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'The Book Makes the Call': Jerry Pinto on the Importance of Translations and Experimental Reading

"When you're translating someone you enter into a relationship with that work that is so intense, that it's almost like a love affair. But for me I think it's kind of like cheating – it's a wild affair that I'm having while I'm married to my own writing."

Kozhikode: When poet and author Jerry Pinto isn’t working on his own creations, he’s a prolific translator. He’s translated books from both Marathi and Hindi into English, and his first Konkani translation is in the pipeline.

At the Kerala Literature Festival, Pinto had come to talk about his translations of Bhakti poet Tukaram’s hymns. The book, Behold! The Word Is God: Hymns of Tukaram, is even more interesting because it carries simultaneous translations by both Pinto and Shanta Gokhale, giving you an insight into the sometimes different, sometimes similar ways two translators may view the same line.

On the sidelines of the festival, Pinto spoke to The Wire about his work as a translator, why he thinks people need to expand their horizons in terms of how they read, and more.

You’ve translated a very wide range of things – poetry, fiction, memoirs. How do you choose the work you translate?

See, I think it’s love, actually. I was the kind of child who, when he was growing up, or even as an adolescent or someone in college, if I read a book that I really liked, I would try and force it on other people. My first experience with that was with Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo. I just told everybody, ‘You should read this book.’ But then it went up and down – my barometer was sometimes very off, like Jonathan Livingston Seagull turned me on tremendously at one point. I kept thinking it was liberational. Then some of the things I tried to force on people I’m still fond of, Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, many things like that. And I always discovered that even when you did get someone to take the book from you, it ended up on a pile of books that they wanted to read, and about six months later they’d return it to you, or you’d claim it back. And they never did [read it].

But there’s still a little bit of that evangelical person stuck in my head, who feels if I read a book and really love it, other the people have the right to read it or should get to read it. It would be so wonderful if they would read it. Having said that, I would really love it if other people translated more, and I could just read the translations. Like Tejaswini Niranjana on Jayant Kaikini is such a good match, it’s a perfect a translator-author match. So I’m so grateful that there is a Tejaswini Niranjana doing Jayant Kaikini’s work. But in other cases I think there’s a terrible shortage of translators. I hope that changes – I’m told that Ashoka [University] for instance has a class in translation. And I think my publisher Speaking Tiger did actually publish one of the books that a young student in Ashoka translated. So I’m hopeful that in 10-15 years, there will be more translators.

Having said that, most translators get sucked into the money-making work, and the money is in non-fiction. And if not non-fiction then actually technical manuals and stuff like that, which is even more soul killing. Literature comes last, and poetry is last to the last. Because first it’s so difficult that it’s almost, very close to, impossible. And second because there’s no market, in any language, for poetry. Poetry requires subsidies of some kind.

So the choice actually is not mine, the book makes the call and begins to live in your head, and you then you decide you must translate it.

Has there been a book or author that you felt was your perfect match?

I like to think that they’ve all been, in that sense. When you’re translating someone you enter into a relationship with that work that is so intense, that it’s almost like a love affair. But for me I think it’s kind of like cheating – it’s a wild affair that I’m having while I’m married to my own writing. I take these sneaky little breaks from what I’m working on to go and do a translation, and enjoy myself tremendously.

There are many aspects of any work that have appealed to me. Like in Malika Amar Shaikh’s work, the blistering honesty of Mala Udhvasta Vhachay – she confesses to cardinal sins, and with complete calmness. You feel when you’re reading it – how much your parents loved you, they made you so secure that you can say anything about yourself and know that it will be forgiven. Whoever her parents were, they did a great job.

Then say with something like Cobalt Blue for instance, it was that peculiar silence that affects middle-class households about matters of sexuality, which I’ve always thought is why we have so many problems with child sexual abuse – because if you’re not allowed to say anything about your genitals or about your sexuality, it’s very difficult to come home and say, ‘Uncle did that’ or ‘Someone did this’. Cobalt Blue had a relatability which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mee Mithaachi Baahuli, the Salt Doll book, was about Bombay in the 1940s and ’50s. When I was a journalist, I had this great fixation with the Bombay dock explosion of 1944. The SS Fort Stikine sails into town, it’s carrying dynamite, cotton, gunpowder and gold bars to pay the soldiers in Bombay. Cotton has such a high internal heat that if you don’t wet it continually, it catches fire on its own accord. So whoever was supposed to wet it went awol, probably went on a bender, the cotton caught fire, the dynamite exploded. The sound was so loud that the seismograph in Shimla recorded it. The 1,400 tonnes of ship jumped in the air and fell across another ship. Lots of Colaba caught fire, it was a big moment in the history of tragedies. In Baluta, Daya Pawar’s book, he records that moment and says my community started running towards the bomb site, because they knew wherever there was a bomb site, there would be salvageable stuff. And in Mee Mithaachi Baahuli, Vandana Mishra is on stage as an actor and hears the sound, but must complete the performance. So it my city being woven in front of me, in the form of reminiscences. She’s very powerful and very exciting.

And of course Swadesh Deepak I have always been fascinated by, for obvious reasons – accounts of psychological disturbance. But most of the reading I have done has been Western; here you may have stories or plays where one character has a mental problem, but they’re silent characters – they make an appearance, they disrupt, and the ‘rational’ rest of the cast talks about them. There was a startling chain of coincidences: I started by doing Em and the Big Hoom [Pinto’s novel about a family in which the mother is struggling with bipolar disorder]. When I started doing conversations, readings, events, they turned into almost encounter groups, people telling stories of their encounters with mental health or family people’s encounters. I didn’t know how to deal with this kind of energy, I’m not a trained mental health professional. So I told a friend, and she said why don’t you tell them to write – it seems to have helped you. So I started doing that. Then one of them said, ‘If I write about it, then what?’ Which is a good enough question, so A Book of Light came to be. It was supposed to be neurodivergent people and carers, but the neurodivergent began to write in and say I’m being triggered, so my therapist said perhaps not. So I said okay, no book is worth a spell or anything like that. So I said to everyone, relax, don’t worry about it, let it be.

So we went on to make it caregivers – and the last caregiver was Sukant Deepak, Swadesh Deepak’s son. In the course of that essay, he mentions Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. So I recorded that in my head, that I will buy this someday. But you just park it, and Bombay is not the best place to get Hindi books. And then I was clearing [artist] Jehangir Sabavala’s archive, with his wife Shirin, and there was the book. I picked it up and was going to ask what it was doing there, when I realised myself – the cover of Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha is a Jehangir Sabavala painting. He had asked permission, and sent a copy and signed it. So I asked Shirin, ‘Can I borrow this?’ And she said sure. I started reading it on the bus home; I missed my stop. Which I have never done. I came back, and I was on Facebook at the time, and on Facebook I got in touch with Sukant Deepak and said, ‘You must translate this book.’ And he said, ‘It’s too personal, I can’t do it.’ I wrote back, ‘Then I will.’ And he wrote back, ‘Delighted.’ And I plunged into that. It was wild, because when Swadesh Deepak is really insane, he uses English, in the mental hospital. English is, he says, the language of liars and lies. But he loves English so much that he’s constantly quoting [authors]. Like W.B. Yeats visits him in the mental hospital, and speaks fluent Hindi. Yeats has learnt Hindi because he has got to speak to Muktibodh, who is also in the same heaven.

The opening chapter is a 30-page chapter, where Swadesh Deepak is making his re-entry into polite society after having been away for seven years of silence, insanity and trying to kill himself and burn himself alive. He’s made his re-entry, and for 30 pages he describes a conversation between Gagan Gill, Nirmal Verma, Vikas Rai, Krishna Sobti – all these people are sitting in a room, that’s the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to read. So it was just such a perfect book. He’s also a teacher, and obviously is a grandstanding teacher who always wore a coat and tie, and is very assured of his good looks. He’s terrifying, at some level. But in a distorted mirror I could see palely Jerry Pinto, teacher…all of it. In some ways we’re always looking for that somewhat distorted reflection of ourselves.

Do you think it affects the process, or changes it dramatically, whether or not you can be in conversation with the author?

The few times that the author has been alive – I’m working on my first Konkani novel now, it’s by Damodar Mauzo. I love the book, I admire deeply his courage to stand up against the Hindutva right wing, and to refuse to apologise for what he has said, which would have been the easy way out. I went and stayed with him, I asked him for a week, I said I’ll come to Goa and read my translation to you. He said okay, but instead of commuting, come and stay with me. So I went and stayed with him. It was lovely, every morning I would read his work to him, he’d be sitting with his Konkani, his wife was also a quiet presence in the corner, she has translated his book into Marathi. It was silky. I’m a very faithful translator, and where unfaithful, I run it by the author.

With Sachin Kundalkar who was also alive, I read the whole book to him. The first two translations I did also, I read them to Shanta Gokhale. Fundamentally we live in a country which is ruthlessly communal. Nobody believes that Jerry Pinto should be translating from Marathi or Hindi. The first question at every reading I do, someone stands up and says do you know enough Marathi to translate. The first time I got asked this question, I got so angry that I said, ‘No I just pushed it into Google Translate, and pulled it out the other side and published it.’ The second time I realised that if my name was Jaideep Pant, this would not have been a question. But I also realised that sometimes it’s coming from a good place, it’s just that they haven’t parsed why they’re asking this question. So then I have an answer, I say, ‘English is my space of dreams, Marathi is my space of pilgrimage.’

Very poetic.

Ya, and everyone likes the poetic and the philosophical. A translator who shall go unnamed once said to me, ‘It’s better if they’re dead.’ But I don’t think so. I really think if the person is alive and you can actually talk to them about what is the working of this book, you really get an insight into it that you wouldn’t get otherwise. I have enjoyed conversations with the writers who are living.

I want to go back to something you said right at the start, and this is no longer about translation, but about your inclination to push people to read the things that you like. I was reminded of something you said last year when you were speaking here. You were talking the importance of creating reading cultures, and how you feel there has been a loss over time. Do you believe this change has been significant, in reading cultures?

Yes and no. No because of the sheer numbers seem to tell us that reading is rising. But I always say parse the numbers. Break them down. Are we talking Malayalam Manorama? Are we talking Competition Success Review? Are we talking self-help, are we talking cook books, if we are, then numbers are rising. And non-fiction. Literature, I think, has not risen significantly or in the same proportion that the others have. There was one year when everyone got excited because young adult reading had come of age, it was going to be the next big thing, everyone wanted a young adult list. I got at least three requests from very people saying, ‘Have you got a young adult book?’ As though one keeps books in little corners. But eventually the young adult myth got blown out of the water, because that year, The Fault in Our Stars had come out. It was about two young kids who had sex. And then they both died of cancer. Young people just loved it, obviously. The big constraint was blown open. The next year there was no Fault in Our Stars. And young adult reading fell. It’s exactly like Harry Potter. Because young people would come up to me and say, ‘Do you have any books like Harry Potter?’ And I would say, ‘No, but there are many other books of many other types.’ ‘No, we want something like Harry Potter.’

…As adults, we’re supposed to move on to the space where literature challenges you, and makes you uncomfortable, and makes you want to have different experiences. But somehow people just don’t grow past Harry Potter. That’s the problem. So in that sense numbers have a certain value, I’m accepting of that. But are we reading with curiosity? I wish people would read with the same enthusiasm that they experiment with new cuisines. So if there’s a new Ethiopian restaurant in town, people will go and try it. But if there’s a new book that has been translated from Dogri, we don’t have the same attitude. I think people who read in one language, not having decolonised their reading list, only read from say British writers, or American writers, are like a man who has a buffet, but eats chicken masala every day. Now the chicken masala is done very well, it’s a little different every day, it’s exciting – but surely you should try the rest of the buffet? And with our generation, or your generation also, you’d read at least three scripts. But how many of those do you actually read in, in a year? So I’m saying spread out, buy a book of Bengali, in Hindi; don’t like it, pass it on to some hapless person as a birthday present.

About 20 years ago I decided to make it a sustained habit, that I would try and read every day in at least two of the three scripts I can read in. I feel that there are so many benefits of it, that you don’t even need to say that your brain is getting sharper, your sense of language is getting more interesting. It just means that you are now listening into another world, as though deewar gir gaya hai and I can now listen to a Lucknowi place, or another one has fallen down and there’s a Goan there, or there there’s a Punjabi. It’s just such a wonderful thing to be doing.

When people say, ‘Oh, there are so few translations available,’ quite frankly two things are in the way. One is that one doesn’t get paid very much for a translation. This I understand, because my publisher for instance is one of my best friends. He would give me money if he could give me money. And he can’t give me money because people will buy in those quantities. So the books will not sell like that. So it is fine. I feel that if we were just a little more experimental in our reading, we would all benefit. There would be more translations.

And the other problem is the way the media deals with it. It’s all about the pornography of money. So only if you have got a huge advance, in millions of dollars, will you make it to the news. Or you get a big prize. The Hindu of all places, for instance, had a headline which read, ‘Jerry Pinto Wins $X’. I was horrified – this was when I won the Windham-Campbell Prize. So because there’s a kind of pornography of money, because we don’t talk about it – it’s the one thing you won’t tell your best friend, your salary – so when we talk about money there’s also something about it. But if that is the only thing, it’s really sad.

If you expect to be read abroad, then you should be reading openly as well. It’s one of those things you have to do as equity. Even in this day and age, it is so difficult to lay your hands on any writing from Africa. I have maybe 20 books from Africa in my library of 7,000. I can name them also – Chinua Achebe, Ngugi, Mezes – but these are finds. We have to be a little more interested in other places.