Daisy Rockwell: Meet the translator of the first Hindi novel to be nominated for the Booker Prize

Earlier this month, the longlist for the International Booker Prize was revealed and, for the first time ever, a Hindi novel was shortlisted – the 2019 novel by Delhi-based writer Geetanjali Shree Ret Samadhi, translated into English by Daisy Rockwell as sand tomb. Booker’s nod is well-deserved not only for Shree, but also for Rockwell, who over the past decade or so has quietly built up a formidable body of work as a Hindi and Urdu translator. Rockwell (an American who lives in North Bennington, Vermont, USA) has now translated works by titans like Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Sobti, Upendranath Ashk, Usha Priyamvada and most recently Pakistani writer Khadija Mastur. These translations, impeccable and elegant on a line-by-line level, are also enhanced by Rockwell’s vast knowledge of the socio-political histories and regional idiosyncrasies of North India in particular.

Earlier this month, the longlist for the International Booker Prize was revealed and, for the first time ever, a Hindi novel was shortlisted – the 2019 novel by Delhi-based writer Geetanjali Shree Ret Samadhi, translated into English by Daisy Rockwell as sand tomb. Booker’s nod is well-deserved not only for Shree, but also for Rockwell, who over the past decade or so has quietly built up a formidable body of work as a Hindi and Urdu translator. Rockwell (an American who lives in North Bennington, Vermont, USA) has now translated works by titans like Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Sobti, Upendranath Ashk, Usha Priyamvada and most recently Pakistani writer Khadija Mastur. These translations, impeccable and elegant on a line-by-line level, are also enhanced by Rockwell’s vast knowledge of the socio-political histories and regional idiosyncrasies of North India in particular.

‘Tomb of Sand’ by Geetanjali Shree; translated by Daisy Rockwell; Penguin; Rs. 699, 696 pages

During a recent Zoom interview, Rockwell shared with us the beginnings of her journey as a translator, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the early 1990s. was pretty good at Hindi,” she said. “But I didn’t manage to get into reading whole books. A few of my teachers helped—Colin Masica, who was a linguist and my advisor—and the Indian writer AK Ramanujan. Masica assigned me a 1,000-page book, Yashpal’s novel Partition Jhootha Sachto start!”

After being plunged into the depths, so to speak, Rockwell took to reading a great deal about the Indian subcontinent in the pre-Partition era – texts on geography, economics, even non-fiction that described markets, businesses, food, clothing and so on. “By the time I started reading Ashk,” Rockwell recalls, “I already felt like I knew Lahore so well.” Rockwell eventually met Ashk in India and persuaded him to let her translate his works, especially his cycle of epic novels. Girti Deewarein; the first two novels of the cycle are now available in English under falling walls and In the city a wandering mirrorrespectively.

“AK Ramanujan said in a seminar that for the translator every footnote was an admission of failure,” says Rockwell. “He had this way of speaking where almost every sentence that came out of his mouth sounded like an aphorism; you would never forget it. But also, he was talking about translating poetry when he said that. For longer works, he thought you could teach the reader to read the book as you go along, and you can see that in motion in some of the great Russian novels.

Rockwell applies this advice admirably in Ret Samadhi / Sand Tomb, a novel that follows its protagonist, a recently widowed nearly 80-year-old woman, as she gains new life, prompting her to retrace her past youth in present-day Pakistan. Themes and metaphors of death and reincarnation are widely used everywhere. ‘Tomb’, in this vein, is just one of the meanings that the Hindi word ‘samadhi can convey – it can also mean “sanctuary” or an act of self-immolation, usually undertaken by a sage. Rockwell spells out the different meanings just before page 1, uses ‘tomb’ and other narrower English words for ‘samadhi‘ towards the beginning and at the end, when the reader stayed to understand the concept, just use ‘samadhi‘ without further explanation.

Sand’s Tomb formal audacity also comes to the fore in an in-depth passage in the second half, where several well-known score novel authors – and some of their characters – make appearances in a chapter that feels like a fever dream of David. Lynch. When Rockwell first decided to translate the novel, she thought that since the tale was set in contemporary times, it would be a break from her work translating score classics such as Bhisham Sahni. tamas and Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan by Krishna Sobti. The scene was therefore a pleasant surprise.

“As a translator, it made me feel smug because I had translated some of these books, so I thought, ‘this will be easy,'” Rockwell says. “Of course it wasn’t. The things that happen in this scene are so surreal that it’s hard to pin them down exactly. But I was able to quote my own earlier translations of tamas and Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan and it did me good because the literature of the score has been a recurring theme in my translations, and I have also written scholarly works about it.

Rockwell is also a painter and writer herself. These two other vocations converge in his 2012 book The Little Book of Terror, which combines his gripping works with non-fiction writing that criticizes (among other things) the West’s myopic “Global War on Terror.” Her paternal grandfather was the iconic American illustrator and artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), whose works are seen as something of an artistic record of the country’s history from the 1930s to the 1970s. As Daisy recalls during the interview, Norman loved working “with the narrative in his head”; his wife had read the entire War and peace out loud twice as he worked.

“The reason why I approach this subject, she says, is that there is a lot of flow between the written medium and the work of art, which interests me a lot. Sometimes when I’m illustrating or doing a portrait, the work is similar to translation in that I’m initially trying to portray something accurately, but you have to leave that behind at some point and let the work become a thing. creative that stands on its own. »