English readers today – they are used to poetry that uses simple words powerfully. For example, earlier translations from classical Greek into English are almost unreadable today because they used a kind of over-elaborate language that was acceptable in their time, but no one can read it with pleasure today. But whatever the difficulties, if we don’t at least try to translate from one language to another, we miss so much of what people in another culture have to share with us!
Also please share your view on how much emphasis translators should give on elements like poetic structure, metaphorical expressions, and most importantly the sounds and stresses that words create?
Sure, as a translator you want to capture the sound and how the poem works as a poem in its own language. (If you only aimed at translating the meaning, you might as well do it in prose.) But we all know it’s difficult to do this. To take Urdu ghazal poetry as an example: there are about fifty common metres that skilled Urdu poets use (like rhythms). The same metre has to be used throughout the ghazal. Traditionally English poetry has only a few metres, and most modern poetry doesn’t have a clearly marked metre at all, so when translating a ghazal into English you have to choose whether to make it sound like an English poem (in which case you won’t bother too much about the metre) or to try and capture something of the rhythm of the original (which I would prefer to do). But you can never hope to get it exactly, because many Urdu metres wouldn’t fit the natural rhythm of English words. Similarly with rhyme – in an Urdu ghazal the rhyme is absolutely necessary, but it’s far easier to rhyme in Urdu than in English because Urdu has 10 vowel sounds while English has at least 20 (more if you count different dialects.) Translators who insist on trying to make the English translation rhyme usually have to falsify the meaning. And ultimately, what the poet is saying in the poem is the most important thing.
Photo Courtesy: Marion Molteno