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Carrying interesting works interestingly across language barriers: An interview with Shanta Gokhale

A portrait of Shanta Gokhale
Illustration by Alexander MacLellan

Bilori Journal: In your opinion, what is the role of a translator in today's society? Does a translator hold the power to alter or influence societal narratives through the act of translation?

Shanta Gokhale: I will begin with the second question because the answer to it is short: No.

But I’ll expand on that. The translator holds no power either to alter or influence beyond the power that the original writer holds to do so. Whether any art alters or influences societal narratives is an issue that most artists would answer with one pointer. Proof is proof only when it is quantified and verifiable. Louis MacNeice has said, “The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen, and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.” Since the effect of art is neither direct nor calculable, the question itself ceases to apply.

Now for the first question. The phrase ‘today’s society’ suggests that, unlike yesterday’s society, literature has somehow been devalued. The general assumption is that people don’t read nowadays as much as they once did. And yet, given the number of books publishers of all stripes put out every day, and given that publishing is a business and not a charity enterprise, the assumption that a voraciously reading public does not exist is hard to believe. If, however, literature has indeed lost its value today, then so necessarily has translation. Because the purpose of translation is, after all, the production of good literature. If literature has not lost its value today, and in my opinion it has not, then the role of the translator continues to be what it always was – to make available to the readers of any given language the best literature produced in other languages of the world, thereby opening doors to other ways of seeing and being, leading, one hopes, to greater inter-cultural understanding.

Do you believe that language can be used as a tool of critique or dissent?

Yes, absolutely. Brecht has famously said that poets must not only continue to sing in dark times but they must sing about dark times. He himself sang most effectively about the dark times in which he was living, as did innumerable other writers and poets. Admittedly, there has always existed a band of writers who inhabit ivory towers and write for readers who also reside in ivory towers. But writers who matter even centuries after they have lived and written, do so because they have stood with their feet firmly planted on hard ground, viewed their circumstances closely, then climbed the nearest hillock to get a longer view to see what got them where they are. When Black American and Dalit writers stand on the ground, look around and beyond, they see the red of blood, not the pink of roses. This experience of life and living produces powerful poetry and fiction and even a new language of anger and dissent. Namdeo Dhasal then says:

When water is brought to despair

The issue of life-and-death grows urgent

No more then, is the folk ditty sung

‘Our ram prances, backs up and butts,

Hey-ho bumpity bump.’

(पाण्यात नैराश्य आणल्यानंतर / हातघाईवर येतो जीवनमरणाचा प्रश्न / आणि मग नाही उरत लोकधून / ‘आम्चा एडका उड्या मारितो मागं सरुनी धडका घेतो / ह्य लाव्हरी चिन ’ म्हणायची.)

Where does literary translation fit within the decolonization worldview? Can translation be wielded as an effective tool in the process of decolonization?

This calls for a book-size answer. I will pass up on the first question and apply myself to the second with illustrations from my work as a translator. Decolonisation generally refers to the emergent power equations after countries ceased to be colonies. In post-Independence India, to liberate ourselves from British legacy seen as being an enslavement of our minds, we should ideally have thrown out their railways, their justice system, modernity, the art of the novel, realistic theatre, the new art of cinema etc. Unfortunately for us, it did not make practical sense to do this. So, seventy-five years after Independence, when Shashi Tharoor was invited to participate in a debate at the Oxford Union, he hit out at the British for the famines they had created, for the economic exploitation they had practised and many such things, in impeccable English. The Brits who heard him conceded that he had presented his case wittily, elegantly and “in exactly the way it was done in Oxford Union speeches”. You can’t go to the colonisers at their invitation, wearing their dress, using their language and fitting in perfectly with their forms and customs and think you have made a convincing case for how exploited and destroyed you have been.

I see the irony of this situation and rather than pointing a finger at our exploiters, I would rather point four fingers at ourselves for allowing ourselves to be taken for that ride. I would rather look at how much more exploitative and destructive our caste system has permitted made us against our own people, and how much more our patriarchy has allowed us to exploit and trample all over the female fifty per cent of the population. I support any and every move that encourages Dalits and women to decolonise their minds of caste and gender hierarchies. Consequently, in my work as a translator, I have chosen to translate Uddhav Shelke’s “Dhag” which is the story of an OBC woman whose husband feeds off her and whose string of employers pay her less than is her due for the hard work she puts into their fields and crops.

I have translated the autobiography of Durga Khote, a bright, brave woman whose husband was a layabout, left her a penniless widow with two sons to look after, a desperate situation from which she rose, entered the world of cinema and became one of our finest actors. I have translated “Smritichitre”, the autobiography of a spirited early 20th century woman who also had to endure life with a husband who was eccentric, but gifted with admirable qualities of the mind for which she respected and loved him, yet never allowing him to get away with ignoring her interests. She was an unlettered woman who went on to write this classic of Marathi literature. Finally, I have refused to translate two texts, both by well-known writers, one because of its caste-ist world view and the other because, despite being by a woman author, it was as ingloriously sexist as any male author’s work could have been. Choice and rejection have been my weapons to fight the colonisation of Indian minds by Indians.

Can you tell us more about your approach to translation and the method you use for translating? Are there any specific schools of translation whose principles you follow?

Schools of translation did not exist when I started translating in the mid-seventies because there were no theories of translation and no Translation Studies at Universities, certainly not in India. I first came across a translation by someone who was consciously practising a theory of translation in the late nineties. It struck me as odd because theory should follow practice and the two should then evolve together. Anyway, this translation of short stories was sent to me by the commissioning publisher with a plaintive appeal to salvage it. I refused to oblige because that would have been downright unethical. But I was appalled at the quality of the translation which was supposedly equalising the power dynamics between the coloniser and the colonised. To say the translation was unreadable is to put it mildly.

By the time theories of translation made their appearance my practice was firmly in place; and if it is different today than it was then, it is only as a natural result of one’s own evolving worldview and the simple process of learning on the job. Since I have always chosen to translate texts, whether fiction, plays, essays or autobiographies, that I have admired and loved, my aim has been to make my readers admire and love them as much. Edith Grossman has said in ‘Why Translation Matters’ that the translator’s grand ambition is to ensure that her readers “will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the aesthetic experience of its first readers.” I would amend that to “my emotional and aesthetic experience of the original”. Because I honestly cannot assume that all the first readers of the original text have responded to it in the same manner as I have.

The method I use when I translate goes like this: First, I read the original text even if I have read it a few times earlier. That has been as a reader. This is as a translator looking out for pitfalls and hearing in my mind the English register that this Marathi text evokes. Hearing the English as I read the Marathi is an important first step for me.

The first draft of my translation is a rendering of the sense of the original, with certain words and phrases chosen on the run with alternatives in brackets. No halting here to ponder and mull. The idea is to get the flow right. The first draft done, I put the original aside and read what I have written. This time I ponder and mull and make near final choices. I might rewrite entire passages if I find the tone is wrong or the rhythm has been lost. I put the second draft aside for a while. That is why I choose not to work to an other-imposed deadline. After a couple of weeks, I return to the translation with a fresh eye and ear. For this final draft, I reopen the original text to refer to as I read and refine the translation. I have never allowed myself to stray away from even the smallest nuance of sense present in the original.

I have not followed this method in my latest translation. I have created, instead, a free rendering of Dr S, V. Ketkar’s ‘Brahmankanya’. Ketkar is driven by a strong social motivation. He has a powerful story to tell. What he lacks in some places in the novel is the story-teller’s craft. He is also not a careful writer. He tends to repeat himself. Finally, he is a self-indulgent digresser. If I wished my reader to admire and love this text as much as I have done, I had to give myself the freedom to edit, tauten, sharpen ideas which have got lost in verbiage and, on occasion, re-sequence parts of the narrative for a more telling effect. I would not have done any of these things had Dr Ketkar consciously crafted his narrative in this rough and tumble manner. As Kundera has said although not exactly in these words, the rough edges in his writing are rough because he means them to be rough and he doesn’t want any translator presuming to smoothen them out. Authorial intent is the operative idea here. Repetition of statements and overlong digressions cannot be intended unless the author is Laurence Sterne who knows what he is doing. Dr Ketkar is not. That is why I have presumed to do what Kundera forbids.

Do you have different approaches for translating fiction, nonfiction and poetry?

Yes, of course. Fiction demands that the translator be creative in interpreting the text and finding the means to re-express the work in its totality, people, events, non-events, situations, moods, philosophy, in short, its world. Non-fiction demands that the translator be creative only to the extent of understanding what the original is ‘saying’ for non-fiction says directly what it means. There is no leeway here for interpretation. You can ask what a particular piece of non-fiction is ‘about’ and get an informative answer. If you ask a novelist what her novel is about, she is stumped for an answer because what it is ‘about’ cannot be explained.

Drama demands that the translator pay greatest attention to transporting the spoken word of one language into the spoken word of another. The translation must be as stageable as the original has been. To catch the speech rhythms that the playwright has created for her text and recreate them in an alien language is the translator’s burden. Poetry is the toughest literary form to translate, leading to the greatest loss of the original sense and sound. Poetry is constituted of ambiguities, ellipses, metaphors, images and symbols. Intra-cultural translations as from one European or Indian language into another, achieve better results. I strongly believe that you have to be a poet to translate poetry because the challenge here is to create a poem in place of a poem. I have not translated much poetry because I am not a poet.

When translating, does the writer of the original text have any role to play during the process? Do you interact with the writer? Do their insights and opinions inform your understanding of the text?

The only texts by living writers that I have translated are plays. All other translations are of texts by writers who are no more. With them the question of consultation does not arise. But even with plays I have worked independently, without consultation. I have sent the playwrights final drafts of my translations and they have sent them on to publishers without changes.

Translating Makarand Sathe’s ‘Achyut Athavale ani athavan’, was a new experience for me. I had not felt the need to consult or query. But Makarand wished to go through the translation word by word with me. He was looking for ‘exact’ equivalents for words where I had made what I thought was the best possible choice. It was difficult for him to accept that his work wasn’t being transported to English exactly as he wrote it in Marathi. With my translation of Jerry Pinto’s ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ into Marathi, I wished as much as he did to go through it word by word together. A translator should be steeped in two cultures, the original and the target. Jerry’s novel is Roman Catholic with which I’m familiar, but also Portuguese with which I am not. I am very glad we inspected the translation because we caught one instance of a mistaken translation.

What according to you is more important, staying true to the source text or treating the translated text as an original that ought to be read as an independent work of art?

The reader has no choice but to read a translation as an original work of art since s/he is not equipped to read the original. Novelist-translator Tim Parks has claimed authorial rights for translators. In an article entitled, “Why translators deserve some credit”, he demands, ‘Who wrote the Milan Kundera you love? Answer: Michael Henry Heim. And what about the Orhan Pamuk you think is so smart? Maureen Freely. Or the imaginatively erudite Roberto Calasso? Well, that was me.’ Unless a translation can stand on its own feet as an independent work of art, it does not fulfil the fundamental aim of translation which is of carrying interesting works interestingly across language barriers.

Do you make assumptions about your type of readership when translating a text? Is one of your aims of translation to make the text more 'accessible' in the translated language?

Does the writer of the original, unless s/he writes pot-boilers, make an assumption about her/his kind of readership? Is good original writing ever done with a readership in mind? Writers allow their work to find its own readers. The translator does the same in order to be faithful to the original writer’s intent.

However, I had to keep today’s young Indian reader in mind when I translated ‘Shyamchi Aai’. Children were more sentimental and pious when Sane Guruji wrote those stories. They were also conditioned to community living and receiving the voice of family elders with respect. Young readers of English in India today are mostly urban children whose staple reading does not expose them to either community or elders. Watching so much violence on large and small screens has also made them unsentimental. If I was to serve my avowed purpose of making readers love and admire what I was translating, I had to bring the original nearer to our young readers’ sensibilities and language while remaining totally faithful to the narrative and emotional details and the cultural nuances of the original. What I did in order to walk this tightrope was to cut some of the author’s tears and make my language brisker and brighter.

To answer your second question, if I know my target language and the culture from which it springs well, no special efforts are required of me to make my translation ‘accessible’ to readers in that language. Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians, the British speak their own forms of English. They read one another’s literature without difficulty. I am a natural writer of British English. That is the English in which I translate. So, I assume my translation is accessible to whoever reads English.

I have just retranslated a play that was earlier done with the obvious aim of accessibility. Therefore, Marathi bhakti songs in an antakshari contest in the play, which are no more than a string of god’s names, are translated into hymns and spirituals. The question about accessibility gets asked only of Indian translators (or possibly all non-European non-American translators) because it is assumed their readership is in Britain or America, whereas it is more likely to be in India.

What would you say are the requirements for a translated work to be considered 'good'?

It must carry the voice of the original writer and it must read well.

What are things you take into consideration while translating dialogues written in specific accents or dialects? Is it more important for you to stick to the nuances of the original text or to convey the expressions in a way that makes sense to your intended audience?

Accents and dialects cannot and should not be attempted in translation of dramatic texts. Unlike the reader of fiction or non-fiction who has the time to mull over meanings, the audience of a play must catch on to what is happening on stage immediately. Once in a while even the original play does not make immediate sense. The first ‘absurdist’ plays left the audience flummoxed. However, audiences grew to understand what was going on as they grew familiar with this new language of theatre. We saw extreme forms of emulation on the experimental Marathi stage which rang false and soon fell off the stage. In theatre, costumes and sets do the basic work of transporting the audience into the alien culture to which the original play belongs. The translator’s responsibility is to make the characters sound true and what their dialogue convincing.

I think this question is best asked in a workshop situation where one can see what the questioner means by ‘nuances of the original text’. Intended audience expresses the same unreal idea as intended reader. There is no such animal as an intended audience. Nobody knows who buys tickets to a play, who likes it and who does not. Ticket sales tell producers whether they have a hit or a flop on hand.

Recently, writers from the Global South are claiming their bilingual identities by inserting their native language into English writing without explanation, italicisation or translation. Considering this, how would you or do you approach translating a bilingual piece of literature?

It is not only writers from the Global South who are doing it. Many writers who have migrated to America from South America, Cuba and similar places are doing it. American English has already had a strong injection of Yiddish. Migrant writers yearn to bring more of themselves into their writing. Introducing words and phrases from their language into their writing helps them express who they are. I don’t translate texts written originally by English speaking authors in the West. My provenance is mainly texts written by Indian authors in English and of course texts from Marathi literature. It was only during the pandemic that I translated three stories by P G Wodehouse into Marathi. Wodehouse did not present me with the problem of bilinguality.


Shanta Gokhale is an eminent writer and translator, and has been a culture columnist with Mumbai Mirror since 2006. As a translator she is celebrated for her Marathi to English translations of plays written by Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar, G.P. Deshpande and Rajeev Naik, and her English to Marathi translations of Gieve Patel’s play ‘Mr Behram’ and Jerry Pinto’s novel ‘Em and the Big Hoom.’ Alongside her translation work, she has also written plays, short stories, film scripts, two novels and a history of Marathi theatre. She has edited an oral history of experimental theatre in Mumbai titled, "The Scenes We Made," and edited books on the works of theatre directors Satyadev Dubey and Veenapani Chawla.


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