What do diplomacy and poetry have to do with one another? Not much, one might say. Abhay K. proves the opposite, being a successful poet and diplomat at the same time. In our interview, he elaborates on the connection between the two fields, his poetic inspirations, and the fine balancing act of translating poetry.
Abhay K. is at home in two worlds: poetry and diplomacy. While being the Indian ambassador in Madagascar, he is also a successful poet and translator. For many of us, these two fields do not seem to have much in common, but Abhay K. thrives in both. One of the most famous examples of his poetry is the Earth Anthem, which has been translated into many different languages and has been played at the United Nations in 2020 to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In the following interview, Abhay K. explains how the worlds of diplomacy and poetry connect, how Earth is one of the main inspirations for his poetry, and how the role of language is crucial in poetry translation.
Q: You are a poet and a diplomat. Where do these two fields connect? Or do you see them as completely separate entities?
A: Poetry and diplomacy have a lot more in common than it appears to our eyes. Poets and diplomats both deal with words and employ figures of speech to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Both choose their words very carefully. Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell it but tell it slant’ is valued by poets as well as diplomats. Brevity of expression, or to say more with fewer words, is practised by both poets and diplomats. One needs to be sensitive to be a good poet as well as a good diplomat.
In fact, a number of poet-diplomats have excelled both in poetry and diplomacy, such as Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and George Seferis, who served as ambassadors of their respective countries and received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Saint-John Perse was the Secretary General of the French Foreign Ministry with the rank of ambassador, and had also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. There are several other poet-diplomats from all across the world excelling both in the art of poetry and diplomacy. Therefore, I believe there is a connection that needs further exploration.
Q: Where do you get your inspirations for your poetry from?
A: I get inspiration for my poetry from new places I visit, people I meet, cultures I come across, flora and fauna I see, birdsong I listen to, planets and star constellations I gaze at night, conversations I have, literature I read, and emotions I experience, among other things. My love for our planet Earth is a great source of inspiration for my poetry as well.
Q: Your Earth Anthem is one very famous example of your work. Could you tell us about its meaning and what it means to you personally?
A: I wrote Earth Anthem in 2008 in St. Petersburg, Russia one night, inspired by the Blue Marble image of our planet taken from space by the crew of Apollo 17 and the ideals of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the whole Earth is a family) from Maha Upanishada. The idea behind writing Earth Anthem was to celebrate the beauty and diversity of our planet from a cosmic perspective (Our cosmic oasis, cosmic blue pearl/the most beautiful planet in the universe), express the unity of life on Earth (united we stand as flora and fauna, united we stand as species of one Earth), to emphasize unity in diversity (diverse cultures, beliefs and ways/we are humans, Earth is our home), to show solidarity with one another (all the people and all the nations/one for all and all for one) and finally uniting to give our highest reverence to our planet (united we unfurl the blue marble flag).
It means a lot to me as it sums up my world view, my philosophy of being on Earth in this vast cosmos. It has come a long way since I wrote it in 2008. It has been translated into more than 130 global languages, played at the United Nations in 2020 to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, featured in over 200 publications and media sites across the globe including the BBC, The Christian Science Monitor, The Times of India, Khaleej Times and China Daily, among others. UNESCO described it as “an idea that can help to bring the world together,” and it was played by the National Symphonic Orchestra of Brazil and the musicians of the Amsterdam Conservatorium, set to music by violin maestro Dr. L. Subramaniam and sung by well-known singer Kavita Krishnamurthy. Over 100 poets, artists, singers, musicians, professors and people from different walks of life from across the world came together to read Earth Anthem to mark the 51st Earth Day, and it became one of the key global events on this occasion.
Q: You speak many different languages and also work as a translator. Many of your poems have been translated into several languages. What do you think about the importance of language in poetry? Do you think that certain aspects could be lost when translating a poem? How do you work with this potential issue in the process of translation?
A: I speak Magahi, Hindi, English, Russian, Nepali, Portuguese, and I’m learning French. I also know Sanskrit and have recently translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara from Sanskrit into English. Earlier I have translated and edited New Brazilian Poems: An Anthology of Brazilian Poetry featuring works of 60 contemporary Brazilian poets.
Poetry is an essential language. It is language in its most precise and finest state. There is no scope for wasting a word in poetry, not even a comma.
Translation is an essential process to make great literature available, from one language to another, and thus creating world literature. Some poems lose their impact in translation, some gain. The translation is never the same as the original. What works in the original language may not necessarily work in the destination language. One must possess fine knowledge of both the source and the destination language to bring in the translator’s creativity to retain the essence and impact of the original poem in the destination language: one wrong word can ruin the whole poem.
It is said that every text that has been translated needs to be translated again every twenty years as language evolves and undergoes changes. As a translator, I pay attention to this change and keep contemporary readers in mind while doing my translations. The idea of translation is to give a taste of the original to the readers in their language while preserving the essence of the original as much as one can. I try to do this while translating a poem.
Q: Which projects are you currently involved in and what are your future plans?
A: I have recently completed a book-length poem titled “Monsoon,” which is a poem of love and longing straddling across the various Indian Ocean islands, connecting them with the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas through the unifying force of Monsoon.
I have also completed a book of haiku, titled The Magic of Madagascar, on the unique flora and fauna, culture, traditions and life in Madagascar. A bilingual French-English edition is being published by L’Harmattan, Paris and a trilingual edition is likely to be published this year.
I am working currently on The Book of Bihari Literature, an anthology of literature from Bihar, a state in India, where I was born. It will be published by Harper Collins India in 2022. I am also editing an anthology of short stories in Magahi, a language spoken in south of Bihar and translating the first Magahi novel Fool Bahadur into English. Furthermore, I am writing poems for my next poetry collection on Africa titled In Light of Africa.
Abhay K., diplomat and poet, has shared with us his idea of how his two professions connect – providing the insightful thought that both diplomats and poets need to choose their words carefully. His poetry is inspired by his love for our planet Earth, which is also expressed in his famous Earth Anthem. In the interview, he elaborates on the process of translating poetry – which for him is an important tool to create world literature, but also requires fine-grained knowledge of both languages. Abhay K. himself aims at giving a taste of the original poem to the readers while preserving its essence in translation. He has many interesting projects in the pipeline, and, as a diplomat and poet, will keep “employing figures of speech to communicate his thoughts and feelings”, as he puts it.
Interview: Anna K. Stelling-Germani and Abhay K.