What was your first impression of Ranaangan?
I read it many years ago and what remained was its effortless cosmopolitanism, its keen sense of the dangers of fascism, and its prescience.
When did you decide to translate it?
I guess you fall in love with a book. The difference is that there is no feeling of “mine, mine, mine”; instead, the sentiment is “Ours, this should belong to more of us.” That’s when I put my writing aside and prioritize another writer’s voice.
At the launch of Ranaangan, you said it’s a book we should all read — and not just because you translated it. What makes it so compelling?
Ranaangan came out in 1939. It deals with the horrors of otherness, how you can turn an entire community into “Other”, how you can treat them brutally and end up bearing the guilt of that treatment, as a society, as a nation. These processes end up harming both parties. That’s why I think it’s a book that we should all read. I believe that every choice we make as individuals – whether it’s a joke we tell, a piece of news we refuse to read, or an event we try to explain – we closer and closer to the inflection point.
How was the novel received upon its publication?
I believe he was well received, but there was some perplexity about that reception. The form of the novel was so different. It included diary entries, fables, letters, flashbacks, surreal dance sequences, and was set aboard a ship – a time and space capsule where anything could happen. Like a German woman and a Marathi man falling in love.
What place does the book occupy in the Marathi literary canon today?
The book is canonical, but it occupies its own space. It does not sit with any other book. The new form he suggested was not subsequently taken up. But his place is assured; it is still widely read.
What was Vishram Bedekar’s involvement with politics at the time he wrote the novel?
Instead of interviewing a long-dead author, we can turn to his novel for answers.
This is Chakradhar, a Marathi, who falls in love with Herta, a European. He was once in love and had his heart broken. She has already loved and had her love taken from her by the Nazis. They hang together for a short period of 10 days appeased by the sea, then the tug arrives from the port.
Bedekar speaks of several interiorities. It offers a first-person account of what it must be like to be Jewish in a nation that denies them the ordinary pleasures of citizenship: Jews could not sit on park benches, for example, and as African-Americans of the time in the United States. , could not use the toilets used by non-Jewish Germans. Bedekar inhabits the person of Chakradhar, who quietly listens to Indians discuss nationalism.
The book has a multicultural background which seems appropriate for English. How does the author portray this milieu in the original Marathi?
The Marathi that Bedekar uses is what might be called Punekar Marathi. It is the Marathi that Narayan Surve (whose poems I work on) would call with a certain restless affection, Saraswat Marathi. But here’s the thing. Chakradhar does not speak German. Herta does not speak Marathi. They had to speak to each other in English. Was the dialogue then a return to basics when it was translated into English?
The novel has already been translated. What prompted you to retranslate it?
It’s a classic. The classics deserve several translations.
What type of research led to the translation?
Translation is a vital enterprise of our culture. Think of what our English-speaking life would be like without Marquez, Hergé, Camus, Shonagon, Bama, Byapari… The list is endless. We are refreshed and restored by translations. So I’m constantly looking for the next book to translate. In the process, I’ve read a lot of books that don’t work for me. This is all part of my research.
What were the challenges in translating the book?
I have always said that translation is the act of implanting a family of words in a new culture. You must take into account the Marathic character of the language, the notions of language with which the text was created and the statelessness of English. People talk vaguely about the difficulty of translating from an Indian language into English. My answer is as follows: any translation is difficult. All languages are inadequate in the face of the cultural specificities of sprezzatura, albela, kintsugi and schadenfreude.
Some readers say your translations don’t read like translations. Are there any choices or techniques you use to achieve such a result?
I work hard, I think. I read the book several times before I started. I write the first draft by hand. I type it into the computer and as I do, I begin to feel the irregularities and angles of what I’ve written. I smooth and read the translation to a friend – the first time usually to Neela Bhagwat, who taught me Marathi many years ago. Then I work on it again and read it to Shanta Gokhale. Another redesign. Then I read the book against the translation and see if it needs to be reworked. Then it goes to my editor, Ravi Singh.
This is your ninth published translation. How has the translation experience changed for you over the years?
I was hoping it would get easier – it didn’t. Each book brings a new set of challenges, but it’s still exciting and that’s what keeps me going.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and filmmaker.