WAAT #10: Literary Translation as an Act of Self-Care


The meditative quality of the act and process of translation can be emotionally nurturing and aesthetically nourishing.

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I’ve talked elsewhere before about how I (and many other translators) see literary translation as activism. This is because we see our work as not simply bringing stories from one culture or language to another. We see it as a way to preserve, elevate, and celebrate those cultures and languages as well. Lately, I’ve also been thinking about how literary translation is also an act of self-care. Hear me out.

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I haven’t come to this discipline of literary translation in the usual way. I don’t have any kind of scholarly pedigree or formal training. I didn’t even study Gujarati as a language at school. I learned it at home from my mother and from trying to read her magazines and books because we didn’t have any libraries nearby during school holidays.

After leaving India, this language and the literature allowed ways to stay connected with my culture and heritage. There’s a thing that happens with immigrants like us that sociolinguists call subtractive bilingualism, where our fluency in one language takes place at the expense of or the erosion of another. While I grew up studying in English medium schools, we had languages all around us. Moving to the UK as a nineteen-year-old took that away from me. My Gujarati started becoming rusty from lack of use. This was in the times before the internet and when phone calls home were way too expensive for an overseas student working two jobs just to pay for rent and tuition. At this time, my way of staying connected was through reading a handful of the Gujarati texts I had taken with me and my mother’s infrequent letters. I still have some of them today but I lost a good number due to constant reading, which made the paper fall apart eventually.

When I began translating, it was to feel that language on my tongue and in my head again. It was to honor my communal history and literary lineage. And now, more than ever, I experience the act and process of translation as acknowledging, through meditative attention, that which sustains and nurtures me emotionally and intellectually.

Here are a few interesting links from this week:

New to my work? Check out my books and publications.

The Lost Translator by Michael F. Moore (Words Without Borders)

New Book: Fifty Sounds: A Memoir of Language, Learning, and Longing by Polly Barton

Video: Cartographies of Knowledge: Translation as an Exercise in Democracy (Rita Kothari and Arunava Sinha with Sanchit Toor)

Translation Submissions: Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation (University of Iowa)

New Literary Translation: I just signed with HarperCollins India to translate this award-winning historical novel. More details here.

So, over to you. If you’re a literary translator or considering becoming one, what does it mean to you on a personal level? Activism? Self-care? Both? Other? Please let me know via the social media links or in reply to this newsletter.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas. (Photo Credit: Pixel Voyage Photography / Arushi Gupta)

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