The Hindi Novel of Geetanjali Shree Ret Samadhitranslated into English by sand tomb by Daisy Rockwell, made history by becoming the first Hindi novel – and the first from India and South Asia – to win the International Booker Prize for translated books published in the UK and Ireland. The book was declared the winner in a group of six in London on Thursday night, with Shree and Rockwell split equally in the £50,000 prize.
Translator Frank Wynne, president of the jury, said: “This is a luminous novel about India and the score, but whose spellbinding brilliance and fierce compassion weave together youth and age, men and women, family and nation into a kaleidoscopic whole.
Ahead of the announcement, the writer and translator wrote about the translation and excitement, respectively, exclusively for Scroll.in:
The story of two translations
By Geetanjali Shree
A little return to the past on tiptoe will allow an incursion into the present!
Ret Samadhi had just come out. I was unable to join my friend and translator Annie Montaut in Jaipur that year. So I sent my new book with someone. She, unlike those who put a work away because it is demanding, stays with it and shortly after writing it, she translates it and finds a publisher for it.
Strangely, almost at the same time, “matchmaker” Arunava Sinha, as Daisy called him the other day, wrote to me about the possible translation and publication in English of the new novel, if it were free and I was interested.
Here began the story of two translations and discoveries along the new path.
It was also a time when some who read (and liked!) the novel said that I had written my most untranslatable work to date. To which another translator friend replied “and what is a translator worth if he does not meet this challenge”.
This is precisely what my two translators have undertaken.
Working on it simultaneously on two separate continents and bombarding myself with long questionnaires, often preceded by I-know-I-think-but-need-to-do-twice. They were so diligent about this double and triple cross-checking and more, that I think the three of us are in strong competition as to who is the most patient of all of us!
Also, the dialogues being translated is another long, very long book, if anyone is interested!
A writer works with an intuition honed over the years – grounded in her experiences, observations, history, geography, osmosis in the air and an aesthetic sense – which constantly guides her to achieve balance, even if she is very adventurous and risky. balance often, between the different arts (all arts make each work of art) in the work being erected. She quietly lets herself sit where the muse will find her and the stories that surge within her will slowly begin to unfold.
And almost to the writer’s surprise, a work will begin its foray into creative terrain, exploring paths, climbing slopes, probing depths and mapping its own boundaries or choosing to cross them. It is an ongoing interaction between the writer and his medium where each bends the other. The operative organs are the senses, and not always at their exaggeratedly conscious level, but even subconscious and dare I say unconscious!
Enter the translators and their curiosities and queries lay everything on the table, demanding to be explained. This is what my dear translators asked me. Knowing the context of things, the choice of words and other modes, the facts of things. Answering them was not always easy, since I was not a researcher presenting my thesis. But it certainly led me down new paths.
Sometimes it was exciting – as I retraced my steps, I could suddenly see my own pursuits and sights better. As for the back. The back of a woman tired of life turns into the back of a longing old woman. The tired image started as a still life image with me, almost atrophied, but slowly began to come alive with new desires and turned into a springboard for the story or stories to come together and take off.
At other times it baffled me – why did I write this? And like that ? I almost had to guess and maybe I made it up again!
But the translators showed me my inspirations and made me aware of my own inclinations and visionary springs. Like holding a mirror to show me and my work.
As for Annie, I couldn’t read her rendering. But her questions, her sensibility grounded in Hindi literature and North Indian life and culture, and the moments in her reading when the audience responded with certain recognizable emotions, deepened my faith in her. His questions about language revealed to me his sense of linguistic cultures. Our dialogue has constantly enriched both of us.
So also with Daisy. Her enjoyment of idiosyncrasies in the language, her parallel play and inventiveness with English versus my Hindi (watch the crow sequences where we both sing happily and independently!), her confidence at times “ticking me off” and quoting no less than AK Ramanujan, once his teacher, on the inventive independence of translation, all have continued our dialogue and translation.
A dialogue with new friends. Based more on a shared sensibility and recognition of the soul and essence of the text, rather than an agreement on literals.
It was a question of communication. What is communication and how do we communicate? Certainly not simply by placing the meaning of the word in another language. Sometimes without words. Like an animal and a bird could do with me. Sometimes without understanding the other. While Cassandra struggled again and again to communicate with people who didn’t listen to her and didn’t believe her! Sometimes confused. Like two people do with each other even in the same language!
Something communicates, changes, even miscommunicates, but works if essence and soul are at par. We believe that the translation and communication is about an exact replica, but it is not, it is about a shared report and meaning.
Meaning itself is mercurial – my own meaning is not a fixed, rigid thing!
Yes, I found the two experiences extremely overlapping and broadening horizons. When we were done, it was no longer about me and her and her, but about two already different texts of this interaction, one learning about different ways of seeing, expressing, even being. the other. It will even change me as a reader now to see Ma de Ret Samadhi in its English transformation full of nuances and cadences from another milieu. And the reader of this medium will forever have samadhi and jalebi within reach, to extend the sublime to the ridiculous in a way, but also as new philosophical constructions to understand an experience.
Simply put, in all its variations, the translation process for me has been about expanding the vocabulary of life.
Notes from a shortlisted translator as she packs
By Daisy Rockwell
Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen…why are these words ringing in my head as I’m packing for London? I climb the stairs… Ellowen Deeowen…I do the laundry… Ellowen Deeowen…I’m looking for my cobweb suitcase… Ellowen Deeowen…
I have read hundreds of books – maybe more! – located in London. I know the London of Dickens, and that of Austen, I know the London of Agatha Christie and PD James. I know the London of Barbara Pym and that of Elizabeth Jane Howard, the London of Thackeray and that of Trollope. There are the Londons of childhood: the London of Mary Poppins and the London of JM Barrie. But here I meditate on Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha falling, falling, falling out of a plane, hurtling through the air to Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen .
When I try to shake this image, a more ridiculous image takes its place. A movie. Typical landmarks of London. And the resounding and authoritative voice of Amrish Puri:Yeh London hai. Duniya ka sabse bada shehar. Main bais baras se yahan reh raha hun. Rozana isi sadak se guzarta hun…” (This is London. The biggest [greatest?] city in the world. I have lived here for twenty-two years. I walk in this street every day…). I always remembered the opening lines of the Bollywood hit Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge because of this absurd claim: that London is the greatest city in the world. And an Indian, to boot!
Later, as I continued to wander around the house looking for things to pack, my feet moving to the steady rhythm of Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen, I wonder why I think of these Indian Londons, and my mind turns to other Indian Londons: to the legendary beginnings of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association in a bar or a cafe or perhaps a Chinese restaurant, frequented by Syed Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Mulk Raj Anand and maybe others. In London by Qurratulain Hyder in his novel in Urdu Aag ka Dariya (River of Fire), and the Londons of Gracious goodness meand Hanif Kureishi’s Pakistani London. My beautiful laundromat; The Suburban Buddha. Ellowen DeeowenEllowen Deeowen…
And as I prepare my readings for the London Booker events, a crow slaying here, a Mahabharataesque family there, I realize that we – Geetanjali Shree and I – in our Bookershock state, are hurtling through the air together , clutching our copies of Ret Samadhi and sand tomb as if they were parachutes or maybe protective talismans, ready or not ready, about to make our own landing in Indian Ellowen Deeowen Ellowen Deeowen.