Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell are two names that have been on top of all conversation starters among book lovers since late March when the Hindi novel by the former, Ret Samadhi, was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in its English translation, Tomb of Sand, done by the latter. In an atmosphere when the language-Nazis are brandishing the often-reviled tongue of north India as the ‘national language’ of a richly multi-lingual country like ours, the subsequent shortlist and the eventual prize, awarded in London on May 26, came as a succour to change the discussion around this misunderstood language that everybody loves to hate, including its native speakers.
In a typically-Indian case of worshipping a product once it is validated from the West, Hindi is back in circulation among the snob-set, not only because of the prestigious award, which is a first for a book in any South Asian language but also because the translator is also a westerner, the American national Daisy Rockwell, who studied Hindi in college only to challenge herself. It’s important to note that the £50,000 prize, given to a book in a foreign language published in English translation in Ireland and UK, is shared equally by the author and translator.
We reached out to Daisy Rockwell for a detailed chat on the prize, her tryst with Hindi and what the future holds for translations in light of the International Booker. Excerpts of the interview:
Even before the announcement of the International Booker Prize, interest had been sparked in English translations of Hindi works. Now that Ret Samadhi/ Tomb of Sand has won the prize, what do you think will be the biggest difference in the way Hindi literature is perceived by publishers, readers both within India and outside, and translators?
Certainly, there is a huge outpouring of interest in translation and non-English literature in India as a result of the prize. I expect to see publishers that were already publishing translations to put more effort into promoting those works. I hope that translation will become a bit more systematic as well. Currently, as far as I know, most translations into English from Indian languages are proposed by the translators themselves. That means that the system is entirely dependent on the individual tastes and inclinations of the translators, while few works are actually commissioned based on the publishers assessing what should be translated and commissioning translations themselves. Outside of India, I hope that editors will start showing more enthusiasm for South Asian translation projects. Neither Geetanjali nor I wish for the world to think that we are the only ones of our kind. South Asia is bursting at the seams with talented non-English language writers and gifted translators that work between all different languages.
You were interested in languages since childhood and kept adding one language after another while going through school and college. By the time you added Hindi to your repertoire, had you been exposed to any type of expression in the language before? How did your acquaintanceship with Hindi develop?
I actually knew nothing about the Hindi language or Indian culture at all when I started learning Hindi. I signed up for an introductory Hindi class in college because I wanted to challenge myself with an unfamiliar language. I found it very difficult from the start because it was so unfamiliar, and of course, American Hindi classes are full of what are known as ‘heritage learners,’ i.e., South Asian Americans, who have previous knowledge of at least some vocabulary and culture, so I was the only one who knew absolutely nothing. But I saw that as an exciting challenge, and I stuck it out to the end of the first year, after which I had the opportunity to visit India for the first time and study for three months at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie. Even though that course too was very difficult for me, by the time I returned to the US I was totally hooked and began taking courses on Indian history and culture as well as language, and eventually went on to do my PhD in Hindi literature at the same university (University of Chicago).
Before translating Ret Samadhi, you had already translated works by modern stalwarts of Hindi literature such as Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni and Krishna Sobti. Could you talk about your experience of translating works of a milieu alien to you? How important it is to be familiar with a culture, tradition, author, for translating a work?
Well, first of all, I did meet Upendranath Ashk, and I also met Krishna Sobti as well. I wrote my PhD thesis about Ashk and spent a year living in Allahabad, during which time he passed away and I continued my research with the help of his son, the late Hindi poet Neelabh, who was pleased with what I had written about his father. My thesis was later published by Katha under the title of Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography. It was Neelabh who urged me to continue to translate his father’s writing. Ashk himself had given me permission to do so before his death.
To say the milieu I have translated is alien to me is inaccurate, considering the fact that I have been spending time in India regularly for over thirty years and have a PhD in Hindi literature. I have for a long time had a particular focus on Partition literature, and I might even dare to say that there are few people that know more than I do about the architecture, geography and zeitgeist of 1947 Lahore.
A translator has to find the meaning of every single word in a text, and that can involve a great deal of research when a work was written long ago, in a very different era. I have translated and read numerous works set during the Partition or shortly before or after 1947, so, for example, the third section of Tomb of Sand, which involves quite a bit of description of that era in Lahore, was the easiest part for me. Interestingly, because of the pandemic, Geetanjali Shree and I, though we emailed a great deal, had never met until a few weeks ago in London, so in that sense, I knew her less well than I had known previous authors I had translated. Bhisham Sahni, of course, I never met, but Tamas is not an especially difficult novel to translate in terms of style and vocabulary.
Have you taken up translations from any other language apart from Hindi? What made you choose Hindi over others to pursue translations in it professionally?
My late advisor in graduate school was the brilliant linguist, Colin P Masica. He once told me that you can either learn one language exceedingly well or many, many languages superficially. He put himself in the latter category, but he felt that I should go with the former model. I did study a bit of Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam, but the only other language I have translated from is Urdu, which, of course, is not all that different from Hindi, except in terms of high register vocabulary and the writing system. But otherwise, I don’t know for sure why I stuck with Hindi — it’s sort of like asking, ‘Why did you stay married to your wife?’ Well, I don’t know, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Are there other Hindi authors on your wish list whose works you would want to translate? You are familiar with Partition writings; how about pre-Partition writings, like those of Munshi Premchand, which were an important aspect of India’s epochal fight against social ills and colonial occupation?
One of the biggest challenges for a translator who chooses his or her own projects is getting copyright permission from the author or heirs of the author. Negotiations are always delicate and complex and it can take a fair bit of research to even figure out who holds the rights. For this reason, I prefer not to discuss my future plans in public. As for Munshi Premchand, his work is no longer under copyright and anyone can publish translations of his writing. There are numerous existing translations of his works, and more surely to come. One of the more irritating aspects of being a scholar and translator of Hindi literature is that Premchand is often the only Hindi author anyone has read or wants to talk about. I am hoping the Tomb of Sand era will usher in more interesting conversations about the richness and diversity of Hindi literature.
Are you now already flooded with requests for translations and how are you dealing with it?
I am currently working on a translation of a novel by Usha Priyamvada and one by Krishna Sobti. I also have another Urdu translation in the works. Am I flooded by requests? You bet I am! Readers, please know that I am not the only Hindi translator in the world. Translation is time-consuming and difficult, so for the most part I will not be able even to consider the many requests that come my way. As to how my life has changed, well I hear that I am to appear on butter billboards across India, and suddenly it is easier to get things published. But I live in a small mountainous state in the US, Vermont, in a village where the International Booker prize is known to a few people and considered mildly interesting. So in many ways, life goes on just as it did.
What would your advice be to Indian translators of Hindi to English who are likely to grow in numbers post-International Booker?
Dear freshly-minted Hindi translators: please tell me if you need any projects to work on, as my cup overfloweth.
Have you attended any literature festivals in India or are likely to in future?
I have attended the Goa Arts and Literature Festival several times, which is great fun. I have already been invited to a few festivals this winter, which I am likely to attend. I look forward to meeting more of my fellow translators when I go and perhaps seeing parts of India I have never visited before.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist, editor and arts consultant. She blogs at archanakhareghose.com)