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‘You have to be very humble’: How Neerja Mattoo translates from Kashmiri to English

By November 1, 2018No Comments

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The first in a series of interviews featuring women translating texts from and into different languages.


Neerja Mattoo’s is a familiar name in Kashmiri literary circles, having spent years as an educator and a translator of Kashmiri literature into English. She has several collections of short stories and poems in translation to her credit, most notably, KathStories from Kashmir andContemporary Kashmiri Short Stories (both published by Sahitya Akademi). Mattoo has also been instrumental in introducing fierce poets like Naseem Shafaie to a larger readership of both Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris.

Mattoo, currently the Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal Miraas: Reflecting the Culture and Heritage of Kashmir, spoke to about what it meant to grow up in a different Kashmir and how she entered the world of translation. Edited excerpts:

Can you tell us about growing up in Kashmir? What kind of literature did you read?
When I was growing up in Kashmir, it was a different world altogether. We had the freedom to read whatever we chose. I read in English and Hindi. I was the youngest in the family with two older brothers and two older sisters. My older sister was homeschooled and then did an Honours degree in Hindi so there were a lot of books in Hindi at home. My father was a professor at the Degree College so I had access to the SP College Library. We also had a library at home.

I was a voracious reader. I did not read Kashmiri at all because a proper Kashmiri script didn’t exist and whatever was written was mostly old. But we would speak Kashmiri at home. I don’t know how we learned English but we knew the language. We just absorbed it.

Those were the days of the Second World War. So I grew up listening to radio broadcasts. My father and his two sons would spread out a map on the floor and chart the courses of the two armies. There was a kind of isolation because of the atmosphere but because of the radio we had access to all kinds of knowledge, not just music but news, discussions and talks. All India Radio used to have a national program – they would invite eminent people to give a talk for one whole hour. That’s how I grew up. I had a kind of an understanding of Kashmiri because it is my mother tongue and I also had an understanding of English because I used to read a lot. So I could think in both languages.

How did you get introduced to the world of translation?
My father’s close friend and relative, Professor Jiyalal Kaul, lived in the house adjacent to ours when I was completing my MA. He was fond of me and gave me Kashmiri short stories to read – Amin Kamil’s Kokerjang (The Cock-Fight) and Akhtar Moin-ud-din’s Swarg Hoor (The Hours of Paradise). I translated them and one of the stories was published in a Sahitya Akademi collection. I received a cheque for hundred rupees and it filled me with joy.

I started working after my MA and didn’t do any translations at all. It was only during the 1990s, when college schedules and everything were upset, that I developed an interest in doing something for the Kashmiri language. So I collected short stories, translated them into English and they were published by UPS in Delhi. The book was called The Stranger Beside Me. I noticed that most of the writers [I was translating] were still alive so I would send drafts to them to see if they approved and that I was sure I understood what they were trying to say. I then translated Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories for Sahitya Akademi. They asked me to do another collection, which I thought I should do in a kind of historical progression. That was published as Kath: Stories from Kashmir.

Then I thought I should also do something about poetry. In the late ’90s, I got a senior fellowship to write on four Kashmiri women poets – Lal Ded, Rupa Bhavani, Habba Khatoon and Arnimaal. I translated a bit, then was lazy, but fortunately that whole thing is complete and is being published. I am calling it The Mystic and The Lyric.

Tell us about your process of translating a text.
For translation, I feel that you have to have a feel for both languages. As far as I am concerned, it is an effortless kind of exercise. If the word comes to you right away, it is the correct word. If you struggle over it, then you lose it. For this, you need to have a rich vocabulary. Also, you should have a feel of nuance. If somebody is saying something – what is the tone he is adopting, is there an undercurrent in the words being used, how can it best be replicated in another language? I am not sure if I succeed most of the time but I try to do that.

I don’t take liberties with the text. Some people have a different theory that you have to be creative while translating but I think you have to be very humble and all you can do is try to be faithful to what the writer is trying to say.

I was going to ask you about the challenges of translation but since you mention it is an effortless process for you…
Translation has its share of challenges. I can’t say that I am an expert in literary Kashmiri. For me, it was a commonplace language, used in the everyday. My mother had this great talent of quoting a proverb at every occasion. Sometimes, they used to rhyme. I never recorded them. Pity. But every proverb has a story attached to it and that opened up avenues of nuances for me. I am not afraid of seeking help. If I don’t understand something, I will ask the person to use it in a different context so I can understand the context in which it is being used here [originally].

The biggest challenge is to read the Kashmiri script. If someone gives me a story – young students who are adept in Kashmiri – I ask them to read the story out loudly to me. And then once I have heard it, I can read it correctly. The problem with this Persian script (Perso-Arabic Script also known as Nastaʿlīq script) is that it is not accurate and you don’t know where the word ends. Once, I was translating a short story by GR Santosh and because of the Urdu script – they don’t put the “e” matra anywhere – I thought this person’s name was Karima, a common name in Kashmir. When I sent him the draft, he laughed and said that it was not “Karima”, it was “Karma”. It was an allegorical story. I was lucky that he saw it and immediately sent it back.

What do you think about the current state of translation in Kashmir?
I am not very happy. Everybody thinks that translation is easy but you have to get under the skin of the author. In English, you may talk of synonyms but no two words express exactly the same thing, in my opinion. So they [translators] choose a word without understanding that it doesn’t fit. It should have been a different word. There is unfamiliarity with the spirit of English. But people are translating proverbs, which I like very much.

The Kashmiri language is flourishing academically but not its translation. Why do you think it is so?
Since Kashmiri has been started in schools, graduates get jobs through it. Before it was introduced in schools, we had a post graduate department of Kashmiri. It trickled downwards. As far as that kind of academic activity is concerned, it is rich. It is a good department. They publish a lot of writing but not a lot of translation is done in this department.

The problem is that there is a wide gap in the vocabulary of the Kashmiri being written by people who have left the valley and by people who are still in the valley. The one in the valley is being Persianised even more, more Arabic words are being used, whereas those outside the valley don’t use those words so a time may come when they don’t understand each other.

That would be a great loss. Is the Kashmiri being used by those living outside the valley also changing?
Yes. First, when they were sharing a platform, when they were each other’s points of reference, they could understand each other’s allusions but now that they are divided – physically as well as emotionally and mentally, they don’t have access to the same resource material. They won’t understand each other’s references. If you see old Kashmiri literature, you see the Muslim sufi writers talk about Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. Even Naseem Shafaie’s poems do that. But Naseem is an exception. She uses metaphors of Draupadi and Shiva, again, because she is also from an older generation.

I have also experienced that when I shared poetry by a younger generation with my parents, they found certain Kashmiri words and references new and different from the language they have known their entire lives.
Yes yes, that’s the thing. When you read older Kashmiri poetry, you can’t tell whether it was written by a Pandit or a Muslim.

Coming to the women poets and writers of Kashmir who you’ve read or translated, how do you think their poetry has transformed over the centuries?
The older ones wrote according to a certain traditions, as in the case of romantic poets like Habba Khatoon and Arnimaal – they wrote in Vatsun form. The poets who are writing now have a more free style of writing. Their themes are also becoming more contemporary. There is more angst in their poetry now. They are more politically conscious. In the older poets, you can’t see any trace of awareness of the political atmosphere. They don’t refer to it at all. But the new poets are aware and their commentary is on socio-political themes.

Are there any other translators whose methods you found interesting?
I never knew about methods because I never studied translation that way. I am not a methodical person myself but I was impressed by Trilokinath Raina’s translations and Jiyalal Kaul’s translation of Lal Ded.

Have you read Ranjit Hoskote’s translation of Lal Ded’s verses?
Oh, I have. It is a very beautifully brought out book but I am not happy with the translations. In fact, I met him once at some literary festival and I asked him how is it that he translated without knowing the language. In one of the verses, he translated a Kashmiri word as resilience so I told him that zalun is to be able to endure or suffer something or undergoing tremendous suffering. Resilience comes later. Lal Ded, in that verse, is emphasising the process of suffering.

What would be your advice to the younger generation of translators and poets?
They must read a lot in the language into which they are translating. They must become aware of the exact meaning of words in particular contexts, which they can do only when they are reading the masters of that particular language. Like Naipaul who passed away recently – I don’t think anybody could match the way he wrote. It is a kind of perfection. And you have to aspire towards perfection. The problem is that if you are a poet yourself then you think that you can improve upon the work of translation. But I don’t have any such inclinations. As TS Eliot once said, “a critic should be a second rate writer”.

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