Women translators: A league of their own
As such, women tell stories, and stories are feminine in ways that are difficult to illustrate. There is a long tradition in the world of women translating women. The recognition conferred upon Tomb of Sand is significant in consolidating this phenomenon even further
It seems like another world now when I look back upon that period in 1997: Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West had come out with an anthology of 50 years of Indian writing and declared that the best writing happened only in English. Heated responses followed, understandably. Starting from Rushdie’s anglicisation and, therefore, his ignorance of what is produced in Indian languages to the absence of good English translations — many writers and scholars weighed in ferociously.
And yet, it feels like a mild response today, considering how offensive Rushdie was. Comparisons between writing in English and writing in “regional” languages were often made and a lamentable lack of good translations held responsible for allowing disproportionate importance to writing in English. Such binaries have ceased to matter, and the tide turned towards writing in Indian languages over the years. Almost 20 years after the event I recounted, a moment of triumph appeared last week when Hindi novel Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand) won the International Booker Prize.
Ret Samadhi is written by a woman and translated from Hindi to English by a woman. This is striking because the history of translation, especially in English, was dominated by men from the 19th to the mid-20th century. These were white men to start with, and later Indians who needed to put their history in order. William Jones’ translations of the Manusrmiti and Abhignanshakuntalam come to mind. So do Charles Wilkins and Nathaniel Halhed. Legal and spiritual texts, and almost entirely Sanskrit works, interested early translators.
The roots of English translation lay in wanting to know and conquer through the rules of the conquered. Occasionally, as was the case with Shakuntala, the endeavour created the beginning of what came to be constructed as “Indian” literature. Jones’ translation of Abhignanshakuntalam called Sakontala or The Fatal Ring in English became popular and authoritative. It appeared in 1789 and a startled Europe opened its eyes to the East and set in motion a circulation of idyllic and pastoral images, severed from their social context. Between Jones and Rushdie’s dismissal in the 1990s lies an uneven history of English translations carried out by Indians and occasionally by non-Indians. And then, there was the translation of Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore himself — an important milestone, even if its making and consequences left many dissatisfied, including Tagore.
After 1947, the ambiguous and controversial position of English did not provide an atmosphere conducive for “original” and translated works in English. The independent State conveyed its first gesture of patronage towards creative writing in English by conferring the Sahitya Akademi award on RK Narayan (1965).
The ground began to shift visibly after the 1990s and a steady rise in the production, reception and circulation of translation has continued since then. We have seen remarkable richness in this archive with writings from Dalit and other marginal groups making interventions in the syllabi and our understanding of the literary and political landscape in India. The demography of what might be seen as “source” material has shifted remarkably and we might be seeing translation as a site of democratic aspirations.
I must return to the occasion that inspired this reflection. Both Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell are known to those interested in Hindi literature and translation. Shree’s former works Mai and Khali Jagah have also been translated by reputed academics such as Nita Kumar and Nivedita Menon, respectively. The delicacy of her style, the thickness of time, the attention to spaces, and especially to the unspoken mark Shree out as a unique writer. So, an English translation of Shree’s work is not by itself a new phenomenon. It’s a different matter that Ret Samadhi has epic dimensions that perhaps the earlier novels did not.
Rockwell is known to us from her translations of Upendranath Ashk’s fiction. A highly respected and sensitive translator, Rockwell says in her introduction to Ashk’s book, “Perhaps a translator should hope that her readers will develop a taste for the author in English so that she can bring out more of the author’s works in translation in the future. My hope, however, is the opposite: That some of these stories will indue a few readers — even just one or two will do — to turn their feet towards a Hindi bookshop one day.” Rockwell’s inwardness with Shree’s prose is a remarkable achievement of Tomb of Sand. As such, women tell stories, and stories are feminine in ways that are difficult to illustrate. Women also translate the stories of other women, and there is a long tradition in the world of women translating women, incidentally a project undertaken at the Ashoka Centre for Translation.
The recognition conferred upon Tomb of Sand is significant in consolidating this phenomenon even further. The women have narrated it, they are the subject of the narration, and they are the translators of the tale. They touch the border every now and then — borders of nations, of language, of experience. The opening lines of both the Hindi original and the English translation of Shree’s novel capture the promise of a saga about a woman.
Ek kahani apne aap ko kahegi, mukammal kahani hogi aur adhoori bhi, jaisa kahanio ka chalan hai. Dilchasp kahani hai, usme sarhad hai aur auratein, jo aati hai, jaati hai, aarampar. Aurat aur sarhad ka sath ho toh khudbakhud kahani ban jati hai. Balki aurat bhar bhi kahani hai. Sugbugi se bhari, phir jo hawa chalti hai usme kahani udti hai.
A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are. This particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please. Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself. Even women on their own are enough.Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass.
Rita Kothari is professor, (English), Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal