• PEN Georgia - for writers` rights
Writers on social issues

Interview with B. Chabradze: Art is the one place where we are truly free

ბაჩანა ჩაბრაძე
ავტორის გვერდი Nuka Gambashidze 2020-05-16 12596
Respondent: B. Chabradze
B. Chabradze graduated from Tbilisi State University in 1997 where studied philosophy and sociology. He also studied French at the University of Western Languages and Cultures. Starting from 1998 he continued his education in France, at the University of Nantes, - Tbilisi’s sister city.  He is the author of two poetry collections: Grey World (Ed. Gulani, 1992) and “Drunkenness of The Moon” (Ed. Merani, 1996). Mr. Chabradze has translated more than 50 works from French to Georgian and vice versa. His texts and translations are published in various periodicals: Georgian Writers, Literary Gazette, Literature Georgia, Literary Palette, New Saunje, Indigo, Arili, Theatre, OIF, Phénix... He was a delegate of UNESCO’s 32th General Conference in Paris. He is also a professional chess player with international classification (ELO 2243). He has worked in the library of Paris Descartes University for years. In 2015 Georgian publishing house Intelekti published collections of B. Chabradze’s translations “French Chanson”, featuring the popular song lyrics by Brassens, Ferré, Brel, Gainsbourg and Vian. 
PEN: You’ve been living in France for many years now, you studied there too. You are actively translating French poetry, plays, stories, letters and comic books. You also regularly contribute to Georgian literary periodicals. Is this strong and professional bond to Georgian language a way of maintaining connection with the homeland?
BC: Thank you for getting introduced to my work! Absolutely, working with Georgian language is one of the main forms of a connection to my homeland. Moreover, this form isn’t triggered by the physical distancing only. Being a Georgian first of all means being in Georgian language, “living” within it, disregarding where might one actually live. I read works of our contemporary writers, translators or philosophers on a regular basis. Digital editions are good tools for this. The distance doesn’t interfere with it, on the contrary, it even has a positive impact: for the task, that is connecting two different cultures, direct contact with colleagues of different nationalities, it is actually very convenient. This exchange should be beneficial for both countries. Yes, I do think that the road to progress lies on the inter-openness of different worlds. 
This is also a convenient way of making our texts public in France, as for projects as such, only translation isn’t usually enough. It is essential to actively communicate with French editions and publishers in order to convince them to publish.  
In order to make this openness more free-flowing, I always try to select yet untranslated texts and the “open” literature possible, which allows various interpretations. As an example I would name two plays that I translated: Ubu the King by Alfred Jarry (Georgian translation published in Arili magazine, Dec. 2019 and March 2020) and The Breasts of Tiresias by Guillaume Apollinaire, which I have just translated and will try to have published soon. I would also mark the articles from the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo (Georgian translations published in New Saunje magazine, Nov. 2015):
https://newsaunje.ge/index.php?do=full&id=199. The pieces showcase an extremely high extent of openness, which is so crucial today. The openness of above mentioned plays is shown as in linguistic innovations, also in carnivalesqueness and the idea of a total spectacle. As for Charlie Hebdo – it’s revealed in guarding freedom of expression to the teeth, what actually is the main goal of PEN.    
In case of a reverse translation (from Georgian to French) I would name Paata Shamugia’s poetry collection “Schizo-National Anthems”. I just finished translated it and the book is waiting for the end of isolation to be published in Paris. This poetry collection is also an example of huge openness and I am certain, French reader will greet it with an open heart. 
Here I must also mention the role of our National Book Center, Writers’ House and the French Institute in these interrelations. Without these organizations, many of these projects would not be actualized.  
The distance isn’t an obstacle for me to participate in literary events happening in our country, whether those are contests or other matters. I was able to basically be a part of Tbilisi International Festival of Literature in the recent years – I would translate the works of participants or interview them for the festival. This actually happened as a result of my collaboration with you too, besides other actors, for which I am grateful. 
Clearly, living in a language won’t enable you to walk on a “dewy grass”  and you need to solely embrace feelings coming from language itself, but in the today’s global-electronic world the location issue had largely dedramatized. What’s important is the direction and quality of one’s activity. Obviously, I try very hard to implement my future plans specifically in Georgia. 
PEN: You haven’t published your own poetry since the 90s, today you’re mostly working on translations. Is your context main reason behind this? – We could say that everything, every information for you exists in two languages. 
BC: Yes, the context is always decisive and being bilingual naturally pushes me towards the work that connects these two languages, two worlds. I can recall the words of contemporary bilingual poet, Linda Maria Baros (which whom I also spoke in frames of the above mentioned Tbilisi International Festival of Literature): “the poet, who ties and unties bundles of two languages at the same time, is a two-headed motorcyclist, constantly speeding on the same interstate A4” (Indigo magazine, June 2019) http://indigo.com.ge/articles/literature/linda-maria-barosi I don’t drive a motorcycle and I would also turn down a car as a option, if it wasn’t absolutely necessary sometimes, but I cannot stop speeding around the A4 paper, untying language bundles. I get to do this systematically and naturally it leaves less time for other kind of work. I have to say that fatherhood also takes up a big share of my days, so it leaves a relatively less time for scrutinizing my own texts. Therefore I usually only work on contracted projects. But I do have many new poetry pieces both in Georgian and in French, and I will definitely publish them. 
This author’s pause was caused by a bigger variety of my professional life. I had attempts in different areas and consequently my scope of interests was modified. Yes, I still till this day agree wit Boris Vian: “Let’s know everything! Be an expert of everything!”. The act of translation itself is the attempt of being an expert of everything. 
As for the poetry collections I published in the 90s, despite the “view returned within to itself” (as Shota Nishnianidze stated in the preface of one of those books), they still were a reflection of the reality around us back then. Those were the years of hardship, dark, cold and without any perspective. There is a big influence of Galaktion Tabidze on those collections. Needless to say, till the end of the 20h century, Galaktion was everywhere. He created and culminated the era of new conventional verse, after what Georgian poetry took a direction towards free verse. Today, where there’s a tempest, there is a vers libre.  
PEN: You have been working in the library of Paris Descartes University for years. How crucial is it for you to have an opportunity of working on what you love? Do you think you would still continue living in France if that hadn’t been the case?  
BC: Yes, I worked at Paris Descartes University, aka Paris 5 Library for several years. Big share of my Parisian decade became connected to this place, until I moved from the bank of Seine to a beautiful and historical town by the ocean, La Rochelle, where there’s also a big university complex. 
The above mentioned library is the biggest social science center in France. Therefore it was extremely interesting to work in this organization full with books, students and professors, conferences. I had different duties, among them – creating digital catalogues and working on the policies book selectin for library collection. In this sense, my job did coincide with my interests and was far from Gregor Samsa’s routine. My university education helped with finding a way through the labyrinths of Dewey classification of these vast catalogues. 
As for me living in France (which is the result of a combination of private and professional reasons), it is only partially related to this job, as first of all it was just an income source, like many other positions I had to take in Paris, Nantes or Rouen, whether it was a temporary clerk at government treasury, or a warehouse manager at electric station in the town Cordemais, an animator at sports-cultural associations, secretary at a self-government institution (I had to go through the administrative contest for this), temporary chess teacher at French elementary school (I passed teacher exams held by the French Chess Federation for this), or working at a supermarket, bar, wine harvest or greenhouse for lilies.  
Experience from Descartes Library was interesting in a different sense too. This workplace funded different kinds of trainings for employees. I used the financing allocated for employee specialization and took courses at Gaps, one of the best formation centers in Paris. I learned creating Sudoc digital catalogues and UNIMARC Bibliographic format.   
PEN: What is the isolation like? How has your everyday life hanged now that there is a pandemic? 
BC: The first and most apparent difference for me is about the kids. So yes, I would name the upside of this misfortune: because of self isolation, I spend tremendously more time with my kids, than I would during regular school time. We play hide-and-seek just as successfully as “catch me if you can” and “cooks”. We are blowing soap bubbles, building cardboard huts, setting guitar concerts and staging puppet shows. We play much more than before. Sometimes after filling out the special forms, we go for a walk to the corn fields (there’s no other option as going to the beach is forbidden). Communication with children is truly a positive side, not only it makes them happy, but also presents the opportunity to observe all of their micro-progresses and changes, to observe those nuances, which are possible because of this full-time involvement.  
The truth is that translation is one of the rare jobs that was not cut down as a result of isolation, on the opposite, it’s even busier now. I got unusually many offers in this period and work has piled up, as it’s harder to manage while having children around. So I work nights now too, and not just during daytime.  
The changes also affected my chess activities. Annual French Chess Tournament, where I was participating regularly, was discontinued. I really miss this practice, simply because other than having chess as a hobby, I also get the flow and energy necessary for writing from the game.  I have often noticed the resemblance between chess fever and the act of writing: same intensity of reflexes, similar search for combinations… Many famous artists were chess players, including my favorite Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, for whom “chess pieces are colliding in a metaphysical act of dance”. Chess player as a character appears in texts of Zweig, Nabokov, Poe and multiple other times in world literature. I too translated several French novellas on the topic of chess, written by my writer friends. Two of these novels were published in New Saunje magazine in July 2018:  https://newsaunje.ge/index.php?do=full&id=127.  From Georgian texts that speak of the same subject I would name Temur Chkhetiani’s poem “The Pawn from A2”, my translation of this piece was published in monthly French magazine Phénix (265 - Septembre 2016).
PEN: The virus spread very quickly in France, making it harder to manage the epidemic. The crisis that we are facing today will reflect on economic and social situation in almost every country, the world awaits an unpredictable future. How do people react in France?
BC: Yes, the virus did spread fast, unfortunately, but the government could have also been on top of it, react more swiftly and taken precautionary measures much earlier. For example, it’s absolutely unclear why Macron decided not to postpone municipal elections and held them just days before the lockdown, when it exposed people to the risk of mass infection. In this sense, in given proportions, Georgian healthcare system was much more effective, and this makes me glad. 
The pandemic hit on France hard and the results are dreadful, but based on my observation in general, I cannot say that the country is despair. French people are very pragmatic in this situation and usually don’t violate isolation strategy, which is practically the only weapon against Covid-19. 
In France’s defense, I have to note that the law in this country equally concerns every citizen, organization or operation, which in Georgia is very vague in most cases. I mean avoidance of laws and privileges in religious institutions, when they refuse to abide universal norms and rules and the government doesn’t react properly either. This is simply unconstitutional and unacceptable for the real democracy. 
Yes, this is beyond Covid-19. It concerns one of the main issues in Georgia: undividedness of the state and religious institutions, which in my opinion has long been the main generator of Georgia’s problems and the initial reason for our misfortunes. As an outcome of this undividedness, religious institutions are politically charged and government uses them as an instrument of power. As another result of this undividedness, religious organizations interfere with public affairs and have influence over political and social resolutions. In these conditions, even the dream of democracy and secularism is unrealistic. And it will continue like this if the state and religious institutions are not segregated entirely, this being the essential condition for social and political emancipation. This will beneficial for both institutions. Government should protect religious rights just like it should protect its citizens from religious manifestation on secular level.  
Unfortunately, the government that would implement secular reforms doesn’t even show up on the horizon in our country. Even the classic education system is censored by religious institution. Therefore we should regularly have public discussions in order to inform broader audience about this issue. Otherwise, the virus will disappear eventually but this vicious reality will remain the same. 
If this can be organized, I think everything will be much better, as it will minimize inter-manipulation by these institutions and their speculations over human misfortunes! 
PEN: You have published a book in Georgian “French Chanson” – a collection of chansons translated by you.  What’s special about French Chanson and the authors in this genre? What is the origin of this style and is it somehow similar to the initial, ancient form of poetry?
BC: The authors included in this collection are special in a way, they are not only writers, but author-composer-performers, - they deliver all three tasks, which was rare before their era.   Obviously we cannot be sure about who was the very first one to create music for their own text and sang it in public, but it is safe to say that the phenomenon of chanson is originated from troubadours, vagabond poet-singers in France in middle ages (which does not mean it cannot have antique roots). The term chansonnier appeared around these times. But it was much later that this movement formed into a genre – from the second half of the 20th century, when Paris was freed from Nazis and musical industry began to expand on a culture market. 
The second particularity of French Chanson is the artistic value of the text, meaning that the lyrics may also exist in print, independently from melody and performance. Yes, the school of French Chansonniers is inspired by French classic literature and especially poetry. It is the direct predecessor of the musical lyric of Baudelaire’s, Verlaine’s and Rimbaud. We talked about the library in this interview, this genre is recorded in the classification system of French libraries ad “song by lyric”, meaning it is a musical category with a statement that it has good literary quality. According to Pierre Bourdieu, “Chansonniers are making the minor genre noble”.  
The third important characteristic of French Chanson is its political and social nature. First example of this in history are dated back to much earlier times than the era of the authors included in the above mentioned collection. They date back to the era of French Revolution, when the song also revolted alongside people and became an expression of victory over monarchy. Until this point the art of chanson was mostly apolitical. Poets of from the times of revolution started expressing political opinions and since then revolutionary singing hasn’t been silence in France. It came through the regime of Napoleon the 1st, Paris Commune and world wars… Not only did it survive these whirlwinds, but it arouse and prospered. In post World War Two period chanson turned into a structured genre as singer-songwriters appeared.  The events and phenomenon of 1968 gave the new dimension to French political song. This made chanson intentionally provocative and turned it into the locomotive of youth protests.  Political nature of this genre, in a broader sense means that it criticizes or defends social, economic and political events and often disregards the rules of political correctness, that being the crucial condition for breaking taboos.  Thematic range of this genre is various. It denounces racism, police violence, social inequality, violation of the freedom of speech, militarism, repressive narcopolitics… In a word, it contributes to the development of democracy. Chansons of Boris Vian are one of the best examples of this kind of engagement. Vian is one of the very few authors of his era who was censored for antimilitaristic creative work: https://1tv.ge/elit/shansonebi-boris-viani/ (source in GEO)
I am happy that different Georgian and French periodicals wrote about “French Chanson”. Georgian and French writers met each other at presentations of this book. Copies of the book were given to Parisian labels and publishers, who helped me with copyright issues. One copy was even acquired by BULAC (University Library of Languages and Civilizations of Paris) for its Georgian fund, owing to the initiative of Tamar Svanidze.
PEN: In your blog post on International Translators Day you talk about the peculiarities and complexity of literary and poetic translation, also stating that this work is not valued well. How much more demanding is the reader and literary society to a translator? Is a translator expected and requested to be skillful more than the authors, if so, why? What should there be done in culture and publishing industry to support translators and the quality of translation?
BC: The reader and literary society is as much demanding to the translator, as good is their ability to fail acknowledging the huge work done by them, but not forgive even a microscopic inaccuracy. Not to mention a completely vague term of “preciseness” in translation, which was a topic of the blog post that you mentioned. 
I will repeat myself, every act in translation process is unique. If a translator could not find the solution in a given moment, translation workshops won’t in any way help them. Here they are left with their own intuition only and follow not just strictly linguistic rules, but also cultural elements, in a broader understanding of this term, as every language breaks down, understands and describes the world in its own unique way. There is no universal rule. არ The solution needs to be found per case, based on the possibilities within language and considering the translator’s interpretation of a passage. Who can say that even the perfectly loyal translator doesn’t create a new piece and is actually a “scanner”?! Who is able to tame the cognitive processes following any reproduction of one language into another, the processes that stagger between linguistics, literature, philosophy and who knows what else?!  
Yes, the translator is an unconditional author of the translation. So to support them they should at least get to be mentioned by default in any description of the translated work, at every presentation, list of nominations, review or promotion! 
In the blog I was saying that translator’s job is not only deprived of gratitude, but also unlucrative. Payment for translation work is very low, despite the fact that text is actually brought to us by the translator and it’s because of their hard work that it is possible to receipt the text in our language, to discuss it and more importantly, to sell the books. Therefore I think it is absolutely necessary that they are more generous in our culture and publishing spheres, be fairer in these matters and apart from paying an adequate honorarium, give percentage from the book sales to the translator (from the first sale).  
By adequate honorarium I mean the minimal pay. If he projected budget is below a certain rate for translator’s work, French Institute actually rejects the funding for the project, trying to protect translator’s rights this way. The minimal rate is at least 20 Euros for 1500 characters in prose and 20 lines of poetry, which is very different from what they pay in Georgia. Not to mention the non-existent paid vacation and sick leave. 
Our translators totally deserve this, especially them, as they usually have to do more than just translating. Other than preparation they have to demarche for reproduction rights, which should be the publishers’ job in the first place. Instead they sometimes ask translators to get in touch with original publishers, to find them, get the rights and get them to agree on the publication. A translator should not be wasting time in operations like these, especially if they are not getting paid for it. A Translator should concentrate on text and average translation quality will get subsequently better.  
Another reason why translators deserve this is that translators have a major role “in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development”, as stated in the resolution of the United Nations, which declares 30 September International Translation Day.  
In our conditions this good and necessary need is even harder for translators because they have to work on an unprepared field, where they often have to discover number of totally new terminology oases. In this regard, our translators are the ones who often define Georgian language and literary trends and have a big role in their evolution. 
PEN: What do you think is the social role of poetry today and how important is it for culture to revitalize poetic legacy (such as: studying and teaching history of poetry, retranslating and republishing poems of 20th century authors)? 
BC: The role of poetry, in my opinion, first of all is recreational, meaning it’s a bit more than amusement: change, switch, freshening, outbreak, creation of a different atmosphere… This is a necessity, insubordinate to an era or age. A person always needs something. I absolutely agree with the great French poet from the second half of last century, Yves Bonnefoy, for whom poetry exists not because it should bear some definitions, but because it gives new meanings to words, that they didn’t have in regular state. 
Let alone anything else, poetry and art in general are in fact the rare places in the world where we are free. And letting go of freedom is something we cannot do.  
Therefore, yes, it is important to renew poetic legacy and republish poetry from the previous century (and not only). 
A little off-topic: I think that school curriculums should be reviewed too from time to time. I would suggest for the program to include as many poems as possible, moreover, I think poems should be memorized, but only if the learning is methodical and flexible, so that the process does not comprise of memory trainings only and also includes interpretation.  Obviously these texts should have a short format and memorable syntax. It can be a repetitive structure, sound-play, musicality…  This will accustom a student with text construction and punctuation. Sometimes a poem needs to be memorized, so that it recreates within each reader. 
I also believe that we should create new translations of old texts. 
Clearly all this doesn’t mean we should ignore novelties. Piece of art isn’t necessarily a masterpiece only because it’s contemporary, or of a bad quality – if it is a work of past. On the opposite, there are number of masterpieces in the past, which belong to the present and future, and many tasteless artefacts are created today, that won’t survive time. 
Georgian poetry went through an important revolution in the recent years. It got renewed and more various. From the viewpoint of new trends, French poets, just like Georgians, advance individually, rather than by genre. It is hard to include their style in any category. Although they always stood out with social themes, and this trend is also noticeable in Georgian poetry today.  Which is really great, I think that inspiration may come not only from the “sky”, but also from daily problems, right-deprived people, injustice and women’s condition. This last topic has a crucial, core importance, until women are rarely taking managerial positions, until they still have to adjust to patriarchal world and until they get paid less than an average man doing the same job, holding the same position. Until all of this is resolved, any statement of equality is bogus and society is not truthful to its own self. Advocating for these rights with the aid of poetry and art will only benefit the cause. From my translations of works that concern this topic I would name very impressive comic series of a young author Emma, called “You Should’ve Asked”. The piece was published on independent feminist blog. It concerns unequal redistribution of household chores and “mental burden”, which almost always falls upon a woman:
Generally, when speaking about poetry I don’t like using the word “should”, but in this case I would anyhow say that: poetry should go to people, poetry should become more and more political. This is exactly how it will become forever interpreted, forever renewed.  
Thank you for these interesting questions! 
The project is supported by the Writers' House of Georgia.
Related articles