Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Saffron Crocuses and Understanding the Other

The saffron crocus is an oddity. It blooms in the fall, for one thing, out of step with its spring-blooming kin. And for another, when the flower opens, you can see those long red-gold threads, rich with flavor, prized for their fragrance and unique culinary properties. I recall seeing saffron fields as a child when we traveled in Kashmir--they were a beautiful, startling purple. Years later when we lived in Maryland I grew a small patch of saffron crocuses, and gathered the stigmas before the first winter frost. An amazing flower. I have alas had no luck with it in the desert soil of northwest New Mexico.

The bloggers at Saffron Tree chose CROCUS for the name (Celebration of Reading Other Culturally Unique Stories) of their week-long festival of culturally diverse books from various parts of the world. The books featured are published in the US, UK, Australia, and India. Their settings and cultures reach into just about every continent, and include books by people from within the cultures concerned as well as those from outside them, a couple of books in translation and a bilingual book or two. Katia's Amadi is there, as well as one of Uma (y)'s books.

"Other" is an interesting term and I must admit I try not to use it in conjunction with "culture" because really it demands that I define "this" or "my" culture first and that's just way too complicated. Still, if I were to talk about a "crocus book" in terms of the out of season flower or the traveling story, I'd want to talk about A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna. Originally published by Editions Autrement in French as Un Lion à Paris, this imaginative homage to the Bartholdi lion is also a tribute to the city in which the statue is located. So I was intrigued to find that the English translation, by Mariette Robbes, is published by Katha in a South Asian edition. I asked Mamta Nainy of Katha if she'd mind telling me some more about this project. She sent along these replies to my questions, from editor Vineetha Mokkil.

[Uma] A translator is often the invisible partner in books like this one. I notice Katha holds the English translation copyright--does that mean that you contracted with Mariette Robbes to do the translation?

[Vineetha] Yes, Katha contracted Ms. Robbes to do the English translation. I agree that translators are often relegated to the background. But Katha made sure that Ms Robbes’ name appeared on the cover page of Lion in Paris, a first of sorts on the Indian publishing/translation scene. So we have steered clear of this lapse.

[Uma] Tell me a little more about your World Library imprint--your vision for it, the kinds of books you select in order to bring them to the South Asian market.

[Vineetha] The World Library imprint is a very important area of focus for Katha. It has been conceived with the specific aim of introducing children in India (and south Asia, by extension), to new cultures and generating a healthy curiosity about other countries and people in them. These stories also dispel prejudices, counter stereotypes through culture-linking and help children understand the world better. We have published two books – French and German, both translated into English – in this series so far. A book from Mexico is next in the pipeline. We are keen on carrying this forward and including stories from every corner of the globe to the imprint.

[Uma] Thanks, Vineetha.

A Lion in Paris is a lovely book. Alemagna's pictures are of course stunning, with their mix of pencil, ink, and collage. Broad, flat boulevards are edged by trees with crooked shadows. The train bursts from the Metro tunnel, while the platform's crawling with one-dimensional families. Surprises lurk on every page, and the text has an understated humor that resides squarely in the persona of the prowling lion.

So there we have it. Child readers in India reading picture books in English translations, set in France and Germany and Mexico. I find it both interesting and encouraging, that this publisher is going about the task by finding native speakers of the original language of the book to translate it for the target audience. Makes sense to me.


  1. Wonderful ! I will look for this one, Uma. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Katia, I'll be posting an interview with Mariette Robbes, the translator of Un Lion... in a few weeks. Stay tuned.