Scrolling through posts on Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand winning the International Booker on a particular social media platform, I was struck by a comment a user made below a link featuring the news regarding the award of the coveted prize, ‘How strange that she’ll have to share her prize money with the translator!” Contrast this with the genuine intellectual and writerly collaboration and friendship on display between Shree and Daisy Rockwell, her American translator, as we have gotten to know more about them through interviews and public events in the run-up to the final declaration of the Booker, not to mention the warm embrace between the two remarkably creative artists on the announcement of the award during the anxiously awaited ceremony. If the former gesture betrays an unforgivable disregard of the role of the translator and translation as literary labour, the bonhomie between two connected yet independent creators of two remarkable texts, one in Hindi as Ret Samadhi and the other in English as Tomb of Sand, puts on evidence a playful acknowledgement of the politics of translation.
Given of course we are ready to view politics not as a tainted world of misdeeds, murky manoeuvrings, and facile power equations, but as a domain of struggle where what gets seen, heard, read and translated is repeatedly contested and reorganised, as writers, translators and publishers eke out their often diverging and almost always competing claims on what gets to, quite literally, cross the borders. It may seem most inopportune to talk about the politics of translation at this celebratory moment when a first-ever South-Asian novel has won the prestigious award, but I would like to suggest that this is precisely the point at which we should be talking about it, as the uneven and circuitous flows which constitute that politics lay stretched out in the sensorium fixed by the above two eponymous gestures. One which, as is so often the case, invisibilises the translator and the other unabashedly acknowledges the fundamental incompleteness or inadequacy of languages making translation the exemplary mode of non-filial kinship between languages and artists.
To be sure we have come a long way from the colonial translations of the colonised other(s) and their literature(s), but a lot remains to be explored and understood when translation is viewed as fundamentally a political process. Between the uncovering of translation’s complicity in imperialistic projects when viewed as a mode of production of knowledge about the other, by scholars such as Talal Asad, Tejaswini Niranjana, Vincente Rafael, Rita Kothari and others, to contemporary understandings of translation as precisely the salve to overcome the (mis)encounters between the coloniser and the colonised, there are finer networks of commissioning, patronage and active uptake of literary works for translation which must be paid attention to. Emily Apter’s reminder that, “The term ‘translation’ has been compromised by its association with the metaphor of fluid borders.”, should serve as a timely call to leave that facile association for good, and explore the multiple factors which work behind the scenes to ensure that certain works get picked for translation, and how diverse translation practices thrive in particular pockets and for particular ends. In India for example, our access to regional literature(s) is mediated through English, and hence it’s perhaps a good time to critically interrogate this access by asking the question: what gets constituted as regional? In her remarkable work BOMBAY MODERN Arun Kolatkar and bilingual literary culture Anjali Nerlekar points out how translation was an integral element of the milieu of Bombay poetry, such that Indian English, as well as Euro-American poetry, existed side-by-side with translations of Marathi, Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi works into English by Indian writers, featured both as poets as well as translators in the very same editions of numerous little magazines thronging the literary scene in 1960’s Mumbai. Such examples problematise our understanding of a unitary space of region within another unitary space of nation and demonstrate the presence of active interregional exchanges which deeply inflected works created in different Indian languages, including English. As much as we need to overcome our stereotypical sense of regions as self-contained and linguistically homogeneous, we also need to revisit our sense of English as a cosmopolitan mediator. Perhaps this is the right time, with ‘regional’ literature gaining ‘global’ recognition through translations, to ask: Whose regional language(s) (vernacular?)? And, whose English (cosmopolitan?) it is?
The question of ‘whose’ English has been starkly posed in Nigerian writer T Obinkaram Echewa’s remarkably hybrid novel I Saw the Sky Catch Fire. Written in English and from the standpoint of a westernized African native, the novel frequently leaves untranslated proverbs and idioms in Igbo, as they are juxtaposed with the author’s English. The acts of translation within the novel make every attempt to preserve the foreign-ness of Igbo, instead of resorting to translational cannibalism. The same feature is evident in Rockwell’s acknowledgement of the adjacency of Shree’s text instead of lapping it up in an entirely alien idiom. This is in fact one of the primary features which make Tomb of Sand such an exciting read. In so far as politics concerns the distribution of the sensible, a more open acknowledgement of the encounter between source and target language will not only yield greater insights into the materiality of translation and enable us to understand the deep and intimate exchanges between supposedly caste-coloured and religiously or communally inclined regionals and secular-urbane English, but also nuance our understanding of writers, translators and reading publics as active political players. Stories of English as a destination language are yet to be told. Needless to say that this will serve to uncouple and pave the way for critically examining the link between the destinational and the teleological as far as English is concerned. In that regard, an astonishingly reflexive instance of translation is provided by Rajiv Mohabir’s beautiful rendition of Lal Bihari Sharma’s poetry as I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara. Originally published in 1916, and perhaps the only surviving work of indentured labour from the Anglophone Caribbean, Sharma’s poetry is composed in Guyanese Bhojpuri and formally evokes the style of devotional poets of 15th century India. Rajiv, whose own ancestors were taken as indentured labourers in the late nineteenth century to work in Guyana receives and inherits this poetry by very self-consciously pluralising the target language, which takes form at the frontiers, or better in the interstices of Creole, Guyanese Bhojpuri and mainstream English of his academic training. This is translation as inheritance and survival in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term, recalling the meaning of the Hindi term Anuvad as a “telling-in-turn” as against the Latin sense of translation as “transfer” or a “carrying across”. Rajiv Mohabir has followed his translation with an inquiry on the possibilities of a queer or deviant translation. Not only is this an acknowledgement, but also a robust assertion of the politics of translation!
Going back to the point regarding the region made before, an added complication, a delicious one no doubt, is not only the multilingualism but also the multi-logicality of the writers writing in Indian languages. An Amritlal Nagar’s Hindi, shot through with a rich dosage of Awadhi and Lucknowi Zubaan, and a Vijaydan Detha’s creatively transformational retellings of Rajasthani folktales, are too disparate to be viewed as from or originating in a common Hindi, as their translators Christi A Merrill and Sheeba Rakesh will readily attest to. My own attempts at translating Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh have brought me face to face with the impossibility of divorcing his language from his native Marathi, from which his migration to Hindi was a very conscious and motivated decision. Moreover, certain writers are best viewed primarily in the very framework of translation before actual translations of their works into English are even undertaken. A Jayant Kaikini, whose Kannada reverberates with Mumbaiya Hindi, Dakkhani and even Gujarati and has been vigorously and vitally rendered into English by Tejaswini Niranjana is one such example. For another take Premchand who writes the ‘same’ novel in Urdu first as Bazaar-e-Husn, and then in Hindi as Sevasadan. Perhaps it will not be a surprise for the readers to know that the two texts read very differently and bear different political and social constraints, not to say the most glaring constraint induced by the politics of aggressively emerging nationalistic Hindi and a declining-receding Urdu. Not just limited to Indian languages, such multilingualism and multi-logicality extends to ‘foreign’ languages too, best exemplified in my knowledge in the writings of Nirmal Verma whose Hindi reflects the syntactic structure of Czech and other east-European languages! Amongst several other things, such as the impossibility of linearly tracing the (quite literally!) translation from the vernacular to English, this plurality confronts us with a deeply unequal relationship between Indian languages, such that even as translations from certain languages continue to grow and assert their presence in the global circuits of literary translation, most other languages are languishing due to the neglect of publishing houses, marketing networks and a dearth of skilled translators. As Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, and increasingly Marathi and Kannada have caught the imagination of readers in English, languages like Oriya, Pahari, and dialects and languages are spoken in the North-East suffer not only due to the skewed translational flows, but also the state policy which only recognises 22 official languages in this land of bewildering and throbbing linguistic diversity.
As the article has argued, closer attention to the politics of translation (in the many senses outlined above), instead of engendering pessimism will serve to illuminate the processes through which reading and literary cultures take shape and highlight the exclusions they not only give rise to, but also thrive upon. Perhaps this will be the best way in which to receive and make good on the exhilarating sense of achievement we all (albeit we are yet to see any congratulatory messages on the book issued from the high echelons of power) feel with regard to Tomb of Sand and take forward the politics of friendship displayed by its fantastic co-creators.
(Saumya Malviya is a Hindi Poet, Translator and Social Anthropologist currently teaching at Ahmedabad University. Views expressed are personal)