17 December 2012

Talking walls: Translator Jason Grunebaum on Uday Prakash

An edited version of this interview was published in Time Out Delhi.
A sweeper’s life changes when he finds money stowed away in the wall of a Saket gym; a man in a Madhya Pradesh village finds he’s been robbed of his identity; a child in Jahangirpuri says uncannily grown-up things as his head gets bigger and bigger. These are some of the memorable characters who populate the surreal pages of Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi, recently shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (the winner will be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival next year). Prakash’s is the third translated work to have been shortlisted over the last three years, and the only one this year. Should a translated work win the prize, the award is split equally between translator and the author, giving equal recognition to both arts. Translator Jason Grunebaum spoke to Trisha Gupta about a wider readership for Hindi literature, the power of translations and the acerbic voice of Uday Prakash.

The Walls of Delhi is the second translation of Uday Prakash’s work you’ve brought out – the first was The Girl with the Golden Parasol, in 2010. How did you become a Hindi translator, and what drew you to the work of Uday Prakash? 

I'm a fiction writer, and I learned Hindi, so it always seemed natural to translate. I began in college—I translated some Premchand stories. And I worked as an interpreter in Jammu & Kashmir in the 90s. After I left humanitarian work to pursue an MFA in fiction, I wanted to find a contemporary Hindi voice to translate. I'd heard of Uday Prakash as a poet. But I’ll never forget the day I found a copy of his Tirich story collection and began reading ‘Paul Gomra and his Motor Scooter’ (‘Paul Gomra ka Scooter’). I fell in love right from the first paragraph: the tone, the urgency, the relevance, the deft storytelling, unexpected characters, and, perhaps above all, the humour. As I read more of his stories, I also found his narrative modes—the way he told his stories, with their delightful meanderings and authorial intrusions—extremely innovative and inventive in ways quite different than prose I’d come across by South Asian writers writing in English.    

Why did you begin with Peeli Chhatri Wali Ladki?
The great translator Michael Henry Heim once said that the litmus test of whether a work of literature ought to be translated is if you think it’s a crime that it's not available in translation. I concluded it was a crime for the English-reading world not to have access to the urgent voice of ‘The Girl with the Golden Parasol’.

The stories in The Walls of Delhi – ‘Dilli ki Deewar’, ‘Mohanlal’ and ‘Mangosil’–
 originally appeared in separate collections. What made you bring the three together?

I had translated ‘The Walls of Delhi’ for a wonderful anthology edited by Hirsh Sawhney called Delhi Noir, though because of space limitations the story had to be cut significantly. Uday had asked me to translate ‘Mohandas’, which had just come out the first time I met Uday, and ‘Mangosil’ as well. Once I had these three stories side by side—really two novellas and a long short story—I thought that they could work very well together in one volume: the two city stories and one village story show the range of Uday's world and work, while all three stories are unified by the sense of a system stacked mightily against each of the protagonists. A single volume containing essentially three novellas is not something many publishers would consider, but luckily Terri-ann White of UWA Press in Australia immediately saw how well the book worked, and took a chance on it—one that’s paid off with the reviews in the Australian press, and now with the DSC Prize shortlisting. 

Uday Prakash wrote ‘Dilli ki Deewar’ as part of Dattatreya ke Dukh, whose darkly funny takes on 21st century Delhi were united by a quietly cynical, desultory sutradhar called Vinayak Dattatreya. And there’s a first person narrator in both Mohanlal and Mangosil (the latter is even a freelance Hindi writer). Are these narratorial voices autobiographical? 

To some extent, absolutely. Uday toiled for years and years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker to support himself as a Hindi writer—no cushy academic posts for him, a decided outsider from the literary establishment—and it wasn't an easy life at all. To that extent, Vinayak Dattatreya is based on autobiography. But I would also say these ‘authorial intrusions’ aren’t simply a nod to Uday’s own life: they’re part of the urgency, play, and formal innovation in the stories.    

The English publishing market in India is a busy, fast-growing one, but translations from other Indian languages are still few and far between. Why is that, and what do you think publishers ought to be doing more/better?

It's a huge and tragic problem throughout the English-reading world, actually. About two-thirds of the books published each year in Germany comes from translated literature; in contrast, in the US, in a good year, the figure is about three per cent. The reasons are complicated, but essentially publishers view translations as an even greater risk to take in a market already heavily squeezed—they also have to pay both the author and translator. And yes, there is a lack of good translators: in the end, translating is really a labor of love, with few prospects for good pay or recognition. But since a translation can only be as good as the translator, I would suggest that if publishers were serious about attracting better translators, they need to pay them more.

Books only really get one shot to be translated, and it's heartbreaking to see wonderful works in Hindi represented poorly by a mediocre translation. Translating is not just a technical job; translating is writing. Publishers need to strengthen efforts to find new voices in Hindi and other Indian languages to translate, and promote and make a commitment to these writers as they would any others. Often it’s during periods when a large number of works are brought into a literary culture via translation that a literary culture can really blossom: English-language readers always need ‘news from abroad’— even if the ‘abroad’ might still be the same country.

Is there a Western readership for contemporary Indian-language literature in translation? What has been the response to Uday Prakash’s books?

Very positive. In Australia, particularly, The Walls of Delhi received several in-depth, positive reviews. There is a considerable readership to be had, despite so few such works making it to the West (72 works of Hindi prose were published in English translation from 2000-12, all but one in India). Devotees of South Asian literature in English will be, I'm sure, quite excited to discover voices like Uday’s that bring news of an India they don't even suspect exist—a world wildly different from one populated with overripe mangos.

How tied is this Western readership to the university-based teaching of Indian languages: the University of Chicago where you are a Hindi instructor, or the University of Australia, whose press published The Walls of Delhi?

I would say that the university functions as the place where the necessary deep language training and hands-on practice with the craft of literary translation occurs. And, absolutely, university presses have historically been the ones most consistently publishing high-quality literary translations.   

With more mainstream publishers, the overpowering tendency seems to be to play it safe: most translations that come out are of books already considered classics in their own languages. You’ve chosen to translate a writer who is utterly current, whose work is even now ruffling feathers among the Hindi-reading public. How does this contemporaneity, this live socio-political debate, affect the fate of a translation (or doesn’t it)?

Yes, you’re right about why publishers re-publish ‘classics’. Also, they’re often in the public domain, and so there’s no need to pay for rights: it’s cheaper. And who can resist the latest retranslation of Rangbhoomi or Anna Karenina? Unfortunately, it's a zero-sum game on the bookshelves at bookshops: for every retranslation, there’s one less new translation. I realize they have to play it safe some of the time, but any publisher worth his salt needs to take risks, too. We have found good homes for Uday's work, and luckily I still think there are plenty of excellent publishers who take risks on the controversial. Reading and translating and publishing can and should still be a little dangerous, even in a free society.  

Uday Prakash’s work often uses forms of address that frame his reader as Indian – references to the corruption of the country, to specific political events, to the Page Three phenomenon, for instance. How does this sort of exhortation, to an imagined community that reads the same newspapers, work with a non-Indian reader?

I’m always keenly aware of audience: who’s reading the English version? Is it someone in the US or Australia, or India or Pakistan? Hopefully there will be readers in all these countries and more. Translation is about enlarging the conversation of literature, and as a translator, I try to make sure no reader is left out. So if there are important details or local references that a non-Indian reader might not be expected to understand, and if the context doesn’t provide enough of a clue, I’ll try to gloss the item within the text as unobtrusively as I can. I avoid footnotes and glossaries, partly because they weren't in the original and suggest more academic than literary writing, and partly because I don’t like the way they divide the readers into those-who-know and those-who-don’t. The challenge for me is to achieve a text that won’t leave a non-Indian reader scratching his or her heard, while at the same time not seeming too “pre-chewed” to the Indian reader. I call upon Americanisms as needed, and have drawn upon phrases and cadences from Indian English when appropriate. What I seek is a creative hybridization, that rewrites Uday’s Hindi into an English that realizes the voice, originality, and vitality of his prose.

What, according to you, is the most difficult thing to do when you’re translating from Hindi to English?

This is a difficult question! A translation is really a series of challenges. It’s never really done: there’s always the nagging feeling that a better choice could have been made, a different strategy adopted. (And this nagging feeling is quite different than the one I get when I read something I’ve written directly in English.)

There are many things about Hindi-to-English translation that are particularly challenging. Let me give you an example from my current work with my colleague Ulrike Stark – we’re translating Manzoor Ahtesham’s novel The Tale of the Missing Man (Dastan-e Lapata). How does one reproduce in English an effect that’s analogous to Hindi’s various lexical registers: Sanskrit- versus Perso-Arabic-derived words, particularly when the use of different registers is an important stylistic feature? You’ll have to read the book to find out how we solved the problem!

As someone invested both in Hindi and English, how do you view the publishing scene in India in both languages? Is it hard to bridge the deeply divided worlds of English and Hindi, or does being an outsider make it easier?

Looking at it from the outside, it’s pretty clear that English publishing is booming in India, and it’s been great to see traditionally English-language publishers like Penguin India start a Hindi list. Big Hindi publishers like Rajkamal and Vani continue to publish in Hindi, though a quick comparison of list prices between the Hindi and English publishing world shows you where the divide lies. I think that more of the big publishing houses would probably like to publish more in Hindi and other regional languages, but I think the problem for them has been how to price the books.

And yes, I think it has been easier for me to be an outsider when it comes to taking part in both the Hindi and English literary worlds. My Hindi self has its allegiance with the writers I translate because I love their work, my English self likes the English writers I like, and in the end I feel privileged to have access to both worlds, and lucky that I might be able to contribute to some small degree to bridge the two. But I reserve my greatest respect for those who are truly and deeply conversant with both literary spheres. As you said, the two are deeply divided, and there ought to be more points of overlap. Clearly, translation can play a critical role—and how translations are perceived is also crucial.     

Are you and/or Uday Prakash planning to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival this year? What impact, if any, do you think the DSC Prize will have on the world of Hindi literature and Hindi literature in translation?

I’ve heard only great things from friends and writers who’ve attended it in the past, and I’m excited to say that both Uday and I will be attending this year. It’ll be my first time. Over the three years of the DSC Prize, it’s been heartening to see three works from Hindi make the longlists. My hope is that publishers will make an even stronger commitment to seek out and publish translations of important Hindi literature, both new and old, and that the right authors and right translators are able to find one another in the process. 

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