As Krishna Sobti: A Counter Archive hits the stands, co-editor Sukrita Paul Kumar tells us what makes the writings of the grande dame of literature special and how translation is crucial for better understanding of our differences
While reading the English translation of a literary work of an Indian writer, we often wonder how one could access the cultural context or the literary tradition from which the original text may have evolved. Sometimes, we can smell the soil and sweat, but, at times, the characters remain confined between covers. Routledge UK and South Asia has come up with Writer in Context Series to help fill this gap in critical literary studies. With Sukrita Paul Kumar and Chandana Dutta as the series editors, nearly a dozen books will be published over the next couple of years. The editors have picked up writers from different Indian languages, belonging to the post-Independence period. This week, the first book in the series, the UK edition of the volume Krishna Sobti: A Counter Archive, edited by Sukrita and Rekha Sethi, hit the stands.
Sukrita says though translation poses challenges that, at times, seem insurmountable, it needs to be pursued and supported for better understanding of differences, within the country and outside. “Translation arouses sensitivities towards the ‘stranger’ and the activity itself can make us accommodate and respect differences.” Here Sukrita, who held the Aruna Asaf Ali Chair in the University of Delhi and is known for her poignant poetry and painstaking translations, gives us a sense of the series and what makes Sobti transcend generations and languages.
What is the idea behind the series?
For a comprehensive understanding of a literary text, it needs also to be placed within the context of the literary cultural tradition of the language in which the text originally comes from. Each volume aims to present samples from the writer’s oeuvre, along with critical essays on the reception of the works, the major literary contribution of the writer, a biochronology, reminiscences, memorabilia, etc. This will greatly facilitate in understanding and teaching of the writer in translation. This is a collective venture, an important intervention in literary studies in India and abroad.
What makes Sobti special or different when it comes to translation?
Indeed Sobti is special. Extraordinary, because in each of her novels she uses a different Hindi that negotiates with Punjabi or Gujarati or Rajasthani, or even the language of ‘Old Delhi’. The language of her story is born from the geographical and cultural region her characters belong to. That makes it very difficult to translate the inflections and tonal quality of her different voices into English. She is an excellent wordsmith… the translator has to match her linguistic skills with hers.
When did you first meet Sobti? What are your memories of her?
I met her way back in the early ’90s first. I remember her as very warm and generous, both in emotions as well as in giving gifts, but also she came across as a person of strong convictions, one who would not let go of anything easily. The manuscript of her first novel, Channa, remained locked in a box for over half a century… She would not take it out for publication till nearly the last year of her life when she was persuaded to have it published. She was someone who lived in total autonomy and rejoiced in narrating anecdotes that vouched for this. She believed that her antecedents could be traced to Greece because she had seen a Greek coin that carried the name Sobti. She was also very alert and attentive to politics; day to day news affected her and she reacted strongly by also protesting and writing on some political issues. Our volume on her brings out these varied aspects of her being.
How can a translator become one with the author?
One of the great virtues of a translator is to be absolutely humble and have the ability to submit to the experience of the text to be translated. The owning of the experience is mandatory. Also, one must translate a text that one likes and, in fact, loves it to be able to sacrifice one’s own ideas, opinions and biases. After all, when one is in love, one is ready to die for the other!
You have been translating texts for years. Have you arrived at a process?
There is no rigid or fixed process that one arrives at conclusively. That is why I enjoy it as much as perhaps writing my own poetry. Translation too needs to be thought of as dynamic and creative, something that seeks innovative ways of dealing with new dilemmas and choices. Fresh strategies need to be worked out all the time. For example, now I find reading a translation aloud to match with the tonal quality of the original very helpful. Several drafts of translation may be done… sometimes, only to discover that the first one was the best.
What is more difficult to put in context: poetry or prose?
Maybe poetry. Usually, prose in the form of a narrative may give away the context of place, time, political underpinnings, historical references, biographical information etc. In poetry, generally the subtlety of expression and ambivalences in meaning can conceal the context. This is not to say that knowing the context would not enhance its understanding. Amrita Pritam’s poem ‘Ajj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu’ becomes more poignant and intense in its pain after getting to know of its context, that of the Partition in 1947.
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