The first time I realised the difficulty of rendering the essence of a work of literature in another language was while reading Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic, Padmavat. A precocious reader, I had found the thick, hard-bound book—one of the many volumes my father had won in various writing competitions while at college—on a summer afternoon. I had opened the volume at random and read the first verse that caught my eye—the text’s flowing meter and the lyrical cadence of Awadhi, close to Hindi but softer, were enough to pull me in.
Then, a word in the verse puzzled me: “Marjiya”. It was used for the male protagonist, Ratansen, and was translated in the detailed annotation below the verse as “diver”. The literal meaning of “marjiya” was simple enough—someone who dies and comes back to life. But why was a diver marjiya and why was Ratansen, the king of Mewar, called a diver in Padmavati’s love?
As I read with the help of the accompanying translation—the book came with the meaning of each individual word as well as the translation of the entire verse—the rich metaphors and allegories pregnant with meaning began to unfold. The spiritual underpinnings of the love story dawned on me. The king from the desert emerged as the seeking soul, and the princess from across the seas as the divine one. The significance of the word marjiya in Ratansen’s context was comprised in the diver’s act of holding his breath while penetrating the ocean’s depth and re-emerging into life with the pearls he sought. That one word signified the spiritual investigation and penance which drains the Saadhak (seeker) of material desires, and brings about enlightenment. It was an early lesson in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
The issue of “sum of parts” in translation becomes particularly knotty in the context of a book like Ret-Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, where it is not only the words and meanings but also the cadence of the prose that matters. For Ret-Samadhi is one of those works that has a distinctive aural quality that is inherent in the language it is originally written in. The fluidity with which Shree uses the language, allowing words to pull in other words, form sentences that surge and ebb like tides, makes the work of a translator especially challenging. Daisy Rockwell has handled the challenge adroitly, allowing clauses to pile upon clauses in complex, flowing sentences without breaks or shortening. She has retained Hindi words liberally, adopted character-identifiers from the original, such as Bade, Beti, Bahu, as is, has left strings of local names for different types of saris and mangoes strewn in the text. She has retained couplets, proverbs, shlokas in their transliterated forms, from Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit, sometimes followed by a translation, at others not, as the flow of text demands. The onomatopoeic words are tricky, they occur frequently and in crucial parts of the book and the attempt to render them in English equivalents, though making for integrity of the translation, does take away from the rhythm of the original.
Reading and writing in both Hindi and English, I could see the difficulties of capturing Hindi texts in English—their chameleon-like ability to transform from grammatical formulations into poetic fluidity, their vocabulary enriched with the meeting of cultures, the language adapting to the demands placed by new times and learnings. I could also understand the temptation to make the texts more accessible to those not familiar with the language, to achieve the important purpose of introducing Hindi literary texts to non-Hindi speakers.
Not knowing any of the European languages whose classic texts I grew up reading in translation, I cannot comment on how the essential rhythm of, say, Russian or German or Spanish transitions into English. I have a feeling that despite the inevitable distinctions between the languages, their shared historical, linguistic and cultural context, as well as a Western or European world view, make the translations read authentic and alive.
I wonder whether the crystal-like purity of Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s Sanskritised Hindi, the sophisticated refinement of Agyeya and Nirmal Verma’s prose, the lyrical earthiness of Phanishwar Nath “Renu” and Krishna Sobti’s language could ever be rendered in English, a language at once familiar to us but unfamiliar of our context.
How would the entire universe of meaning encompassed in a word, the “brahmand” that dwells inside the “and”, be conveyed in another language that does not carry the cultural understanding of the original?
It is only in the last dozen years or so that the world of translations has truly opened up for Hindi literary works. I am aware of very few translations of Hindi literary works before this, perhaps an early translation of Munshi Premchand’s Godan, a work or two of Krishna Sobti, Vinod Kumar Shukla, a story here or an excerpt there in an anthology, bristling with glossaries or sheared of Hindi words altogether, the language flattened and devoid of its unique flavour.
With publishing houses like Penguin, HarperCollins, Tilted Axis Press publishing translated works and organisations like the Indian Novels Collective supporting translations of Indian Classics, translations from Hindi are coming into their own, moving away from anglicising or standardising the language and texts, preserving the Hindustani register and cadence. In the hands of translators such as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Sara Rai, Daisy Rockwell and Poonam Saxena, the works of Vinod Kumar Shukla, Geetanjali Shree, Krishna Sobti, Usha Priyamvada and Dharamvir Bharati make for layered and authentic reading experiences.
One translation from the last couple of years that truly stands out is Blue Is Like Blue, a collection of Vinod Kumar Shukla’s astonishing short stories rendered into English by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Sara Rai and published by HarperCollins India, in May 2019. The original, called Mahavidyalay, was published by Rajkamal Prakashan to much acclaim. The translation works at many levels—to begin with, the translators set the scene and provide context for the stories through an introduction, which not only informs the reader about Shukla and his milieu, but also includes translations of portions of his poetry, emphasising the common themes that run through his poetry and prose.
The translation of the stories themselves is straightforward, allowing the moodiness of the Hindi narratives to remain intact. The slow decay of time, the depletion caused by poverty, the intrusive yet lonely milieu of a small town, wrapped in occasional surreality, flows freely in English. Mehrotra and Rai make no attempt to explain the small-town locale or lower middle- class tropes of the original, clothes that are worn again without washing, time idled away at road-sides, personal questions asked by strangers—the quotidian details of life are presented with simplicity.
At a more technical level, the sentences are brief to the point of being cryptic, like in the original, and follow the Hindi text’s form and structure. In the story titled Twenty Rupees, the protagonist writes to his father: I touch your feet. The formulaic greeting from Hindi (“Poojya Babuji, charan sparsh”) is carried verbatim into English. Similarly, the dialogues of characters in several stories, including the title story Blue Is Like Blue, retain Indian idioms. If an occasional word is omitted, it is for the sake of flow; for example, the title of the collection in English, which is a sentence lifted from a key story in the Hindi, leaves out the word “colour” present in the original.
Literature that provides authentic windows into cultures, going above and beyond the “exotic”, is important and should be made accessible to global readers through translation. This view is gaining some recognition, with classic and contemporary works from Asian and African languages making their way into English and other languages. I hope that the ecosystem of reading, writing and publishing shifts away decisively from homogenous to varied authentic experiences, expressed in the languages of the lands they speak about. With translations of works of literature from Indian languages into English increasingly embracing the flavour and flow of the original, soon a translator may hold their breath like a marjiya and sink into the crystalline sea of Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s Banbhatt Ki Aatmkatha or the whimsical stream of Phanishwar Nath Renu’s Parti Parikatha and bring out their essence, lustrous and whole, into English.
Anukrti Upadhyay is a writer of both Hindi and English prose and poetry. Some of her works include the twin novellas Daura and Bhaunri and a Hindi short story collection called Japani Sarai that came out in 2019. Her latest works include a Hindi novella called Neena Aunty and a third novel in English, Kintsugi, which won the Sushila Devi Award for the Best Book of Fiction in 2021.