What made you take on the responsibility of chairing the 2023 Jury for the JCB Prize for Literature?
I guess being part of the jury for a prize like this is one way of connecting, of sharing one’s sensibility with the world. It also seemed like it might be fun and illuminating to read a large cross-section of recently published books to get a sense for what’s going on out there.
The 2022 shortlist comprised entirely of translations. As a translator, did the inclusive nature of the prize in terms of regional and linguistic diversity play a role in your decision to say yes to this opportunity?
Yes, I really appreciate the prize’s commitment towards promoting translations. This is seen not only in the additional prize money for translators, but also in the submission rules that encourage publishers to submit translations. This is good for the translation ecosystem in general, and it allows the prize to choose from a field that truly represents the best Indian writing published in English.
How did you feel when Girish Karnad approached you to translate his memoirs?
I was a bit ambivalent because, at that moment in my life, I was not looking to translate another book. But I knew Girish, and I had great regard for him. He had always been kind and encouraging. He told me that he intended to complete translating his memoirs himself but he was unable to do it because of how his health was. So I agreed to help him.
Looking back, I feel lucky to have worked on this translation. The memoirs tell us so much about such a remarkable life that Girish lived across Sirsi, Dharwad, Bombay, Oxford, Madras, Sringeri, Mysore, and Poona. The book covers many aspects. It is not only about his life in theatre but also his childhood, education, and journeys in publishing and cinema.
I was supposed to go to Bangalore, meet him, show him the translation of one chapter, and hear what he had to say about it. But he died before that. I was in Dharamsala. That’s where I spend about half of the year because I like the mountains. Since I had already started translating his work, it made sense to continue with it even after he passed away.
Often, translators working with books by authors who have passed have only those texts to refer to. You, on the other hand, had Karnad’s family and friends available for feedback. Was that constructive, or did you worry about pleasing people?
I think that some of these concerns would have come into play if I were writing a biography. Since I was doing a translation, this was not really an issue. His children, Raghu, and Radha, were very involved. They read the drafts of the translations, and had comments to offer.
There were other issues, though. Girish had translated a couple of chapters from Kannada to English himself. That material was precious. We wanted to keep those chapters because they are in his own voice but they needed some editing. The challenge I had on my hands was to make it all seamless, to try and adopt Girish’s voice to the extent it was possible. Yes, there were certain details that I needed to check with his family, and they were quite helpful.
But I also spent a lot of time going through Girish’s speeches and interviews and the documentaries featuring him. I wanted to know more about the words he uses in English. That was important because, for every Kannada word, you can have multiple English equivalents. I wanted to use the words Girish would have used. I even had a file on my computer called “GK vocab”. If Girish said adbhuta in Kannada, I would ask myself if he would have preferred to say “fantastic”, “marvellous” or “extraordinary” in that context.
If the entire translation had been mine or if the author did not speak English, I could have made up a new voice. I could not do that with This Life at Play. Girish was a public figure. He spoke in so many forums. A lot of people knew him. I had to be careful about the voice.
Rahul Soni, who worked with you as an editor on this book, is a translator himself. Though he translates from Hindi and not Kannada to English, were there certain nuances of translation that you think he understood well because he is a translator too?
Yes, working with an editor who is also a translator certainly helped me a lot. What also made a huge difference was his familiarity with the Indian arts and culture scene. In his memoirs, Girish talks about plays in Hindi and other languages too. Rahul did not need any additional explanation or context-setting because he was so clued in. That was wonderful.
Is it true that Karnad wanted 60 pages from the Kannada book left out of the translation? Did you leave them out, or keep them because you found them relevant?
When Girish sent me a copy of the book in Kannada, he scribbled a note on the first page saying that he was still thinking about whether or not to leave out 60 pages from the English translation. We do not know which pages he had in mind, so I did not leave anything out. I suspect he might have felt that the bits about the making of the Kannada films at the end of the book may perhaps not be of interest to a pan-Indian audience. It is also possible that he considered leaving them out because he did intend to finish writing about the second half of his life. The memoirs I have translated only cover his life up to the time that he got married.
When you think of your personal equation with Karnad, do you remember him as a colleague, a friend, or a literary giant whom you had an opportunity to translate?
History will remember Karnad as a literary giant. There is no debating that. I think of him with great affection. He was good to me. He participated in the book launch when my translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar from Kannada to English was published.
He was so enthusiastic. He sprang out of the audience and made his way to the stage to articulate the points that he had in mind. Occasionally, when I applied for certain things, he gave me a recommendation letter. He did not need to but he did. I will always be grateful.
The whole trajectory of his life is something that I admire a great deal. I grew up watching him perform, and hearing his voice especially at Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. The voice that told people to switch off their mobile phones before plays was Girish’s. I also remember the television show Malgudi Days when we all used to watch Doordarshan at home.
Ghachar Ghochar is a work of fiction whereas This Life at Play is non-fiction. As a translator, did you observe any significant differences while translating these books?
Yes, certainly! Translating Girish’s work took a great amount of research on my part. If he was referring to a book or a play, I looked it up. The process of translating him turned out to be an education in literature, and an introduction to Indian theatre and cinema. Let me give you an example. When I read Girish’s description of the sets for the film Samskara in which he acted, I could not immediately come up with an unambiguous translation from Kannada. I had to watch a documentary on the making of the film. I had to look at photographs of the sets in the film. I had already read U R Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara – which the film is based in – both in Kannada and in English translation. But I watched the film as well.
Triangulation using other sources was important for me. I also had people from the Kannada literary world to go back to. One of them – Muralidhara Khajane – a scholar who is working on Girish’s plays was a huge source of support especially because my knowledge of Kannada culture and history is not as vast as I would like it to be. I wanted my translation to be accurate. The main reason behind my becoming a translator was to get closer to the Kannada language.
From feeling like an outsider to the Kannada literary scene, you have now made a place for yourself. Many readers, Indian and otherwise, consider your work to be their entry point into Kannada literature. How does it feel to get this feedback and recognition?
It is nice because language carries associations of both pride and vulnerability. When people in Karnataka see milestones on highways that are in Hindi and English but not in Kannada, or when they come across bank officials who cannot speak Kannada, they feel that they are being ignored or bypassed. Many people who read my translation of Ghachar Ghochar got in touch with me to say that they were proud to see Kannada being celebrated not only in India but also outside. But I also have this funny memory of a German lady who asked me what I do. I told her that I translate from an Indian language called Kannada into English. She asked me, “Is there literature in Indian languages?” That showed her ignorance.
She sounds like the female counterpart to Lord Macaulay.
Yes, you remember Macaulay said that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”? I would really like to see that shelf. But coming back to Ghachar Ghochar, it makes me so happy to know that it has been translated into Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam directly from Kannada. My English translation has been used to translate the book into Chinese, Turkish and so many international languages. This experience reminds me of writer Susan Sontag who used to call translation “the circulatory system of the world’s literature”. Vivek, who wrote Ghachar Ghochar, is well-versed with literature that was originally written in Russian, Japanese and European languages. With his book now available in many of those languages, I feel a certain loop has been completed.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.