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A translator is like an envoy who fills the valley between two cultures: Gorakh Thorat, Interview

Interview with Gorakh Thorat translated from Marathi by Saee Pawar

Illustration by Gowri Guruswamy

Bilori Journal: What are the challenges of translating specific words from various dialects and formal languages that have cultural or historical contexts, and what do you do to overcome them?

Gorakh Thorat: Indian languages, be it Hindi or Marathi, have a lot in common. And many other aspects too, with exceptions like geography, are similar. Even so, sometimes there are difficulties in translating. For example, while translating the book 'Hindu', a word came up---'Bhanchul'. I come from Nagar district where this word is entirely unknown. But the original author is from Khandesh, where the word is prevalent. In such cases where the supplementary word does not exist, there is no option but to add a footnote explaining the context because the context is as important here. Instead of footnotes, it is better if the concept of the word can be explained in minimum words while translating and made part of the writing instead. In translating 'Hindu' I did both, using whichever option seemed more accurate.

When can the use of footnotes be more complementary? It is when the writer is a novice, or when we have an individual like Kanhopatra. Now it is not possible to refer to this character for a North Indian audience, which is why it is correct to use footnotes in such places. If it is not done, the reader misses the point, and the purpose for which the word was used is not achieved.

Ironically, while translating 'Hindu' one notices that many words were newly coined by the original author. Then it is quite fun translating words that Nemade sir had coined, like 'Satare Patil-Bhapare Patil'. Now how to translate this? I noticed that even though we cannot find a substitute for these words, we can coin new words just as the author did. And I did just that! What is 'Satare- Watare'? It describes people who are big talkers. These words are familiar to the people of that region, but not all Marathi-speaking people understand them even with a relevant context. So this is what I did while translating into Hindi; there are two phrases in Hindi – one, 'shekhi bagharna' and the other, 'dighe hakna' – with roughly the same meaning, using which I created the words – one, 'Shekhibghare Patil' and the other, 'Dighmare Patil'. Although the phrase is 'Digh Hakna', it was changed to 'Dighmare' while creating the word. Although these words are coined, the reader quickly realizes that they are used here in a backhanded manner because they are two phrases prevalent in Hindi.

To give another example, the word 'somdya,' which appears in the magical context in the beginning in 'Hindu'. So what to do with this word? 'Somdya' means 'soma drinker'. Somewhere we have some association with the meaning of liquor. But as there is a word like 'Somdya', what word should be used here for a drinker? So, the dialect uses the word 'Piyakkad'. Using that I then coined the word 'Somakkad' for 'Somdya'. Now the word 'som' came into it, and because of the use of 'dya' it also got a negative undertone.

New words like this have to be created. This happens when all the scenes are circling in the head while translating, when we are thinking about those words, this can happen only then.

You said that Indian languages ​​have similarities. However, while translating the geographical, historical, cultural context of one place changes to the context of another place. So when you translate from one regional language to another regional language, does it have any political/cultural implications?

It is a bit difficult to say whether there is a political effect or not. But there is certainly a cultural impact. Essentially, language is culture and culture is woven around every word in language. So there is bound to be a cultural difference due to translation. For example, we have the method of 'Veergal' in Maharashtra. But there is no reason to have this method in North India. Or we have taks in the 'Deoghar' or we have a 'Mari Aai cha devhara,' there is no reason for these things to also be prevalent in other cultures.

I translated the novel 'Bhandarbhog' by Rajan Gavas. That novel is centred around ‘jogatya.’ Even though Indian languages ​​have similarities, the words have similarities, there are numerous different cultural aspects that exist in one place and are completely absent in another.

I don't know if cultural impact can be perceived but when I published the translation of 'Bhandarbhog' (titled 'Jogwa'), I got many calls from Hindi-speaking regions. There is a writer from Delhi University, I got a call from her. She said, 'We cannot even imagine this scenario where a man is left to God like a Devdasi and his masculinity is destroyed and he is treated completely like a woman, exploited in the same way that a Devdasi is exploited. Sir, you have done this translation but this situation is beyond our imagination.'

At the time of publication of the translation of 'Hindu' too, I received similar calls. Everyone was saying that the things presented in that story are beyond our imagination. No one has thought of that. It has been 5-7 years since I translated this and it takes a long time for the translation to reach a large number of people, but if you look at earlier times, there are many social experiences that are unknown to people from other regions.

A Marathi person can never fully understand what happened in Punjab or what happened in Pakistan at the time of India-Pakistan partition. Reading those incidents makes our blood boil, but the experiences of people who saw their mothers and sisters being slaughtered are vastly different from that. We cannot imagine the deadened state of people after coming out of those situations. We cannot fathom the horror of it.

The second point is that if we look at the history of North India, the history of defeats is quite common. And when you come to Maharashtra, somewhere you can see a history of victory because of Shivaji Maharaj's reign, a ray of hope can be found. Novels written in Marathi during the medieval period, especially historical novels, are read with great interest in North India. Translations of novels like 'Swami', 'Panipat' are read with interest there and here (in Maharashtra), a novel like 'Tamas' is read with great interest because the experiences in 'Tamas' are peculiar to us.

This is a huge difference between regional sensibilities or cultural sensibilities. In my view, it is important that such experiences or perceptions, topics are shared through translation.

According to you, what is the original purpose of translation?

The role of a translator is very important, in my view. Thanks to modern devices, we are getting closer to each other but at the same time moving further away from getting to know each other. Increasing regionalism or whatever that is going on in the name of religion and caste is not appropriate. But if the translators do their job and people read it, they realize that "Oh! There are very few differences between us and we are one." This can be understood.

I am doing a translation for the Sahitya Akademi, the great Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath 'Renu', whose birth centenary is going on. He has written stories on the surroundings of Bihar. When we say 'Bihar', we picture a backward region. But when we read Renu's writings, read those stories, meet the people in those stories, we realize, Oh! These characters are me! Our thoughts are not very different. Or the things that we respect here, like what we call sincerity, generosity, the ability to understand others and the power to look at everything positively, they also have respect for these things and feelings there. And so those people do not seem like strangers to us at all. Those characters do not seem to belong to Bihar. And after reading it, I realized how stupidly we think about Biharis. There’s a disparity between the conditions they live in, how they come here and work honestly, work hard, and how we think of them. Because of translation, the ignorance, crudeness or unfamiliarity with each other is automatically removed, lost. And the feeling that we are one truly grows.

This is the rationale behind the practice of Sahitya Akademi where every Sahitya Akademi award-winning work is to be translated into all the major languages ​​of India. Even though we say that our regions and languages ​​are different, the soul of our languages ​​is the same. Indianness is the same. The way of looking at something is the same. Be it spirituality, village deities, customs and traditions, the approach is often the same. Just like we have a way of worshipping Maruti as a village deity or going to a temple and worshipping Khandoba, there is also a similar way in other places, every state, region has a way. These things are realized through translation.

Our Premchand says, if you want to understand a society, you don't need to go there because when you go there you will only see superficial things, but if you read literature in that language, it helps you understand the person in a real sense. And so, I would say, the translator is a kind of cultural envoy and they try to bridge the gap between two different linguistic societies, a gap of unfamiliarity. A translator tries to bring people closer together. 'Ajnabeepan ki khai mitana'----the task of the translator is to fill the valley of unfamiliarity between two societies.

It is very easy to say that you are a cultural envoy but it is important to check why you are doing this. Often what we say and what we do are different, it should not be.

Can a translation be recognized as an independent literary work without considering it to be a form of the original writing?

Translation should definitely be considered an independent literary work. Because translation doesn’t mean merely replacing words. On the contrary, it feels like the author has more freedom than the translator. An author has numerous modes and styles at their disposal to present a story. A translator, however, does not have that privilege. They want to be faithful to the original writing; and while doing so they also have to think about the linguistic community for which they are translating. A translator, then is responsible for a 'dual legacy'; a kind of double responsibility.

While translating, I have to contemplate, how will the native speakers of the target language –Hindi– perceive what the author has written? Will they understand this thing, this reference? Because the true purpose of translation is to touch those belonging to the target language. If this does not happen, then the entire endeavour is useless! Which is why the translator has to be particularly vigilant on their part. At times, a word or two has to be added to make the original text more coherent in the new language. Sometimes a word has to be removed. All this, without affecting the original content. Because for me, along with the content of the story, a sense of fluidity in translation is extremely important. One should not stumble anywhere while reading. If a reader stumbles, their interest in the story shrinks. A good translation requires a flow. But this has to be done creatively.

As mentioned earlier, there is a long list of things such as making up words like 'Shekhibghare Patil' for 'Satare-Bapare', and 'Dighmare Patil' or 'Somakkad' for 'Somdya'. Many times, there are words that do not have counterparts and synonyms. While translating, one realises the dictionary is also inadequate. There are many words which do not appear in the dictionary. In Hindi we say 'Shayad hi aisi koi dictionary hogi jo apne aapmehi mukabbal hogi' (There is hardly any dictionary that is complete in itself). Many words fade away with time. In a novel like 'Hindu', when ancient times are referred, one has to put in great effort to find appropriate words.

When I was translating 'Renu', so many names of different birds came up in the text that I am not sure if we have all these birds in our region! I am not even sure if they have names in Marathi. Many times it happens that you have to change the birds because it is difficult to explain the meaning of something that is non-existent in a region. So you have to remove one or more birds. Various names of insects, names of plants come in the text. But if these things have an important contribution to the original writing, then we cannot remove those words and we have to do something about it, for instance use footnotes, to convey that meaning to the readers.

Every piece of writing or artwork has an ideology, an opinion. If you don't agree with the said opinion, what do you do to prevent your own views from influencing the translation?

A translator does not have the right to impose their own ideas or opinions on the text. The main role of the translator is to remain faithful to the original text. It does not matter if you like it or not. Even if we call a translation a creative work, the work belongs to the original author, and it is not our job to tamper with whatever spirit the original author has put into it. As a translator, you have the choice to accept the work or not. If your ideology is standing in the way, then you should not make that commitment. I have rejected many such works which do not agree with my ideology. First accepting work and then changing it according to your thoughts is deceptive either way. Both with oneself and with that structure. I don't do that and I can't support anyone who does.

When I accept a text, I look at the parameters of its structure, or, think about- when I take this writing to a new language, what difference does it make to that new language? So what is new? Why should people in that language read that writing? It's only effective if you have something different, in terms of form or in terms of narrative, in terms of style, something innovative. There is something meaningful in translating a text only if it adds value to the society (of the target language), if it conveys a new message.

Literature has many purposes. Some people use it as entertainment, but generally serious writers do not write for entertainment. They write with a different purpose. I am not interested in translating writing meant for entertainment.

The translator is expected to give something that will improve the society, enlighten it or gain some value and make the relationship of humanity more prosperous. I am not translating for money. You brought up the point of creativity, that point is related here, that you get great pleasure in doing a translation. This is why I am doing the stories of ‘Renu’ right now. Literature on 'Renu' has not yet come to the Marathi language. And when I translate, there are some very difficult things that come together easily, which gives me great joy. Sometimes we feel like patting ourselves on the back! Translation is done for pleasure. Some people are mercenary translators, which poses a different question altogether.

You present your own ideology through the material that you accept for translation. So can translation be used as a tool of protest or rebellion?

Of course! Looking at today's situation, the mind gets agitated. Crude things are said just to spread enmity between people. The role of the translator here should not be that of a rebel, but that of a truth teller. And we can do this through literature.

Today there are writers, there are translators, but the real question is how many readers are there today? Marathi has a great reading culture, but that is not the case with Hindi. People tend to think that because the Hindi-speaking belt is so big, its reading culture must also be big; but that is not true. Those who mainly work in academia or those who take interest in literature will fall into the category of readers, but the common man is less likely to read translated literature.

A writer is essentially a rebel. If everything is great in a society, then what is the need for writing? And the role of a translator is to follow the writer/author. And that is why it is necessary to go against the flow.

How was your own experience of bilingualism / multilingualism? How does it affect one's perspective towards the world?

Bilingualism comes as part and parcel of being a translator. Without it, one cannot translate. Marathi is my mother tongue and I teach Hindi.

Bilingualism definitely brings about at least a slight change in one’s perspective towards the world. We are a product of our culture. When you are multilingual, you know a few things more outside of your culture. You are acquainted with the similarities and differences between norms and rituals prevalent in both languages.

But another important medium to understand the culture of another language is cinema. These are certain things that you get to know more effectively from cinema. Many people are attracted to Hindi because of Hindi movies or Hindi songs. Because even in translation you have to read at the end. Serious storytellers, writers, do not write for entertainment. But cinema offers entertainment and you also simultaneously get familiar with the language. You can also experience the traditions/practices and whatever is the philosophy of life in that particular language. My mother tongue is Marathi but the reason I was pulled to Hindi was cinema.

The more languages ​​you learn, the more connected you become to those linguistic groups. You learn new things. It changes your outlook on life.

How did your journey with Hindi language unfold?

To be honest, you might find the reason a bit childish. It is quite childish. Because when we moved to Sangamner village, initially, our house was in a Muslim settlement. And even today people have a perception that Muslims are Hindi-speaking people. But it is not true. From the time I was in the fifth grade, I used to enjoy speak their language; I enjoyed it quite a bit! When I was in 4th or 5th grade, I walked for a long time chatting with a Muslim classmate. And I was so overwhelmed that oh! I did something different. I spoke in a different language! And I still remember that joy.

Later, in school, Hindi was my favourite subject. I always used to stand first in the Hindi class. I felt a connection with Hindi since childhood and Hindi cinema was close to my heart as well. Cinema taught me more Hindi than literature. More in the sense that you understand the words by reading but you don't understand the tone of the language. You have to learn the ways of a language and you have to really listen to it. In the era from which we came, there was not much means of imparting such cultural influence except cinema. Be it a dialect or a Hindustani/Hindi-Urdu mix or a language that is Urdu-oriented, the tenderness of Urdu from movies like 'Mughal-e-Azam' falls on your ears. These things help you while translating.

It is very important to remember words while translating. We often forget the words. But if you have heard those words enough, they will subconsciously/automatically appear in your writing, if not in the first draft then in the second. It is impossible to say from where that word will come to us and fit in those lines. I think this is because of cinema.

There was a time I was quite fond of cinema, I was crazy about it. I have watched all movies from the sixties, seventies and eighties. I used to bunk college and go watch movies. It may be funny to hear, but I used to watch four shows a day. Today I am benefitting from that cinema craze. My translator friends tell me that my biggest strong point is that I never have to pause my translations due to lack of words. Often people get confused when they don’t find the right word, thinking what to do now. Because I have seen so many movies, somewhere those words are sitting in my subconscious. The word finds me soon enough and I move on.

And those words cannot be found just by looking in the dictionary. Or sometimes when a word has to be looked up in the dictionary, it might seem very new to you. But if that word has reached your ears, then its entire context is in your mind. You don't have any hesitation while using it. Hindi cinema has played a big role in me becoming bilingual.

I’ll give an example. While translating 'Hindu', one of his sayings came to him, 'Gharcha zala thodha vyahyani dhadla ghoda.' (There is enough to do at home and now in-laws have sent a horse; roughly meaning one is busy with one’s own tasks and get additional work piled on them by others) I was struggling for almost six months to find out which proverb in Hindi could be used as an alternative to that saying. I couldn't find a single proverb in the dictionary. After that book was published, I was watching a Govinda movie once and I came across that saying in it – 'Ghar mein nahi niwala aur sasur ne bheja sala'. (There is not enough food in the house and father-in-law sent his son for dinner) Now this saying may also have been coined by him, but it doesn't sound artificial because it fits perfectly and everybody understands it. And it is not that we know all the proverbs. That proverb sometimes seems new because we don't know it.

When someone asks me how to be prepared for translation, I say – you watch movies. Look at movies not from today but from the sixties, seventies, it has beautiful Hindi and there are so many different shades of words.

Translating cultural specificities like curses and swear words is also a very difficult thing to do. But if we have lived in that environment, insults – which are part of the culture – can be translated well.

What do you think about the ongoing discussion about Hindi being the national language?

As a Hindi-speaker, as a professor of Hindi or as a student of Hindi, one would want Hindi to be the national language. But we should not forget that India also has Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, where people do not know that language at all.

I have stayed in Kerala for a few days. Have also stayed in Tamil Nadu. Hindi is to those people what German is to a common Indian man. I am of the opinion that Hindi should be the national language but first Hindi should be propagated. Hindi should reach those people. But Hindi is very easy for a Marathi, Gujarati or Bengali person. Both Marathi and Hindi are written in Devanagari script. Many words are common. One may not be able to read Hindi in Maharashtra but we can still understand some Hindi. Because the words are pretty much the same. South Indian languages ​​do not have the same situation.

One should try to establish Hindi properly first. There is a lack of knowledge about Hindi among people, which needs to be rectified. The most important thing is to remove the fear of Hindi from the minds of the people as much as possible through mediation.

I am not calling national language as the language of domination. South Indian languages ​​will be difficult for North Indian people too. Still comparatively the Hindi speaking (and understanding) group is quite large. Most importantly, Hindi is the language of sustenance for many people. Even in South India the so-called "sophisticated" class is not so connected to Hindi. But working class people who have to sustain themselves can speak improvised Hindi, because without it their work will stop.

The question of language is somewhere connected to your livelihood. Why is English popular today? Because people think that if I learn English, my financial problems will be solved. In the case of other languages, such an approach is not developed. In the present time be it Marathi, Hindi, Tamil or Telugu, all these languages ​​are threatened by English. If we do not have one common language, this threat will remain for a long time. There should be a way out of this; but imposing one language on everyone is not the way out. The issue of language is not easy. If it were easy we would have solved it long back. Consensus is the most important thing. And it is the most difficult thing there is.

What do you think is the role of literary translation in the discourse of decolonization? What are the political implications of translating from one Indian regional language to another? What effect did the social/political situation of the time have on such a translation?

We all agree that English dominance is not good in theory. But most of the children are learning through English medium. Or if Nemade says something against English, people get angry with him. That argument seems right but we don’t behave according to it. That is the reason for people not accepting such arguments.

Through translation, the literature from another language will come here, the literature from here will go there, this is fine. But translation will not be the only escape from linguistic dominance. Instead of opposing a language, if we start believing that all languages are equally important and if people start trying to be as multilingual as possible, then maybe a solution to this question can be found. But it doesn't happen. I don't think a translator can do much unless the outlook changes for the better. It is very important to change our thinking.

Our home minister says make Hindi the national language, which is a good thing. But how to remove the inferiority complex in people's minds about our languages? I think Indian people should learn English. But at the same time they should know their mother tongue, they should know Hindi, they should be trilingual.

Basically, the question is whether in our educational system or when we move in society, is our thinking knowledge-centric or language-centric? Nowadays, the irony is that it is not important how much knowledge you have, it is more important whether you know a certain language or not. If one speaks English, no matter how fragmented their content is, they become a scholar because they are speaking English. And if one speaks in one's native language, no matter how well one speaks, one is not seen in good light. So I don't think that translation by itself will change all these things.


Gorakh Thorat is a renowned Marathi to Hindi translator. He has translated more that 25 books from Marathi to Hindi which include books by eminent authors such as Bhalchandra Nemade, Rajan Gavas, Jayant Pawar, Abhiram Bhadkamkar, Mahesh Elkoonchwar and Anil Avachat. Among the books translated from Hindi to Marathi are selected stories by Fanishwarnath Renu, a collection of stories edited from Sindhi into Hindi by Prem Prakash and 'Sanskriti Ke Char Adhyay' by Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'. He has also translated textbooks of History and Sociology. He has received various awards for translation like Mama Varerkar Translation Award, Amar Ujala 'Bhasha Bandhu' Award, Valley of Words International Literature and Arts Festival's Best Translation Award and M. B. Jagtap Award given by Maharashtra Rashtrabhasha Sabha Pune.

He has been working as a teacher in the Hindi Department of Sir Parshurambhau College, Pune for the past 25 years.