WAAT #31: For Whom (or Why) Do We Translate?


Every translator’s origin story is unique and personal and involves a great deal of happenstance and serendipity (as Mark Polizzotti has written.)

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This week started off with a lovely book review by Joseph Schreiber. Deeply thankful for this careful reading. And a piece by me at Literary Hub about Gujarati literature, Dhumketu, and why I translated this book. This brings us nicely to this question I get asked often (as do other translators, I’m sure.) In that Lit Hub essay, I summarized some of the reasons below (and as in that bingo card graphic).

Therefore, a literary translation like this collection seeks to be a mode of recovery and reclamation. It hopes to be a disruptive intervention in cultural discourse. Most of all, it aspires to be a glorious revival of diverse, almost-lost literary traditions such that, if transplanted with care and attention, they might bear rich, new fruit.

Bhatt, Jenny. “Breaking Down the Translation Pyramid: On Translating Dhumketu’s Pioneering Short Stories from Gujarati.” Literary Hub, August 1, 2022.

And, as I’ve often said before, translations in South Asia are not the same as translations in the western world. We’re still trying to discover and recover our literary treasures and traditions from various languages because they’d been marginalized by more dominant cultures.

Sometimes, I also sense this underlying question: “why translate into English?” I wish I had a more philosophical response to this one like Jhumpa Lahiri has to the question of “Why Italian?” in her latest collection, Translating Myself and Others. But, for me, it’s really more prosaic than wanting to “feel free” like her. For better or for worse, the two link languages in South Asia are English and Hindi. This means that, even if you’re only looking to bring, say, a pan-Indian readership (never mind global) to a literary work, you need to make it accessible through one or both of those link languages first.

As Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky remind us in their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means:

English is now indisputably the dominant global lingua franca, and this puts the contemporary English-language translator in a peculiar position. Certainly, translators into English can be said to labor in the service of monolingualism, as translation consolidates the global domination of English by increasing the degree to which the culture of the entire globe is available through English. At the same time, translation works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach English’s global audience while still writing in their native tongues.

Allen, E., and S. Bernofsky. In TranslationTranslators on Their Work and What It Means. Columbia University Press, 2013.

In the end, though, a translator’s origin story has to come down to something personal. Mark Polizzotti has said in his book, Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto, that every translator’s origin story involves some measure of serendipity. I’ll add that it is that deep well of origin that constantly replenishes our fuel and energy (because goddess knows, the work itself doesn’t pay nearly enough; a topic for another time.)

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My origin story begins, quite naturally, with my mother. Gujarati is the language I was born into, yes. But my mother, despite having no scholarly or literary pedigree, is the one who taught me what Gujarati means in terms of language, cultures, and literary traditions. When she had barely begun her bachelor’s in Gujarati literature, her parents received a proposal for her marriage. My father had just moved to Bombay from rural Gujarat with barely three sets of clothes to his name and worked two junior supervisor shifts at a chemical factory to send money back home to educate his younger brothers. But he had a degree and was from a respectable family. The match was seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my mother (and, I would argue, for my father but, of course, our society did not see things that way then.) So, well, she had to give up her degree and settle into the housewife role. She never lost her love of literature and habit of daily reading—both of which I inherited. Oh, look. There they are, the lovely couple in the early bloom of marriage.

Parents 1969

After I left my corporate career in 2012 to, ostensibly, focus on a writing career, my mother tentatively began suggesting we work on a translation project together. She wanted to translate some of her favorite Gujarati short stories and even stories of her own childhood in East Africa that she had begun writing in Gujarati. I was somewhat tone-deaf in not recognizing these infrequent explorations of hers as anything beyond idle chatter. When she passed away rather unexpectedly in 2014, I inherited her tiny library of Gujarati books. Among them: almost fifty volumes of Dhumketu’s fiction. When I opened them and started reading, I could hear the words being spoken in her voice in my head. I’m not suggesting anything supernatural here. But I did take it as a sign of some sort that I needed to take care of this one thing she had ever asked of me. I began translating the odd story for my family. There was no thought of publication for years. The translation was, quite simply, a mode of reconnection, recovery, and reclamation of myself and my mother. So, as I often say, I came to writing before I came to translation and, although these disciplines are related for me, my origin stories for both are rather different.

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I share this to say simply that, for all the larger statements we might make about how and why we translate—and all of them are true too—ultimately, it must come down to something deeply personal to keep us going.

Let me close with something beautiful the scholar and translator Tridip Suhrud said to me (I’ve interviewed him for an upcoming issue of Words Without Borders):

JB: One of the constant threads running through your essays, translator notes, and interviews (at least the ones I’ve read) is how the act and process of translation mean so much to you. You’ve used words like meditation, recovery, responsibility, gift, duty, riyaaz, wholeness, sanity, and even transformation. You’ve talked about translation as a mode of reading, comprehension, thinking. Each time I came across one of these references, I wanted to weep for joy because I see my translation work as a vocation or a calling and, definitely, as literary activism. Of all the works you’ve translated, which moved you the most or transformed you the most?

TS: Translation has given me more than I deserve and, for that, I am grateful (I guess to St. Jerome.) I have come to think of the kind of work that it has allowed me to do as an act of grace and I hope not to lose sight of what joy this has been. I never imagined that I would be able to translate unpublished letters of M K Gandhi, and then Gopalkrishna Gandhi, in his abundant generosity, made me a translator and a co-worker on the book that we did together, Scorching Love. The four-volume biography of Gandhi by Narayan Desai, which I translated as My Life is My Message, gave me the opportunity to apprentice to the life of Gandhi as no other scholastic study would have done. Sarasvatichandra was important personally and as an intervention in the cultural politics of my times in Gujarat. Lilavati: a Life, in some ways, completes that engagement with GMT and the 19th century. Now I will be firmly in the first half of the 20th century, finally.

Tridip Suhrud in conversation with Jenny Bhatt for an upcoming interview

What’s your origin story as a writer or translator? Do let me know your thoughts on all or any of the above in the response area below. Or you can share on social media and tag me and I’ll reply there.

Here are some interesting links:

READ: Seeking shelter in language by Saudamini Deo (Words Without Borders)

READ: Style is on the inside by Lily Meyer (Astra Magazine)

READ: PEN Translates winners announced (English PEN)

READ: What Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Famous Novel Reveals About Linguistic Censorship by Jess (History of Yesterday)

READ: How universal are our emotions? by Nikhil Krishnan (New Yorker)

SUBMIT: Jill! A Women+ in Translation Reading Series (September)

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. She teaches 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. She lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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