‘It is a cultural encyclopedia of modern India’: Annie Montaut, French translator of ‘Ret Samadhi’

In 2018 Geetanjali Shree gave me a copy of Ret Samadhi at the Jaipur Literature Festival and started reading it as soon as I got home. I was eager to find out what wonders the title held. I was immediately taken with the way it was written – I finally understood why it took him nearly seven years to complete the book. Still, I wondered what the title was about. And when I did, little by little, I was completely mesmerized.

The language seemed to have its own rhythm. The story moved at its own pace – sometimes it slowed down while at other times it moved at breakneck speed. The language was poetic, like a river – sometimes silent, sometimes panting, and sometimes galloping. Some sentences were very long (a page or two) and some were no longer than one word. The voices were also changing.

I had one more reason to translate Ret Samadhi – it would be a cultural encyclopedia of modern India for foreign readers. The beautiful story and the writing style were a plus.

Although I have been a literary translator for nearly 30 years, Ret Samadhi posed challenges that I had not yet encountered. Just a few days after signing the contract at the end of June, I learned via Twitter that Ret Samadhi was impossible to translate, in any language!

I was in trouble, what should I do? I had already agreed to translate the book, and there was no way out. Either way, the deed had to be done. There was no point thinking like that about the future. At the time, I had translated almost fifty pages – not the final draft, but to convince editors why Ret Samadhi deserved to be read by French readers. I had a tight deadline – the translation had to be completed in four and a half months so that the book could be published in time for the Salon du livre in Paris.

The next five months became hell for me! I admit that there were small moments of relief, but they were rare! How could I meet this formidable challenge?

The characters in the book were a huge help to me – I was constantly amazed at how beautiful Ma was, and so were the others. The eldest son, who would share his sorrows with the crows; the irritable but shy daughter-in-law; the playful Rosie and the firm Raza, whose mystery is unveiled by a tragedy; the streets of Lahore and the imposing gates of the house; the two who would see and hear all but reveal nothing; the girl who is also a writer with poet and artist; and even minor characters like the children of Nithari, their joys, their sorrows, their fears, the voices of their hearts and minds – they became part of my existence.

Geetanjali’s polyphony has become a part of me, so much so that I have become a crossroads for these voices!

There would be a transformation, a renewal of sorts when I could successfully translate a delicate passage. It would relieve me a lot and give me confidence for the challenges ahead. For example, think of the long index finger, it starts like Borges and continues to playful tunes – “Statue, pearl, conch, air, breath, wing, topaz, grain, heart, tale, spirit, pebble, particles, ears, eyes ” . At first, I couldn’t do any of them justice – sound, alliteration, rhyme scheme – and proceeded to translate the text literally.

I then came across three words whose rhythm I felt could be useful to me. So I put them together – eye toe ear. Other words, which are otherwise popular and standard grammar have been turned into an index of exceptions – pebble knee owl jewel cheek. The sequence changed with the rhythm, some with humor and some in game. This was necessary, because Ret Samadhi could not be a simple translation.

Another example, crows begin their croaking by saying “man bows down to science.” I changed it to “man and his science without conscience” – this alludes to classical French literature. But I didn’t use it as a direct quote, but as a gentle hint, a slight nod. This is because Geetanjali’s references to Indian literature would not make much sense to the French reader.

It becomes even more difficult when only half a verse or half a quotation, without any quotation, appears in the text. If it is a direct and correctly quoted quote, I can mention it in the footnote or find an innovative way to translate it. But there is a limit to the number of notes I can add. So I had to find relief and encouragement in every little victory!

I would also be disappointed when it seems that there is no solution. This feeling stayed with me until the end. Even as I was doing the final proofs, I kept hoping that the solution would present itself. But that didn’t happen. For example, “ख़ुदाई खुदी ख़ुदा” – how would I translate this into English? I decided to leave these sentences as they are, in Hindi. I’m not very proud of it!

I have many such examples which I have only translated with some success. I don’t feel particularly happy, or sad, or helpless – just discontent. At the very beginning of the novel Geetanjali writes: अब तो मैं नहीं उठूँगी। अब्ब तो मैं नइ उठूँगी। अब्ब तो मैं नइई उठूँगी। अब्ब तो मैं नयी उठूँगी। अब तो मैं नयी ही उठूँगी।” It’s a challenge for every language and defeat is guaranteed.

The rhythm gradually changes from नहीं to नयी, and it keeps changing, in different contexts, for almost thirty pages. What should be done? I could translate the words literally, but that would mean that many subtleties would be lost. I kept trying and finding solutions without conviction, I found a compromise between meaning and rhythm.

Finally, I translated the sentence as “No, no, I will not get up. Now I won’t get up. I don’t want to get up anymore. Now I’m new I’m new young I I want I’m going to get up. Now I will rise new. Now I’m going to get up, brand new. The first two lines are literal translations. The lines that followed them needed to be translated with more subtlety. ‘Don’t want’ sounds like ‘new’ and ‘je ne v’ sounds like young (young) – but the playful side of the language couldn’t be fully conveyed. Another partial success story…

Geetanjali was helpful to me throughout the process. She would patiently answer all my questions. Not once did she chide me saying it’s the author’s job to write and not answer questions from idiot translators!

I would also like to thank my editors. They were also a great help to me – not only did they let me extend the deadline, but during the five months it took me to translate, they warmly encouraged me. They read the text diligently and helped me strengthen my work. They also reminded me not to lose any sleep! From the start, they were impressed with Geetanjali’s book and his writing style. And by the time they finished reading the book, they were convinced that Ret Samadhi was the Indian version of a book by Garcia Marquez.

I experienced all the joys and sorrows of translating the text into French. In this short period of five months, the book seems to have colored my whole life. It was a surreal and completely unique experience, and that’s how special Geetanjali’s writing is. A novel about crossing borders also reminds us that there can be no constraints to resolution. Living through the characters, I felt like I was pushing the limits of that will.

Ret Samadhi flows like a river and the translation can be seen as the banks. The banks bring people to the river and make them aware of its existence – it is on the horizon that people meet, love and play. Just like the shore, translations do the same thing – they are the link between cultures, a convergence if you will. These links are rapid – between French and Hindi, between Annie and Geetanjali, between Annie and the characters of Ret Samadhibetween words (said and unsaid) and their meanings.

And finally the translation was there! It should have been!

Maybe not in time for the Paris Book Fair but for something even bigger and better, as it was intended!

Translated from Hindi by Sayari Debnath.