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Translating India: Retaining cultural moorings from Hindi to English is a challenge

In a new Translating India series, ten noted translators will share their experiences of translating from their respective languages. In the fifth part, author and journalist Poonam Saxena writes about the difficulties she faced while translating Dharamvir Bharati’s iconic Hindi novel Gunahon Ka Devta into English.

books Updated: Feb 13, 2018 17:28 IST
The issues that Dharamvir Bharati tackled in Gunahon Ka Devta – caste, class, love, sex, duty – remain as urgent and relevant even today.
The issues that Dharamvir Bharati tackled in Gunahon Ka Devta – caste, class, love, sex, duty – remain as urgent and relevant even today.

Gunahon Ka Devta was published in 1949 and is widely regarded as one of Hindi literature’s biggest bestsellers. Written by the brilliant Dharamvir Bharati, it is the story of Chander, an intense, idealistic student of Allahabad University, who falls in love with his professor and mentor’s lively young daughter, Sudha.

Bharati, himself a student of the same university, was just 23 when he published the novel. He went on to forge an illustrious career as a novelist, playwright, poet and literary magazine editor. But when he wrote Gunahon Ka Devta, he probably had no idea it would cause a sensation with its passionate story and its delicate but daring probing of taboo topics like sex, desire and love.

I had read the book many years ago and liked it enormously. Then, on a whim, I picked it up again and this time I fell in love with it. I began to understand the novel’s astonishing popularity over more than six decades. Chander and Sudha’s story is so emotionally powerful that you literally feel every stage of their relationship, from their days of innocent, playful banter to their heart-wrenching separation and their fatal downward spiral into self-destruction and tragedy.

‘I tried to remain as faithful as I could to the tone and texture of the novel. I didn’t use “modern” words like “hassled”, I used no slang, I kept all the imagery intact. At the same time, I was constantly aware that the book shouldn’t sound stilted or awkward. I wanted my readers to be as moved by the book as I had been.’

The novel is told from Chander’s point of view and the other characters flit in and out of his life as he grapples with his complex, conflicted feelings. Sudha is his true love but he persuades her to marry the Brahmin boy her father has found for her, because that is the socially correct thing to do. He plunges into an affair with the alluring Pammi in an attempt to get over Sudha but remains tortured by his memories of her. Unable to bear the fact that she is married to another man, he irrationally turns against her, though his cruelty fills him with terrible guilt. He tries to find emotional solace with Sudha’s cousin, the sympathetic Binti, but ends up ruining that relationship too.

This poignant saga plays out in the Allahabad of the 1940s, with its spacious bungalows, flower-filled gardens and the serenity of the Sangam. It was a time when young people read poetry, went for leisurely boat rides in the Ganga and drank cool glasses of sherbet on summer evenings, when the scorching loo had died down. Bharati evokes an aching nostalgia for a gentler, quieter time.

But this wistfulness cannot mask the bitter social reality of that era, when women had virtually no choice over the course of their lives, and when individual happiness had to be sacrificed at the altar of social propriety. Separated from the man she is devoted to, trapped in a loveless marriage with no means of escape, Sudha takes refuge in religion, slowly withering away into a pale shadow of her former playful self. Weighed down by societal rules, Chander cannot bring himself to rebel against his mentor and claim Sudha as his own. His own immaturity and male ego lead to pain and grief for himself – as well as all the women in his life.

As I got sucked into the world of Gunahon Ka Devta, I couldn’t fathom why the book had never been translated into English. I approached Pushpa Bharati, Dharamvir Bharati’s widow (he had died in 1997) and sought permission to translate the book. She very kindly agreed. At that time, I didn’t think too much about how easy or difficult the project was going to be. I just dived in. Maybe that was a good thing – if I had agonised over the decision, I may never have gone ahead, given the iconic stature of the book and the beauty of its language. It is steeped in poetic imagery and metaphors. It has long philosophical passages where Chander battles with his conscience. It has gracefully written but complex paragraphs describing his inner turmoil.

And English just didn’t have the vocabulary or turn of phrase to capture all the nuances. Also, the cultural moorings of the novel are very strong – translating that was a challenge. But as I worked on the manuscript, I remembered the advice of my editor at my publishing house, Penguin: The novel had to read like a novel in English. It had to be a smooth reading experience for the reader while at the same time staying true to the original author.

I tried to remain as faithful as I could to the tone and texture of the novel. I didn’t use “modern” words like “hassled”, I used no slang, I kept all the imagery intact. At the same time, I was constantly aware that the book shouldn’t sound stilted or awkward. More than anything else, I wanted my readers to feel the emotions of the characters as deeply as I had, and to be as moved by the book as I had been.

When the translation finally came out (Chander & Sudha, Penguin Viking), I was delighted to find that despite the book being set in an era that could seem remote for some – particularly younger readers – nevertheless its characters, story and strong emotional core connected with everyone. Readers also instantly connected with the issues that the novel tackled – caste, class, love, sex, duty – issues that remain as urgent and relevant even today.

Poonam Saxena is a journalist and author with several books to her credit, including Karan Johar’s memoir An Unsuitable Boy. The views expressed are personal.

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