The language challenge led translator Daisy Rockwell to International Booker

Since sand tomb won the 2022 International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree, the author of the Hindi original, Ret Samadhi, and his English translator Daisy Rockwell, the buzz around Hindi translations has reached a crescendo.

Of particular interest is that the Hindi translator is an American who had never been exposed to the language before she began studying it on a lark in college – “to challenge me with an unfamiliar language”.

“I knew nothing at all about Hindi or Indian culture when I started learning Hindi,” said Rockwell, born in 1969 in Massachusetts and currently a painter, writer and translator based in Vermont, in the United States, at the Deccan Herald.

“I found it very difficult from the start because it was so unfamiliar, and the American Hindi classes are full of ‘heritage learners’ (South Asian Americans with some prior knowledge), so I was the only one who didn’t know anything.

“But I saw it as an exciting challenge, and held it until the end of the first year, after which I had the opportunity to visit India for the first time and study for three months at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie.

This course was also very difficult for me. Yet by the time I returned to the United States, I was hooked and started taking classes in Indian history, culture, and language. I eventually went on to do my PhD on Hindi literature at the same university (University of Chicago).”

Before making international headlines with sand tombRockwell had previously translated many critically acclaimed Hindi books into English, including Upendranath Ashk Girti Diwarein (falling walls), by Bhisham Sahni tamas and that of Khadija Mastur Aangan (The women’s court).

While Rockwell’s cultural background may make her an outsider to the stories these stalwarts of Hindi-Urdu literature tell, she is critical of the notion.

“To say that the medium I have translated is foreign to me is inaccurate, given that I have been a regular visitor to India for over thirty years and have a doctorate in Hindi literature. For a long time, I focused on score literature, and I dare say that few people know more about the architecture, geography and zeitgeist of 1947 Lahore than I do.”

Rockwell’s doctoral dissertation was on Ashk (1910-1996), whom she met in Allahabad, where she spent a year when the author died.

“Neelabh (the late Hindi poet and son of Ashk) urged me to continue translating his father’s writings. Ashk himself had allowed me to do this before his death,” says Rockwell, whose dissertation doctorate was published by Katha under the title Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography.

Besides Ashk, Rockwell met Sobti, although she couldn’t meet Sahni.

About Shree, she said: “Interestingly, due to the pandemic, Geetanjali Shree and I, although we exchanged emails a lot, had never met a few weeks ago in London. In this sense, I did not know her as well as I had known from previous authors whom I had translated.”

She is currently working on the translation of a novel by Usha Priyamvada (American writer of Indian origin known for Pashpan Khambhe, Lal Diwarein) and another from Sobti. As expected, it is inundated with requests for post-International Booker translations.

Rockwell hopes the award will make the translation scene in India “more systematic”.

“There is a huge surge of interest in translation and non-English literary works in India because of this award,” she said. Outside of India, I hope publishers will start showing more enthusiasm for South Asian translation projects. South Asia is full of talented non-English speaking writers and gifted translators who work between different languages.”

Besides Hindi, Rockwell studied “a little Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam, but the only other language I’ve translated is Urdu… I don’t know why I stuck with Hindi – it’s a bit like asking, “Why are you still married to your wife? Well, I don’t know, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist, editor and arts consultant. She blogs about archanakhareghose.com)