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How to translate a favourite novel: Poonam Saxena

Because moving from one language to another is challenging, it requires not just translating words but an entire culture

brunch Updated: Apr 18, 2015 13:42 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times
Gunahon Ka Devta,Dharamvir Bharati,Chander and Sudha moving from one language to another is challenging, it requires not just translating words but an entire cultureMany people have asked me: "Why did you translate Gunahon Ka Devta into English (Chander & Sudha)?"

The short answer: Because I loved the novel.

Sometimes you read a book that burrows its way into your heart and then just stays there, refusing to budge. I have long believed that any creative work is ineffective unless it reaches your heart. It becomes truly great if it can also appeal to your mind, your intellect. But without the ‘heart connection,’ no matter how accomplished, it remains sterile.

Gunahon Ka Devta, a tempestuous, moving love story set in Allahabad in the 1940s, written by one of Hindi literature’s most powerful writers, Dharamvir Bharati when he was just 22-23 years old, does both. I was swept away by the story, I empathised with all the characters.

The book also compels you to reflect on the age in which it was written. In a strange way, the dilemmas and conflicts of that time resonate even today. What is the nature of love? Is sex a necessary part of love? Is platonic, idealistic love possible? What happens when love comes in conflict with duty? Should one marry for love or to fulfil social obligations?

The novel tells the story of the brilliant university student Chander and his love for his professor and mentor’s winsome daughter, Sudha. But the social mores of the time ensured that this love could not be expressed or realised.

Chander persuades Sudha to marry the man of her father’s choice, a decision that rocks the very foundations of their lives. Chander is the novel’s ‘gunahon ka devta’ – an idealistic young man who wants to do the high-minded thing, yet ends up giving Sudha pain and grief.

It is a jewel of a novel, glowing with wistful old-world charm, but why was I getting so involved with it?

I soon realised that I was only one among millions. Gunahon Ka Devta is probably the most loved Hindi novel, the biggest bestseller and pretty much everyone I met who had read the book had the same reactions as I did.

But I had never translated a novel from Hindi to English before. However, I was bilingual, comfortable in both languages. So I decided to try – also because I was stunned to discover that Gunahon Ka Devta, in the 66 years since it had been published, had never been translated into English! That seemed like a severe injustice.

I first read the book two or three times, to acquaint myself intimately with it. (Subsequently of course, while translating it, I went through the novel again and again, so much so that today you have to just read out a couple of sentences from the book, and I will be able to place them.) I found that the more I read the book, the clearer it became, the easier to understand.

This was especially important because Gunahon Ka Devta has some complex, ambiguous passages from which you have to gently extract the subtext. And unfortunately, the author was not alive to help in the process. (Dharamvir Bharati died in 1997.)

I eventually settled down to translating two pages every night, leaving out the parts that were particularly difficult. After I’d finished the entire book, I went back to the tricky portions. Once that was done, I went through the entire draft again, reading it at one go to see how it flowed as a novel. Of course the process didn’t end there. The rewriting of certain parts, the polishing etc continued, but the bulk of the work was done.

A few things I learnt along the way:

*You have to be fluent in both languages but you must be more fluent in the language in which you have to translate (in my case, English).

*You have to love or at least like (very much) the book you’re translating. Because then, it ceases to be a chore but becomes a pleasure. I would often crave to get back to the novel; it was something I looked forward to at the end of the day.

* Though it’s a translation, you have to make sure it reads like a novel in English. It cannot sound stilted. That said, translation can be exceptionally difficult because it requires not just translating words but an entire culture. How do you, for example, translate a phrase like ‘Ekadashi ka chand’? You can’t! The original text will always be supreme.

My task was not made any easier by the fact that Dharamvir Bharati’s Hindi is so exquisitely beautiful, English seemed woefully prosaic and inadequate in comparison. I retained the Hindi words in many places to give a ‘feel’ of the time and place of the book, but overall, I tried to remain as truthful as I could to the emotions of the book rather than do a literal, word-by-word translation.

In the end, what gave me the maximum joy was this: sharing a much-loved book with readers who had no access to the original only because they couldn’t read in Hindi.

Translation celebrates differences, while bringing readers together. It fosters understanding, and respect for the works of wonderful writers we would have otherwise remained ignorant about. In this particular case, it also gives us a nostalgic glimpse into another time, another place – another world actually.

Follow @poonamsaxena_ on Twitter

From HT Brunch, April 19
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First Published: Apr 17, 2015 16:41 IST