Nita Kumar is a historian, indologist and anthropologist whose pet research subject is Benares. She spends most of her time there though every now and then she goes on a sabbatical by taking up ‘visiting teaching assignments’. At any given time, she "has two homes". She is currently teaching anthropology at the Brandeis University in the US, from where she gave outlookindia.com an e-mail interview.
Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a teacher since the last almost 30 years. I have always moved between disciplines, my first love being literatures (in English, Hindi, Russian, Bengali, all of which I read), my professional training being History, my attraction being towards Anthropology, my ‘hang-up’, so to speak, Women’s and Gender Studies, and my pastime, creative writing and literary criticism. I have some degrees and some published work in all these fields. I continue to teach and write and am doomed to always do so. But I have also moved from anthropological field work with ‘people’ to more focused activity at a community level. When possible, I work rather intensely in an NGO and neighbourhood school to make education more child-centred, environmentally sensitive, gender-conscious, and anti-authoritarian.
Although Mai is my first published translated book (I translated Eric Segal’s Love Story from English to Russian in 1971-72), I feel as if I have been always translating, between Hindi and English speakers, from India to the West, my informants to my scholarly audience, voices from the past to readers of History, and in some of the opposite directions. So translation feels familiar.
While I was working on ‘mothers’ in Indian history and had just presented a paper on the subject, a colleague mentioned this book to me. I read it in one go and thought, "It’s what I might have written (but is better). I’d love for others to read it." Quite impetuously I wrote to Geetanjali and the plan was made. I knew I was acting on impulse, but had no idea of the labour involved.
Was it a difficult book to translate?
The language and style were very compatible to me, so yes, as far as the work goes, but no, for me and this book.
How much time did you take to translate the book? When did you first start
work on it?
I started in August 1998, paused for many months and did it mostly over June-December 1999, and submitted the final manuscript in April 2000.
I have heard people say disparaging things about translators, bringing in (I
fail to understand why) comparisons with parrots and suchlike ...
I have no idea what parrots do, and suspect that they are accused quite wrongly by humans of imitation. Translators are necessary for the circulation of all knowledge and ideas. A translator who does the work out of choice has obviously felt inspired by what she wants to translate, and then takes it over in a way, forgetting for long stretches of time that it is in fact not ‘hers’ but authored by another. The activity of translating becomes a prepossessing creative act in itself and cannot be reduced to anything else.
How do you come to terms with the necessity of creating something new with
the responsibility of preserving the original?
It’s a huge challenge, a horrible challenge. Often you feel like subverting the original. I suppose your sense of duty or truth or something prevents you; a kind of obligation that comes with the work. How do I do it? It seems I have only been following such rules and obligations all my life!
As you write, how do you make what you write carry the weight of the foreign
culture beneath them? At what point are you able to transmit that culture (evoke
the same feeling in the translation)?
This is such a huge question, which I have just barely touched upon in part 3 of my afterword to Mai. In brief, I would say that I have no formula, nothing I can say neatly in reply. I just feel my way with words, what they suggest, what they insinuate. I am shifting, so to speak, between writer and reader and critic.
How much is actually lost in translation? What do you leave out and how do
you choose what to and what not to convey? How much is gained in translation?
The most important quality of the work is probably lost, that which cannot be pinned down but is elusively effective and touching. I don’t consciously leave out anything, unless it would produce the exact opposite effect to what was intended, and that is something again to ‘feel’, not to rationalize about. What I am saying is surely that a translator must feel a huge confidence as a reader of the work: "I know what it’s all about". Including in the subtle, elusive, intangible effects of the words. She knows what was intended and guesses how it is working. Only such confidence can allow her to translate. What is gained? All that is gained in translation is that many new readers might get to know and even enjoy the work for some of its original qualities.
How do you react to the Amitav Ghosh incident (withdrawal from the
Commonwealth Prize)? Do you think this feeling should have been expressed at
least a few decades ago?
No answer for the present
Don’t you think a number of great Indian writers have not been introduced
to the world because of the unavailability of works in translation?
YES. But why put it in the passive voice; shouldn’t we take the responsibility and do something about it?
Of all the works that you have translated which has been the most
As I said, Mai is my first official translation. But unofficially I translate a lot, most recently Hindustani and Bhojpuri song lyrics into English for a study of ‘love’ in the Indian imagination. The most challenging translation is in ethnography or history, from incoherent speech or relative silence to a communicable portrayal of the speech. I would like to develop in myself those sensitivities that are lost to most modern, educated, self-consciously ‘rational’ people and are educated out of people in the academy: to communicate beyond words, to make gestures and symbols important, to guess and intuit, to be on certain wave lengths with others.
How important is seeing your work being talked about for you? Does it hurt to
see your work going unnoticed?
Yes, it hurts. So it must be very important to have my work be noticed, but I know that it is not as important as for others who then focus single-mindedly on this. I know that I have neglected doing news-worthy or fashionable things for the sake of those things I believed in even when I realized they would not catch anyone’s attention. In ‘doing’ I include ways of writing and interpreting.
How important is winning prizes and getting reviewed to you?
Again, very important. But I do have an ironic stance towards myself when I note this, and to others when I see them consumed by this motivation.
What is the state of translations in India? Is it true that it is not being
taken all that seriously here? I mean shouldn’t more works in other Indian
languages be translated into English?
I know little about statistics but I feel VERY strongly that there should be a huge industry, with all the multilingual people we have, of translating everything possible from other languages (but obviously, most of all, English) to Indian languages and vice versa, and from Indian languages to each other. I am most impressed by this in Europe and I think we could learn their example in this without threat to anything in out culture or nation, but just gain at all levels. You are stressing Indian languages into English, and that is important for us to gain our righteous place in the universal sun. But we should be even more worried about from English and other languages into Indian languages. As a nation we read so little. I know that children have almost nothing to read. Bookstores are empty. No one has a private library. No one discusses books. No one spends on them. All these comments should be see in relation to our size and what we want to be.
Is translation a mechanical act for you or is there a lot of creativity
If it was done mechanically, the translation would probably not be worth reading. The creativity is intangible, but permeates every step of the work.
What has been your experience translating Mai?
I was inside it and almost living it and certainly feeling it.
How much time do you normally take to translate a book?
Since this took a year, I suspect that any book will take at least that long.
How do you go about translating a work? How much help do you seek from the
author of the original?
Step 1: just put impulsively into the other language what you are reading.
Step 2: read your version independently of the original, just as a piece of writing, and make it sound ‘natural’
Step 3: compare with the original to see what has shifted and changed. Compare notes with the author, if possible, re: hints, intentions, and ambiguities. Labour at meanings and implications.
Step 4: incorporate editorial and other comments, include your own-now as editor.
Where are you based now and what keeps you there? Are you working on any
I have been at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, from 1990. Because it is not a teaching centre, I take leave for visiting teaching positions and am in one such now. I do research on India, often Banaras, and the school I work with is also in Banaras, where my husband and daughter live. I have at least two homes at any one time and cannot find a way to lessen that number. Yes, I am about to launch on a new translation project for the summer.
Have you read the other books shortlisted for the Crossword Awards?
Unfortunately not, but I look forward to.
Do you dream of writing a novel of your own?
Indeed, I have written two and am writing a third. ‘Dream’ is therefore inappropriate, though I do wonder about publishing them. I think you are suggesting that creative writing is somehow a higher achievement than scholarship. I used to think that. But for a long time I am strict with the concept of professionalism, and to the extent that I work so hard at my History and Anthropology, which gives me my bread and butter, and do the creative writing in my spare time, I must recognize that the latter is a kind of ‘hobby’ no matter how much I love it. I think if I was to give it the time any serious work deserves, I would indeed be a published novelist. That is, ‘art’ is truly largely labour and dedication. I write novels-and essays and short stories-but I don’t labour at it and am not dedicated to it beyond everything. Which is the important thing and not that it is a ‘dream’.