A translation project was just the therapy that author and poet Maithreyi Karnoor needed when she was “too creatively exhausted” after her first novel Sylvia – Distant Avuncular Ends came out in February 2021. Kannada writer Vasudhendra’s novel “Tejo Tungabhadra was…in the news at that time. I read it quickly and liked it,” she says. By this time, Karnoor had already been in touch with Vasudhendra about possible translation projects that’d never taken off. So, this time both author and translator were eager to make it happen.
The English version of Tejo Tungabhadra finally hit stands in October. The story is set in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, across India and Lisbon, and follows the story of two pairs of lovers along rivers Tejo in Lisbom and Tungabhadra in the Vijayanagar Empire.
In this interview with Lounge, Karnoor talks about her relationship with translation versus writing her own work; her various workspaces over the last year, and her newest space in Bengaluru apartment, from where she is currently working on Gooday Nagar, her short fiction collection of social satire. Edited excerpts.
Let's talk for a moment about Tejo Tungabhadra. What about the book stood out for you?
In works of fiction in Indian languages, the story and the language are most organically interwoven – the language drives the story and vice versa. A Kannada novel is usually set in Karnataka or, in the case of contemporary works, is the story of Kannada-speaking characters irrespective of their location in the world. It is rare that a Kannada author aspires to tell the story of characters that speak a European language. Half the material of Tejo Tungabhadra comes from 15th C Portugal. The novel spans out on a grand canvas. It is quite unique in that sense and is an ambitious project.
How do you relate to poetry differently from prose, and more specifically your writing versus your translation work?
Ever since I quit my PhD midway some years ago, I decided I will read only for pleasure. Be it poetry, fiction or non-fiction, a book I read must hold me with the magic of its words. Any ‘learning’ that happens has to be subconscious – I don’t seek it actively. And this is also what drives my writing and translation: I write and translate for pleasure.
But each genre has its own flavours – like different foods in a buffet. Poetry, whose definition is more than the sum of all its definitions, affords greater freedom from strict meaning-making than prose. I think poetry is quite meta in the sense that it holds a mirror to itself and the limitedness of words. I usually write a poem in a single burst from an idea or a thought or a phrase that moves me in that moment. I may go back and sculpt it later, but each poem is self-contained in its inspiration and perspiration. In poetry, I seek observation – more description than prescription – and I seek to laugh at myself and what I consider mine. I seek cleverness and silence. I abhor vacuous sentimentality and noise.
A story, on the other hand, takes several sessions. Finding time and peace of mind in the daily grind can be difficult. Sometimes, I set aside a work for weeks on end before I can go back to it – by then, it ends up taking a form quite different to what I had originally envisaged for it. And I let it. My prose is more spontaneous than planned – I let the words direct the plot rather than the other way round. I have so much fun with descriptions and dialogue that events seem like an afterthought. I value the qualities of understatement, brevity, and irony: sometimes I like to leave things unsaid, or juxtapose contradictions without offering judgement or resolution. In these matters, the line between poetry and prose blurs for me.
Translation is a game played with constraints. It is like building a house to a plan that’s provided to you. While translating, the meanings of the words before me are only one of the many things I pay attention to: I am equally interested in the mood, the cultural implications, the musicality of words and sounds, the tone of speech, and the author’s style. I try to recreate all of these in a new language. I feel a novel in translation is a novel in its own right. I like to think of it as a manifestation – an avatar – rather than a retelling.
The process of writing is amorphous where the lack of rigid structures can be both freeing and burdensome – I can make my own path, but there is also the risk of losing my way. I therefore need greater clarity and focus when writing. Translation is like riding a bicycle with the training wheels on. I can play as much as I can, but my path ahead is always clear and the destination is never out of my sight.
Describe your current workspace to us. How has it evolved over the years?
I have had a fairly nomadic lifestyle the past year. I have lived out of a suitcase, changing apartments on Airbnb every month. So, I haven’t had a constant workspace.
I spent three months in Sri Lanka and returned to India briefly before heading off to Wales for my residency with the Charles Wallace India Trust and Literature Across Frontiers.
In my apartment on a hill in Kandy, Sri Lanka, I had a small desk by a window that overlooked a beautiful valley. My favourite workspace so far has been the bench on a little rising outside the National Library in Aberystwyth, Wales. From there, I could see the rooftops of the entire town below me, the steel-grey Irish sea reflecting the sun beyond it, green hills dotted with sheep on another side, rabbits hopping about nearby, and the majestic library building standing reassuringly behind me. I had an office to myself inside the Celtic Studies building at the university. And that was also quite nice.
I (also) have different preferences for different needs. When the words are flowing faster than I can type, I prefer the focus of a closed space – a room for myself with the blinds closed and no distractions. But when I am enjoying the dreaminess of poetry or jotting down abstract thoughts, I can be outside – under a tree or on a beach.
While I loved being on the move, I am a bit travel weary now and crave stability. I have only just moved into a rented apartment in Bengaluru. It was entirely unfurnished, so the first thing I bought was a dining table with four chairs and it also doubles up as my workspace.
I like things around me to be orderly and sparse. I cannot work on a cluttered desk. I tidy up my space before sitting down to work. I cannot have sound of any kind if I can help it – not even music. And I don’t like bright lights. I have had a Philips reading lamp with a yellow CFL and red hood for many years now – and that is one thing I carry around with me. It gives me a sense of familiarity over my changing desks.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works you've done at your workspace.
Since my workspace is an emotion rather than a fixed, physical space, my eureka moments have been fairly scattered geographically.
I put the finishing touches on Sylvia before sending it off for publication from my bed in my 6th floor apartment in Pune last year. I completed the first draft of my translation of Tejo Tungabhadra on New Year’s Eve on an ergonomically wanting desk in a nondescript town called Ambalangoda on the west coast of Sri Lanka. I signed the contract for an international edition of Sylvia with a UK publisher from my office in the Celtic Studies building in Aberystwyth. I had several poetry acceptances with prestigious literary journals such as Poetry Review and PN Review on that bench I described earlier. I’m currently working on Gooday Nagar, my short fiction collection of social satire at my dining table/desk in my new Bengaluru apartment.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
All places are placeholders.
Ideas are born in clouds.
And words are like cats –
They don’t come when called.
A desk is an emotion,
It’s not mine to trade.
What I seek is a story
In the hope of being paid.
What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years.Why?
My laptop. Because I write on it.
Describe your first book memory.
The first book I remember completing was an abridged version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. I must have been seven or eight years old. I was sitting in the veranda of our home in Mudhol – a smalltown in northern Karnataka where I grew up – and I remember running out into the fields behind our house to avoid talking to anyone and breaking the spell the book had put on me. I sat there among the banana trees by myself for a long time before I could tolerate the presence of people again.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.