Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell are two names that have been at the top of every talking point among book lovers since late March, when the former’s Hindi novel, Ret Samadhiwas shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in its English translation, sand tomb, made by him. In an atmosphere where language Nazis brandish the oft-vilified North Indian language as the “national language” of a richly multilingual country like ours, the ensuing shortlist and eventual prize, awarded in London on May 26, came as a relief to change the discussion around this misunderstood language that everyone loves to hate, including its native speakers.
In a quintessentially Indian case of worshiping a product once it is validated by the West, Hindi is back in circulation among the snob-set, not only because of the prestigious price, which is a first for a book in any South Asian language, but also because the translator is also a Westerner, US national Daisy Rockwell, who studied Hindi in college to challenge herself. It is important to note that the £50,000 prize, awarded to a book in a foreign language published in English translation in Ireland and the UK, is shared equally between the author and the translator.
We reached out to Daisy Rockwell for a detailed discussion of the award, her Hindi date and what the future holds for translations in light of the International Booker. Excerpts from the interview:
Even before the announcement of the International Booker Prize, there had been interest in English translations of Hindi works. Now that Ret Samadhi / Sand Tomb won the award, what do you think will be the biggest difference in how Hindi literature is perceived by publishers, readers in India and abroad, and translators?
Certainly, there is a huge surge of interest in translation and non-English literature in India as a result of this award. I expect publishers who already publish translations to do more to promote these works. I hope the translation will also become a bit more systematic. Currently, to my knowledge, most translations into English from Indian languages are provided by the translators themselves. This means that the system is entirely dependent on the individual tastes and inclinations of the translators, while little work is actually commissioned based on editors assessing what needs to be translated and commissioning the translations themselves. Outside of India, I hope publishers will start showing more enthusiasm for South Asian translation projects. Neither Geetanjali nor I want the world to think that we are the only ones of our kind. South Asia is full of talented non-English speaking writers and talented translators who work in all languages.
You had an interest in languages since childhood and kept adding one language after another throughout your studies and college. At the time you added Hindi to your repertoire, had you been exposed to any type of expression in the language before? How did your knowledge of Hindi develop?
In fact, I didn’t know anything about Hindi language or Indian culture when I started learning Hindi. I signed up for an introductory Hindi course 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 called “heritage learners”, i.e. say South Asian Americans, who have prior knowledge of at least some vocabulary and culture. , so I was the only one who didn’t know anything. But I saw it as an exciting challenge, and held it until 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. Although this course was also very difficult for me, by the time I returned to the United States, I was totally hooked and started taking courses on Indian history and culture as well as the language, and I finally did 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. Can you tell us about your experience of translating works from a milieu that is foreign to you? What is the importance of knowing a culture, a tradition, an author, to translate a work?
Well, first of all, I met Upendranath Ashk, and I also met Krishna Sobti. I wrote my doctoral thesis on Ashk and spent a year in Allahabad during which time he died and continued my research with the help of his son, the late Hindi poet Neelabh, who was delighted with what I had written about his father. . My thesis was then published by Katha under the title of Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography. It was Neelabh who pushed me to continue translating his father’s writings. Ashk himself had given me permission to do so before his death.
To say that the medium I translated is foreign to me is inaccurate, given the fact that I have been living regularly in India for more than thirty years and that I have a doctorate in Hindi literature. I have long paid particular attention to the literature of the score, and I would even dare to say that few people know more than I do about the architecture, the geography and the spirit of the times of 1947 Lahore.
A translator has to find the meaning of every word in a text, which can involve a lot of research when a work was written a long time ago, in a very different time. I have translated and read many works set during the Partition or shortly before or after 1947, thus, for example, the third section of sand tomb, which involves quite a bit of description of that time in Lahore, was the easy part for me. Interestingly, due to the pandemic, Geetanjali Shree and I, although we exchanged emails a lot, had never met until a few weeks ago in London, so in that sense I knew her less although I had not known the previous authors whom I had translated. Bhisham Sahni, of course, I never met him, but tamas is not a particularly difficult novel to translate in terms of style and vocabulary.
Did you take translations from any other language besides Hindi? What made you choose Hindi over others to do professional translations?
My last adviser at the graduate school was the brilliant linguist, Colin P Masica. He once told me that you can either learn one language extremely well or several languages superficially. He placed himself in the latter category, but he felt that I should choose the older model. I’ve studied Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam a bit, but the only other language I’ve translated from is Urdu, which of course isn’t that different from Hindi except in terms of high vocabulary and writing system. But otherwise, I don’t know for sure why I stuck with Hindi – it’s kind of like asking, “Why did you stay married to your wife?” Well, I don’t know, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
Are there other Hindi authors on your wish list whose works you would like to translate? You are familiar with score notations; what about pre-partition writings, such as those of Munshi Premchand, which were an important aspect of India’s historical struggle against social ills and colonial occupation?
One of the biggest challenges for a translator choosing their own projects is obtaining copyright clearance from the author or the author’s heirs. Negotiations are always tricky and complex and it can take quite a bit of research to even find out who owns the rights. For this reason, I prefer not to discuss my future projects in public. As for Munshi Premchand, his work is no longer under copyright and anyone can publish translations of his writings. There are many translations of his works, and more surely to come. One of the most 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 hope the sand tomb era will usher in more interesting conversations about the richness and diversity of Hindi literature.
Are you ever inundated with translation requests and how do you handle that?
I am currently working on the translation of a novel by Usha Priyamvada and a novel by Krishna Sobti. I also have another Urdu translation in the works. Am I overwhelmed with requests? You bet I am! Readers, know that I am not the only Hindi translator in the world. Translation is time consuming and difficult, so for the most part I won’t even be able to accommodate the many requests that will come my way. As for how my life has changed, well, I hear I’m going to appear on buttery billboards across India, and suddenly it’s easier to post things. But I live in a small mountainous state in the United States, Vermont, in a village where the International Booker Prize is known to a few people and considered moderately interesting. So in many ways, life goes on as before.
What advice would you give to Indian Hindi to English translators whose numbers are likely to increase after International Booker?
Dear newly hired Hindi translators, please let me know if you need any projects to work on as my cup is overflowing.
Have you attended any literature festivals in India or are you likely to do so in the 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 maybe seeing parts of India that I have never visited before.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist, editor and arts consultant. She blogs at archanakhareghose.com)