English Posts

Agni Sreedhar’s “The Gangster’s Gita”

The Gangster’s Gita by Agni Sreedhar is a slim book. It is a conversation between a hit man and his victim. They are waiting for the appointed time of the killing which will be indicated by the hit man’s boss. While biding their time the two men start conversing. The “victim” is a hit man too. So call this conversation a kind of swapping professional notes or just sharing thoughts as the end draws near. Even so the calm and composed manner in which it is narrated, even by making allowances for the written word, the last few pages come as a jolt. At times it feels as if it is two men merely chatting across the lawns of the farmhouse where the hostage has been spirited away and not that the victim is standing on the balcony of a locked room looking down upon the hit man who is sweating it out doing his daily routine of exercises. For inexplicable reasons they start conversing, knowing full well that their breaking their profession’s codes of conduct. It is not advisable to become too familiar with each other in this nasty business.

Set in the Bangalore underworld of the ‘90s, The Gangster’s Gita—published in Kannada as Edegarike is set to become an instant cult classic in English. The writer is an ex-gangster, Agni Sreedhar, who also won the Sahitya Akademi award for his memoir — My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. His column in a Kannada paper was called “Editorial from Behind Bars” which he wrote while incarcerated in Bellary jail. Apparently in the literary circles of Karnataka it was well known that before Agni Sreedhar strayed into a world of crime, he was a voracious reader and deeply influenced by Albert Camus and Carlos Castaneda. Once he famously asked a friend to get him Camus’ The Outsider to re-read in jail.

It is impossible to share the gist of the freewheeling conversation between the two men except to say that this book is worth reading. Also it is hard to distinguish how much of this is fiction and how much the truth. An extraordinary book. It is a book that will travel well overseas too as a fine example of World Literature. It exists. Read it. Mull over it. You will not regret it.

9 Dec 2019

On Gael Faye’s “Small Country”

I read Gael Faye’s extraordinary Small Country earlier this year. It left a powerful impact upon me and months later, after much other reading, I still cannot forget this slim book. At the time I had written to the brilliant translator, Sarah Ardizzone. Unfortunately Sarah is convalescing and is unable to reply to the questions at the moment. But she did manage to reply to the email I sent upon reading Small Country. This is what she wrote:

” Dear Jaya, What an amazing e-mail!
Thank you for your extraordinarily heartfelt response to
Small Country.
I’d be delighted to answer your questions once I’m back.

So while I wish Sarah a speedy recovery I thought it best to post on my blog edited excerpts of the email lest I forget that this was one of the fascinating books I read in 2019.

****

Dear Sarah, 

I simply had to write to you after reading Small Country. What an extraordinary book! I marvel at your translation abilities. A lot must have been called upon you to invest in this translation. To delve into another languages, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but you have done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading. 

Gael Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text. 

In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gael Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always  speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gael Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gael Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide ? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? Then I wondered how on earth did you translate it, Sarah? This is not an easy passage to translate and the kind of engagement that is required of you will, I suspect, forever haunt you, Sarah. 

The fluidity of the prose is breathtaking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening, Sarah. It is ever more real for us in the subcontinent as these are many of the incidents occuring here too. The video clips showing lynching of innocent people has resulted in WhatsApp changing its global policy of forwards. So instead of being able to forward messages to 250 people at a time there is a restriction — now messages can be forwarded to only 5 people at a time. Anyway, I digress.
The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve.  But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her neices and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. While I have a zillion questions for Gael on why this book? How did he come to write it? How did he choose the point of view? Why a boy-narrator? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement? Although this book has been launched as a debut novel the title refers to a song he wrote. When he is intentionally blurring the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why does he choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt. 

While there are many questions to be asked of Gael Faye, I could not help but marvel at your professionalism too, Sarah. What extraordinary reserves of inner strength it must have required to translate this slim novel. In fact its slimness belies the powerful storytelling and the pure, senseless, mad hatred man has for man. Sadly this is seen everywhere now in the world. I truly am amazed at how you stayed with this book and translated it, Sarah. Some of the questions that I wanted to pose to you while reading the book were:

  1. How and why did you select this book to translate? 
  2. How long did it take to translate Small Country
  3. When you translate a book such as Small Country do you only focus on the text or do you also have to read around to ensure you have captured the nuances?
  4. Did you keep Gael Faye in the loop at every step of the translation? When do you begin your conversations with the author regarding your translations?
  5. What is the nature of these conversations? What are the topics that are discussed most often while translating a book? Were there some exceptional insights to the writing and translation process for Small Country
  6. Would you know if subsequent translations of this book in other languages rely upon the English translation or do they read the text in French? Have you had conversations with translators of other languages of this book? 
  7. What is it that you seek in a good translation? 
  8. How do you choose the books you wish to translate? 
  9. How did you become a professional translator? 
  10. Which are the translated texts that you would consider your gold standard in translation? Who are the translators you admire? Do you think the “rules” of translations change over time?  

While reading Small Country, I was reminded of Fiston Mwanza Majila’s Tram 83 which I reviewed some years ago ( after which the rights to it were bought and an Indian edition was published). His performances at various book events involved a lot of music — fascinating performance poetry. 

One day I hope we can meet in person, Sarah. 
With warmest wishes,
JAYA

8 November 2019

Edoardo Albinati’s “The Catholic School”

My review of Edoardo Albinati’s award-winning novel The Catholic School was published in The Hindu Literary Review on Sunday, 3 Nov 2019. It was publishing in the online edition on Saturday, 2 Nov 2019. Here is the link. Given the sudden space crunch, the published version of the review had to be shortened considerably. So I am c&p the longer version below.

Edoardo Albinati The Catholic School (Transl. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar) Picador, London, 2019. Pb. Pp. 1263 £16.99

The Catholic School by Italian novelist Edoardo Albinati is about the abduction and murder of two girls by three well-heeled boys — Andrea Ghira, Gianni Guido and Angelo Izzo —who belonged to the all-male Istituto San Leone Magno (SLM)The group had met at the Il Fungo, the Mushroom, a long time meeting spot for fascists. Over the next 36 hours, the two girls were tortured and raped. Rosaria was killed but Donatella managed to save herself by faking her death. The murderers dumped the bodies of the girls in a car boot. It was found after Donatella began banging on the roof of the boot. The notorious sex crime occurred on the weekend of 29 September 1975. The SLM is a private catholic school established in Rome (1887) by the Marist Brothers. It is also Edoardo Albinati’s alma mater. Albinati was a contemporary of the three school students accused of murder whom the popular press of the time described as “young and pitiless nabobs”.

Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is about this appalling crime while also attempting to understand the minds of these brutal killers. At nearly 1300-pages, this semi-autobiographical novel, mentions the Circeo massacre briefly. Otherwise the book mostly consists of long digressions —philosophical, literary, anthropological analyses. His musings are mostly on how masculinity has been defined over the decades, for which he relies on extensive literary and popular culture references. He investigates the peculiar position that men employ in Italian society: from being mammoni (mammas’ boys) to virile, bursting-with-testosterone men in public spaces who have to prove themselves as “men”. Expecting The Catholic School to bea firsthand account of the slow transformation of the school students into notorious “killers” is not what one gets except for glimpses into Angelo’s criminal mind. The novel is more of a meandering introspection on understanding the potent mix of masculinity, fascism, violence and sex, that converted these boys into monsters particularly when all SLM students were given a firm religious grounding in their formative years by the Catholic Brothers. Albinati believes that religious instruction in many ways taught suppression of emotions resulting in the boys being akin to ticking masculine time bombs.

Albinati acknowledges that while the novel employs the first person singular narrative to tell the story these may well “differ from the author cited on the cover” as he “freely [interbreeds] memory and imagination”. In the mid-nineties, Albinati became a teacher in the maximum security wing of the Rebibbia Prison, Rome, where Mafiosi and Camorristi were among the inmates. In fact, Albinati says that he made “use of police reports, deposition manuscripts, wiretaps, interviews, and legal verdicts” as is evident in his descriptions of Angelo. These multiple experiences of knowing his infamous contemporaries at school to being in his adult life in close proximity to criminals who required to be under maximum security creates an astonishing monotone in the novel. It comes across as the author is doing his best to understand the sex crime committed but not really quite comprehending it, instead by offering many philosophical expositions on it, he hopes to find a rationale for these despicable acts. Albinati fails to be a convincing narrator. The reader feels no remorse for the criminals. All that exists is undiluted rage for there seems to be no change in society towards its attitude to women. It is curious that the author while seeming to be empathetic to rape victims by referring to the predatory attitude towards women and of offering the etymology of the Italian word as “stupro” (indicating something that causes stupor, astonishment, something that one wasn’t expecting), meticulously documents his own sexual encounters and then in the acknowledgements bizarrely credits his daughter for transcribing parts of his manuscript that he had written by hand! If that isn’t a way of perpetuating gender violence then what else is it?!

The Catholic School is also a testament to Albinati’s ambition at creating that “large and engrossing novel” that he has so far been unsuccessful at discovering. Albinati is well read and with confident ease experiments with the literary form. There are unexpected sections in the novel that are like lists, a poem, only dialogue or long monologues. At times he addresses the readers directly encouraging them to skip a few pages if they are bored by what they have read. He also flips back and forth in time recollecting his childhood and comparing it with modern times, particularly his children’s lives. Yet the story remains drearily flat, with even the descriptions of male violence dulling one’s senses, as Albinati remains mildly detached. Never does he offer any solution for the male brutality documented but uncomfortably seems to be accepting of the way society is. According to him, “Being born a boy is an incurable disease”. Written forty years after the crime, this novel won the topmost literary prize in Italy — the Strega Prize 2016.

The translation from Italian to English by translator Antony Shugaar is commendable. It reads smoothly. Shugaar does not believe that there are untranslatable words. As he says, “my goal is to carry the reader across that space so quietly that the spell is not broken.” ( VQR, “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook”, 19 Feb 2014) Shugaar achieves this beautifully with The Catholic School for whatever the shortcomings one may find with the novel’s portrayal of its male world, there is no doubt that Shugaar has been faithful to his mantra of building bridges from untranslatable worlds to where we live.  

3 November 2019

Book Post 45: 15 Sept – 5 Oct 2019

Book Post 45 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

7 Oct 2019

An evening to welcome the winners of the EU Prize for Literature, 24 Sept 2019

On Tuesday, 24 Sept 2019, Neeta Gupta hosted a wonderful evening to welcome the delegation of EU Prize for Literature winners led by Alexandra Buchler, Literature Across Frontiers. The three writers touring India were — Irish writer Jan Carson, Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan and Polish writer and filmmaker Marta Dzido. Neeta Gupta wears many hats as a publishing professional. Three of her responsibilities including managing the Hindi publishing firm, Yatra Books; her newly launched English publishing firm, Tethys and of course as Co-Director, Jaipur Book Mark — a B2B conclave that is held alongside Jaipur Literature Festival.

It was a small but select gathering of publishing professionals and diplomats which included EU Ambassador-designate to India, Ugo Astuto. But the evening highlight was to hear the three writers introduce and read out extracts from their books.

Irish writer, Jan Carson, offered a fascinating perspective of the Troubles as she is a Protestant. As she said, one month short of her eighteenth birthday she grew up surrounded by violence and then the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Her adult life has been spent in peace. But of late she has been questioning her identity a lot as being a Protestant she is considered a Britisher and has a British passport but her ancestors came to Ireland more than 300 years ago. Her accent is Irish. Her sense of belonging is Irish. And now with Brexit on the cards, she has applied for Irish passport. Having said that The Fire Starters offers her perspective, a Protestant’s witnessing if you like, of the troubles. It has led to some fascinating encounters at public readings where unamused members of the audience have walked away realising she would be offering a Protestant perspective as in their minds it is a view of the coloniser and yet a rarity amongst much contemporary Irish literature that tends to focus on the Catholic viewpoint.

Turkish-Dutch writer, Ciler Ilhan read extracts from her novel Exiles that won the EU Prize for Literature 2011. It is a collection of stories based upon newspaper clippings and witnessing some of the stories herself. So it sort of blurs the lines between truth and fiction but lands a mean punch in her sharp and incisive commentary about the shifts in Turkish society. She touches upon topics like gender violence, gender segregation, gender biases, honour killings, growing nationalism and with it the impact it is having on society. Powerful stories. Worth reading.

Here is the link to the TED Talk she gave earlier this year. It is an extract from her book:

Marta Dzido, is a Polish writer and filmmaker, whose works are only now being translated into English by Kate Webster. In fact, on this evening, Marta read out for the first time the English translation of some extracts from her award-winning novel Frajda. It is about two characters, both in their forties, named only as Him and Her. There was something in the manner she read as well as what she read that seemed to explore the intersections of her writerly and filmmaking strengths, by allowing her to write about the particular and yet by not really naming the characters, creating a space for universality. It was quite a remarkable experience.

Interview with Daisy Rockwell regarding her translation of Khadija Mastur’s “Aangan” / “The Women’s Courtyard”

Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator of Hindi and Urdu literature living in the United States. Her translations include Falling Walls, by Upendranath Ashk, Tamas, by Bhisham Sahni, and The Women’s Courtyard by Khadija Mastur. Her recent translation of The Women’s Courtyard  is fascinating since it comes across as a very confident translation as if fiction about women and their domestic spaces is completely acceptable. A translation of the very same novel done nearly two decades earlier is equally competent but for want of a better word, it is far more tentative — at least reading it now. When I first read the translation of Aangan in 2003 it did not feel amiss in any manner but today comparing the two translations it is as if Daisy Rockwell’s translation of The Women’s Courtyard  is imbued with a strength influenced by popular sentiments which is in favour of women particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It may not have been done consciously by Daisy Rockwell but it is evident in the tenor of the text. The Women’s Courtyard is a pleasure to read.

I interviewed Daisy Rockwell via email. Here are excerpts:

1.       Why did you choose to translate Aangan?

A friend had suggested I read it because of my interest in literature of that period and I was also shifting my attention to novels written by women. I was struck by the delicate, clean prose and the complex portrait Mastur painted of a young woman’s life.

2.       How long did it take to translate and edit the text?  I wonder how many conversations you must have had with yourself Daisy while translating the book?! Or was it just a task to be finished in time?

I don’t think frankly that anyone is usually sitting around impatiently waiting for one’s translation of a classic literary work. My deadlines are all my own. A project of that size usually takes about a year. I usually set myself a daily page quota which I don’t always meet. I had many conversations with myself about this book, and continue to do so. One of the great strengths of Mastur’s novels is that she doesn’t ever reveal everything. One is left pondering and questioning for a long time after. I still have questions that I can’t answer, and that I keep turning over in my mind. Translation issues less so than thoughts about Aliya’s interior universe and motivations. 

3. While translating the text did you refer only to the original manuscript or did you constantly read other translations and commentaries on the text?

I consulted heavily with my friend Aftab Ahmed, who is also a translator, and who grew up in the same general area where the novel is set. I would check his responses with the previous translation in English when I was unsure of what was being said. Retranslation is interesting because the previous translation gives you an interlocutor. Even if you don’t agree with the choices the other translator(s) made, you learn to look at words and sentences from a different perspective if you are stuck on something confusing. Every translation is different, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, so sometimes just rearranging things jogs one’s ability to understand. Mastur’s style is not that difficult in terms of grammar, but there are historical items that are hard to find dictionary definitions for and that I had to research. Usually it has to do with terms for items of clothing or architectural details.

4. Do you feel translating works from Hindi/Urdu into English involves a translation exercise that is very different to that of any other language translation? 

I think there would be parallels from translating into English from other South Asian languages. A big challenge is that the syntax is the opposite—English is what is known as a ‘right-branching language’ syntactically. Indic languages are left-branching. This is also true of Japanese. When the syntax has to be flipped it can be a challenge, because sometimes that syntactical difference can even be reflected at the paragraph level and one has to switch the order of some of the sentences in the paragraph. Indic languages also tend to have many impersonal constructions whereas English prefers active verbs and subjects. Think of ‘usko laga jaise…’ as opposed to ‘she felt as though…’. Because of this one has to continuously change voice without trampling on the original meaning.

5. Why did you translate the title “Aangan” as “The Women’s Courtyard” when the literal translation of “Aangan” is “inner courtyard”? 

The translation of the title is ultimately up to the editor and the publicity team. I get to veto options I dislike, but ultimately they choose the title based on concerns that are sometimes outside of the translator’s purview. “Aangan” couldn’t be called ‘The Inner Courtyard’ because that is the title of the previous translation and they wanted to distinguish them. An ‘aangan’ is not technically just for women, but in this context, it is the domain of women. I assume they added in ‘women’s’ to invoke the importance of women’s experiences to the novel. 

6.       While translating Aangan did you choose to retain or leave out certain words that existed in Urdu but did not use in English? Is this a conundrum that translators often have to face — what to leave and what to retain for the sake of a clear text? 

AK Ramanujan, with whom I was fortunate to take a graduate seminar on translation shortly before his death, pointed out to me that in a long novel you have the opportunity to teach the readers certain words. I take this as my maxim and add to it the notion that you cannot teach them many words, only a few, so you must make a choice as to what you are going to make the readers learn and grow accustomed to. There has been some discomfort with the fact that I translated many kinship terms into English and left only a few of the original terms. I did this because there are way more kinship terms in literature by men than in literature by women. Kinship terms are all ‘relative’ in the sense that one person’s bahu is another person’s saas is another person’s jithani is another person’s bari mausi. If all these are left in and no one has any given names it is extremely perplexing to readers who do not know the language fluently. I will often leave a word in and teach it by context but not refer to that person by myriad other kinship terms. For example the main character’s mother could be ‘Ma’, or ‘Amma’, but I am not going to give the mother all her other kinship terms because that’s too much to ask. I want the reader who knows no Hindi or Urdu to feel comfortable enough to keep reading the book. Adding a glossary of terms doesn’t really help because most people don’t sign up for a language and kinship lesson when they pick up a novel to read. Readers that do know these terms fluently tend to speak a style of English in their homes that incorporates the Hindi and Urdu kinship terms, so they think of these as a part of Indian English, but it’s not at all the case for Tamil speakers or Bangla speakers, who all have their own kinship terms that they use in English. My goal is to create a translation that can be enjoyed by people not just in India and South Asia, but all around the world. It’s a tricky business but I attempt to cater to everyone as much as I can.

My policies on what to leave in the original language are not created on behalf of readers who are fluent in these languages, but for people who are not. My Bangladeshi friends, for example, do not know what the words saas and bahu mean. We have these words in English—mother-in-law and daughter-in-law–so I translate them. An example of a word I did not translate was takht. A takht is a platform covered with a sheet where family members sit/sleep/gather/eat/make paan, and generally do everything. I decided that this was a word the readers would need to learn from context. Why? Because it occurs on almost every page, is the center of the action, and most importantly, it has no English equivalent.

7. How modern is your translation of Aangan? For instance did you feel that the times you were translating the novel in where sensitivity and a fair understanding of women’s issues exists far more than in it ever did in previous decades helped make your task “easier”? 

I try to inhabit a linguistic system that is non-anachronistic when I translate the voice of a novel. I did not use #metoo-era language, I used a more formal register and kept it less modern. I think infusing the language with a contemporary sensibility would ruin the finely drawn portrayals in the original text.

8. In your brilliant afterword you refer to the first English translation of Aangan done by Neelam Hussain for Simorgh Collective and later republished by Kali for Women/ Zubaan. Why do you refer to your translation as a “retranslation” and not necessarily a “new translation”? 

No particular reason—I guess I think of them as the same thing. If I say ‘retranslation’ I am nodding to the hard work done by the path-breaker. The first translation will always be the hardest one.

9. You are a professional translator who has worked on various projects but have also translated works by women writers. What has been your experience as a translator and a woman in working on texts by women writers?

I have translated this novel by Khadija Mastur as well as her later novel, Zameen (earth); my translation of Krishna Sobti’s most recent novel is soon to come out from Penguin India’s Hamish Hamilton imprint as A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There. I am working on a translation of Geetanjali Shree’s 2018 novel Ret Samadhi (tomb of sand) and Usha Priyamvada’s 1963 novel Pachpan Kambhe Lal Divarein (fifty-pillars, red walls).

When you translate a text, you spend way more time on it than most other people ever will, sometimes including the author him or herself! I got tired of translating patriarchy, misogyny and objectification of women, which are all par for the course in men’s writing. For the past year, I have mostly stopped reading male authors at all, because the more I read and translate women, the lower goes my tolerance for the male gaze. We don’t realize how we’ve been programmed to accept objectification and silencing of women in men’s writing until we stop reading it. It has been very fulfilling translating these fine works by women and inhabiting the detailed layers of female subjectivity that they offer readers.

10. Do you think that the translation in the destination language must read smoothly and easily for the reader or should you be true to the original and incorporate in your translated text as far as possible many of the words and culturally-specific phrases used in the original text?

I think I partially answered this above, but I do not believe that a translation should be so difficult or “under-translated” that a reader puts it down out of frustration. Difficulty and cultural specificity in the original text suffuses many aspects of the writing and is not limited to certain pieces of terminology.  

11.   The explosion in translated literature available worldwide now has also coincided with the rise of technological advancements in machine translation and neural networks. Thereby making immediate translations of online texts easily available to the reader/consumer. Do you think in the near future the growth in automated translation will impact translations done by humans and vice versa? How will it affect market growth for translated literature?   


To be honest, machine translation is horribly inaccurate because it misses nuance and does not understand human experience, culture or history. I do not believe that AI will ever replace human translators, at least when it comes to literature.

JBR: Interesting since I have come across arguments that say making texts available is the only factor that matters. Nothing else. This is where Google ‘s neural technology is breaking boundaries. But I agree with you — the human brain will continue to be the supercomputer. It’s a beauty!] 

3 January 2019 

A Note on “The Women’s Courtyard” Translation by Daisy Rockwell

Here is the entire note by the translator, Daisy Rockwell, from her recent translation of Khadija Mastur’s Aangan, translated as The Women’s Courtyard. It has been published by Penguin Random House, 2018. 

The note has been excerped with the publisher’s permission. 

The Women’s Courtyard has been translated before as The Inner Courtyard, by Neelam Hussain, and published by Kali for Women in 2001. Retranslation is still a rarity in the context of modern South Asian literature but the practice enriches the field of translation, offering readers different prisms through which to read a text. When I choose to retranslate a work, it is usually because I feel I have something substantially different to offer from the previous translator or translators. All the same, I draw comfort and inspiration from the work of previous translators, who may have seen things differently than I did and send me scurrying back to my dictionaries and expert friends for more information.

Khadija Mastur’s writing style is spare and elegant. Unlike many Urdu authors she does not favour heavily ornamented writing and turns of phrase full of literary allusions. I felt inspired to reproduce this clarity in English, after seeing that Hussain’s translation struggled with this quality, attempting to elevate the language to a more formal register of English than was used in Urdu. See, for example, Mastur’s description of Safdar Bhai, and the two contrasting translations, below:

Mastur: Safdar Bhai kitne vajīha magar kaisī maskīn sūrat ke the.

Rockwell: Safdar looked so handsome, but so meek.

Hussain: How tall and well built Safdar Bhai had been and yet how diffident his mien.

Not only does Hussain divide descriptive adjectives into phrases, but in the case of the second phrase, maskīn sūrat ke, she introduces a flowery and somewhat archaic-sounding descriptor, ‘how diffident his mien’.

These embroideries of the original, in which Hussain seeks to somehow augment the original text, stretch even to ordinary narrative sentences, such as the following:

Mastur: Dūr kahīñ se ghaṛiyāl ke gyārah bajāne kī āvāz ā rahī thī.

Rockwell: From somewhere far off came the sound of the bell striking eleven.

Hussain: A distant clock struck the hour. The sound of its measured strokes rolled over her. It was the eleventh hour of the night.

Here, Hussain’s rendition conveys a breathless dramatic tension that is absent from the original, which merely alerts us to the passage of time.

Hussain also occasionally inserts new ideas into the text, such as below, where she actually adds foreshadowing to the original sentence that describes Aliya worrying about her sister Tehmina Apa:

Mastur: Rāt kā qissā bār bār yād ātā aur voh anjām ke khauf se ek lafz bhī na paṛh saktī thī.

Rockwell: She kept thinking about what had occurred the night before, and was so fearful of what might happen she couldn’t read a single word.

Hussain: The inexorable end of Apa’s fated love was before her eyes and she was unable to concentrate on her work.

Mastur merely writes of Aliya’s ‘anjām kā khauf,’ her fear of the outcome, whereas Hussain announces to us that Tehmina’s ‘fated love’ is coming to an ‘inexorable end’. This embellishment on the original text both spoils the suspense of the story and romanticizes Tehmina’s love for Safdar by referring to it as a ‘fated love’.

Strangely—perhaps by accident—a pivotal passage is missing from Hussain’s translation. I can attest as a translator that it is far too easy to drop bits of a text in the course of translation. The phone rings, the dog must be let out, one’s attention is divided—and there goes a paragraph. Usually these mistakes can be rectified in editing, when one notices that something is missing or when a transition between paragraphs makes no sense. An extra set of eyes helps too. In this case, the passage in question is Jameel’s first physical assault on Aliya. Aliya has been reading about the horrors of Ghengis Khan and his army, when Jameel comes to speak with her. She tries to make him go away, or stick to the topic of her exams, when he grabs her and kisses her (or more—the text is not entirely clear on this point, but it reads clearly as sexual assault). After this she feels shaken and defiled.

Finally, language changes, cultural norms change and politics change. All great works deserve multiple translations, and English can only be enriched by multiple versions of classic South Asian texts. With this fresh translation, a new generation of readers will be introduced to The Women’s Courtyard, and perhaps a few who know some Urdu will take the plunge and try reading the book in the original.

3 January 2019

“Sorry, Best Friend!”

Sorry, Best Friend! is a collection of stories edited by noted writers Githa Hariharan and late Shama Futehally. The stories are about children discovering / encountering friends and neighbours who are different from  us in some way or the other — the way they look, their dress, languages they speak, even the food they eat or even pray to different gods. Ultimately we need to remember that we are all part of one big jigsaw puzzle that is India. According to the editors if we forget that all of us are a part of this puzzle then “very quickly, as if we were never one, we break into a hundred pieces”. The contributors include eminent writers such as Swapna Dutta, Poile Sengupta and Zai Whitaker. Given that this book was published in 1997 they refer to two major incidents of the immediate past when communal violence broke out after the assassination of the prime minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi (1984) and later destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (1992). Subsequently India has experienced many more and regular instances of communal violence notably the riots that broke out in Gujarat after the burning of the train in Godhra (2002). Now communal intolerance is a regular feature of daily existence with lynchings becoming the horrific new normal.

Sorry, Best Friend! has been published many times over; testament to the frightening relevance of these stories for young children. It is a book that needs to be read widely by children and adults widely.

Githa Hariharan and Shama Futehally (eds.) Sorry, Best Friend! Tulika Publishers, Chennai, 1997, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. 70 Rs. 85 

( It is available in English and Hindi )

15 June 2018 

Of books tackling medical science

Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.

Maylis de Kerangal’s  Mend the Living is a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend the Living, a work of fiction, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.

Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbow  is a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.

Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus . 


Bloomsbury has published a former consumption patient and scientist Kathryn Loughreed’s packed-with-information account Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis  

Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!

An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!

Maylis de Kerangal  Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India 

Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India 

Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books 

Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury 

6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 2017 

Meeting Arundhati Roy at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 25 Aug 2017

On Friday 25 August 2017 The Bookshop held a lovely interaction with award winning writer Arundhati Roy. The Bookshop is a warm space that magically transforms a literary evening into an electric engagement. Personal invitations had been sent to the select audience. There was no structure to the event which was a pleasure.

Arundhati Roy plunged straight into a conversation. She began the evening remembering the late owner and legendary bookseller K. D. Singh. She then read a long passage out of her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness . Hearing an author read out from their own novels is an unpredictable experience but in this case turned out to be extraordinary. Despite the novel being varied and politically charged in many places, reading it alone, a reader tends to respond to the text. Listening to Arundhati Roy narrate it last night was revelatory as she has a soft lilt to her voice which brings out the rhythm and structure of the storytelling, softpedalling to some extent the political punch, but never undermining. Hearing her read out aloud was like being lulled into a level of consciousness where the magic of storytelling overtook one and yet once it is was over it was the politically charged experience of the episode from Kashmir which she chose to narrate that lingered on. It probably would be worth getting the audiobook which the novelist has recorded herself. On the left is a picture taken by Mayank Austen Soofi and tweeted on 17 May 2017 by Simon Prosser, Publisher, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House.  On 24 August 2017 a digital companion to the novel was released called the Re: Reader. It is being hosted on a website of its own. According to the report in the Hindu, “The Re:Reader can be accessed on a smart phone by logging on to its website. The visitor is greeted by a ‘floating menu’ of different chapters, each with its own set of animated icons, sound effects, music, and a carefully chosen excerpt.

“Re:Reader has snippets of text from the 12 chapters of the book. Animations show the text in a new light; music brings the period to life, and with portions read by Arundhati Roy, it makes for a dreamy, heady ride. But none of these bits of ‘media’ are presented as ‘content’ for independent consumption. They are there to tempt, to intrigue, to transport the viewer to the Utmost world, not to reveal or substantially replace it.” Later this innovative reading experience may be converted into an app.

At The Bookshop interaction Arundhati Roy mentioned how when she writes fiction she does not let anyone, including her literary agent David Godwin, know that there is a work in progress as she is unable to handle the questions about when it will be ready for submission. Also knowing full well that once she hands over a manuscript there is frenzied activity and she needs to be prepared for it. Interestingly when the manuscript of this novel was finally completed to her satisfaction she lay down on her couch and wept for hours.

Given the small group sitting in a circle around and at the feet of the author made for a lovely intimate gathering allowing for conversation to flow easily. Sure there were many in the audience who were awe-struck by the celebrity they were enagaging with and yet the vibes were peaceful. It was an evening where Arundhati Roy shared insights about her writing and editing process, some of which I scribbled down in my edition of the novel.

There are many parts of the book which need a book of their own. 

This book is fiction as much as my first novel The God of Small Things was. I use every part of myself to write fiction. Experience informs your writing. Fiction is trying to create a universe which if it were unreal what would be the point of creating it? 

When asked if it was an “autobiographical novel” she said “What is an autobiography? These questions do not matter if this autobiographical or the truth. The character in fiction is more real and eternal than the real person.” 

While writing fiction my body feels very different. With non-fiction there is a sense of urgency. In fiction I am just at my own speed. It is almost like cooking — it takes as much time as it takes. 

When asked about editing her manuscripts she replied “ I don’t draft and redraft sentences which some people attribute to arrogance. I think of structure and characters take their own time to deepen. These are people I want to be able to spend rest of my life with. I don’t write sequentially. I already have a sense of it. It is a combination of control and release.” 

On the structure of this novel she said: “This book is much more complexly structured. It is like a big metropolis in the fluid world. It has its old parts and its pathways. It has its democracy. The crowds have faces in it. When you see the narrative as a city then you are going down blind alleys.”

On writing: “The way things are here and now I would not want to write it scared. Just write.” She added ” Factual knowledge has to be charged. My instinctiveness works the best for fiction.” 

On the parallels being drawn between Anjum and Mona ( made famous by Dayanita Singh’s photographs), she said “Anjum is not Mona but she is in Mona’s situation. Mona is definitely not a political person unlike Anjum.

Arunava Sinha, journalist and established Bengali to English translator, posed an interesting question to Arundhati Roy. He asked if she had had any interesting questions from her translators. Apparently the Polish translator has been flummoxed by sentences such as “evil weevil always make the cut” whereas the French translator has found the “Acknowledgements” the toughest such as “who queered my pitch”. As for the Hindi and Urdu translations she is working upon them line by line.

While discussing her author tours as was done over summer she says she felt as if she herself was a tourist living in Jannat for she visited 20 cities in the space of 24 days. Surprisingly she returned home with no jet lag whatsoever! The reception to her book has been tremendous and she has been reading and promoting the book to packed audiences. In Buffalo, for instance, she was to address a 1000-strong audience and surprisingly not a single copy of the book was sold at the venue since every single member of the audience was carrying their very own dog-eared copy of the novel. Another anecdote was about Kashmir which forms a large part of this novel since “you cannot tell the story of Kashmir in a footnote”.  She has recently returned from a visit to the state where she met Khan Sahib, an old friend, who had scribbled in his copy of the book extensively with comments trying to figure out the references in the book. What was even more incredulous were the visitors she had coming by all night asking her to autograph their editions of the book.

All in all it was a fabulously magical gathering.

26 August 2017