Dispatch from Jaipur Literature Festival

A look back on the "Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza" of world literature

The Jaipur Literature Festival, which just hosted its tenth edition, has been called “the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding.” In 2013, over a quarter of a million footfalls were recorded, with 2014 promising even higher numbers. Travelling to the JLF this year (my third festival visit) from Kathmandu on a work-related trip, I attended days two, three and four. The full programme, over the course of five days, featured over 200 sessions in six venues. This year’s poor weather may have dampened things (quite literally) thanks to chilly thunderstorms throughout north-western India on day five and cold temperatures and fog on the other days—but the uncomfortably large crowds continued to congregate, turning the Diggi Palace grounds into something akin to Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station during rush hour.

Sessions addressed everything from the non-fiction renaissance, poetry, and the contemporary Indian art revolution—to the cricket novel, India’s relationship with its neighbours, and the current situation in Afghanistan. International draw-card authors included Jhumpa Lahiri, Gloria Steinem, Jonathan Franzen and Nadeem Aslam, while a large and impressive mix of Indian authors were also in attendance, representing a large section of India’s extremely diverse literary talent: Vikram Chandra, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Jerry Pinto, Anita Nair, and plenty more.

There were several sessions on translation, or in which translation issues were addressed, and others where India’s sensitive politics of language threatened to break through. An opening session on day two, entitled ‘The Global Novel’ and featuring Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Maaza Mengiste, and Xiaolu Guo in conversation with Chandrahas Choundhary, has captured literary headlines because of Chinese-English author Guo’s comments that American literature is overrated. Far more provocative—but less attention-recieving—were her comments about translation. The discussion on the meanings and currency of the global novel turned to the role of the translator and translations: Lahiri stated that she thought the American market’s lack of attention to translation is shameful. Jim Crace illustrated his concern for the health of small languages through an anecdote about Malta: a group of young Maltese authors he had met believed it would be professional suicide to write in Maltese, yet their English wasn’t quite good enough to enable them to express themselves as well in that language as in Maltese, creating a situation in which they are, in effect, communicating from behind a screen. Guo, who writes novels in both Chinese and English, stated that she has no faith in the translation process whatsoever, claiming passionately that 99% of Chinese/English translations are unreadable. She said she is under no illusions that translators choose works from the love of good literature; the commissioning of translations by publishers leads to a situation where translators are under time pressure and are not paid well enough, so rush out mediocre translations on books they have no interest in.

These statements were rather at odds with what was expressed at a session on day three, ‘Beauty and Fidelity: Texts in Translation’ featuring Marathi author Sachin Kundalkar, his English translator Jerry Pinto, Hindi author Geetanjali Shree, her English translator (and Asymptote’s own) Rahul Soni, and Chinese-English translator Carlos Rojas. The pairing of the Marathi and Hindi authors with their translators worked well, and provided insights on the working relationship between authors and their translators. This session contradicted much of what Guo had stated the previous day, with Rojas describing how he comes to know Chinese works he has selected intimately while he is working on them. A question was asked about the desirability or undesirability of the translator’s effect on the work, whether a translator attempts to be invisible or not, which garnered some insightful responses. Kundalkar stated that working with a translator is like working with an actor: a director does not need to tell an actor how to smile, as everyone will have a different way of interpreting that gesture, and freedom of expression needs to be granted. Rojas took the metaphor further, likening a translator to a musician playing a composer’s work, following instructions but with their own subtleties coming through.

India’s inescapable language politics shone through at other moments during the festival, even when questions of language or translation were not explicitly addressed. In a session called ‘Why India Votes’, the moderator, journalist Sudhir Chaudhary, announced that the panel had decided that the session would be partly conducted in Hindi, considering the theme of the talk was democracy. This happened in several other sessions throughout the festival, whenever a speaker was clearly more comfortable in a language other than English, generally Hindi. A few grumbles came from certain sections of the audience—international visitors and Indians from non-Hindi speaking regions—but I welcomed the chance to improve my Hindi listening comprehension. Tensions developed between the chair and certain speakers, however. Academic Mukulika Banerjee, after repeatedly speaking in English and being answered by the moderator in Hindi, pointed out that there were many international visitors, and she didn’t want to exclude them from the discussion, so attempted to translate aspects of what was being said back into English. While of course space should be made at the JLF for sessions in languages other than English—and indeed they are, though perhaps not quite enough—a moderator’s decision to change the language of the discussion to Hindi despite differing comfort levels of the speakers and the audience was somewhat problematic. English is the lingua franca of the JLF not just because of the large number of international visitors, but because many people travel to Jaipur from outside of the north Indian Hindi belt, where everyone can be expected to speak and understand the language. South India has its own history of anti-Hindi sentiments and activism, so conducting sessions in Hindi does not necessarily make a session any more ‘democratic’ or accessible than conducting it in English.

As with everything in India, there was so much to take in at the 2014 JLF that one came away feeling that more had been missed out on than witnessed. The interest had to lie in details rather than the breadth, which was impossible for one attendee to capture. All the more reason to start planning the next trip to Jaipur in 2015.