Other Words, Other Worlds… An Interview with Geetanjali Shree, Author of ‘Mai’

 

 

We approached celebrated writer Geetanjali Shree with certain questions in mind:

How is a well-recognized Hindi writer faring in International languages? Do the translations enhance her readership in specific linguistic zones?


 

 

  1. Hindi today is the third most widely spoken language in the world. How does it stand in the literary arena?

 

A: Immediately and impressionistically, Hindi may be the third most widely spoken language in the world, but it is very uneven in literacy and unity. It lacks the kind of united platform that a language like Bangla or Malayalam seems to have. When a language gets something resembling a united front, it is an advantage. It gives the literature of that particular language a powerful stage as well as visibility.

 

I have several friends writing in other Indian languages, and when they go abroad it is heartening to see that the people there know about them; they celebrate them and think the world of them. We crack jokes at each other about this and ask, ‘What’s taking you there?’ And my writer friends say, ‘The Malayali crowd,’ or ‘The Bangla diaspora’. But it almost never happens in Hindi, unless they are literary superstars. The Hindiwallas, here or outside, don’t know their own writers the same way. A lot more is required to bring the Hindi stage together.

 

Another important point is that the Hindi-speaking population may be large, but it is also very dispersed. It is spread across a large area with many different ‘dialects’ feeding into it. The variety makes it a unique language indeed, but communication across them is more dispersed than in the other languages that I have mentioned. No doubt Hindi has wonderfully open borders. It is constantly growing. It is eclectic. But there have been so many other factors which have intervened in ‘modern India’, that there has not been enough of a movement and effort to make it more cogent and together. Thus, even though it is a rich language, it has its disadvantages.

 

 

  1. Since you have been widely translated, what are your feelings as a translated author?

 

A: When I wrote Mai in Hindi, which was my first novel, it was liked and immediately accepted for publication. It was appreciated across the board in a way perhaps none of my subsequent works have been. All my other works have evoked more contrary responses. Some liked them a lot and some say they are difficult and convoluted, (which is perhaps why I liked them more!)—and not straightforward.

 

Within the Hindi world, it was a good beginning. Then, after some years, Mai was translated and published in English. English has another kind of vibrancy and a more dynamic link with the ways of publicity today. Suddenly, I was reviewed, interviewed, and photographed much more than I was earlier. The translation was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award and got the Sahitya Academy Translation Prize. There was quite a bit of hype. But it didn’t sustain for very long. English got busy with itself. But in Hindi, without all that hype and showcasing, it has endured better. It is quieter and seemingly more lackluster, but it is steady.

 

So in Hindi the book was doing well, but in a much more low-profile, spread-out manner.  I had got the sense that English had given it a visibility and a fame which it did not have in Hindi.  However, since then I have revised my opinion. Anglophiles are busy with their own affairs. They are not interested in translations unless they are very hyped. Actually, from English, over a long period, I have not got the same kind of response as I have from Hindi.

In fact it is through Hindi that I have been discovered in India and even abroad.

 

  1. Do you think people abroad are very interested in translating Hindi writing? If so, why?

 

A: I am often invited by Hindi departments, particularly in Europe, and a lot of them are using my writings in their coursework, and some of the works are translated. I have been translated and worked on in many European languages like Russian, Italian, Serbian, English, German, French, Polish, and a Spanish translation is in the pipeline. What is wonderful is that these are not fleeting fancies that make them pick up a book here and another there and then forget it. They take the author seriously enough to want to look at all her work, to have a deeper and meaningful sense of her craft and culture. They want to showcase writers of Hindi and a lot of their works. Of course they all think Mai is the right book to begin with!

 

Why is this happening? Europe has an old tradition of Indian studies. The downside of it is that you are all lumped together in something known as ‘South Asian studies’. But the newer generations have begun to question why there is interest only in bhakti literature and Sanskrit studies. What about contemporary writers and literature today? They are the ones who have taken the initiative, and are promoting and reading contemporary literature. It is not easy because I don’t think they have resources to support this kind of endeavour, but they carry on for sheer love. So, it might be on a smaller scale in one place, but carried out in a better way in another. It is so amazing to see how many different places are interested in contemporary Hindi literature.

 

Of course I also met many students of Hindi who were drawn to it because of Bollywood!

There is also interest in other non-English Indian languages like Tamil and Bangla. It is a whole continent that is interested in these languages, and they try different things according to the resources and expertise available to them. But Hindi is certainly getting attention. Except that they don’t have huge resources and it doesn’t make any of us millionaires!

 

  1. Does that mean works in non-English Indian languages are gaining popularity abroad? How do people abroad react to translated Indian works?

 

A: Popularity? In actual numbers and proportions, there is a very small amount of attention that goes to Indian writers and even less to writers writing in non-English Indian languages. Given that, one can say that I have received a lot more attention than many other Indian writers. It feels good certainly and I am often amazed at how meticulously they work. They care less for the anglophile world and more for other languages, Hindi being a major player there. Is it because they themselves face, vis-à-vis English, some of the same lessened visibility in today’s world, which makes them more interested in non-English writings?

I have travelled a fair bit in connection with my works being taught or translated in other languages. It has been a fun experience; sometimes you are required to be different and sometimes you are discovered to be the same.

Two examples come to my mind. There was a reading organized in Kiel in Germany and a translation of one of my stories was read out. When the story came to its end, someone from the audience burst out, ‘But what is Indian about the story?’ An Indian must fulfill some expectation of writing something Indian, exotic, oriental, what!

 

Another time was in Berlin, where I met my interpreter who was to read out the German translation to the audience and conduct the discussion between them and me. He was youngish, and had recently read my book and we were conversing before the public event. He said, ‘Geetanjali, I want to thank you for writing Mai. After reading it I learnt to respect my mother. I have grown up being impatient with her for being meek, looking like a subordinate, but I could see the other layers from your translation; it made me a more sensitive human being.’

 

This reaction came from what we assumed is a completely different culture from ours. Yes, translation has brought me another world, a lot of connections. I have friends all over the world now.

 

  1. Can you throw some light on the translation process? Do you collaborate with your translators while the translation is on? Do you vet the draft translation before allowing it to be published?

 

A: It has to be different for different languages. It is only in English that I can really see what is being done. I think my attitude has been a mix of detachment and concern.  Detachment is perhaps necessary and it has stopped me from becoming obsessive and worried about where the translation is taking my text.

 

Once I have the basic faith that the translator understands my sensibility, I am reasonably flexible. Given my bias towards my original writing, I am unsure if I am the best judge of the translation. I think somewhere the flavour, tonality and the nuances of the original language must get lost in the target languages, hence I prepare myself for a little disappointment. However, I am also surprised and elated to know that my readers are pleased with the translation.

 

I have worked with Nita Kumar, Nivedita Menon and Rahul Soni, who’ve translated my writings into English. I have known Nivedita for a long time while I got to know the other translators though the process of translation.

 

For the English language translations, we had decided that we would sit together and look at the main draft at least once. With Nita and Nivedita, I sat with them, and with Rahul it was mostly over email.

 

After looking through the draft word-by-word and line-by-line, wherever there was a serious disagreement or misunderstanding, we talked it out. I remember, with Nita, one of the things which was problematic was the ambivalent word ‘hum’. Hum can be ‘me’ and it can be ‘we’. My narrator in Mai is sometimes the girl and sometimes the boy and the girl. So, when I wrote it in Hindi, this ambivalence gave it a body and a character, but defining it each time took away from this resonance and layering. The translator had to make clear choices and we worked on that.

 

With another novel, my translator thought some bits were very obtuse and wondered if it might not work better if we removed them in the English version. But I did not agree. As it happened, Alok Bhalla, who is also your author, had read the novel and had liked precisely those portions. One reader might question your decisions, but others may like them!

 

  1. Are there more hurdles in translating Hindi writing into European languages? How do you go about translating words, phrases, etc., that have a specific Hindi/Indian context, without losing their meaning?

 

A: In other languages too, interestingly, the translations have mostly been done directly from Hindi. We have always had lots of discussions prior to the final translation, and the feel these translators have shown for language, cadence, style, Indian culture, etc., gives me confidence that they are doing a good job. They understand that my work is not at all straightforward or linear and it has a style which plays with language and form. It is not easy, but they are excited by the complexities. A translator in Germany once said to me that no sentence of mine means only what it seems to mean and that was precisely what he liked about my work—which is precisely what some Indian/Hindi writers and readers do not care for!

 

What is noteworthy is that these people are excited by something which is not obvious or accessible. My latest novel Ret Samadhi has also been appreciated by them. In India, people are slowly reading it. But, already from abroad, I have at least two people who are keen to translate it. The person who translated my first novel in French, Annie Montaut, an eminent linguist and translator, said, ‘We will see about the publisher later, I am translating it.’ Another translator, who worked on another novel of mine in French, joked that he took a long time to translate it, and when he started doing it he had a lot of hair which he lost over it. ‘This is what you have done to me. I looked at every dictionary possible and did not find the words there. I don’t know what you do, how you make your words or sentences.’

 

In French and German, translations were done by scholars of Hindi from those lands. We spent a long time with their list of questions. The way they approached my work, their knowledge of Hindi literature and language and the kind of questions they put forth, gave me enough faith in them. Annie and I had already met and she had translated other Hindi authors too. I knew she was very good. And the type of questions—‘I want to know the house of Mai. Can you draw it for me? Can you describe it for me?’—and the conversations we had and the manner they went forward, gave me insight into their meticulous nature and curiosity for details.

 

These translators did not take anything for granted. Not only that, they often used to come to India and had lived here for long periods of time. They lived in the villages, in the hills or in Banaras or Agra and had enough sense of the lives, language and culture of the Hindiland. I could leave it to them, I could feel intuitively comfortable. The rest I could only guess at. But the responses from the audience after their readings also gave me some indication. The audience laughed at points where there was humour, often very subtle, and that was a sure sign the translators had done a good job.

 

  1. You mentioned earlier that Hindi is a dispersed language, and has many dialects feeding into it. How does this affect your style of writing and the translations of your works?

 

A: It is wonderful that translators and people abroad love the play and adventure in my writings and respond to it. But, that is at the level of translations; when it comes to teaching, not all of them would be teaching the most adventurous Hindi. They actually would too easily go into the conventional, maybe Sanskritized Hindi. They will accept the divide between Urdu and Hindi. A lot of us writers here do not accept that divide. My Hindi is very Hindustani. And also quite unconventional. For example: The term shadeed vedana. It is an amalgam of Persianised and Sanskritized Hindi, which conventionally does not stand. But I would take such risks because my language delights in my eclectic moments.

 

I never learnt Hindi conventionally. It may be a disadvantage but it is also an advantage as it freed me. I go my own way; I can as well write shadeed vedana as I might write shadeed ehsas—both could be alien to me. I belong to that eclectic/hybrid/unconventional generation and I put together my own pairings. I am willing to take that risk and if it works it is very good, if it doesn’t, I have learnt a lesson. I know there are others writers like Krishna Baldev Vaid who play with language and turn it upside down. Somewhere he has written langda bahana. I thought he had not realised it, that he translated it literally from the English. But Annie Montaut doubted that. She said, ‘Why do you think he has not registered it? May be he did it deliberately.’ It is a kind of statement. We belong to a time when English, and other tongues too, are a part of us and we are throwing expressions belonging to different languages together. Our languages are crossing each other’s borders. We may not use words like langda bahana in our day-to-day language but Krishna Baldev Vaid wrote it and he is undoubtedly a great writer.

 

 

 

  1. Is it possible to overcome culture-specific or language-specific hurdles when it comes to translation?

 

A: Of course translations have to translate culture and not mere language. We imbibe ways of seeing and expressing from our culture without even knowing it. It comes to us intuitively by virtue of being part of a certain culture.

 

A Russian scholar of Hindi pointed out to me, ‘Aapke kaam me chup ki badi bhumika hai.’ Annie once asked, ‘Raakh ka aapke liye kya matlab hai?’ It was only then, it registered in my mind how indeed these are recurring motifs in my works. Mai is about chup (silence), Khali Jagah too is about chup. But chup and khali are not spaces that are empty with nothing in them. Even our shunya is not khali. Concepts such as chup are not about emptiness, but about spaces pulsating with possibilities. I took it all for granted, but the Russian scholar could see it consciously and clearly from her distance and separate cultural space.

 

In Mai, I have used the sentence, ‘Aankh se raakh jhadi’. In Khali Jagah there is a scene where everything is burnt out and raakh raakh raakh. Raakh is a very evocative word. It is forlorn, lonely, and refers to the precious remains. There are all kinds of evocations, and a good translator has to deal with them. It cannot be translated as dust or dhool.  Maybe ashes works better.

 

The English language tends to be precise while we are expansive and ambiguous. Our sky, for example, stands for infinity, blue, nakedness, shelter and much else, which is poetic and evokes different moods. Perhaps Shakespearean English has parallels but not modern English. Our cultural expressions still revel in roundabout-ness, imprecision and ambivalence, while languages such as English prefer a more exact and concise way.

 

 

  1. If so much of your writing is culture or language-specific, why do you think people from different cultures and countries relate to your writing?

 

A: Isn’t culture also just a way of expressing the same human predicaments and moods and emotions? We look culturally different in appearance but remain similar in our humanity. That is why a novel like Mai, with all its different, very Indian, tastes, scenes, and smells, is touching chords in different cultures.

 

During readings in Germany, France, and Italy, so many from the audience said they recognize Mai in their own society and history and so many women said that they were Mai!

 

The other thing is that we all belong to a contemporary world, which has opened up like never before. There is greater sharing and border-crossing and dialogue today. Winds from one place must always have blown in some way to other places on the globe, but today it is even more so.  Dangers, we all know, are much the same for us all, and surely all this also makes us less of strangers to each other. My novel Khali Jagah deals with a bomb that goes off in a university café and destroys and warps the lives of the survivors and of course the victims. This can happen anywhere and is happening anywhere, in any part of the world.

Culture provides the rituals and materiality and the textures and a philosophy but leading to the same humanities and its follies, devilries  and vulnerabilities

So culture is a route, which may be different in different societies, but the emotions it evokes are common to all and understood by all.

 

Cultural transference actually can make the same recognizable human scene more magical. I work with theatre too and we are often amazed at how magical it becomes when actors from another language and culture render speeches in Hindi. It is almost as if the same effect will not happen when a Hindi actor expresses  in Hindi! I think it is the magic of becoming the ‘other’. This is what cultural transference allows and what translation does— gives oneself to the other so that both are transformed!

 

But will I say translation has a magic that the original does not? Haha, no! Because the original is also a translation of sorts from the language and culture of the inarticulate, inchoate and unborn, to a coherent and fully-formed entity.

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