To help us forget the physical and cultural storms around us, we have some cause for celebration: Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand), translated by Daisy Rockwell, is in an eye-popping final with translations from Korean, Norwegian, Japanese and Polish novels for the International Booker Prize. At last a selfie with one of our translated books on the international stage is possible — the announcement will be made on May 26. Of course the true test would be if an Indian translator, pummelled by an Indian editor and appearing under an Indian imprint, were to make it to the top of the dhwani pops.
Just before I wrote this, I happened to be reading T.K. Gopalan’s English translation of Emile Littre’s How I Made My Dictionary (Hachette India) in which I stopped at La Fontaine’s reference to “the vast appetites of a maker of conquests.” It seems to me that Indian translators today and their promoters, publishers, have just this: a vast appetite for shaping and providing echoes and approximations of original texts in English, from a few of our many languages. It is as if we as a fraternity have decided to boldly go where only one or two in a previous generation dared to go. Not every translation is top class and some books look better than they read, but a body of work is slowly building into a babel of different kinds of English.
The trouble is in deciding what to publish when resources are limited and the winnings unpredictable but tempting. For instance, last month, a collection of Kannada stories from the early 20th century reached me. The sentiments and predicaments of that time seemed so remote from today's concerns that it was difficult to see how any of them might find an audience except among students of sociology or culture studies. Yet if they were not published, we would be depriving ourselves of a slice of our own history. Similarly, when a publisher receives an 80,000-word script which describes two centuries of the social history of a particular region fictionalised, he knows it deserves to be published but he also knows that it will take a year to sell 300 copies. And then we have a dizzying array of Indian literature to choose from. Translators live off the differences between languages while struggling to eliminate the same. Editors live in the spaces they believe they can close and therefore a degree of supportive manipulation is a given in any text.
For instance, Na Muthuswamy’s Bullocks from the West (Westland) translated by David Shulman and S. Ramakrishnan is brimming with sentences like ‘That was so that the wall would not get soaked in the rain’ (page six) and ‘I don’t have clear memory of it all’ (page nine) which I think an editor might have improved. But then is it right to dull native rhythm?
Every language has rich pickings. Sometimes a good novel makes for a bad translation. At other times, a baldly written memoir’s translation makes it glow as it leads us into another age, turning us away from the gross and lighting up only the good bits like a skilled theatre techie trapping his audience’s eyes with spotlights. The joy and discomfort of living with words! Which brings me back to Rockwell and her use of a term in her translator’s note to Tomb of Sand: dhwani. How does a translator recreate the dhwani of the original text in English? “Dhwani is an echo, a vibration, a resonance,” she writes. “Dhwani could be deliberate and playful, as in double entendre or punning, an accidental mishmash of sameness, or a mystical reverberation. Geetanjali often makes word choices that prioritise dhwani over dictionary meaning. Word play takes on a life of its own in many passages and sometimes even drives the narrative.”
Next to reading translator’s notes something I enjoy is interviews with members of this very special tribe.
Many years ago, I read that Rockwell’s translation of Upendranath Ashk’s stories had taken more than 10 years to find its home with Penguin India.
Here is an account of what she said about the author-translator relationship. “I think about this all the time. Sometimes, when I am feeling down, I think of it as slave and master (where I’m the slave). Sometimes it’s more like heckled, but slightly conniving wife and domineering but gullible husband (the translator is the wife). When I’m feeling grandiose, then I’m a psychic medium channelling the spirit of the author.”
The psychic medium is a description that any translator who has worked on writers long gone will accept with glad recognition. Many of them have described how they felt an invisible presence, a nudge, a benign pressure as they struggled to produce the dhwani of the text they chose — or which chose them.
The writer co-ordinates a translation programme for the TN Textbook & Educational Services Corporation