'Translators Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Modifying the Text to Make it Appealing': Hansda Shekhar

Shekhar suggests that a direct translation of Manoj Rupda’s book, 'Kale Adhyay', to 'Dark Chapters', might not have been as effective. He explains that 'I Named My Sister Silence' provides readers with a hint of what to expect in the novel.

Set in violence-ridden Bastar, Manoj Rupda’s I Named My Sister Silence, translated by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, is an elegiac narrative of endemic violence and the numbing aftermath. 

The novel is an embodiment of Walter Benjamin’s statement: “There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of  barbarism.”

I Named My Sister Silence by Manoj Rupda (Author), Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Translator). (Westland Eka, June 19, 2023)

This eminently readable 170-page translation brings the largely absent perspective of violence-hit Adivasis to echo chambers of mainstream English publishing. Written from the point of view of a tribal narrator, who has come back from the city in search for his sister, the story dwells on the intensely familiar, yet an emotionally distant issue for many – the State repression of tribals struggling to save their habitat.

Where does the endgame of growth without heart lead; who benefits from “development;” and who must pay its price? In how many ways? For how long? 

The prologue sets the tone.

“It hurts differently to watch something immense and majestic fall lifelessly to its knees and be taken apart by powers beyond its control.

Like a ship being dismantled … 

Like an elephant being eaten alive by wild dogs.

Like a forest being mined and ravaged by corporates.” 

Phrases like “fallout of capitalistic neo-imperialism in a globalised world” get dismantled, and only a blood-splattered green silence of casual rape and encounter killings reverberates in the reader’s mind. The moral decay of relentless oppression is fleshed out: the glint of metal in pitch-dark jungles, sandbagged barriers, crumbling statues of ‘martyrs,’ decrepit graves of comrades, faded red flags, smell of burnt houses. Images flash – a great ship splintering, the mute eye of an elephant being torn apart by dogs, the silent gaze of a sister, the dead eyes of Adivasis – outlining the contours of violence.

The Adivasi narrator, who had left the forest to pursue studies, later taking up work on a merchant navy ship, comes back to absences. The sole person who had loved and taken care of him when he was little, his stepsister, has joined the naxals. She is nowhere to be found, having “turned herself into the forest.” Suspicious villagers avoid him, telling nothing. The deeper he goes in, the more signs of violence he encounters, witnessing firsthand how unequal violence and silence about it, scars bodies and psyches. Everyone – his school mates, cousins, neighbours, women and girls – is either a martyr and a patriot, or an outlaw to be hunted down.

Ingeniously evil schemes like salwa judum pit brothers, relatives, family members against one another. Coming across his own statue among the ‘martyrs,’ makes him realise that “the government had taken advantage of my own absence of four years, listed me as an SPO and declared me as having been killed by Naxalites. They had also perhaps embezzled the compensation money that was due to my family and dependents.”  

This universe of corporate greed and State control demands ritual sacrifice of the Adivasis’ habitat and way of life. He also comes face to face with his evil mother and witnesses the destitution of tribals in a ‘protected’ camp. 

“Pages after pages would be written about warring parties, but of what use would that be? Who would write about the people who had been ruined while they were still alive? Who would write about those adolescent single mothers who bore the illegitimate scions of men from the paramilitary forces?”

The rootedness and insularity of the ancient forests being mined for ore, contrasts with his ship that’s constantly on the move, ferrying cheap ore for ever-hungry global markets. After a brush with death in the jungle, the narrator leaves for the city and boards the ship again, only to find that market failure means that their ship will be dismantled and sold as scrap.

The people and their forests don’t count, nor does the ship count; only the logic of the market counts. A conversation with the captain of his ship leads the narrator to understand that the violence connecting the mined jungles, the Adivasis stripped of all emotion, and the ship slated to be scrapped is one and the same.

The violence of current times echoes the dark chapters of genocide from every era – the racist lynching of blacks in the US, partition violence, and the manmade cycles of drought and famine in Ethiopia, engendered by reckless eucalypt plantations catering to Western markets.

Literary convictions shine as bright as political ones in this book. Without saying it aloud, the realisation dawns that what happened to the blacks in America and in Ethiopia, and what is happening to the adivasis, is also on its way for all of us.   

After reading the original and the translation, I am struck by the enhanced readability achieved by judicious compression, restructuring of sentences, and cutting out repetitions, while staying in line with authorial intent. Both sensitivity for the source text, and a healthy respect for the capacities and possibilities of the English language are on display. Acting as the author’s active collaborator, Shekhar has taken several aesthetic decisions that yield a taut pace. 

Choosing I Named My Sister Silence for the title (instead of translating ‘Kale Adhyay’), the translator has put the recurring motif of silence in focus. Likewise, the decision of adding a brief prologue, and of giving titles to individual chapters, trains attention on narrative themes.

The narrator’s interior monologue in the longish first chapter of the Hindi text has been compressed to foreground portions depicting the ship’s imminent dismantling in a shipyard. This tactic effectively contextualises the narrator’s memories about the ship, and connects the jungle-focused part I of the book to the ocean-focused part II, imparting a satisfying circularity to the story.

Also read: ‘The Book Makes the Call’: Jerry Pinto on the Importance of Translations and Experimental Reading

Adaptations, cuts, interpolations are a given when translating drama, epic poetry, and songs. However, deviations from text remain a vexatious issue for translators of narrative fiction. In this regard, Shekhar was kind enough to answer my questions on considerations that guided his translation choices.

Please share why you chose to translate this novel.

I chose to translate Kale Adhyay into English for two reasons. First, I was aware of the power of Manoj Rupda’s writing. After reading and thoroughly enjoying his Hindi story, Tower of Silence, I translated it. I became a fan of his from that one story alone.

Second, because of the elephant scene and the character of the sister, Madavi Irma. There’s also a third reason: Kale Adhyay is a tremendous book.

You make the recurring theme of silence the focal point by utilising it for the title. How does it enhance the fundamental meaning of the source text?

One overarching theme of the novel, Kale Adhyay, is “khamoshi” – silence. The literal translation of the title – ‘Dark Chapters’ – perhaps would not have been that effective. I Named My Sister Silence does not just place “khamoshi” – “silence” – at the centre stage, it also gives the reader a hint of what they can expect to find in the novel. Also, I Named My Sister Silence sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

While rambling sentences add narrative emphasis in Hindi, without sounding odd, a good sentence in English needs a defined subject and is often structured differently. Please share how you go about balancing the essential and cutting the superfluous.

If something is superfluous, I get a sense of it right while translating the text. What may not sound rambling in the source language, may very well turn out to be rambling in the target language. So, I go by that instinct of mine which tells me that I should keep one thing while deleting the other.

The Hindi novel uses words like maan, pitaji, behan while you replace these forms of address with Kako, Buba, Yaya. This certainly infuses vitality and makes the translation belong to its milieu. How did this come about?

Kako, Buba, Yaya, etc. are from the Gondi language that the Gond people (also known as Koitur or Koya people) speak. I needed to use Gondi words because I assumed that the people living in a village in the depths of a forest in Bastar would speak their mother tongue. Rozy Gawde, a native Gondi speaker based in Bastar, from the Koitur community gave me these [words] and I cannot thank her enough for her help.

Do you think that the author in you is taking over the translator, when you make editorial decisions on the efficacy of the translated text?

Answer: It certainly does, and I am happy about it. Since I am an author – and a reader, first and foremost – I know what a reader might expect.

What about a translator’s guilt?

Translators should not feel guilty about modifying the translated text to make it more appealing and concise, about playing with the source text and working with it the way they find best. Translators should not feel guilty about not treating the source text with reverence (which, most of the time, is just an undue reverence).

Can you speak a bit on the considerations translators should keep in mind when deviating from the source text? 

[There is] only one consideration: Do not lose the meaning that the original/source text wants to convey.

Based in Delhi, Varsha Tiwary works as an auditor, and translates between Hindi and English. She also writes short stories and essays, which have appeared in The Bombay Literary Magazine, among others.