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Masala over ready-made

Simone Manceau.Picture by Sanjoy Ghosh

Simone Manceau, born of a Tunisian mother and an Italian father, is herself French, and translates Indian writing in English into French.

Manceau recently visited Calcutta to soak in the city atmosphere for the book she will be translating now, Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City. She translates Indian writing because she had despaired with fiction that was coming out of creative writing courses in America. This is her fourth visit to the city and she loves it.

A sprightly 70, Manceau, who studied English literature in Paris, started her career teaching English at Washington State University in the Seventies. She moved back to Paris, where she taught English as a foreign language. In the Eighties, she began to translate, from English to French.

Manceau believes translation should be into the translator’s natural language. “We also don’t do bouncing translations in France — translation from a translation, for example, of a Bengali book translated into English that is then translated into another language,” said the translator, who began with exciting young American writers like Amy Hempel and John Calvin Batchelor. She went on to Anita Brookner, in whose writing she found themes that would attract her always: of rejection and non-identity.

“Then the terrible movement of creative writing began. It was the same characters, the same movement,” said Manceau. At the turn of the millennium, much of English fiction, written in the English-speaking countries, looked “ready-made”. “I thought I will leave,” she said but then a friend drew her attention to Indian writing.

She encountered Shashi Deshpande’s writing, and was drawn towards the fineness of her prose and sensibility, and then met the author, who is known to be shy of publicity. “Do you need to translate my works,” Deshpande asked her.

Manceau has translated several Deshpande novels, including Small Remedies and A Matter of Time, and four of Chaudhuri’s books, including fiction, not counting the Calcutta book. She has also translated Kunal Basu and a lot of Radhika Jha. So how does Indian writing fare in France? Is it looked upon as special, exotic tropical stuff? Does she see a lot of masala?

Manceau said books from India are treated like books from any other part of the world, and no, she doesn’t smell too much formula spice either, but she doesn’t write masala off. “If some people are reading because of the masala, it’s ok.” At least books are being read.