Navdeep Suri, Translator: It’s satisfying translating something from 100 Yrs Ago
The former diplomat talks about his grandfather Nanak Singh being at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919, and about translating his work from the original Punjabi
How does it feel to transition from being a diplomat to your new role as a translator?
The two identities have been moving concurrently for a while. I did my first translation back in 2001-2002 when I was a diplomat in London. That was my paternal grandfather Nanak Singh’s classic Punjabi novel Pavitra Paapi, which I translated as The Watchmaker. After that, I translated another Punjabi novel of his – Adh Khidiya Phul – published in English as A Life Incomplete. In the hustle bustle of diplomacy, I got used to the idea of setting aside a few hours every day to get myself into a kind of discipline to do the translation. Now, after retiring from the Indian Foreign Service, I am more flexible and can devote a lot more time to translation. I hope I can bring out some of his truly important novels to a wider audience.
Are you using this time to interact with fellow translators?
Yes, absolutely! I was at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, and I made it a point to attend Daisy Rockwell’s sessions because she got the International Booker Prize for her translation of Ret Samadhi – Geetanjali Shree’s monumental novel. I picked up some interesting nuances and ideas, and learnt that one does not need to translate every single thing. Some words can be left in the original language if one can give a sense of the context.
Could you recall some examples from your own work where you have done this?
I have tried to do a bit of this with Hymns in Blood, which is a translation of my grandfather’s book Khoon de Sohile, and its sequel A Game of Fire – a translation of Agg di Khed. Let me give you an example. In Punjab, when people go to milk a cow, they use a vessel that is called gadwi in Punjabi. It is a little metal thing with a circular shape. It is a common sight, if you are among people who have cows. The question is: How does one translate gadwi? I could try and give my readers the context but I could not find an equivalent term in English.
It is very satisfying to pick up something written a hundred years ago and then translate it. Unlike Daisy Rockwell and other translators who work with books written by authors who are alive, I do not have the luxury to call up the author and ask, “What did you mean when you were saying this in your book?” I have to figure it out, and try to be as true as possible to the meaning that the author was perhaps trying to convey. At the same time, I have to make sure that the text in its translated form is as readable as the original. I enjoy this challenge.
Unlike other translators who have to deal with the author’s family or estate, you translate your grandfather’s work so perhaps you don’t face the pressures they do.
I guess it works both ways. There is a healthy tribe of cousins in my life. They go over my translations with a fine comb to check where I might have made a mistake, or where I might have departed from the original. At the end of the day, one has to be true to oneself.
To the onlooker, your work as a diplomat and as a translator might seem worlds apart. How do you experience it? Are there skills that you have used in both areas of work?
It is interesting that you say this. In diplomacy, words really matter. Every expression and nuance counts, whether one is delivering a speech or making a statement in writing. The message that one sends out becomes extremely important, so one has to pay close attention to the choice of words. As a diplomat, one also gets used to foreign cultures and languages. I have learnt Arabic and French, and I know that learning new languages wires up the mind to think carefully about how the same thing is communicated differently based on the context. Somewhere, subconsciously, I guess that training I got as a diplomat probably kicks in.
As a diplomat, you were a conduit for the governments you served. As a translator, you are a conduit for the author whose work is translated for readers. Would you agree?
That is a very good point, and it is true. As a diplomat and a translator, one is indeed channeling someone else’s voice. In both cases, it is done through the medium of language.
Before you started translating your grandfather’s work, did you face any trepidation or self-doubt? Did it take you a long time to build the confidence to begin translating?
Yes. I have not been a student of literature. Neither have I studied translation formally. So, when I got down to translating Pavitra Paapi, I was a rank amateur. I got into it primarily because of my mother who used to teach Punjabi language and literature at a college in Amritsar. Her curriculum included my grandfather’s novels. She used to tell me, “Your grandfather was a genius storyteller. If only his books had reached a wider audience! You are the only person in the family whose English is halfway decent; you should take a shot at it.”
I was very self-conscious when I translated Pavitra Paapi. I used to obsess over every line and every word. Maybe that translation was more literal than it would be if I were to translate the book today. With translation, like any other skill, one gets better with time and practice. One also develops confidence. Now, as I am in the process of working on my fifth translation – A Game of Fire – I feel a lot more comfortable and assured about what I want to say.
Speaking of the absence of training, just like you did not study translation formally, your grandfather did not sign up for an MFA in creative writing before he wrote 59 books. Isn’t academic training perhaps a bit over-rated when it comes to creative work? Could you tell us a bit about your grandfather’s story and how he became a writer?
I always marvel at classes that teach people different aspects of creative writing and then think about my grandfather who had little formal education after the fourth grade. He was born in Jhelum district, which is now in Pakistan. He began writing because he had a penchant for verses. He spent his initial years in Peshawar, and his father had a small grocery store. He was only nine or 10 when his father died, so he had to manage the store.
He did not have the luxury to complete his education. He got into bad company, and was drifting until he came under the influence of a granthi at a gurudwara in Peshawar. It was there that his talent for music and poetry flourished. He sang shabads there. At the age of 16, he converted. From a Hindu called Hansraj, he became a Sikh called Nanak Singh.
With the zeal of the new convert, he really devoted himself to studying and understanding the scriptures. When he was about 20, he wrote songs in praise of the Sikh gurus. It became a runaway best seller. When he came from Peshawar to Amritsar, he already had a great reputation as a poet. But it was later in life, when he was imprisoned in Lahore, that he got introduced to Premchand’s novels. Another prisoner had a trunk full of those. While reading them, my grandfather decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life writing books.
He has left behind such an amazing and extensive body of work. Thankfully, Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar has given us a space to set up the Nanak Singh Centre where people can take a look at his manuscripts, early editions of his books, and personal objects.
I have digressed a bit. Let’s come back to the question of academic study. Can creativity be taught? I don’t really know. I think it comes from within. Perhaps it can be polished, and people can be taught how to make their writing more suitable for contemporary readers.
Apart from this public archive, you are also experimenting with other formats. At The Sacred Amritsar festival, you collaborated with the singer-composer Harpreet. He sang excerpts from your grandfather’s poem Khooni Vaisakhi in Punjabi, and you read excerpts from your English translation of the same poem. How was that experience?
Khooni Vaisakhi revolves around the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919. My grandfather was present there, so this book of his stems from a deep personal experience that was also very traumatic. The book was published in Punjabi in 1920, and my English translation was published in 2019 when the centenary of that massacre was being observed. The inspiration for doing a musical rendition came from Sanjoy K Roy at Teamwork Arts.
When we approached Harpreet for this, I was blown away by his initial compositions. I was an ambassador in Abu Dhabi back then, and he sent me those compositions on WhatsApp. I still remember that I got home from work, put on my headphones and started listening. Harpreet is such a talented musician, and we are working towards an album of eight songs based on excerpts from Khooni Vaisakhi. He has finished composing six of those songs.
Which other books of Nanak Singh do you intend to translate?
I want to translate Ik Myan Do Talwaran, the book for which my grandfather won the Sahitya Akademi Award. It revolves around Kartar Singh Sarabha and the Ghadar Party. It is based on extensive research about young nationalists who plotted to overthrow British rule in India.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.