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Interview: 'Maybe Some Things Are Lost in Translation but So Much Is Found'

Jey Sushil spoke to Daisy Rockwell about her childhood, passion for language, interest in translation and her different works.

Daisy Rockwell was a well-known name in the world of South Asian translators even before she won the International Booker award for Tomb of Sand, the English translation of Gertanjali Shree’s Ret SamadhiBefore Tomb of Sand, she had already translated Hindi authors Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Sobti, Usha Priyamvada from Hindi and Khadija Mastur’s novels from Urdu to English. A PhD in South Asian studies from Chicago University, Daisy has written her thesis on Upendranath Ashk. Her translation of Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There (Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan) won the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione prize. She is now translating Geetanjali Shree’s acclaimed novel Hamara Shehr Us Baras from Hindi and Nisar Aziz Butt’s classic Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir from Urdu. Jey Sushil talked to her about childhood, passion for language, interest in translation and her different works in English. The interview was recorded on zoom in November 2022 and has been lightly edited for style and clarity. 

How was your childhood? 

I am from Western Massachusetts. It’s a mountain region. Small hills not like Himalayas. A lot of artists and writers live here. Big names like Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne and my grandfather Norman Rockwell who was a great painter lived here. My family has a lot of artists on my mother’s side and father’s side. My father was an experimental and conceptual artist. Mother used to draw and write as well. Grandmother also wrote and drew. Both sides of my family have artists. 

Daisy Rockwell.

You come from a family of artists. Your grandfather is an iconic artist. When everyone is into art, how come you got interested in South Asian literature? How did that happen?

Very good question. I don’t know how it happened. It is a long story. As they say sometimes, a big story starts from a seed. My story is like that. When I was in school, I had a friend. She used to come up with several ideas for the gap year before college. One of them was to go to India, learn Hindi and we planned to work in an orphanage in India. My friend never did any of that, but I started private Hindi tuitions. I only learned the Devanagari script. Didn’t go to India. You can say that my friend planted that seed in me. 

You did your PhD in Chicago University in South Asian studies. Did you plan to study Hindi there?

No, not at all. When I went to Chicago, Hindi was not even in my mind. In my freshman year, I was learning Latin, German, French and Greek. At that point of time, I did a political science course of Suzanne Rudolf. Suzanne used to tell us that she goes to India every two/three year with her husband to do research. It sounded very cool. I started thinking about myself. What can I do with Latin. Latin is an ancient language and lot of work has been done. I must pick up some small thing in Latin and sit in the library all the time. The life of a Latin scholar seemed boring to me. At that point, I picked up Hindi again as it fitted my schedule. That’s how Hindi came back to my life.

And it benefitted the Hindi language. It got an amazing translator.

You can say that. It is serendipity, you know. 

You did a translation course with A.K. Ramanujan in Chicago, right?

Yes, I did. He offered other courses as well, but I did the translation one. It was the last semester he taught, I think. He died afterwards.

During your PhD, you translated Upendranath Ashk and later Bhisham Sahni’s classic partition novel Tamas. Your translation of Tamas was the third translation?

Yes. Tamas was translated before. The new translation was offered to me by Penguin. Sahni’s daughter wanted me to translate, and it was 50th year of Tamas so I agreed. Normally, I have a look at the translations because I want to know what has been done. The two translations done before are not good, so I was commissioned a new one. Jai Ratan has done the first English translation. He adds lines and at times flowery language with imagination to the text. At times, paragraphs have been removed.

Afterwards, you took a political decision not to translate male authors. Why was that?

It was during #MeToo. Everyone was talking about #MeToo. I was also thinking about how to translate male gaze into Hindi. Mard ki nazar, mardana nazar or purush ki drishti. I suddenly realised that I have only translated male authors till then. My four translations were all written by male authors. Then I decided that it is time to change. I was sick of the way the male authors ignore female characters. I wrote an essay which is still unpublished.

I gave an example in that essay of a scene in Ashk’s novel In the City a Mirror Wandering (that I translated) towards the end. There is this part where a woman character is beaten. She is lying on the charpai in a mohalla. She is badly injured, in a bloody mess and everybody is arguing about what should be done. This is a caste dispute. People discussing whether to go to the police or not, who is at fault. In the whole sequence, you can’t even tell whether the woman is alive or not. No one is talking about the woman. No one is asking her. They are talking whether to file a police report first or call a doctor. It is a long scene, maybe 40 or 50 pages, but you do not get anything about the woman. She is dead or alive nobody knows. There is no agency given to the character.

Coincidentally, around the same time, I was reading Lammy Sahav in French and the same kind of treatment was given to the women characters. That is upsetting. There is a mother character. Horrible things happen to her. She is lying and dying but the male characters are bothered about other things like whether his identity will be revealed or not. For 200 pages, you do not even hear about this woman. This is the way woman are depicted, where their subjectivity is not important for the male authors.

Then you translated Usha Priyamvada’s novel Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein. It is not as complex as Ret Samadhi aka Tomb of Sand. How was that experience?

It was like a vacation. I translated that novel as a break from Ret Samadhi. It is a small book, and it has simple language. I loved translating that. It felt like holidaying.

You also translate from Urdu…

Yes, I have translated two novels by Khadija Mastur; Aangan is translated as The Women’s Courtyard and Zameen as A Promised Land

So now my question is this: What is the difference you find when translating from Hindi and Urdu? Does it work differently linguistically in terms of grammar or style etc.?

It is different and at many levels. It is the same grammar and everything, but I will tell you what’s different though. Hindi is much more experimental and messy.

I like the word messy….

(laughs) In Hindi, writing is like, “Let’s try everything.” They (the Hindi writers) still feel like they are in this experimental phase. The writing in Hindi as such (the modern standard Khari boli) came into existence in the 1900s. It is still growing like a teenager.

Hindi people will be really upset when they hear this. (Daisy laughs)

Oh well…(Smiles) Urdu is much older. It is much more settled. The basic parameters of how you do things in Urdu is settled and clear. In Urdu, you do not have people messing around with grammar, making new words, taking regional words from Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Sanskrit and other languages. That happens a lot in Hindi. One of my professors gave a great example saying, “Urdu is French, and Hindi is like Spanish.” It means French is limited, there are set rules. French is very clear. Urdu is the same. Spanish is fluid, more style, dialects, covers a vast area and is spread all over. Hindi is like that. 

I am going back to the metaphor of Hindi as a teenager and Urdu as a mature person. 

Yes, and it is not meant as an insult. This should be perceived as a compliment.

Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell
Tomb of Sand
Penguin India, 2022

Let’s go to Ret Samadhi. A lot has been written about the narrative structure, form, and language of the novel. I have read it in Hindi and English both. One of the problems is with the names. In Hindi the name of the one of the characters is Gambhir. Now Gambhir can be a name and also can be used as an adjective. You have used the “Serious Son” instead of Gambhir. And then the other names like Maa, Beti, Bade which are relationships as well.

It is a much bigger problem than Gambhir. Translating from Hindi or Urdu, navigating the kinship terms is not easy. In a family there are several people but if there is a main woman character then she is also a Maa, Bahu, Beti, Devrani, Jethani. So, there are multiple characters. It is not that in English we do not have those, but in English it is not up to that level. Also, in English using the names makes it a bit easier. So while translating, I tried to grab onto something which might not be the name so I kept Maa, Beti and Bade as if they function like a name. But the two sons, Gambhir and Sid, I used the “Serious Son” for Gambhir but when Gambhir goes to Australia, I gave him the other name, “Overseas Son.” If I have given the name Gambhir then in the later part when he moves to Australia, his name changes and that would have been difficult for English audience.

In Krishna Sobti’s novel, a character comes of Majhli which is like middle one. And Geetanjali Shree traces her literary lineage to Krihnaji. The book is dedicated to Krisnha Sobti. You have also translated Krishna Sobti.

Krishna Sobti is a very good example. In Mitro Marjani, the kinship terms are crazy. There are no names. Reading that book, I learned all these kinship terms like Devrani, Jethani. I learned them all from that book.

There is a sentence in Ret Samadhi which runs in two pages without full stops. In English it runs around three and half pages. How did you translate that?

It was extremely difficult. There was no respite. You cannot put down your pen. I used commas in that sentence. In Hindi there are no commas. I took commas as a pause. What also happened was this. After the Booker, Geetanjali was looking at the English version and saw the commas. She got a bit upset. She saw it earlier but didn’t notice. When she noticed the commas, she was upset and wanted the commas out. After a few days, she let it be remain. She wanted to give the feeling of speaking in one breath. I still used the commas.

You do not leave even a sentence in your translation, and it seems that you try not to change anything. At one place, you have changed the metaphor a bit. In Hindi, it is on page 79 and in English it is on page 153. The metaphor is of classical Hindustani music: taking an alaap. In English you used “We can talk ourselves hoarse discussing…..” rather than a musical metaphor.

Well. you should think why the metaphor is there. Metaphors are important in translation. What is it doing here? If I used this alaap metaphor, it would probably distract from the meaning of the sentence because the sentence is complicated. The English reader might not know Muhammad Bin Tuglaq, but they may know Gandhi – both names are used in the sentence – so I have to give them some idea about these people and the relationship. If I introduce this metaphor from the classical music, then it would have been too distracting. So, I tried to imagine the way Geetanjali might have imagined the audience and used “talk yourself hoarse” which gives the meaning because the sentence is not about music. I took the main element of the metaphor rather than taking it literally.

In Hindi, the novel seems difficult at times, for example on the same page, Geetanjali gives us the names Desani and Rushdie but in English you specify G.V. Desani and Rushdie. Now there is long story of form and language between Rushdie and Desani but if only Desani is mentioned, a lot of people might – not informed, literary reader – but common readers might not know him. By giving the full name G.V.Desani, you made the text more accessible because readers can Google the name.

Daisy: When I translate, I think about the audience. Audience is super important. I was trying to imagine a wide range of audience with different kind of knowledge. Imagine a tent where in one corner, there are readers like you. You are like one side of the tent. Another side is a reader like my mother-in-law, who knows nothing about India. So, I am going in the middle, I am imagining all these people in the tent. It will be difficult for the people like you to imagine what is going on in the other side. For example, there is a whole page of Indian food items which readers (like my mother-in-law or American readers) might not have heard of. I have left many Hindi words in the English book so I gave some bits to them so that they can Google and get hold of the book.

The sentence related to dahi is quite popular from the book. People keep asking you about this, so let me repeat it. In Hindi, page 92, in English 179. In Hindi it is, Dimage hue dahi, ghar mein machi chilla chill.There is no rhyme here, but your translation does. It goes: “Their minds turned to curd: hue and cry occurred.” This is clearly a beautiful translation.

People always talk about “lost in translation”. What is missing from the main text? There is an assumption that the main text is perfect, and translation is imperfect. My philosophy is this: maybe some things are lost but so much is found. We discover things as we write or translate. New things pop up and we gain a lot. So, in the spirit of Geetanjali’s writing, I used that ‘curd’ and ‘occurred’. She loved it. It just came up. A translator is like a psychic who is channeling his/her author in some ways. I thought I was channeling her energy. 

There is a word in the Hindi page 153, Bakarkana and Kanabakar. You have used Goatearking and Eargoatking (page 317-318). I tried to find these words in the dictionary but could not.

(laughs) The answer is in the end of the book. What these words mean. When Maa and Beti are in the desert in Pakistan, it is explained. 

I don’t remember it right now.

It takes a while. I read the book at least ten times and it is difficult. When I read it the first time, I could not figure it out. But the meaning is there. I am not going to give a spoiler for the readers. Let them read.

At times in the Hindi version of the novel, it is difficult to find a thread in the narrative. Pages and pages that are in italics and not related to the story. Critics have called it subconscious writing or absurdism. What kind of problems did you have while translating such a text?

I translated it because I had to. I kept doing it. The parts in italics are not related to the main story, very hard to translate. They are like prose poetry, not regular story. I realised it towards the end. I also wondered what is happening. It took me some time. To confused readers, I would say, see those parts as songs in a Bollywood film. Think of those intervals as filmi songs.

So, it is normal that one can feel a bit confused while reading this novel.

Yes, yes. It takes a bit of time to make sense of some things. When I agreed to translate, I had not read it. 

You designed the cover page of the English novel. In the Hindi version, there are designs or little drawings before the chapters, which is not in the English version.

Because in English they didn’t ask me to do those drawings or designs.

The other thing is space. The Hindi version is 300 pages. The English version is 700 pages with space. After each chapter, there is a blank page. That is very helpful in ways, but I would like you to explain a bit more.

This novel is very complex, so I thought that readers should get breathing space between the chapters. You need like a little bit of space while reading this book, a time to digest, take a breath. So, “new chapter, new page” kind of format. The Hindi version felt a bit cramped to me. The Hindi is a bit claustrophobic.

Did the publisher object on the space?

No, they agreed. 

How was the process of translating an author who is alive and who you were in contact with? Also, it has been underlined many times that Geetanjali knows English very well.

I wanted to go to India and meet her. But then COVID-19 happened. I could not go. We kept emailing each other. We never talked on zoom. It was all on email. Hundreds of emails. Some people suggest that these email exchanges should be a book, but I am not convinced. They are so repetitive.

You said in your Booker speech that every book has a story of how it comes into being – about the “matchmaking” made by Arunava Sinha.

Deborah Smith is a translator who translated from Korean to English. She got the first International Booker (translation) for the novel Vegetarian in 2016. It has not come in Hindi yet. Deborah created the publication Tilted Axis Press, which publishes translations from Asia. Deborah was in India, and she was scouting for Indian literature to translate. She had read a translation of Geetanjali’s novel Tirohit. She also got to know about her (Geetanjali’s) new novel and asked Arunava Sinha about who can translate Ret Samadhi. Arunava gave my name. I was in India then, translating Sobti’s novel Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujrat Hindustan. Then we (Arunava and I) met for coffee and discussed it. Afterwards, I went to Rajkamal’s office and bought the book. I read and agreed. Thanks to Arunava, who acted like an old school matchmaker. 

Jey Sushil is an author and translator. His latest book is JNU Anant JNU Katha Ananta