An interview I did for Scroll:
‘I was tired of translating detailed descriptions of male desire and women’s breasts.’
Daisy Rockwell is the translator of Hats and Doctors, a collection of short stories by the Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk, as well as of Ashk’s famous novel, Girti Diwarein, titled Falling Walls in English. Her 2004 book, Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography, is an exemplary work of literary biography, locating Ashk and his writing within the history of Hindi language and literature. An American, Rockwell is also an artist – her grandfather was the legendary painter (and author and illustrator) Norman Rockwell – and has written a novel titled Taste. She spoke to me about how she got into Hindi and translation, why Hindi literature might be more difficult to translate than Urdu, and where translations stand in the larger scheme of publishing. Excerpts from the interview, as published in Scroll.in:
You’re one of Hindi literature’s most devoted, thorough translators into English. How did you happen to set out on this path?
That’s very kind of you to say. I started off being interested in translation in graduate school, when I began my doctorate in South Asian studies. Before studying Hindi, I had studied Latin for many years, as well as French, and some German and ancient Greek. Classical languages really teach you to break down language into microscopic bits, and that is how I first started translating, although not with the purpose of publication.
My advisor in graduate school at the University of Chicago encouraged me, and I also had the great good fortune to take a translation seminar with AK Ramanujan, perhaps the best known and most talented translator from South Asian languages. My subsequent experiences in academia discouraged me from pursuing translation, as it is not currently considered an academically rigorous form of scholarship, at least not in the US. It was not until I turned my back on academia altogether that I returned to translation.
Many of us in India, growing up in a multilingual society, take it for granted that we move constantly between languages. For most bilingual or trilingual Indians, their relationship to different languages may not be something they actively consider very often. Do you think your relationship to Hindi is qualitatively different from that of a native speaker because you acquired the language as an adult? And does your (perhaps) more self-conscious relationship with Hindi aid your life as a translator, or make it harder?
My relationship to Hindi is absolutely different from that of a native speaker. I am an apt language learner, but I did not start learning Hindi until I was 19. By then, as studies have shown, your brain is less capable of soaking in new languages. It took me a long time to be able to read or speak Hindi with any fluency, and even now I make ridiculous mistakes and find some idiomatic phrases and words impenetrable.
There is a fluidity to the South Asian language-scape that is wholly lacking in the United States, which is, despite the diverse population, ferociously monolingual. Code-switching, the practice of sliding effortlessly from one language to the next, or mixed idioms, like Hinglish, are practically non-existent in the US, outside of immigrant communities. I find it very hard to switch back and forth mid-stream between Hindi and English.
I do think all of this difficulty makes me extremely attentive to linguistic details and nuances. Hindi and English do not flow into each other in my mind, the way they might for a bilingual person, and when I am translating from Hindi into English, I’m carrying every word and phrase to a completely different territory.
Like many well-known translators – William Weaver with Umberto Eco or Italo Calvino, or Constance Garnett with Fyodor Dostoevsky or Anton Chekhov – you have built up an association with the work of a particular writer. Why were you drawn to Upendranath Ashk?
I started reading Ashk in graduate school and I was drawn to his attention to detail and his focus on literary production. His work is full of poetry and quotations, and is a great meditation on what it means to be a creative person.
But I actually have five book translations in the translation/publication pipeline right now, and only one is by Ashk, the second of his Falling Walls (Girti Divarein) series. That volume, In the City, a Mirror Wandering (Shahar Mein Ghoomta Aina), was due out from Penguin RandomHouse last summer, but is held up over a copyright problem. Then I have two novels by the Urdu author Khadija Mastur coming out from PRH: The Women’s Courtyard (Aangan) will be published in September of this year, and Zameen, which I am working on right now, will come out next year. Both of these are Partition-related novels. I’ve also just finished Krishna Sobti’s latest novel, Gujarat, Pakistan se Gujarat, Hindustan, and that will be published early next year. Last, but not least, I have just agreed to translate Geetanjali Shree’s new novel, Ret Samadhi. Publisher, TBA.
Although I consider Ashk my first love, I am on a bit of a hiatus from him at the moment for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I decided two years ago that I wanted to focus on translating women authors. I realised suddenly that I’d only been translating men (Ashk, Bhisham Sahni, and Shrilal Shukla), and I felt fed up with the male gaze. It’s a bit of a Twitter truism to say this, but there are many interesting stories being told by women, and I was tired of translating detailed descriptions of male desire and women’s breasts. All of my most recent translations, therefore, are of works by women, and the stories really are much more diverse.
Tim Parks once wrote: “The translator should do his job and then disappear. The great, charismatic, creative writer wants to be all over the globe. And the last thing he wants to accept is that the majority of his readers are not really reading him. His readers feel the same. They want intimate contact with true greatness.” Do you think the role of translator requires this invisibility?
It is ironic that Tim Parks wrote that since, although he is a translator, he refuses to disappear, and is always popping up with unnecessarily nasty critiques of other translators, particularly women who are getting more attention than him, such as Ann Goldstein (Elena Ferrante’s translator), and Deborah Smith (the Man Booker award-winning translator of the Korean novel The Vegetarian).
Of course translators must disappear. Despite the very strenuous and granular work required in translation, in the end, the translator’s work generally billows like a diaphanous curtain across the work, and the reader doesn’t notice the translation at all, unless he or she is a translator too, in which case he or she notices all the details, both good and bad.
I think the nicest analogy I have seen is a comparison with classical music. A translator is like a musician, and the original author is the composer. There are an infinite number of ways to play Vivaldi on the violin, or Bhairav raga on the sitar. There are also a lot of ways to mess them both up horrendously so that the audience members clap their hands over their ears and run out of the room. When we say a translation is unsuccessful, it is because the translator has not been able to perform the underlying text in the target language in a felicitous manner so that it could be enjoyed by the new readers as much as it was in the original.
And yet, given the unequal power differential between English and other languages, certainly any Indian language, being translated into English is such a writer’s only route to world fame: eg, the recent case of Ghachar Ghochar, which has put Vivek Shanbhag on the global literary map. You’ve not only been Ashk’s translator but his biographer: your book on him is a stellar literary biography of a modern Indian writer, it really deserves a new edition! But even setting aside the biography, do you see yourself as Ashk’s representative in the English-speaking world? Does that feel onerous?
I don’t see it as onerous, I see it as a stroke of luck. Every time I get permission to translate something, and believe me, that is not as easy as it sounds, I feel tremendously grateful that I have been allowed to render that work into English. English is the power language and the link language, so much so that readers and publishers often show little interest in works translated from other languages. In fact, I have never published a book-length translation in the United States because there is simply no interest. Perhaps Ghachar Ghochar will change that, but it’s a heavy lift for one small book.
Thus, I feel that translation from non-European languages into English is a way to challenge that hegemony and remind English readers that there are other ways of expressing and thinking in the world. As far as fame and glory for the original author goes, Hindi publishing, for one, probably is much more lucrative than English publishing in India, at least in terms of raw book sales. A Hindi writer can expect a much larger reading public than many an Indian English writer, unless they make it into the global publishing market. So I don’t think Hindi authors are really feeling under-appreciated or read in that sense. Maybe they are not being invited to fancy lit fests, but fancy lit fests are really quite a hollow marker of fame compared to a robust and enthusiastic readership.
Are you more invested in the degree to which your translation is faithful to the original text, or in the degree of ease with which readers in English will be able to enter it?
I wouldn’t commit to one or the other. My translations go through phases: each book will go through a minimum of five drafts before it hits the editor’s desk. The first draft focuses on accuracy; the fifth draft focuses on English readability. The ones in between are on a continuum between these two. My copy editors will tell you that I continue to aggressively revise the text all the way until it departs for the printer.
What do you do about dialect, or idiomatic phrases? Do you try to produce an equivalent in English? This can be a difficult thing to do... I remember in Falling Walls, you have Chetan calling his Bhai Sahib, Ramanand, the Old Codger. The nickname is remarked upon at some length, but we do not learn the original term in Hindi.
Some aspects of dialect and idiom just cannot be translated, and if they were kept in the original language in the translation, it would not be a translation anymore. There is a school of translation in India which feels that smoothing these elements out is doing violence to the original text and that translating it into English at all is doing violence really, because of the hegemony discussed above. However, if one has committed to rendering a text in English, one must bite the bullet and figure out how to get it done. If a nickname or something is particularly hilarious, I might keep it in Hindi. It’s really a case-by-case basis for me. In the case you are talking about, the nickname was baṛhaū, which is a) not that funny by contemporary Hindi standards, and b) difficult and unattractive to render in the Roman script, thus I chose to come up with something a bit old fashioned in English.
Now the big problem for a translator from Hindi and Urdu into English is that one is bound to have many readers who not only know at least a passing amount of said languages, but may actually be fully fluent in them, and literate too. Why are they reading the English? Often it’s just their habit to read in English, but they are also the most critical readers of translations, and complain of translators “over-translating”, having a preference for being able to “feel the Hindi” through the English. I have seen many reviewers say such things about translations from Hindi and Urdu (not of my books, but of others), and I must say, if they are so eager to “feel the Hindi”, they really ought to take the trouble to purchase the Hindi original, since they don’t need an English translation.
As someone who is also a writer of fiction, how would you describe the difference between the work of writing and that of translation? Does translating ever create a temptation to rewrite?
Translation is a form of creative writing, it’s just creative writing within very strict parameters. Robert Frost once said that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Non-translation writing for me is like tennis with the net down as well. You can do anything, but do you want to?
Are there books you’ve read, especially before you became a translator, that you never considered as works in translation? Do you see them differently now?
I’ve always been very conscious of language and started studying Latin when I was eleven or twelve, so I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t conscious of the way translated language stretches English into new and interesting shapes.
Conversely, are there books you’ve read that you think would be untranslatable? Kazuo Ishiguro once castigated his fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult to translate. Does this idea of developing a style for its translatability – leanness, simplicity – make any sense to you?
Translatability I think is really the fluke of the individual writer’s style. I know that Murakami works closely with his translators and often prefers the English editions of his books to be the authoritative ones. Hindi writers are generally speaking all about regional specificity and inhabiting their linguistic sphere fully. Hindi literature was mostly born and developed as a nationalist impulse, somewhat like modern Hebrew, and I think that Hindi authors still feel that they are forging a new idiom and a new literature. This makes Hindi extremely difficult to translate at times. Certainly way more difficult than Urdu prose, which does not have the same “newness” chip on its shoulder. Hindi writing is still in a state of efflorescence and contestation. Krishna Sobti, for example, is extremely difficult to translate – she almost has her own idiolect – and I have just started to work on Geetanjali Shree, who is also very challenging.
Do you think there needs to be a different kind of translation for readers who are familiar with the cultural context of a work – Indians reading in English – than there is for foreign readers who have never encountered a basti or a chulha or a hakim? Are Indian publishers becoming more comfortable with and cognisant of this need?
I would say yes, and covered some of this above, as in the case of the readers who actually know Hindi but do not read in it. However, since publishers outside of India do not currently have any interest in South Asian literature in translation, I feel that we translators must attempt to create texts that can be all things to all people. I do keep many Indian words in the text, but I also tend to give a cursory gloss for terms that a non-Indian reader wouldn’t get. I don’t like having glossaries, and I do think in a long book, readers can learn certain terms from context. The trick is not to overdo it so that the non-Indian readers get overwhelmed and put the book down.
Similarly, one should not under-do it because then the Indian readers will get annoyed. One rule of thumb I use is I ask myself: “Is this word used very often in Indian English?” “Did this word make it into Hobson Jobson?” If the answer is yes, I will keep it. I might also put in a word to give the reader a hint, like “crunchy chiuda”, but never naan bread or chai tea.
Kinship terms are hands down the most difficult aspect of translation into English from South Asian languages in my opinion. Women’s writing contains way more of these terms than men’s writing, simply because there is more action inside the house than outside, generally. With these I try my best to come up with English equivalents, but also include some original terms so I won’t be accused of over-translation. The problem with the kinship terms of course, is not only are they very elaborate, but they are all context-centric, so one person’s devar is another person’s bhai sahib, is another’s chacha ji, etc. In Falling Walls, I called Chetan’s elder brother Bhai Sahib and used as I would a name, because I simply couldn’t imagine him without that title, and he was an important character. I called the mother Ma because this is perfectly understandable in English, but I didn’t call Bhai Sahib’s wife Bhabhi, because he also gives her real name, and it would get confusing with all the bhabhis in the house.
This interview continues. To read the whole thing, please go to it on the Scroll site, 13 May 2018.