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Daisy Rockwell On Studying Hindi Language & Becoming One Of The Finest Hindi To English Translators

  • IWB Post
  •  June 29, 2018

Painter and Writer Daisy Rockwell is a Hindi Scholar and has translated many famed books in English. The celebrated Hindi-Urdu translator from America started learning Hindi at the age of 19 after mastering Latin, French, German and ancient Greek.

One of her most acknowledged works includes translating Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk’s books – Hats and Doctors, a collection of short stories, and Girti Diwarein, titled Falling Walls, into English. Having worked closely with Ashk, Rockwell penned down his biography in 2004 documenting his contribution in the field of Hindi literature. Talking about her connection with Ashk, she says, “I started reading Ashk in graduate school and I was drawn to his attention to detail and his focus on literary production. His work is full of poetry and quotations, and is a great meditation on what it means to be a creative person.”

Rockwell recently spoke to Scroll about how she got into Hindi and translation, why Hindi literature might be more difficult to translate than Urdu, and where translations stand in the larger scheme of publishing.

The Beginning

It was Rockwell’s advisor in graduate school at the University of Chicago who encouraged her to take up the translation, of course not with the purpose of publication. She remembers, “I also had the great good fortune to take a translation seminar with AK Ramanujan, perhaps the best known and most talented translator from South Asian languages. My subsequent experiences in academia discouraged me from pursuing translation, as it is not currently considered an academically rigorous form of scholarship, at least not in the US. It was not until I turned my back on academia altogether that I returned to translation.”

The challenges she faces

According to Rockwell, the language fluidity is missing in the US. She confesses, “Code-switching, the practice of sliding effortlessly from one language to the next, or mixed idioms, like Hinglish, is practically non-existent in the US, outside of immigrant communities. I find it very hard to switch back and forth mid-stream between Hindi and English. I do think all of this difficulty makes me extremely attentive to linguistic details and nuances. Hindi and English do not flow into each other in my mind, the way they might for a bilingual person, and when I am translating from Hindi into English, I’m carrying every word and phrase to a completely different territory.”

Also, she believes that aspects of dialect and idiom cannot be translated into a foreign language. It’s not cool, according to Rockwell. She explains, “There is a school of translation in India which feels that smoothing these elements out is doing violence to the original text and that translating it into English at all is doing violence really, because of the hegemony discussed above. However, if one has committed to rendering a text in English, one must bite the bullet and figure out how to get it done. If a nickname or something is particularly hilarious, I might keep it in Hindi. It’s really a case-by-case basis for me.”

Rockwell’s trick is to not overdo the translation so that the non-Indian readers get overwhelmed and put the book down, and not under-do it as it might irritate the Indian readers. She says, “One rule of thumb I use is I ask myself: “Is this word used very often in Indian English?” “Did this word make it into Hobson-Jobson?” If the answer is yes, I will keep it. I might also put in a word to give the reader a hint, like “crunchy chiuda”, but never naan bread or chai tea.”

She added, “Kinship terms are hands down the most difficult aspect of translation into English from South Asian languages in my opinion. Women’s writing contains way more of these terms than men’s writing, simply because there is more action inside the house than outside, generally. With these, I try my best to come up with English equivalents, but also include some original terms so I won’t be accused of over-translation. The problem with the kinship terms, of course, is not only are they very elaborate, but they are all context-centric, so one person’s devar is another person’s bhai sahib, is another’s chacha ji, etc. In Falling Walls, I called Chetan’s elder brother Bhai Sahib and used as I would use a name because I simply couldn’t imagine him without that title, and he was an important character. I called the mother Ma because this is perfectly understandable in English, but I didn’t call Bhai Sahib’s wife Bhabhi, because he also gives her real name, and it would get confusing with all the bhabhis in the house.”

Process of translation

Describing the process, she says, “My translations go through phases: each book will go through a minimum of five drafts before it hits the editor’s desk. The first draft focuses on accuracy; the fifth draft focuses on English readability. The ones in between are on a continuum between these two. My copy editors will tell you that I continue to aggressively revise the text all the way until it departs for the printer.”

Comparing Hindi and Urdu, she thinks that translating some Hindi authors into English is a tougher job. She says, “I think that Hindi authors still feel that they are forging a new idiom and a new literature. This makes Hindi extremely difficult to translate at times. Certainly way more difficult than Urdu prose, which does not have the same “newness” chip on its shoulder. Hindi writing is still in a state of efflorescence and contestation. Krishna Sobti, for example, is extremely difficult to translate – she almost has her own idiolect – and I have just started to work on Geetanjali Shree, who is also very challenging.”

Future of book translation

According to the celebrated translator, publishing houses like Penguin Random House and Harper Collins are taking translation very seriously these days. She explains, “I think the next step is to have translated texts treated as regular books and not ghettoized into special translation-only lists. I understand the need for these, but I also think, and this is really a global problem for English, that translation is marketed as something only serious intellectuals would tangle with it. It’s hard to read and maybe not all that fun. We need to move out of that space. I am super excited for that reason that my translation of Krishna Sobti’s book will be on the Hamish Hamilton list with Penguin. “

About future projects

She’s currently translating five books, and only one is by Ashk from his Falling Walls (Girti Divarein) series. Revealing some of the interesting ones, she says, “I have two novels by the Urdu author Khadija Mastur coming out from PRH: The Women’s Courtyard (Aangan) will be published in September of this year, and Zameen, which I am working on right now, will come out next year. Both of these are Partition-related novels. I’ve also just finished Krishna Sobti’s latest novel, Gujarat, Pakistan se Gujarat, Hindustan, and that will be published early next year. Last, but not least, I have just agreed to translate Geetanjali Shree’s new novel, Ret Samadhi. Publisher, TBA.”

Interestingly, Rockwell has now decided to focus more on women writers so she can help them share the same limelight men have been enjoying for years. She says, “I decided two years ago that I wanted to focus on translating women authors. I realized suddenly that I’d only been translating men (Ashk, Bhisham Sahni, and Shrilal Shukla), and I felt fed up with the male gaze. It’s a bit of a Twitter truism to say this, but there are many interesting stories being told by women, and I was tired of translating detailed descriptions of male desire and women’s breasts. All of my most recent translations, therefore, are of works by women, and the stories really are much more diverse.”

Rockwell says that studying Latin at the age of 11 or 12 helped her become more conscious of language. As far as writing her own book is concerned in the future, she believes, “Translation is a form of creative writing, it’s just creative writing within very strict parameters. Robert Frost once said that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Non-translation writing for me is like tennis with the net down as well. You can do anything, but do you want to?”


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