36. What a Literary Translator Brings to the Text

SEPTEMBER 09, 2022: Can reading around a text—contextualizing it and developing a relationship with it—help us translate it better?

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Dear Reader,

In early July, I recorded an audio interview with the award-winning Tamil to English translator, N. Kalyan Raman, for Desi Books (if you’re a new subscriber: this is a global, multimedia forum I run separately featuring South Asian literature.) Due to other deadlines and my own translation launch at the end of July, I finally completed the edits and published that interview today. You can listen to it and read some excerpts here.

One of the things Kalyan mentioned is how it took him seven years or thereabouts to finish translating a recently published historical and politically-charged novel. Here’s what he said:

I finished the project maybe seven years after I had signed the contract. But it was in that period that I reflected and thought about it and I developed a relationship with the text, you might say. So it does take me that long. I read the books that I mentioned in my afterword and I spoke to people and sort of turned over those questions in my mind. So there was that.

Kalyan Raman, N., and Jenny Bhatt. “#DesiCraftChat: N. Kalyan Raman on Translating Vaasanthi’s Breaking Free and All That a Translator Brings to a Text.” Desi Books LLC, September 9, 2022.

The above was just after he talked about how a translator often brings as much learning and experience to a text as the original writer. He cited the example of Gregory Rabassa, who frequently traveled to the places where his texts were set so he could understand their politics and histories. [Kalyan mentioned Rabassa’s memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, which I’ve added to my list now. There’s a lovely excerpt on Google Play if you like.]

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A new review of my recent translation

It made me think of how much I read around my debut translation. In my introduction (an excerpt at Literary Hub), I shared how I read all 600-some short stories by Dhumketu to select the twenty-six that are in the collection. My concern at the outset, given that many of the stories had been written about a hundred years ago and some were even set during medieval times, was whether the stories would resonate enough with me (I wasn’t even thinking about an external reader at that point) so that I could immerse myself well enough within their language intricacies, plots, characters, and themes. Thankfully, given that I had 600-some stories to select from, I was able to find the ones that resonated well enough with me. And I actually translated about thirty or so.

I also read both of Dhumketu’s memoirs, Jivan Panth (The Path of Life) and Jivan Rang (The Color of Life), some of his own literary criticism work, some of his travel essays, and a handful of his novels. This part of my reading was driven by the same temporal distance concern as above and also a concern with Dhumketu’s language, which was a mix of Sanskritized Gujarati, colloquial Gujarati, and some rural dialects that we don’t even get to hear today. There were also obscure folklore references and idioms that aren’t in use today. Dhumketu was a thorough historian himself and sometimes added extensive footnotes even to his fiction. Still, I had to go digging in older dictionaries and other reference texts. So reading his other works gave me some pointers as to where to look.

And, finally, I read a few studies on Gujarati literature, particularly the modern Gujarati short story. Languages and literatures have vast histories and accretions of traditions, cultures, and levels or forms of discourse. Understanding the evolving literary scene during his time and how that may have influenced his writing helped me see a path beyond a literal or lexical or even syntactical fidelity to get to a contextual fidelity—being true to the author’s tone, intention, and meaning.

A question you may well ask: did all of the above make the actual translation better? In hindsight, I could have finished another entire book-length translation in that reading time. I have a two-fold response.

First, the additional reading certainly gave me a greater level of self-confidence and motivation, despite my rookie translation errors, with this first work. It validated the cultural and historical significance of the author and his works. It convinced me that it would be alright to commit several years of my life to this project (which, as some of you know, is how long it takes from the moment of commitment until the post-launch promo cycle of any book.)

A new Q&A about my recent translation

Second, it armed me better to sell the book to my literary agent, both the India and US publishers, and the many media folks and readers who’ve asked questions about the stories, Gujarati literature, the Gujarati language, and the author. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I’m an expert in any of those areas. But I believe I’ve accumulated sufficient knowledge to position and introduce the work properly to readers from different cultures. This last is so important for literary translations. Readers from the receiving culture(s) are mostly going to be oblivious at best and apathetic at worst about literature from unknown (to them) languages and cultures. And while I don’t want to become their obligatory tourist guide to another culture, I also don’t want to simply send my translation out there without some sort of priming, if you will.

I should add that I was actually living in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India the entire time that I translated this story collection. So I was immersed in the language and culture fully. While that’s not necessary in every case, I believe it created an additional kind of textual immersion and relationship for me because I was also witnessing Dhumketu’s timeless themes playing out all around me.

I’d love to know your thoughts. If you’re a translator, do you do a lot of this kind of reading around a text? How does that contextualization—or, as Kalyan Raman said, developing a relationship with the text—help you? If you’re a reader of translated works, does it matter to you that the translator brings some of this knowledge to their work? Are you able to tell, perhaps, from the translator’s introduction or note and does that enhance your reading experience? Do share your thoughts in the response area below. Or you can share on social media and tag me so I can respond.

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Until next week.

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Jenny Bhatt

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