Anita Gopalan on the Joys of Translation

These references are woven inside the text, sometimes explicitly, sometimes covertly. They pulsate with meaning...

Anita Gopalan, a Bangalore-based translator, received the 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of the Hindi novella Simsim by Geet Chaturvedi. Despite India producing a wealth of literature, Gopalan is only the second Indian to have received this grant. Over email, Poorna Swami asked Gopalan about Hindi literature and translating Chaturvedi.

Poorna Swami (PS): So you have a rather unconventional literary background, and even worked for many years in the banking sector. How did you find your way into translation? What do you enjoy most about it?

Anita Gopalan (AG): Although I don’t have a conventional literary background, I am striking out on a new path that is only natural to me. You see, when I was young I wanted to become a writer. Our house in Pilani was filled with books and I had access to all kinds of texts. At age eleven, I started on unabridged Dickens, by thirteen, it was Bonjour Tristesse and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I had already written a whole book of poems (in Hindi, English, and Marwari). I read my poetry out loud to all our house maids and they were the ones who lovingly listened to it. But something happened that even I can’t fathom—my last poem was about suicide, and that was that. I did not become a writer. Rather, I thrived doing math—Hilbert spaces, isomorphisms—and moved on to banking technology and had a wonderful career in that field.

Years later, I had to cut down on my hectic work schedule due to a health condition and suddenly there was a vacuum. “To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life,” Czesław Miłosz said, and that fit my condition perfectly. I again turned to writing, and Facebook became the medium for me to post my writings and music. Here, I became acquainted with the wonderful writer Geet Chaturvedi. Interestingly, his first work that I read was not poetry or fiction—the genres he is famous for—but a short essay on music. His splendid poetic prose and sharp insights were evident even in that post. I fell in love with his writings. It was his poems that enchanted me most. A couple of years ago, he suddenly asked me to translate them. I was taken aback. I hadn’t translated anything before, but at the same time I was thrilled.

I enjoy everything about translation. There is a phrase in Sanskrit: ‘Parkaya Pravesh’ which means letting your soul enter another body. As a translator, I feel this is a two-way process– first, to let the soul of the poem merge with my soul, so to speak, and then let that merged soul go back into the body of the poem, but in my language. And this is what I enjoy doing. The act of translation has its own beauty and power to reveal the structure of the other. And I feel an authentic translation, passionate and truthful, is a beautiful endeavor—an act of giving.

PS: Your most recent translation project is also Chaturvedi’s: his novel Simsim. What connects you to his work so much?

AG: Geet’s work is exquisite. And it’s challenging. I derive great joy reading and translating his work. An extraordinary writer and only 39 years old, he is one of the most sought after, widely read, imitated, loved (and I guess, hated, too) contemporary Hindi authors.

In 2015, I was into translating his poems and it was sometime then, during one of our translation-related conversations, that he suggested casually that I take a look at Simsim. It caught my fancy, if was literally unputdownable. A beautiful love story in which love isn’t real, it is sometimes a memory, sometimes just imagination, but never a reality. The story revolves around four primary characters—an old man (a migrant from Pakistan), his old wife, a young management graduate, and a chai walla. The derelict library, yellow window, and the girl at the yellow window play the agent provocateurs in the whole story. The characters want to open the world in front of them with the magical ‘Simsim’ (like with the cave door in Scheherazade’s 1001 Arabian Nights) but fail every time. The characters fail, but the writer succeeds in opening a whole big world of human predicament—the world that we see every day but whose presence we are largely unaware of. Simsim portrays the identity crisis, a curse of memory, lust for money, hunger for power.

Geet is a courageous and deceptive writer. His writing offers a two-level reading pleasure. At the outer level, one enjoys the simplicity, lyrical prose, quirky metaphors, texture of emotions, and the language. At a deeper level, one is amazed by the paper-thin characterization of the Indian psyche that goes beyond the obvious to become fine commentary on human sensibilities and human relations. And all this occurs with a subtleness, a calmness. To translate a literary work like Geet’s is to stand in favor of literature and hope, in times when much literature is vapid and sensationalized.

PS: Geet’s work is whimsical and also aware of literary voices beyond its own—Calvino, Borges, and so on. Did these various citations affect how you translated the larger aesthetic of Geet’s work?

AG: You know, Geet and I keep having these numerous delightful conversations mainly because of the literary voices that he generously sprinkles in his work, to discuss and dissect them. During our conversations, in typical Mumbaiya style, he calls me Anita bhai and I call him Geet bhai, and jokingly we call our literary endeavors ‘Do bhai ki dukan’ (a shop run by two brothers), a popular name for shops found in North India, particularly in the Delhi, Haryana, Punjab belt. So to run the ‘Do bhai ki dukaan’, well, I have to work so much harder at my translations!

This is all in good humor. Geet is extremely well-read and insists that reading is a form of Nirvana. The citations are his way of paying tribute to the writers quoted; it is the author’s method of conversing with them. These references are woven inside the text, sometimes explicitly, sometimes covertly. They pulsate with meaning and affect the overall text, its mood and tone. These at times dictate the choice of words, phrases, or constructs.

Simsim is a fine example of Geet being more a Borgesian writer who loves to play with intertexuality. An epigraph at the beginning of every chapter (by some other writer) helps to create the mood of the subsequent text. The text never breaks in rhythm, but it certainly makes a translator’s life difficult. Another example is his poems on cinema that he wrote after watching and meditating on various master filmmakers’ works. When I had to translate one such poem ‘For the films of Wong Kar-wai’, I wasn’t even aware of that filmmaker, and this poem was enmeshed with scenes from his movies. There was no problem understanding the poem, but I decided to watch Wong Kar-wai’s cinema before translating and, sure enough, the joy of reading and the vividness of the translation increased manifold.

So I do extensive groundwork, it could be familiarizing myself with the meaning of, say, a Borges or Buddha quote or the contextual references buried deep in the roots of Indian culture. This is akin to coming to the ‘stithi’ in Yoga, that is, attaining the right physical and mental state before the actual performance of a Yoga pose. I have never muted or circumvented these references in the translation, rather dwelled deeply into them and made this effort explicit and accessible to the reader. At times, it takes hours to get a right word or phrase or construct or tone. But then, I also get to watch plenty of World Cinema: Yasujirō Ozu, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Trần Anh Hùng. I have come to know of various literary voices and revisited and rediscovered Kalidasa and Buddhism. Such texts are, like the Indra’s Pearls, reflections and re-reflections of self through translations. As I mentioned in my PEN/Heim essay, I feel translating works like these expand the experiential space boundaries.

PS: Are there other contemporary Hindi writers whose work you are interested in translating?

AG: There are a few wonderful Hindi writers whose writings are quite interesting. But to be honest, at present, I haven’t given it much thought. I am swamped with a number of projects already. I am translating Geet Chaturvedi. Extensively. The focused study adds a depth that is really exciting, really beautiful. In fact, when I find some time, I’d like to translate Mira Bai in modern context, woman to woman, I feel I know her so well, her passion, pathos and bhakti. And also, something from Kannada. I am very comfortable with Hindi and its dialects, and since I speak a dialect of Kannada and Tamil, I am comfortable enough to translate from these two as well. All languages are beautiful. They have their own idiosyncrasies and delights. I would love to translate as much as possible that excites me.

PS: Hindi literature is said to receive disproportionate attention as compared to literature in other Indian languages. As a translator working with Hindi, do you think this is true? What do you see as the biggest problems around the translation of contemporary Hindi literature?

AG: By ‘disproportionate attention’, I take it you mean, Hindi gets more attention than other Indian languages. Yes, this is the general perception, possibly because it is more widely-spoken than any other Indian language. But I don’t think this is true. There is no yardstick adequate enough to measure the ‘attention,’ a rudimentary method probably would be to consider the Jnanpith award; it is the most prestigious Indian award presented annually to an author for his outstanding contribution towards literature across the Indian languages. No other Indian award covers the width of Indian languages the way it does. If I look at the statistics, since 1965, it has been awarded 57 times, Hindi getting 10 awards, Kannada 8, Bengali 6, and so on. The 14 languages, apart from Hindi, share 47 Jnanpiths. Now, Hindi has 551 million speakers in India compared to Kannada (38 million), a huge difference, but the difference in the number of the awards received is only 2. In this respect, Hindi seems to be funnily underrepresented. Although this is not an appropriate way to look at literature, it certainly helps us to sneak a look at the reality of ‘disproportionate attention.’

At the same time, I agree that the Hindi market is big. The works in other languages always wish to have their translations into Hindi. But, to be honest, it is not as big as the English market. Indian literature written in English gets more attention in India, in the recent past at least, compared to all Indian languages, including Hindi.

Coming to your second question, oh, the problems are plenty and multilayered! One of the biggest problems is absolute lack of support. There are almost no grants to support the translators and the one or two that exist lack awareness and quite possibly steep in bureaucracy. Translation is not a viable career option here. There is also a lack of awareness or general apathy towards translation. It is considered lesser than original writing. In fact, quite a few readers have told me they’d like to see my writings, rather than my translations of someone else’s work. When I received a translation grant for the book Simsim from PEN America, I was surprised that I was just the second Indian translator to receive the grant since its inception.

There is also a problem of acceptance of English translations of Indian works in the West. The English translations published by Indian publishers remain mostly in India. The literature here is admittedly quite different from the usual western notions. As Clare Cavanagh says, “there seems to be a lot of Western European and American notions of poetry and language and politics that don’t match up with Polish or Russian models.” And, you know, I feel the South Asian writers see the world even more differently!

And then there’s also the problem of an utter lack of information about the contemporary Hindi literature for a translator to choose a work for translation. You see, unlike Spanish or Italian, there often isn’t any buzz around great Hindi contemporary works or authors. Hindi writers mostly work in silence and, their works are taken equally silently no matter how good they may be. In such a scenario, it becomes difficult for a translator to select a book for translation—either she has to read vastly to know what would excite her or depend on recommendations or make serious attempts to know which books or writers are making that ‘silent buzz’. Instead, the translator might just play it safe and select a widely-known old classic rather than a hardly-known contemporary work.

PS: Indeed, Anglophone readers’ exposure to Hindi writing is largely limited to older names such as Premchand, Mahadevi Varma, Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Are there any translations of contemporary work that you particularly admire? We’d love a mini reading list!

AG: You have struck a poignant note. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say that along with the Anglophone readers, even the Hindi-speaking readers’ exposure is largely limited to the older names you have mentioned, or the popular writers who have made a name through Bollywood. Contemporary Hindi literature does not get much support from the media, print or electronic. While Hindi newspapers feel proud to talk about the Indian English writers, they hardly publish anything about a good contemporary Hindi book or author. In fact, at the school or even university level most Hindi courses have little contemporary Hindi literature on their syllabi. They still talk about the older names. And, as I said, lack of awareness goes hand in hand with fewer translations of these contemporary works.

This notwithstanding, I have greatly enjoyed and admired the translations of some contemporary Hindi works, both prose and poetry.

I liked Kuldip Singh’s translation of Nirmal Verma’s The Red Tin Roof and his translation of the wonderful Manzoor Ahatesham’s A Dying Banyan. I also enjoyed Jason Grunebaum’s translations of Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol and The Walls of Delhi, Apurva Narain’s translations of the beautiful Kunwar Narain poems No other world, and Mangalesh Dabral’s book of translated poems This number does not exist, a collective effort of 11 translators. I delighted in writer-translator Krishna Baldev Vaid’s translation of Nirmal Verma’s Days of Longing, Rahul Soni’s translations of the lovely Ashok Vajpeyi’s poetry collection, A Name for Every Leaf, and poet-translator Sudeep Sen’s select translations in his book Fractals. I also liked Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Upendranath Ashk’s novel Falling Walls and Gillian Write’s translation of the Shrilal Shukla novel Raag Darbari.

 

Anita Gopalan is a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipient for her translation of Simsim by Geet Chaturvedi. She graduated in Computer Science and Mathematics from BITS Pilani, and worked in Banking Technology sector for over fourteen years in India, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the Middle East. She has translated prose and poetry by Chaturvedi. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming in World Literature Today, Poetry International Rotterdam, Modern Poetry in Translation, Drunken Boat, Mantis, International Poetry Review, Indian Literature and elsewhere. A translator, artist, and trader, Anita now lives in Bangalore, India.

Poorna Swami is a writer and dancer based in Bangalore, India. She is the India Editor-at-Large at Asymptote. Her writing has appeared in Indiana Review, Prelude, The Missing Slate, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Caravan.

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  • Alexander English

    A very enjoyable and incisive interview. Crisp with warm humor. I would like to read more of her works. Can you tell me where I can find her works.

  • Sanjeev Sanyal

    I read with interest this interview. The translator has picturized the state of Hindi Literature and the translation in a realistic manner. The point by point problems she mentions are clear and so true. This may be partly because she is an Indian and more important, she herself resides in India. We have experienced what she speaks here. Keep up the good work, bringing Hindi on to the world literary map.

  • ganesh deshpande

    First rate; this interview. Makes for excellent reading. Translating is so aptly and beautifully described as an act of giving. And it is so much more difficult, but you do that with consummate ease.
    गीत के काम में एक किस्म की बेफ़िक्री है, which is very appealing. And Anita, you are so brilliant even when translating, your brilliance can turn the spotlight away from the original work. You are thorough, and it shows. In your translation-work and your interview. You work is, for people who cannot read and understand it, opening the doors to some very original work in Hindi. No wonder it is titled ‘Simsim’. Geet sure is the ‘wind beneath your wings’, and you are unfurling a storm.