“No man walks twice in the same river, because it is not the same river and it is not the same man.” The words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (whom I had assaulted long ago for an exam) kept ringing in my ears as I devoured Tejo Tungabhadra in the span of two nights.
The story begins on the banks of the Tejo River in Lisbon at the end of the 15th century and reaches the banks of Tungabhadra, the silent witness to the rise of the Vijayanagara Empire, its excesses and its shortcomings. Caught between these two stories, Rivers and Fates are two lovers as well as a host of sailors, cheaters and runaways, ordinary people and extraordinary dreamers and a popular king desperate for offspring – of which all stories are woven expertly to create a patchwork quilt of a satisfying yet captivating tale.
Having already heard much (both praise and criticism) about its author Vasudhendra as well as the original Kannada novel, which was a resounding success upon publication, I had been more than eager for the translation English so. The wait, glad to report, was well worth it. The novel makes no pretensions to be anything other than what it claims to be – a work of historical fiction, vast in its scope, hyperbolic in its style and emotional in its approach to its multiple characters, none of whom can be qualified for the protagonist. No matter what bouquets and bricks the original may have, the translated version stands on solid legs and should ideally be read as a book in its own right – something the book’s translator Maithreyi Karnoor also naturally advocates.
Poet and author herself, Maithreyi Karnoor has already translated a collection of plays by Kannada litterateur HS Shivaprakash as well as the acclaimed novel Halla Bantu Halla by Shrinivas Vaidya (published in English as A Handful of Sesame), which won the Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati award for translation. Her first novel, Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, was published in 2021 and her poems were shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2017 and 2020. Excerpts from an interview
As a translator, what has been your biggest challenge?
Translating Tejo Tungabhadra was quite a different experience from what I had done before in terms of language and context. Since this is a plot-driven story where language is secondary, so to speak, it was easy to visualize. As a writer, I believe in underestimating and using as few words as possible. But Vasudhendra is lavish in his use of words and images and takes great pleasure in describing everything – and that was my challenge!
Have you found a balance? How much freedom does a translator really have?
No, I stayed true to the original. That said, the editing process in Kannada publishing is not very tight unlike English publishing houses. So, although I made a faithful (but critical) translation, I also had to wear my editor’s hat. I think a translator should have the freedom to adapt his work according to the language in which it will be read. It depends on the relationship between the author and the translator and the degree of trust they have developed in each other. Translating is not just telling…it’s a story that takes on a new avatar and the end product is a new work in itself. Luckily Vasudhendra and I had excellent communication.
Why aren’t there more Kannada to English translations?
I also strongly felt this shortcoming. I’m only speculating, but maybe the reason is that you need someone in the big publishing houses, either a consultant or an editor, to really know what’s written and read in a specific language to recommend its translation. Incidentally, Bengali (and perhaps Malayalam to some extent) seems to have better access to the English edition. That said, translation is quite present in the news and works in other languages are also slowly gaining ground. Vasudhendra himself runs a successful publishing house and his books have gone through several editions, it was hard not to notice!
What do you have to say about the critics who accused the author of promoting Brahmanical hegemony and communalism in the novel?
The accusations didn’t bother me. I consider myself a critical person – I read the original Kannada novel and judged it for myself. What I notice today is that in most political speeches and debates, there isn’t a lot of talk – just labels and name-calling. If you don’t like someone or something, tag them and wash your hands! If you look at history, every religion has had its good times and its bad times. Historical fiction cannot be written in easy binaries; a good novel is all about nuance – a fact sadly lost on many.