Mohan Rana is an Indian poet who has lived in Britain for over 20 years, but always writing in Hindi and, until recently, publishing his work only in the land of his youth and education. Our conversations for Bread and Salt are a fascinating exploration of the difficulties and the new perspectives that can be associated from such a relationship with languages.
His poetry is admired in India but is almost invisible in the UK. The Poetry Translation Centre published a chapbook of his poems, translated by Bernard O’Donoghue and Lucy Rosenstein, but this is a tiny sample of his work. The Translation Centre’s website presents some of the poems in three versions: the original Hindi, in a literal translation and in a version by Bernard O’Donoghue. Even without being able to read, still less understand, the Hindi, the pages offer a tantalising glimpse into the instability of meaning.
Yesterday, when we spoke again about the challenges of rendering his poetry into English, he observed:
‘I think any ‘language’ is a translation of an experience. What really is the real language I translate from and how I process the poem as it appears in the dark room of my mind in the language known to me, that is ‘Hindi’, is a mystery.’
He used the image of being on the other side of a window. I imagined him speaking poetry from other side of a river, so that I don’t catch all the words and, even then, they are distorted by being called out.
Mohan’s latest book was published on 29 August. It is called RET (Sand) kaa (of) PUL (bridge) so…’Bridge of Sand’.
A short interview with Mohan appears on this website. The experiences and questions about language we have been exploring will be appear in Bread and Salt, which I hope to be able to complete and publish next spring.
A majority of human beings speak at least two languages, albeit to widely different degrees. Because English (or as it is sometimes called ‘Globish’) is the leading language of international communication, especially among professionals, many native speakers don’t appreciate that their monolingual identity puts them in a world minority. Like Romans encountering Latin speakers in far-flung parts of the Empire, those who rely only on English may have a specially unreliable view of what the natives think.
There is something deeper in this than understanding other people though, essential as that is. Anyone who has grown up in two languages, as I did, has a multiple sense of their experience and of reality itself. The word ‘table’ (English) is not the same as ‘table’ (French), though they seem identical and signify objects of comparable appearance and function. They just don’t mean the same thing because a French table is, in so many ways that articulate a culture, different from an English one.
Developing a consciousness in two languages makes it much harder – for me, impossible – to hold a unitary interpretation of the world or to divide people into Greeks and Barbarians. Far from inspiring any pride in one’s knowledge, the ability to understand more than one language teaches humility in the face of incompatible but equally undeniable realities.