I read the translated version of Geetanjali Shree’s novel, sand tombbefore fetching the original in Hindi, Ret Samadhi. It’s a very well told story. Interestingly, I was guided to the English translation by Harish Trivedi’s article in Outlook. When I read the review I went back to the Hindi version. I am a slow Hindi reader; my medium is urdu. After reading both, I thought it was very well translated. Somewhere he gets the right tone and nuances of colloquial Punjabi – the novel is set against the backdrop of the score, and his character travels to Pakistan. This is the most difficult part of a translated work.
Overall, this is a great time for translated works in general and Indian literature in particular. It is wonderful that the novel has attracted the attention of international literature. Previously, we Indians had to translate into English to reach the West, especially in the days of Rabindranath Tagore. But now it is Westerners who are attracted to Hindi literature and are translating our works. In this respect, the efforts of the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, a non-profit Parisian institute, are very commendable. They have translated many works from Indian languages. Several of my own collections of stories and poems have been and are still being translated into French.
In India, I am in favor of making an Indian language, with English, the liaison language. This language, I think, can only be Hindi. It is easy to read translations from Indian languages into Hindi because we are culturally connected and can get, for example, references to Arjuna and Draupadi or expressions of panghat and sindoor. So in India, we should share our stories in bilingual translations: Hindi and Bengali, Hindi and Assamese, and so on. Today, it is from the Northeast where the most dynamic poetry emerges. They are not shared with the rest of India. I made a small effort in this direction with A poem a day (HarperCollins India, 2020), in which I selected and translated 365 contemporary poems by 279 poets from 34 languages of India. It took me about nine years to do it.
Speaking of languages, although my mother tongue is Punjabi, I write in Urdu. I can understand Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi; therefore, I can speak and understand at least five languages. During Covid I made an effort to learn Malayalam because I thought it was important to learn at least one South Indian language. In Indian languages, there is so much literature: Tamil and Malayalam, Manipuri and Khasi. We need to hear these stories. Their translation into Hindi will perhaps be more convenient than into English because of the elitist character of the latter. Translations should not be restricted to international readers; in India, we will benefit a lot from translation from and into Indian languages. We must share these languages. Hindi can be a good way to understand stories from all over India.
Outraged A poem a day, I have translated two volumes of works by Rabindranath Tagore. I didn’t translate Gitanjali because it’s not Tagore’s best work. It contains poems he had selected and translated for the West. Tagore’s high was in his youth and when he wrote for children –Baghban and Nindiya Chor— that no one had considered translating. Before Tagore, I had translated Marathi poets like Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar and, in particular, the instigator Namdeo Dhasal. Dhasal was a popular poet. Her language is so different from commonly used Marathi and her expression is raw and intense. The same can be said of the works of Malika Amar Sheikh, his wife. She is a poet with a strong voice. However, his diction is different from Namdeo.
An important element that must be taken into account when we talk about translations is the meaning, which goes beyond the dictionary. In poetry, for example, it is feeling that is more important than meaning. You have to work hard to catch the right phrase and not miss the poet’s image. This is why, in publishing Tagore, we chose the format that had the original, the translation by Tagore and my translation. In this way, you have just seen how Tagore ruined his own poems by translating them; to reach the West, he would change the expression, the end line, or somewhere in the middle, the images. He did all of this for a purpose. That’s why I think Tagore’s original bangla expressions are much richer. But whoever translated Tagore had Gitanjali as a starting point even if it is not his best work. His nature poems and his love poems are his best.
Today, it is from the Northeast where the most dynamic poetry emerges. They are not shared with the rest of India. I made a small effort in this direction.
I worked on translations of Lalon Fakir (also known as Lalon Shah) and Kazi Nazrul Islam. It was a promise I made to (former president) the late Pranab Mukherjee. He told me to translate Nazrul Geeti—the poet’s songs—after translating Tagore. I told him I was already on it. I find Lalon Fakir more fascinating than Kazi saab. The two Shahs, Lalon Shah and Bulleh Shah, lived a century apart, but their voices are very similar: they both seem to speak as one. baoul singer. There is another interesting fact: Lalon lived 106 years and Bulleh Shah lived 105 years. I grew up with Bulleh Shah’s work, but I find Lalon’s work extremely rich. Among contemporary poets, I admire Haldhar Nag, a Sambhalpuri poet and writer from Odisha, known as “Lokkabi Ratna”.
Geetanjali’s victory drew attention to translations, which are thriving in India. But several writers in Indian languages have yet to be translated. For example, there is a Malayalam poet, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, whose works should be transposed into other Indian languages. It should have been translated a long time ago. Sometimes cinema is a good medium for the journey of a literary work through media. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay wrote Pather Panchali in 1929, but it only caught the world’s attention after Satyajit Ray adapted it for a film in 1955. Similarly, Goutam Ghose’s film By (1984), based on the Bengali story Paathi, drew our attention to the work of Samaresh Basu, as well as the stories of Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov. Premchand’s story Kafanalso reveals similar storytelling skills.
There are always so many things to translate. It should be an ongoing process. From Hindi and Urdu, Rakhshanda Jalil has translated extensively, including stories from writers across the border, such as Intizar Husain. In literature, there are no boundaries. My own translations cross Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi. These are the languages we share in the subcontinent. In A poem a day, you’ll see shades of Tamil from Sri Lanka and Bengali from Bangladesh. Geetanjali Shree’s novel is also about crossing borders.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Our Stories, Their Words”)
(Opinions expressed are personal)
(As said at Nawaid Anjoum)