Tintin Posts

Interview with translator Debali Mookerjea-Leonard

Debali Mookerjea-Leonard is a Bengali translator, author, and professor of English and world literature. She lives in Virginia with her husband and plants. She has translated the late Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Blood. Set in Britain and America of the late 60s and early 70s, it is about a highly successful Bengali physicist Tapan who settles abroad. Despite all the successes he has garnered he is unable to put to rest the trauma he suffered as a child when his father was killed by a British officer. This occurred a little before India attained Independence. Coincidentally he meets Alice in London; she is the daughter of his father’s killer. Tapan’s world goes topsy-turvy as he tries to figure out what to do since he nurses a visceral hatred for the former colonial rulers of India. It is a peculiar situation to be in given that he has more or less decided to relocate abroad and never to return to India. It impacts his relationship with Alice too who is more than sympathetic to his feelings and is willing to let the past be bygones but it is a demon that Tapan finds hard to forget. He does go to India briefly to attend a wedding and meet his paternal grandmother — someone whom he loves dearly and who had lost two sons in the Indian Freedom Struggle. So much so that the Indian politicians are now keen to bestow upon her a monthly allowance recognising her sons’ contribution as freedom fighters. It is upon meeting his grandmother, who is past eighty and who witnessed much sorrow in her lifetime, that Tapan realises it is best to forget and forgive that which happened in the past and move on. Otherwise the past becomes an impossible burden to shed. Blood is a brilliantly translated novel that does not seem dated despite its preoccupations with the Indian Freedom struggle and a newly independent India. For all the stories and their intersections, it is evident that Blood is a modern novel which is worth resurrecting in the twenty-first century. The issues it raises regarding immigrants, familial ties, free will, social acceptance, loneliness, etc will resonate with many readers. As Debali says in the interview that “As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.”

Sunil Gangopadhyay, who died in 2012, was one of Bengal’s best-loved and most-acclaimed writers. He is the author of over a hundred books, including fiction, poetry, travelogues and works for children. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Those Days. This novel Blood was first published in 1973.

Debali Mookerjea-Leonard

Here is a lightly edited interview conducted via email with the translator:

1 . How long did it take you to translate Blood? In the translator’s note you refer to two editions of the novel. What are the differences in the two editions?

I was on sabbatical during the spring semester of 2018 and Blood was my new project. I began working on it around the middle of January and completed the first draft in May. However, I let it sit for a year before returning to revise it.

I chose to use the second edition (1974) of Blood, rather than the first (1973), because the author made a few revisions. The alterations are minor, mostly cosmetic, and include replacing a few words in the text. These are mostly English words transliterated into Bengali: For instance, in Chapter 1, when Tapan asks Alice if she has the right glasses for serving champagne she responds, in the first edition, with “Don’t be fussy, Tapan” whereas, in the second, she says, “Don’t be funny, Tapan.” The revised second edition also corrects spelling errors and misprints.

2. The book may have been first published in 1973 but it seems a very modern text in terms of its preoccupations especially the immigrants. What were the thoughts zipping through your mind while translating the story?

To me the novel’s handling of immigrant concerns feels brutally honest. Blood refuses to romanticise the expatriate condition as exile and, instead, adopts an ironic stance towards immigrant angst, homesickness, and nostalgia. Yet, the irony is tempered with pathos in the narration’s uncovering of immigrant dilemmas. For instance, an Indian immigrant uneasy about her fluency in English chooses to stay indoors, but remains enamoured with England which she nevertheless cannot fully experience. Through the exchanges between the novel’s protagonist Tapan and his friend Dibakar, Blood also offers the realistic view that immigration is often driven by practical considerations. As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.

This does not mean that western societies get a pass in the novel. Through situations both small and large the novel exposes the racist and anti-immigration views prevailing in the United Kingdom, during the 1960s. That said, Blood is also critical of racial prejudice amongst Indians. Given current debates around immigration and citizenship both in India and across the globe, the novel’s treatment of this subject remains relevant.

Connected to issues of migration and home, the novel brings to the fore complex questions about homeland and belonging, uncovering how the location of “home” has been rendered unstable through the Partition’s severing of birthplace and homeland.

3. What is the methodology you adopt while translating? For instance, some translators make rough translations at first and then edit the text. There are others who work painstakingly on every sentence before proceeding to the next passage/section. How do you work?

For me it is a mix of both. I typically plan on translating a text it in its entirety before proceeding with the revisions but this intention is usually short-lived and seldom lasts beyond the first few pages. I find it difficult to progress until the translation feels most appropriate to the context, fits the voice, and fully conveys the meaning of the original. While translating Blood I have spent entire mornings deciding between synonyms. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle because there is only one piece/word that fits. And sometimes I have had to redraft an entire sentence (even entire paragraphs) to elegantly capture the sense of the whole!

4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?

First, the cons, the impulse to interpret. And the pros: the joy of being able to partake in the (re-)making of something beautiful.

5. Are there any questions that you wished you could have asked Sunil Gangopadhyay while translating his novel?

Were he alive, I would have requested him to read a completed draft of my translation.

6. What prompted you to become a professional translator?

My translation-work is driven primarily by the love of the text and the desire to find it a larger audience. In the future, I hope to be able to devote more time to it.

There is also a pedagogical dimension to this. In my capacity as a teacher of world literature, I aim to expose students to the vast and rich body of vernacular writings from the Indian subcontinent, inevitably through translations. And from personal experiences in the classroom, I know that many of my students are genuinely curious about writings from around the world. Blood is a small step in that direction. It is a book I want to teach.

7. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation?

I believe the first translated book I read was one of the many “Adventures of Tintin”, The Secret of the Unicorn. But children’s books aside, the book that came to mind immediately upon reading your question is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It may not have been the first translated work I read, but it ranks among the most memorable ones. This is because while I knew that Marquez wrote in Spanish, Rabassa’s translation preserved the novel’s artistic qualities so meticulously that it lulled me into thinking that I was reading the original. It is a quality I aspire to bring to my work.

8. How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project?

Not to sound self-absorbed, but my decision is based largely on how deeply the work moves me. My first translation project involved a short story by the Bengali author Jyotirmoyee Devi, entitled “Shei Chheleta” (“That Little Boy”). It depicts the predicament of a young woman who lost a family-member in the Partition riots. The author handled the subject with great sensitivity without resorting to the maudlin. The story would not leave me alone. I had to translate it because I needed to share it, and discuss it with friends and colleagues who did not read Bengali. Similarly, Gangopadhyay’s novel intrigued me when I first read it. I thought about the characters long after I had finished the book, imagined their lives beyond the novel. I knew that one day I would translate it. It hibernated within me for years because, in the meanwhile, there were Ph.D. dissertations to write and research to publish. Finally, a sabbatical gave me the gift of time, and I just had to do it.

9. How would you define a “good” translation?

Preserving the artistic, poetic, and, of course, propositional content of the original is central to my understanding of a good translation. To resort to the old cliché, it is about conveying the letter and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the original. The translated text, I feel, must itself be a literary work, a work imbued with the beauty of the original. Additionally, readability is fundamental. Therefore, I asked family members and friends to read the draft translation for lucidity and fluency. For this reason, I am immensely gratified by your observation about Blood that, “It has been a long time since I managed to read a translation effortlessly and not having to wonder about the original language. There is no awkwardness in the English translation”.

10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?

It is difficult for me to say since I never received any formal training in translation-work. To me, translation is more than just an academic exercise, it is an act of love — love for the text itself, love of the language, and the love of reading. For me the best preparation was reading, and reading widely, even indiscriminately. While my love of reading was nurtured from early childhood by my mother, I had the privilege of being exposed to some of the finest works of world literature through my training in comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Calcutta and, later, in literature departments in America.

11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?

The translator walks a tightrope between the two, where tipping towards either side is perilous. A translation is, by definition, derivative, so fidelity to the original text is essential. Yet, a translation of a literary work is much more than a stringing together of words in another language. It is itself a literary work. And it is incumbent upon the translator not only to make the work accurate and readable but also literary in a way that is faithful to the literary qualities of the original.

12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?

Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; J.M. Cohen’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; and A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.

More recently, Supriya Chaudhuri, Daisy Rockwell, and Arunava Sinha have produced quality translations from Indian languages.

Blood is published by Juggernaut Books ( 2020).

3 May 2020

Deepalaya Community Library Project

(C) Pic by Ashulipi Singhal

The Deepalaya Community Library Project which is managed by Mridula Koshy and Michael Creighton has been doing some phenomenally good work at promoting reading in Delhi. They have collected books in their library by buying, crowdsourcing, donations etc. Last night on Facebook they posted the fantastic news that 17,508 books had been issued in the last one year! Of these the most popular books and titles were according to Mridula Koshy, “Pratham Books, Tulika Publishers, Katha India, CBT, NBT, Eklavya, Amar Chitra katha, Campfire Graphic Novels, A and A books, Tintin in Hindi from Om Books, Usborne Reading series from HarperCollins India, tons of non fiction titles from Doring Kindersley, and because we have adult members as well, we stock just about everything from Rupa’s new Chetan Bhagat title to Itihaas se Ajnabee by Aaatish Taseer. Our most popular type of book is the picture book. About 650 to 800 (depending on how you count it) active members use the library from the 1400 we have signed up over 2 years. Somewhere between 900 and 1000 books leave the library each weeks these days. Most are picture books.” Michael Creighton adds “”It took 14 months from Nov 2014 to Jan 2015 to reach our first 10k. Counting from Jan 2016 to Jan 2017 we issued 17, 508 books. And more than half of this year’s 17K have come in the last 4 months only!””

Another such community library for children has been set up recently in Delhi by Sudhanva Deshpande et al at Studio Safdar, May Day Cafe & Bookstore.

Impressive work!

6 February 2017

“Alice in Wonderland” continues to inspire readers across the world

( My article on Alice in Wonderland has been published in Hindustan Times popular and widely circulated Sunday 20151018_065049supplement Brunch on 18 October 2015. It is a generous two-page spread in print20151018_065100 with the title “Curiouser And Curiouser”. I am c&p the text from the digital version here. The original url can be viewed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/alice-in-wonderland-continues-to-inspire-readers-across-the-world/story-NKnM2TiOACiTMXQXtUI51M.html )

Scottish writer George MacDonald persuaded Carroll to self-publish Alice. It had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother – and the family loved it. (Above, Carroll with Mrs MacDonald and her children.) (Getty Images/Science Source)

Who’d have thought a self-published story written for the daughters of a friend would become a world classic, eagerly bought, borrowed and downloaded even now, 150 years later?

 Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. He wrote it for Lorina, Alice and Edith, the three daughters of his friend, Reverend Henry Liddell.

Start of many things

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit and discovers a nonsensically delightful world with colourful characters like the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare. More writers, artists and creators all over the world have credited Alice as an inspiration than any other book, thanks to its imaginative world filled with fantastic linguistic acrobatics in rhyme and prose.

That the book should have emerged in the staid Victorian era of verbose and righteous prose says much for the power of creativity. Carroll was persuaded to publish Alice with his own illustrations, by Scottish author and poet, George MacDonald.

The story had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother. The family thoroughly enjoyed the tale, and Carroll self-published it. Then, it was edited and published by Alexander Macmillan.

Alice, coverLewis Carroll requested the well-known artist of Punch, Sir John Tenniel to create the illustrations, many of which were ultimately based on the original drawings made by the author. To commemorate the 150th year of its publication, Macmillan, the original publisher, has produced a scrumptious edition of The Complete Alice, with the original Tenniel illustrations in full colour. It is unusual for a publisher to be celebrating 150 years of a text, but Alice in Wonderland is perceived to be “a world text”.

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit. On the left is an illustration of the character by Carroll himself, and next to it (right) by Tenniel. (Photos: Stapleton Collection/Corbis, The Print Collector/Corbis)

“It’s one of those texts that IS, like Shakespeare,” says graphic novelist Samit Basu. “Its constant reinterpretations in everything, from zombie comics to action-fantasy novels, have kept the original text alive, and that’s the greatest thing that can happen to any book.”

This is evident by the text’s vast influence across creative platforms and genres – storytelling, play on words, visual arts, filmmakers, still photography and translations.

According to filmmaker and author Devashish Makhija, a lot of motifs from Alice have been uncannily replicated across the world. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee seem to have inspired Herge’s Thompson and Thomson in Tintin,” he says. “Batman’s Joker seems to have shades of the Mad Hatter, at least in his inexplicable (but profound) reliance on creating some sort of chaos in anything he communicates.”

And there’s more. When Alice fell down a rabbit hole to discover a topsy-turvy world, Makhija argues, she opened a clear story-telling device for creators of the future. “The ‘hole’ – although in existence before this book – was used pointedly for the first time as a portal connecting two dimensions through which a character ‘travels’.

It has since been used in versions in almost ALL of fantasy writing: the wardrobe in CS Lewis’s Narnia series, the square drawn with chalk in Pan’s Labyrinth, platform 93/4 inHarry Potter, the bridge of Terabithia, HG Wells’s time machine and even the bathtub in Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking.”

Follow that rabbit

“Every reader will leave with a different reading,” says Anil Menon, author of speculative fiction. “Fortunately, Alice in Wonderland has remained what it was intended to be: an invitation to play.”

Let loose in the imaginative world of Alice’s Wonderland, children often find their own wonderlands when they become adults, says photographer and musician Ed Valfre. “Several years ago, I wrote two children’s books about a boy in the backseat of a car who creates stories from all that he sees on the road. As Alice decides to go down the rabbit hole to discover the fantastical world of Wonderland, my hero goes down a similar path but it is inside his own head. The rabbit I follow is some ordinary thing we see every day. The rabbit hole is our imagination and we simply have to pay attention to discover it.”

Jeff VanderMeer, who won the Nebula 2014 for his novel, Annihilation, says that Alice “was such an influence. I Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reach Trilogy, Rabbit Totem, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfossstarted a far-future novel when I was 13 in which a human-sized bio-engineered white rabbit is found murdered at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. What appealed to me was the surreal aspect of Carroll’s book, even more so than the kind of mathematical logic and the humour. I couldn’t escape Alice even if I tried. It’s one of those constants, or compass points, that for some odd reason draws out originality despite being riffed off again and again.”

There are no white rabbits in filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s work, Unlimited Girls, but Vohra says it is deeply influenced by Alice in Wonderland. In the film, a young woman is drawn into an Internet chat room – kind of like a rabbit hole – and then proceeds on a journey through the world of feminism where she meets all kinds of characters and undergoes all kinds of transformations.

“I think Alice is (like a good Bollywood film, almost) one of those works that gives you permission to make a work out of what you see, what you feel as one,” says Vohra.

In many ways, Alice is a nonsense book. Not in the sense that it is the product of a muddled mind, but because of its willingness to see more in the world than a single outward façade. That’s the aspect that influenced children’s author, known especially for nonsense writing, Anushka Ravishankar the most.

“I remember reading Alice as a child and being fascinated, but also really disturbed because of the strange creatures and the weird, unworldly goings-on,” she says. “It was only much later that I began to appreciate the other elements – the nonsense, the logical games and the clever theories which the nonsense hid. I studied mathematics, so I do believe that Carroll’s mathematical mind came up with things that seem nonsensical but are actually possible given a different mathematical frame.”

It is extraordinary that a story spun to entertain a six-year-old girl on a boating trip has continued to brighten the lives of generations spanning more than a century.

And so just like the way it began in the beginning, Alice in Wonderland remains what it is – a story to delight children.

“My greatest joy,” says Samit Basu, “was the completely context-free sizzle that went through my brain when I first read it as a child, and there’s nothing that can either truly explain or analyse that.”

**

Looking back through translations

On 4 October, 1866, Lewis Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, stating, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.” But his friends were wrong as the editors of Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece, would tell Carroll if they could.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece documents the classic’s translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints. (Pictured in it is Alice Liddell, the little girl the book was written for)

This book, edited by Jon A Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, documents translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

“There are nine translations of Alice into Tamil, plus an unpublished draft, a short story, a serialised story, and a graphic version,” says Dr Rajamanickam Azhagarasan, contributor to the book. “It was popular among those involved in the movement for children’s literature from the ’40s through the ’70s. Each translation was unique, depending on which aspect the translators wished to highlight.”

Alice has been translated in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Nepali and Sinhala. Here (left to right) are translations in Malayalam (2000), Urdu (1981) and Oriya (2002).

Much like the way storytellers have always found new stories to weave out of the Indian epics, Alice’s translators in India have created different Wonderlands – for instance, by weaving mythological elements into the story.

“The Telugu translation of Alice was available as early as the mid-1950s,” says Suresh Kosaraju, trustee, Manchi Pustakam, Secunderabad.

Editor Sushama Sonak says, “Mugdhachi Rangit Goshta (The Many Coloured World of Mugdha) written in Marathi by short story writer GA Kulkarni was heavily influenced by Alice.”

In Malayalam, the first translation was published by Balan Publications. Lewis Carroll certainly influenced the well-known children’s nonsense writer in Bengali, Sukumar Ray, as well as Hemendra Kumar Roy, who wrote wonderful detective stories in Bangla and translated Alice in Wonderland: it is called Ajab Deshe Amala.

Even Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, translated Alice into Russian. According to translator Sergei Task, “By and large, [Nabokov] translated the text as is, except for Russifying the names (Alice/Anya, Mabel/Asya, and the Rabbit got a last name – Trusikov) and introducing pre-revolutionary forms of address such as barin (master) and vashe blagorodiye (your honour). Of course, with the playful verses, he had to take liberties – again, trying to adapt them for Russian readers.”

18 October 2015