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From English to Kannada to Kannada to English: Tejaswini Niranjana’s mirrored path to translation

By June 19, 2018No Comments

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An interview with a polyglot cultural theorist on the practice of translation.

Tejaswini Niranjana is a well-known academic and cultural theorist who occasionally doubles up as a translator. Her deeply attentive translations from Kannada to English include the works of two eminent Kannada writers: Vaidehi and Jayant Kaikini. Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories, a collection of Vaidehi’s short stories which Niranjana edited and translated in collaboration with three other translators, came out in 2006, while No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories – a collection of stories by Jayant Kaikini – was published in 2017. Niranjana spoke to about her relationship with Kannada, bilingualism in India, and how she got into translation. Excerpts from the interview:

As an academic and as a translator, too, your work is in English. But I’d like to hear more about your relationship with Kannada. With your parents (Niranjana and Anupama Niranjana) both being writers in Kannada, I imagine that it was not just a language of domesticity, but a literary language that you grew up around. Did you ever yourself write in Kannada?
My mother was not so fluent in English, she went to medical college and later in life she was able to manage in English, but she always spoke to us in Kannada. My father was a journalist in both English and Kannada. He was a tenth standard dropout – because of the freedom struggle he walked out. So he was completely self-taught, prided himself on his English and so on. So he often ended up speaking to me and my younger sister (who is no more) in English. But it was something that was common in the world around us: people just kept switching back and forth between these languages.

This is while you were growing up, in Bangalore?
Yes, I was born in Dharwar but when I was two, we moved to Bangalore. Being nationalists and communists, my parents had some idea that children should know English. There was no huge politics around English, because independence was political, not about culture: that only came to me much later. At the same time they didn’t want us to forget Kannada. From the very beginning, they put me and my sister in an English medium school: a very quaint school called The Home School in Basavangudi. It had a Kannada language option which my parents forced me to take (everyone else was taking Sanskrit, because you could score 95 even without knowing the language as opposed to 60-65, if you were lucky, in Kannada).

[While I was] in primary school, there was no great engagement with Kannada, except that a lot of writers used to come home all the time. I didn’t really read a lot of Kannada literature. To this day I haven’t even read all of my father’s and mother’s works…I’ve read some.

They were very prolific, weren’t they?
Very prolific: [they wrote] dozens and dozens of books. But I knew all the writers, by name and by face. Then, when I was twelve or so, I started to write poetry in English. My parents were uncertain about the quality of this, and when I was 14 or so they decided they needed to figure out whether it was good enough. Actually I was helped by very well-known Kannada poets, like Nisar Ahmad. I remember him very fondly; he gave me my first modernist poetry – Eliot, Auden, stuff I wouldn’t have read otherwise because my parents were not poets and not in English.

Anyway, my father decided to send off some of my poems to some of the well-known names in the Indo-Anglian world, without saying how old I was. Professor P Lal, of Writers’ Workshop in Calcutta, and Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, who used to run a translation journal, both published some of my work. My parents felt reassured, so they offered to finance my first book.

That first collection of poetry in English, when I was sixteen, got sent to the Commonwealth Poetry Competition. A little afterwords, I started translating my own poetry into Kannada. Because I couldn’t produce it in Kannada…But at the same time, in translation, it became a different poem.

So at this point, would you say you were quite bilingual?
I would read my Kannada poems in competitions and win prizes for them, so I became known as a bilingual poet. That was also the time that I first met Jayant [Kaikini], he was in college, around three years older than me. I really liked his poetry, and said that I would translate it, and I sent it to him. Then we didn’t meet for some twenty years. But my introduction to him is also part of the bilingualism story.

Until my BA, I was still trying to write in both languages. That was also the time when I first got into translating fiction. My father’s novel Chirasmarane, about the Kayur peasant struggle in Kerala, which he had covered as a young journalist, had not been one of his more popular novels in Kannada. Twenty years later, for the anniversary of the struggle, someone translated it into Malayalam and then it suddenly found a huge audience. EMS Namboodiripad reviewed it…So then my father and I did many tours.

You had translated your father’s novel into English?
Yes. But I had also translated Pablo Neruda into Kannada. And Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I still hear of my translation of Julius Caesarbeing performed, but after the fact, because no one asks for permissions in Kannada [laughs]. But it means it’s still in circulation, which is nice.

Today, I think I’d be a little more uncertain about translating into Kannada. At the time I was living there and Kannada was part of my daily life, which it hasn’t been for a long time. Because when I was 23-24, I went off to the US to study at UCLA. I continued writing in English. I think when I wound up my US life and got a job in Hyderabad in the English department, I was still sort of writing poetry.

But I also wrote an academic book on translation, about the politics of colonialism. And somehow after all the years of thinking through that, I felt I couldn’t write in English any more. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I just stopped writing poetry in English. Even to this day, people ask me, why did you stop writing? And I say, I still write lots of books. But I stopped writing poetry.

I used to have arguments with people like the great UR Ananthamurthy, who was a friend of my father’s. He said, the kinds of things that you say should be in Kannada, why don’t you write in Kannada? I said, I engage with Kannada all the time; people have different modes of engagement with a language. But he was an indigenist of a particular kind, I am not an indigenist. I think that I am constantly in and out of languages.

You also continue to learn other languages, don’t you? You mentioned learning Spanish…
Oh, I just learnt it a little bit, when I was studying in California. I did two courses in French and two in Spanish. I did five years of German, that stuck a little more. When I was in Hyderabad, I learnt Telugu – more [a case of] speaking [it], but I can read because it’s similar to Kannada. Tamil you absorb living in Bangalore, though not very well. And I can follow the movies. And Hindi one is compelled to learn. About twelve years ago, I started learning Hindustani classical music, and I think that’s made me more open to Hindi.

I’ve kept in touch with Kannada through all my travels – living five and a half years in the US, then ten years in Hyderabad. I did come back to Bangalore in 1998, and stayed there until 2016, when I moved to Hong Kong with a full-time position at Lingnan University. More recently, I’ve been working on learning Cantonese and Mandarin for a project studying digital intimacy.

Starting out by translating poetry, some might say, is to begin with the impossible. There is a 2002 Paris Review interview in which William Weaver says that he started translating poetry from Italian as part of the process of learning the language. But that when he had actually learned Italian, he “stopped translating poetry immediately because I realised what I was doing to it.” Was translating poetry for you also imbued with a kind of beginner’s confidence, since you seem to have shifted to translating prose? Is poetry harder?
It is harder, but I still translate poetry. More on commission, or when someone asks me – so I did some of the Kannada works for the anthology of Dalit literature that Susie Tharu and K Satyanarayana edited recently.

Do you think translation alters the original more in poetry than in prose. That thing you said earlier, about it becoming a different poem…
I don’t know the answer to that. It takes me too deep into something that I am probably not paying attention to.

I guess I’m pushing here at the question of untranslatability. In your translation of Vaidehi’s work (Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories) I remember your introduction mentioned that you and the other translators had discussions about which stories would “work” in English and which wouldn’t. What for you are the reasons some texts might be harder to translate?
I think it’s about disparate experiences. Vaidehi’s work deals with a kind of village life that I am not familiar with, even though I am ancestrally from there. The west coast of Karnataka, particular forms of upper caste family life, which I have no experience of, because my father was an illegitimate and an only child with no contact with any families whatsoever. While Jayant [Kaikini]’s characters are deeply singular, right? I think I imagined that something from an urban setting would be easier to translate for me, because it’s my life as well. But at the same time, I felt deeply connected to Vaidehi’s style, which is very oblique, almost like poetry.

What about language, specifically dialect? Did you approach the Kundapur dialect in Vaidehi’s work very differently from the speech in Kaikini’s work? You’ve written of how his deliberate “plain Kannada” is sometimes interrupted by the hybrid Hindi-Urdu-Dakhani that is Bombay’s urban vernacular. As a translator, would you ever choose to use English slang to represent a dialect of Kannada?
I think the parallels don’t hold in our context, because a place like Bombay is a multilingual space. And I don’t think Jayant, in his Kannada, is trying to establish dialectical difference. You can see that characters are Gujarati or Maharashtrian or Bengali. But I wouldn’t pick out some slang that you associate with Gujaratis who speaks English and stick it in there for a Gujarati character!

Is there anything in Kaikini’s Kannada that identifies these characters in terms of their communities or language?
No. He just does it by naming them. It’s usually through other details, experiences, that he builds the profile. I don’t think he dwells too much on it; it’s in brushstrokes, passing that you figure where they’re from. Vaidehi’s stories, on the other hand, are so completely provincial that you don’t have the outside seeping in…

So there is no need to distinguish her characters by their language.
Exactly. Though she does also have some autobiographical stories which are in standard Kannada.

To return to poetry, from a different angle: do you think a translator needs to be a writer? Do you think writers would have trusted you less with their work if they didn’t think of you as a poet?
I don’t think so. People are just so happy that you’re translating their work. I don’t write fiction but I translate it. I was translating Dalit poetry, Siddalingaiah and so on, and the stories of Devanuru Mahadeva when I was very young. I enjoy different kinds of translation. One of my most fun experiences was doing subtitles for Girish Kasaravalli’s second film, Akramana (1980). That was a different kind of discipline, almost like writing metered verse: you couldn’t just write what you wanted, so many characters in celluloid, and you had to fit the dialogue on screen. He approached me, knowing about my bilingual facility – there weren’t too many people then who were literary and bilingual, then. Or if they were, they did it in very old-fashioned language…

You don’t feel like bilinguality is decreasing? That there is a growing number of monolingual English-speakers in India who’re oblivious to other languages?
If you read social media, and the amount of journalism that’s being produced, you’d think everyone is only writing in English. But I don’t think that’s everyday reality for most people. Obviously, there are thousands more Indians writing in English than there were say, thirty or forty years ago. But using the example of my own niece, I kept worrying about this. But she consciously cultivates other languages: Telugu and Hindi, and she can speak in Kannada quite easily after moving to Bangalore. She texts friends in Hindi. I think Hindi often becomes the default language for young people even when it isn’t the default language for either person. I don’t think there’s an only-English setting for kids in their twenties who’re not seriously upper class…this is the sense I get, I could be wrong.

You’ve also thought a lot about the politics of translation in your academic work. In 1992, you authored a volume titled Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context. I know this is an impossible request, but could you tell us what the argument of that book was?
Very very broadly, the book was among the first to point out that though it is often seen as a transparent medium by which you transport one culture into another, translation is mobilised as a way of enforcing colonial domination. I look in detail at some major texts and at the ideas of translation that were circulating in colonial times, how it worked through the missionary activity and through administrators like William Jones. In the 1780s, in the early colonial period, there was a great curiosity and romanticism about the East – and the whole understanding of translation was informed by that, by a desire not to interfere in the lives of the natives. But by the 1820s, under the East India Company, with the Utilitarian influence, the whole understanding of India changed – from seeing it as an advanced civilisation to a barbaric place. What kind of conceptual and political labour did translation do, to help colonial domination? In a literal way, too: even someone like John Mill’s understanding of India is informed by translations.

I end the book by looking at an 18th century translation of a 12th century vachana, a very Orientalist translation, and at AK Ramanujan’s translation of the same text, which is a very modernist translation. My point was not that they were good or bad, but that the discursive space they came from informed the actual translations that they did. And I offered my own translation of the vachana.

The book is 25 years old, and I don’t talk about it any more. But without my having been a translator, I would not have written that book.

Do you think in any way, that the converse is true? Did your critical focus on the politics of translation ever cripple you as a practitioner? A feeling that “I can’t be that person who translates into English in India…”
No. I don’t think any of us is so coherent as an individual. I feel like I can do both!

How do you see the explosion of translation into English, and the fact that there seems to be less between other Indian languages?
As a reader in English I’m very pleased. But yes, there’s not that much coming into Kannada from the other languages.

Do you think Indian publishing is beginning to now cater to readers who are familiar with the cultural context of a work, ie, Indians who may be reading in English but know what a vada is.
About the translations I don’t know. But I do find that some of the interesting Indian writers in English are attentive to an Indian reader. I remember the debates in the ’80s about whether Salman Rushdie was writing for a Western reader, and now those seem a non-issue. Because I guess there are more people sharing this experience.

Talking of writing and translating, I read Edmund White’s biography of Proust in which he makes the fascinating suggestion that Proust’s literary style was deeply influenced by that of John Ruskin, whom he spent five years translating. Have you ever felt that your writing has been influenced by the writers you translate?
No, I don’t think so [laughs]. But the ones I really choose to translate – Kaikini or Vaidehi – I do have a very intimate sense of the writing. If I did write fiction, I wouldn’t mind writing like them.

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