I write in English—the assassin language, the currency of hegemony, the curse of the colonizer. Paradoxically, however, English is also the universal language of translation, bringing literature from other languages to a wider audience. In his famous essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin writes that the translator’s task is not to communicate literally, or even faithfully, the message of the original in another language. Rather, the real task is to communicate the intention of the original. In the process, a translator opens her own language to echoes of the other, to transformations and fractures, toward new limits and freedoms.
I’d guess that Daisy Rockwell, the translator of Geetanjali Shree’s 2021 book, Tomb of Sand, has read Benjamin’s essay. Originally published in Hindi as Ret Samadhi, the translation made both Shree and Rockwell the subject of global headlines last year when Shree became the first Indian writer to win the International Man Booker Prize. Up to that point, no book in Hindi had been nominated for a major international literary award. This despite the fact that Hindi is the language of more than 400 million people and one of the most widely spoken in the world.
Why are there not more Hindi books in translation on the global market? In the landscape of Indian literature too—mostly dominated by English-language books—Shree has not enjoyed widespread attention despite her illustrious career. Her latest book, Tomb of Sand, was released in the US earlier this year from Harper Collins. Shree’s book is nothing short of a doorstopper, a grand epic narrated like a folktale, chronicling the life of an octogenarian emerging from depression after the death of her husband. From this point on, the plot moves with the force of an explosive, indefinable experiment. And it is this experimentation that makes its English translation a laboratory for forging new possibilities beyond the hegemonies of both English and Hindi.
Chandraprabha, whose name means the brightness of the moon, is in her twilight years when she attempts to find herself again. Her story is like that of many women in India, where it is customary for a woman to marry and become part of her husband’s family, forgetting her own history, origins, and home in the transfer. Almost like a translation gone wrong, a woman is given away to her husband’s side and thereby obscured, like an object without a history or an imagination to sustain it.
Therefore, for Chandraprabha to come into her own, the narrative almost necessitates the death of her husband. It is only in emerging from tragedy that she is restored, deciding to go to Pakistan and confront the enduring trauma of the Partition which shaped her youth. At the same time, like any aging person, she is coming up against her offspring. Her modern, successful, worldly children are threatened by how she might outdo or embarrass them in the steadfastness of their own progressive, cosmopolitan beliefs and identities.
This is the kind of book I recommend to my mother, if only for the selfish purpose of observing whether it provokes her anxieties about motherhood. But my mother, otherwise a slow reader, managed to read Tomb of Sand within a couple of days and felt as though the writing had passed by her like the sound of a wind chime. Having also read the book in Hindi—my mother tongue, you could say—as well as English, I was unsettled by that metaphor, partly because I experienced a similar lightness. I had to ask myself if I somehow bypassed its most painful moments. Had I skipped the tragedy-laden pages? Had I somehow read the book wrong? Over subsequent readings, I’ve realized that this is one of the tricks of Shree’s narrative: an elusive tug-of-war in which the reader could be accused of enjoying themselves too much. The tension exists in the book, but it always appears as if it’s crossed out, written over. It makes for a strangely fun reading experience, even when it makes you doubt your reactions.
Rockwell’s translation makes the most of this gray area, incarnating the levity and spirit of Shree’s work. Instead of putting up resistances or defending itself, Rockwell’s translation embraces the full musicality and tongue-in-cheek humor of Shree’s Hindi. Rockwell’s translation dares to bend the rules, obscure its grammar, and localize itself to fit into the frame of Shree’s language. Rockwell’s English can, therefore, appear wrong in order to do right by Shree’s writing.
Shree’s book is a grand epic narrated like a folktale.
Rockwell’s English constantly teeters on the edge: the sound of noises is not substituted for words denoting noise, even when such choices might be arguably easier. In some sense, the translation can almost be seen as too literal, too programmatic, not coded or mysterious enough. Ankita Chakraborty calls the translation “excessively loyal to the Hindi version.” Although I do, in part, agree with Chakraborty, I believe that Rockwell works well even with the rulebook in hand.
Imagine the sound of sticks tightly bound together as they rub against sandpaper. Shree uses the word ghasghas in Hindi for the sound of a jhaddu (see, this is my best attempt at translation) which Rockwell translates as scritchscritch, evoking the unruly textural friction of surface and sound. Given the phonemic orthography of Hindi—a system of writing in which the written symbol corresponds to its spoken sound—the translator’s word of choice can either choose to inhabit or abandon the aural atmosphere of a narrative. Ghasghas, a transliteration, is a softer sound in English than the friction of scritchscritch which makes you roll your tongue and flick it against the back of your teeth before you repeat the difficult maneuver as quickly as possible to enunciate the word.
The same goes for the many ways Chandraprabha says no. Rockwell translates the Hindi sound of Nahi Na Nanaeee as No, nyo, nyooo. She translates the idiomatic phrase earlier in the paragraph—Gay toh Gaya, which literally translates to “He’s gone, so she’s gone”—in a more explanatory, clarifying way. To be gone in Hindi means to be left without any sense, as if your brain has left your body. Rockwell translates the idiom as “Now he’s gone, has her reason too?”
Sometimes reading a translation like this makes me feel like I am reading an advice column. I mean to say, reading an expert’s solution to a private question. It feels like I am reading two voices in intimate conversation with each other, Shree’s and Rockwell’s.
Laudably, Rockwell’s translation makes English a language of solutions, instead of a language which merely treats the other’s tongue as a problem. That is where it does the true work that Benjamin was hinting at, but this is also where it can leap further and save its source language, Hindi, in the process too.
Urdu was the literary language of Bhopal where I grew up and would sneak into my speech unconsciously. I was scolded by my Hindi teacher for using Urdu-as/in-Hindi then, and today it is almost criminal in an increasingly nationalist India to think of Hindi as anything less than an ironclad linguistic identity.
The election of the Narendra Modi-led Hindi-right wing party, BJP, in 2014 has only exacerbated the concerns many populations harbor about becoming subjects of linguistic oppression. Cities in Tamil Nadu, among others, have been protesting recently against the imposition of Hindi by the central government on non-Hindi speaking states.
It is almost poetic that Shree’s book has become the first to win a major international award at a time when Hindi is increasingly construed as under threat within India’s own borders. While those in the South protest that Hindi is being forced on them, other institutions are racing to further entrench the language. An “army of 97 translators,” are currently hard at work devising alternate, Hindi lingo for English medical words after my home state of Madhya Pradesh announced its plans to offer medical training in Hindi.
The results are often clunky, rarely usable or even legible for doctors. A heart attack is far better understood than the Hindi term dil ka dohra, the latter typically used metaphorically in poetry or songs rather than literally.
Any translator will tell you they know this problem all too well: translation, even when it fulfills, doesn’t always satisfy. Intention matters just as much as the message. The Hindu Right might want to make Hindi the only medium to access knowledge—thereby advancing their linguistic ethno-nationalist agenda—but a translator will tell you that a translation can only be deployed in the service of art.
Azadi is an untranslatable Urdu word. I urge against its translation. Some will say that the word itself is Urdu and not Hindi. Some will go so far as to say that the politics of azadi is dangerous to its “purer” Hindi counterpart, swatantrata, or that azadi will crumble the democratic sovereignty of India. But given its political resurgence and significance in Modi’s India, I am tempted to say that the art of translation is about rendering true the imagination encompassed in azadi without forcing it into legibility.
The prime minister would like us to believe in his alternative facts of “pure language.” I doubt the prime minister has read Benjamin, but he should know better than to keep insisting on a return to Hindi that will unite India and free it from the shackles of its colonial past.
Can we draw any hope from the moment for Hindi literature brought about by Rockwell and Shree? When they won the International Booker—a prize split evenly between the two—translators and writers in India quickly latched onto the comforts of joy and optimism, and not completely without reason. They hope that Hindi literature will now finally find its place on global bookshelves, that it will finally make its mark on the world. I hope it’s the spirit of Rockwell’s translation that embodies the space Hindi literature will occupy in the future. A linguistic, ethno-nationalist hegemony is a battlefield—not a playground. Unlike Modi, translation allows the Hindi language itself to breathe, play, reflect, and explore its possibilities in the company of others.