It was a pass from Andhere Band Kamré by Mohan Rakesh, a leading figure in the Nai Kahani literary movement in the 1950s, who became the gateway to Hindi literary translations for Daisy Rockwell. At the end of her undergraduate studies in the United States, she was in the middle of an advanced Hindi class when her teacher gave her a little translation exercise – a page from Rakesh’s book that explored the alienation of city life in rather simple Hindi. Rockwell, with her particular affinity for languages, was completely drawn in. It was then that she decided to pursue literary translations at the University of Chicago graduate school in the 1990s.
Today, Rockwell is one of the finest and most respected translators of Hindi literature. With a penchant for score stories, she brought works by stalwarts like Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni and Krishna Sobti to a whole new audience. And now his translation of the 2019 novel by Geetanjali Shree Ret Samadhi (sand tomb) is in the running for the top prize of the International Booker Prize 2022, a first for a Hindi novel. Excerpts from an interview:
You studied classical languages, like Latin and Greek, then moved on to French and German. And then you learned Hindi at university. Can you tell us about your formative years?
When [you’re] young, you just have to take languages, right? So I learned French from the fifth year and Latin from the seventh year. But you just have an affinity for certain things. So I have always loved learning languages. The way Latin was taught in the United States was very specifically based on translation, as it is not a spoken language. I don’t know if Sanskrit is taught that way in India. You trained as a translator while studying classical languages in the United States. As soon as you know enough Latin, you read Julius Caesar. I really enjoyed the process. And then when I went to high school, I had more choices. I started to learn German and continued with French. In college, I added more because I had more options. That’s when I learned Hindi because I wanted to try something totally different after studying Latin, Greek, French and German. And that was a huge challenge for me. It was much more difficult than the other [languages]even though Hindi is not a complex classical language.
Is there little difference between a writer and a translator in the way they understand and approach language?
I actually think it’s completely different. When you translate, the first drafts are like a chore, it’s like digging a ditch. An author can write this beautiful thing (and yes, it’s hard work) but it can still be like writing off the top of his head. It can be intensely creative, and I know there are creative writers who also feel like they’re dragging on their process. But it’s not the same with translators. The beginning of a translation is like building a wall with bricks or dismantling a brick wall and then rebuilding it. It’s very unglamorous what we have to do and so the creative part comes later.
Here’s a funnier analogy: Lego kits. Say, someone gives you one that’s already been done well, like Hogwarts castle, all built. So the translator has to dismantle everything and build another type of building. It’ll never be exactly the same, will it? You have to do something new. And then the next part of the process is more creative, when you have to make it into something that lives in English. It’s not just technically in English. He reads in English and works in English. And then there’s this kind of interesting process where you have to think about the voice of the original work, the voice of the author and the tone. How would this voice sound if it was in English? Then it’s not just creative, but it’s also kind of like a psychic process, because you’re trying to extract that essence into your own writing, you’re channeling.
Geetanjali Shree, author of Ret Samadhi, speaks perfect English. She could have translated her book. She is not a translator and she does not want to translate, but she would be technically able to do so if she wanted to. So I have to channel this person who already speaks English. But I don’t believe what her Hindi book looks like would sound the same if I just made it sound like she sounds in English because we don’t always speak the same way in different languages. If you translate it into very standard Indian English, you may lose a lot of the simplicity or intimacy of the original language.
For a work of national literature to acquire an international dimension, must the text be studied and interpreted by a translator working outside the cultural context?
I don’t mean you have to be completely outside. But I think you have to be aware. And part of the problem with translating South Asian literature is that there is a huge audience in India for translated literature. The supposed audience – educated and English-speaking – is the one who will read these translations. In India, I feel like I have to struggle with this kind of book translation continuum, like there are degrees of translation. How much will you translate? How far are you going to push it out of this original language? Because Indian readers are really annoyed if you go too far.
The terms of family relations, for example, are a big problem. Because, especially in women’s writing, there are a lot of characters who don’t even have a name. These are all kinship terms. someone is a beti, Have I got, damn, chacha, bhabhi, shouldni, etc. But the problem is that English speakers in India tend to use the kinship terms of their mother tongue when speaking English, right? So you say again, baboo and beti, and that sort of thing, even though you speak almost entirely in English all the time. You don’t say like, my sister’s husband, brother or anything. So people get upset if you take them out. Because they feel like it’s part of English, but it’s too much for people outside India. It’s too heavy a burden for people who don’t know anything about this whole kinship system. So I kind of have to create these illusions that the terms are left in. But I actually deleted most of them. So, for example, in Ret Samadhi, the main characters, none of them have a name. There are beti, mom, etc., and I use these terms as if they were nouns. They might as well be Bob or Sally or Susan.
And that’s what I was trying to achieve – this idea of translating a book. I’ve never heard anyone talk about Russian or Japanese translations that way. Nobody talks about degrees of translation there…. And one thing that makes it really difficult is also that India is so multilingual, people always speak multiple languages at once, even in one sentence, whereas Americans are just extremely monolingual.
You said that there is a very limited market for Indian translations outside of India.
What’s exciting about the shortlist is that Indian translators can kind of see what it took for me to draw attention to an Indian book, like how far I pushed the language . This may make them think about outside audiences, because the fact is that international publishers have simply not taken interest in Indian translations. So everyone I know has tried. We all tried different ways with agents, directly networked, but almost nothing got published outside India. So a lot is happening inside India, and to a lesser extent in Pakistan and Bangladesh. And it doesn’t come out at all and no one wants it. And so it also makes people stop trying, like why bother for an international audience if nobody wants it.
What makes the translation better than the original?
(Laughter) You can’t say that a translation is necessarily better than the original. But there are some things. A lot of publishing practices around the world are pretty sloppy. So even in Japanese… the editors don’t do much. Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese novelist, sends a manuscript to his publishers and they do nothing about it except fix the typos. And he gets mad, because he reads in English and he knows there’s a better way. So his books are published when they are translated into English. And they’re often shorter than 200 pages, even. And he allows this because he enjoys this kind of close editing practice…. The whole English ecosystem believes in a really strong publishing hand. Thus, Murakami’s English translations become the basis for all other translations, whether Serbian, French or Mongolian. Except for Chinese, Chinese go directly from Japanese to Chinese.
So I think that’s a really good example of how translations can be better than the original. And it’s not necessarily a matter of literary merit. It’s better put together; it is a better edited book.
I always find Hindi books full of typos; they have missing pages. It’s a disaster. Geentanjali found a lot of typos in the French translation of his book as it came straight from Hindi. So she had to redo it.
Can you perhaps give us an example of a sentence or passage that took the longest to translate into Ret Samadhi?
It is a passage in which the human brain is compared to a Jalebi. It was so incredibly difficult because it’s written in this fun, airy way. There is a kind of vague way in which the links are established. I can also make it vague. But I have to know what is underlying. And so Geetanjali and I had to go back and forth, again and again and again. We communicated by email. Then I finally realized that if I was successful, it would just be this kind of little witty snippet in the book that people would read and laugh and then carry on. Like, they would never know that was the hardest thing I’ve ever translated.
Will Indian translations expand to find a bigger market with the International Booker nomination?
This is all speculative, but I can only hope that even the shortlist will change this lack of interest and cause editors to reconsider this type of work, because there is so much available. They don’t even have to do anything. They can just call Penguin Random House or HarperCollins and say, “Send me your list and I’ll choose what I want.” It has already been translated and edited. Even if we don’t win the prize, there will be enough interest that we will see more Indian literature coming out in the west after that.
Author: Geetanjali Shree
Translator: daisy rockwell
Pages: 696, Price: Rs699