Making literature travel!

Literature Across Frontiers is a platform promoting literary translation and multilingualism in the arts. They have been working in India for more than 10 years now and are steadily moving forward with new projects and workshops.

Glimpses from workshop held in 2010 in Adishakti, with Sampurna Chattarji, Meena Kandasamy, Arjun Bali, Robin Ngangom, Raphael Urweider, Bill Herbert, Zoë Skoulding and Roselyne Sibille and Akshay Patak
Glimpses from workshop held in 2010 in Adishakti, with Sampurna Chattarji, Meena Kandasamy, Arjun Bali, Robin Ngangom, Raphael Urweider, Bill Herbert, Zoë Skoulding and Roselyne Sibille and Akshay Patak

Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) is a platform promoting literary translation and multilingualism in the arts. They have been connecting literary Europe with other global regions, particularly Asia and the Middle East. Their activities include exchange residencies and collaborative projects that bring together literary practitioners from different countries, translation and creative writing workshops, as well as live events at festivals and participation in book fairs and professional events. Alexandra Büchler, Director of LAF shares more about this platform in conversation with Emma House.

Emma: You have been working in India for more than 10 years now, what do you feel you have achieved from your work?

Alexandra: Yes, India is a country we have developed a very special relationship with, and we have worked with Indian writers, translators, publishers, literary festivals and book fairs since 2008. What have we achieved? I would say that the growing network of writers and other literary professionals our activities have brought together over the years in various events, the knowledge they have gained of each other’s literature and culture, and their continued engagement is an achievement that is manifested in a variety of ways. Our annual programme, mostly around literary festivals, book fairs and other industry events with workshops and panels for publishers and translators, is another achievement we are proud of. Our focus is however not always on books and publishing, but rather on offering opportunities for creative development of individual practitioners and on reaching audiences.

Our trademark residential poetry translation workshops are mostly organised in conjunction with festivals where the new work – translations and sometimes collaborative texts – are showcased on stage in multilingual poetry performances. We have also co-curated and produced focus country programmes, such as Spain at the Hyderabad Literary Festival and Wales at the Kerala Literature Festival, as well as a micro-festival of Welsh culture Cymru in the City! in Mumbai. Our last pre-pandemic event was a professional visit for European festival directors to four locations in India last year during the winter literary festival season.

Since then, we have participated in digital events such as the New Delhi World Book Fair and the Publishers’ Exchange programme of talks, an excellent initiative started by Neeta Gupta of Yatra Books in the early days of the pandemic with the aim of connecting Indian language publishers. We also had to pause our Charles Wallace India Trust (CWIT) fellowship for Indian writers and translators which we have held in Wales annually since 2016. Our last fellow, who arrived in March 2020, spent his entire fellowship in lockdown being productive but quite lonely, and we have been debating whether to reopen the programme this year. Conversations with our former fellows are among the many videos we recorded for online consumption.

Emma: Giving Contemporary Meaning to Myths and Legends, is such a great theme, what inspired this project?

Alexandra: The project has emerged from our plans to establish residencies for European writers at Indian higher education institutions which we had been discussing with our former Charles Wallace India Trust fellows and others who combine an academic career with writing and literary translation. The pandemic, and particularly the current tragic situation in India, has put an end to these plans, but we decided to test a digital workshop model with a four-week pilot and the result was excellent. The theme acknowledges that myths and legends are often the earliest literary works in a culture that continue speaking to us and that can be reinterpreted and retold to highlight and engage with urgent problems in today’s society. The programme was prepared with our colleagues at partner universities and the mentors were writers from Georgia, Iceland and Wales, three small countries on the ‘edges’ of Europe which share a rich literary tradition and stunning landscapes. The spectacular eruption of the Icelandic volcano on the night before the first workshop was a reminder of the power of nature which is a theme that runs through Icelandic writing. The topics the young aspiring writers wanted to explore were ones we could all identify with: social inequality, injustice, violence, misogyny, climate change and our destructive impact on the environment. Judging from the initial feedback, the project was very successful, and I hope we will be able to run more such workshops in the future both in creative writing and translation.

Alexandra Büchler
Alexandra Büchler

Emma: What have you learnt from the project about translation across Indian languages?

Alexandra: The project focused on creative writing rather than translation and the participants mostly received their education in English, which was the language they chose to write in, but they told us about their native Indian language or languages they speak at home or in their community and how these languages and the cultures they are connected with influence the way they write and use English. The multilingualism of India is something that never ceases to fill me with awe and at the same time it is, on a larger scale, analogous to Europe’s multilingualism. But there is one difference; in Europe translation from multiple source languages is commonplace, even in book markets that sometimes only serve a small number of speakers. Translation across Indian languages still needs to be encouraged and developed. The Publishers’ Exchange has, I understand, facilitated more rights trading between Indian publishing houses which is a great initiative.

Emma: Tell us about ‘Poetry Connections India Wales.’

Alexandra: Poetry Connections India Wales was part of the UK India Year of Culture on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. It consisted of ten exchange residencies during which Indian and Welsh poets collaborated to produce five books featuring six languages, that were launched on a festival tour the following year. We have recently revisited the project with short video recordings of the participating poets that can be watched on our website media channel.

The project built on our poetry translation workshops, an activity LAF started almost two decades ago in different countries. The residential workshops bring together poets who explore each other’s work through bridge language translation and our India workshops have included poets writing in a range of Indian languages: Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Khasi, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Punjabi and Tamil with fellow poets from all around Europe, including poets writing in the regional languages of Britain. The workshops are however more about the process of translation and the detailed discussions about the translated poems and their cultural context, rather than aiming for a publication. They build an awareness of other poetic traditions and contemporary poetry scenes, as well as greater self-awareness that comes with being translated. Again, you can learn more about our workshops – to date over a hundred of them – on our website.

Emma: What are your plans for the future?

Alexandra: Until very recently we had been planning more digital events but the explosion of infections in India gives us pause as we mourn the massive loss of life and makes us rethink our activities for a post-pandemic world that continues to be divided by populist politics. That said, the Myths and Legends workshops, attended by bright, creative, politically aware and outspoken young people – mostly women – were very encouraging and inspiring, and I look forward to staying connected with our Indian colleagues and delivering more such projects.

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