Friday, 5 August 2011

Reading India, Translating Wales

The half of my family that lives in England is prone to being metrocentric. Or at least my brother-in-law is, claiming as he has that St Albans has more going for it than Aberystwyth. Since we have a university, a national library, an award-winning arts centre, two cinemas and two symbiotic languages, I beg to differ. But it is the HQ here of Wales Literature Exchange (WLE) and its sister, Literature Across Frontiers (LAF), that clinches it as far as culture’s concerned. These bodies promote Wales’ authors abroad at festivals, bookfairs and translation workshops. But they also bring world authors to us, most particularly to a small Spanish-Welsh deli-cafe on Pier Street, Aberystwyth.

Since spring, under WLE-LAF auspices, I’ve met writers at Ultracomida from Russia, Bulgaria, Slovakia and, most recently, from India. Those of us lucky enough to be there last month, where Reading India - Translating Wales took place, are still talking about it. The seven-strong team of Welsh-language and Indian poets had clearly bonded during their mid June translation residency at Ty Newydd. Multi-award winning writer and translator K Satchidanandan joked that the trip from Kerala was ‘worth it’ just to see Eurig Salisbury’s buoyant hair! The production values, as well as the poetic ones, were high. Part of the British Council-supported India Wales Writers Chain, which launched last year at Hay Festival Kerala (where poets Gillian Clarke, Menna Elfyn and Paul Henry were also present), the Aber event delivered a tremendous sense of an unbreakable chain. This was achieved through an inclusive and incantatory choreography of their performance: a presentation of work in Welsh, Manipuri, English, Bengali and Malayalam. While the whole group gelled, so too did the pairing of poets, with translator and writer in their alternating roles taking ownership of certain images: ‘salt’ in Karen Owen and Mumbai-based Sampura Chattarji’s case, ‘water’ for Hywel Griffiths and Manipuri-medium poet Robin Ngangom, and message-carrying creatures for ‘Satchi’ and Eurig, while mother-daughter belly-button imagery had emerged in the email exchange between Menna and Sampura prior to meeting.

Sitting next to Robin, who was born in Imphal, north-east India, it was delightful to hear of his long-standing friendship with Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins, who hosted the evening. It was also an education to learn of the political and border disputes of his territory. And humbling to realise that he knew much more about Welsh soldier and poet Alun Lewis, who died in Burma (shot by his own gun during WWII), than I do myself.

This autumn three anthologies of Welsh short fiction will appear in Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam, while Parthian are currently considering a volume based on the Wales-India translations showcased last month. Aber: 7, St Albans: 0!

This was first published in Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column, 30 July 2011.

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