Translation as a process of transition: An Interview with Ashutosh Potdar
Translated from Marathi by Saee Pawar
Bilori Journal: How do you perceive translation?
Ashutosh Potdar: Simply put, translation is escorting literature from its original language to a new one. But that’s not all. The real challenge lies in reincarnating vivacious possibilities present in the original literature-language. One needs to meticulously translate the maximum scope of thought, emotion, content and form expressed in the original arrangement. This never happens perfectly. Translation is essentially a recreation of a text in a new language which remains faithful to the customs of the said language. The extent of this recreation depends on the ability of the translator as well as translatability of the language. A translator is always searching for the quality of translatability when selecting a text for translation. Translatability of a text goes beyond the face value of the language. It is related to the material and immaterial characteristics present in the language of the text. Such characteristics present themselves not only as a means of conveying information but also in the expressions and pauses that go beyond it. We can say that the ‘translatability’ of the text is contained in its ability to go beyond. An excellent translator – who is also an excellent writer — experiences the translatability themselves, and also allows the readers to experience it along with them.
The process of translation is important to me. It is a process of transition. The journey of a translator starts from the decision of selecting a particular text to translate. Along with personal preferences, different literary and socio-cultural elements affect this decision. In this sense, like Sayari Debnath says while interviewing Anton Har for Scroll, ‘a translator is an interloper’. They make decisions on which literature will get to exist in another, new language. A particular decision of a translator can excite us readers. For example, the idea of Marathi literary texts like ‘Shyamchi Aai’ (Shyam’s Mother) or stories of Annabhau Sathe being translated into other languages gives us tremendous joy. Or sometimes we are feeling wistful about some texts not being accessible in other languages, only to find out that that text has been translated. Suddenly we are ecstatic! I recently experienced this when reading Maya Pandit’s translation of the novel ‘Ringan’ written by Krushnat Khot. Here we are expanding dimensions of linguistic community through the medium of translation. Along with both languages, we also expand dimensions of literary culture.
In the whole process of translation, along with content and form, readers are also of utmost importance. The process of translation also takes place in the readers' minds as it does in language and expression. Firstly, translatability of a text is not an inherent trait in any language. It can be a special quality. How a particular language greets its readers is conveyed clearly to us through translation. We connect to literature in that language accordingly. Translation acts as a bridge connecting readers to the literary artwork. A translator revises experiences and forms expressed in the original language to make sure it fully reaches the readers.
Can you tell us more about your approach to editing translations?
A translation editor wants to convey their location. They want to articulate who they are and what their relationship to the language is like. They want to convey their own identity and establish an identity of the selected text according to their capacity. An editor is tasked with bringing culturally and linguistically diverse material to the readers while editing a translated text or publishing translated literature. Editing planning begins with an intrinsic desire to take the best texts from one's language to another. Then, the search begins. Something that has been read before is viewed again or something new is read deliberately to make certain decisions. Although the decision of the editor is individual, the broader standpoint behind the work of editing plays a major role in the editing process.
You recently edited the book ‘Greatest Marathi Stories Ever Told.’ What went into the process of putting together that collection? Could you expand on your experience?
When I was asked to edit the English translation of Marathi stories, 'The Greatest Marathi Stories Ever Told', I began the work by selecting stories that were moving, thought-provoking, and disturbing to me as a Marathi writer and reader. I thought about the changing state of literature through time, but I also wanted to include stories that take place in different parts of human society and mind. I wanted to bring such stories to readers of different languages.
Today, because of the current state of education, we all are fluent in the English language. However, one wonders whether we are becoming strangers to our own mother tongues in this era. For instance, many parents tell me that their child is unaware of the vast amount of rich and distinguished Marathi literature. Parents themselves are avid readers of the finest Marathi literature, but their own children are oblivious to it. They seem quite remorseful. Choice of language is an individual matter. It also depends on the socio-cultural context of one’s surroundings. While we acknowledge linguistic freedom of individuals and communities, the desire and longing to render distinguished literature of the language we know to another language opens different possibilities/paths for us. Editing translated works is one such path. The responsibility of editing ‘The Greatest Marathi Short stories Ever Told’ offered me an opportunity to explore this path. In a way, I wanted to confront distancing myself from Marathi and its ways/forms of expression. Relying on the English language to do this may be objectionable to someone. But, as per my potential, I wanted to present the diverse tradition of Marathi narrative literature to the world through English translation of selected stories. I believe that effort was successful to some extent. Because, as the book becomes more widely available, it is reaching readers of different languages. It is even reaching schools and college-going young Marathi readers. Nowadays I also come across readers who read these translated stories aloud to their children and families. Most importantly, after reading this selected literature, these young readers show curiosity about what else is being written in Marathi. Such multi-layered interaction with language and literary culture through translation is important to me. Through the process of editing this book, I was able to look at the stories I had been reading since childhood with new eyes. I was also introduced to new stories being written. Above all, there was an opportunity to interact with the translators of the story. I was able to observe the translation process of Shanta Gokhale and learn from it myself. Distinguishing between different writing processes seems to be a difficult task. They go hand in hand, complementing each other. Sometimes we don't like the creative writing that we are doing independently or sometimes we feel that our studies are falling short. In such times, one can learn a lot from the process of translation and translated texts.
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?
We are always searching for our own identity as writer-translators. Our search for self is a huge part of this process. It involves finding your own language; exploring the world through your own language. In this process we try to expand ourselves with translation. Through translation, cultures of two languages also expand. We end up adding to a culture that is rich and wide. Stories and texts translated by experts like Dilip Chitren, Shanta Gokhale, Maya Pandit, Jerry Pinto, Nishikant Thakar, Chandrakant Patil, Balwant Jeurkar, Sachin Ketkar, Prafulla Shiledar, Ganesh Vispute has not only added tremendous value to the world of literature but also increased the scope of literature to reach people in different languages. Speaking strictly about Marathi, when a literary work from a different language is brought into Marathi, we create possibilities of change. As a Marathi reader, I have a lot to learn. Moreover, new readership is always approaching.
Do you believe that language can be used as a tool of critique or dissent?
Firstly, I don’t think language is merely a tool. It contains a narrative world of its own, a unique theory of beauty. Translation is a complicated process that begins with the translator. Intentions of the translator may differ from expectations of readers. I recently translated an interview with a visual artist by the name of Shilpa Gupta for Hakara journal, which had previously been published in the book ‘For in Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: Encounters with Prison’ co-edited by Shilpa Gupta and Salil Tripathi. In the process of this translation, I felt that my Marathi-reading friend circle should discuss how the voices of poets-artists are being suppressed. After reading this translated interview, some readers may look up the book ‘For in Your Tongue’ out of curiosity. This act may not necessarily have an element of dissent. However, books like this have the strength to make people restless, and urge them to ask questions. Along with her language, Shilpa Gupta's art contains different elements of a different culture and art form. Through these elements each one can try to find their own way. When we select a text to translate, that choice itself is our stance. The stance can then be that of dissent. Another example of this is the translation of Krushnat Khot’s novel ‘Ringan’ done by Maya Pandit. Ringan tells a piercing story of the displacement of forest-dwelling people and tribal communities resulting from delusional notions of development and politics. This translation by Maya Pandit, who herself is an activist and associated with different movements, is an act of intervening in the working of a vast and complex system that devours native people/common man. This act of intervention is important in this time of discontent. It shows that the voice of the individual, community and culture connected to the forest, animals, plants and soil can be heard through the act of translation. If such voices reach the community outside of Marathi readers who can read the translation, a series of new ideas can arise.
What would you say are the requirements for a translated work to be considered 'good'? What, according to you, is the purpose of translation?
I would rather look at translation as an experience of beauty and relating rather than in the matrix of good or bad. This experience can be about form or content or about any other element of the text. The translation of a text is also a translation of its aesthetics and art. Some of the great literary texts are strategically abstract. The abstract elements of the text keep on permeating through translation. This permeation is spread across different fields, art forms and social frameworks. Many times, their boundaries are not clearly demarcated. A wide reaching literary art form is not necessarily translated into all those fields it reaches. But a good translator tries to translate maximum layers of the text — both in terms of language and aesthetics. By understanding the multiple possible meanings and ambiguity in the source language, subtle communication is made possible in the target language. From this, a different set of readers can create their own relationship with that literary work; they can discuss, refute and argue. Instead of transferring a single experience or expression from the original act, the readers translate various important contexts of the translated literature. These areas, of course, take their shape and form from the original literary work. Despite this, the translator leaves their mark on the text along with the language and expressions of the source language. There, they surrender themselves to bring the core of the language to the reader through their own creative process. Some of Udayan Vajpayee's poems were translated by Prafulla Shiledar in Marathi for 'Hakara'. It feels as if Shiledar's Marathi translation materializes as he lets himself get lost in the words of Vajpayee's poetry. I feel that he can hear the flow and rhythm of the poem alongside each period and semicolon. They are also being translated. In this case one feels that the translation is 'good'.
When translating or editing translation, 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?
Translation is an independent process. It is a possibility if there are some unknown elements in the original language and if the author is available. I think the translator is able to make these decisions themselves and make meaning of the text.
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?
Firstly, translation is the creation of a new expression built on the foundation of the original text. Newness not so much as a deception or an imitation of the original form and content. Knowledge of the native language is as important as the culture of the native language. In that sense, a translator has to be bilingual and bicultural. Just as a good translator goes to the bottom of the source language and tries to grasp various contexts and forms, they also dive deep into the culture of the original text. This does not mean that a translator must be an academic linguistic researcher. For example, an understanding of the literature from a historical perspective is important while translating poetry/fragments from the Bhakti tradition. While being honest to the original text, it is possible to read translation as an independent work of art when focus is on its creative principle.
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?
The translator will decide how to bring the language into the translation. International recognition of translation and translators is extremely important. An important development in this endeavor of translation is that a language gets its own identity. The process of globalization that is increasingly looking at different languages in different countries is gratifying. In that, we have an identity with every language that comes from certain words and expressions. They should be included in the focus (translated) language. Of course, for this to happen, those words must be rooted in that language. For this, it becomes important to have as many translations as possible. This happened in relationships between English and other languages. Of course, only a few languages reach the international level because of the translators available in those languages. There has been a growing importance of English as a translation language. But, apart from that, the amount of translation that needs to be done between any two languages is very less. In the process of bilingual identity we can think differently about the relationship between two Indian languages other than English.
Bilori journal attempts to translate research essays into Marathi and English. What tips and insights can you offer about translating research writing?
There is a tradition of translating research writings. Discourses approved for contemplation in one language and other prevailing discourses can be established and organized in another, different language. Similarly, the ideas prevailing there can also be strengthened. Of course, such translation is mostly academic in nature. In that case, the translated materials published in Bilori Journal, Hakara or Khel, My Mavashi and other periodicals can help to develop the vocabulary of that discourse and to move that discourse in different social and educational contexts.
You have also been writing prolifically about drama and performance. Does performance have a place in translation? How do the two relate?
While translating dramas, the translator is, or can be, the dramatist. Some translate the play and someone else stages the play. Oftentimes, drama is translated out of the need for presentation. The translation is discussed with the cast, rehearsed and the play is staged. In both cases, the translator 'sees' the original text as its original author. The theatricality of the text is the main appeal in the process of deciding whether to perform a translated play or not. If the translation is being experimented with, the translator associates with the theater director and his team and can be involved in the translation process through a creative and practical process. Then the translation is completed by keeping the pronunciation of the language in the translated text/format, the sound of the words, the intonation and other things in front of it, keeping the relationship with the original code. Here the translator has to translate the text into a different language by understanding how the sounds of the words in the original text are heard, the dramatization of color cues in two or more dialogues. From this, one can see the original language as well as one's own language through drama.
Dr Ashutosh Potdar is Associate Professor of Literature and Drama at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at Flame University. His scholarly work in English and Marathi has explored Colonial Drama, Narrative Theory and Drama Studies and more recently, the connections between the Archive and Performance-Making. Dr Potdar is an award-winning Marathi writer of several one-act and full-length plays, poems, short fiction and translations. He has edited a volume of Greatest Marathi Stories Ever Told.