Academic and translator Kathryn Hansen is an expert in the history of theatrical practices in South Asia, gender and performance, South Asian literary and cultural studies, and South Asian – Hindi and Urdu – diaspora, ethnicity, and immigration. She spoke about her art and scholarship to Suzanne L Schulz.
You have translated several different genres of writing from Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati to English, and have employed a number of innovative translation strategies throughout your career. Can you talk a little about the role of translation in your work? When have texts alone proved inadequate? When has it become necessary to supplement your texts with visual materials, appendices, and glossaries?
Translation has come to mean a lot of things to me. Fundamentally, translation is a bridge of communication that connects different groups by carrying meaning from one to the other. We tend to think of it as a way to expand the circulation of a text to new audiences.
The activity of translating also involves the translator in a sustained search within the text for meaning. It produces deeper understanding of how signification is constructed. I’ve found that translation as an intellectual process facilitates unexpected insights into linguistic choices and the mediating factors that produce them: genre, discourse, style, dialect, and so on. Bringing that more sustained engagement with the text into the translation is the big challenge we face as translators.
Images and other enhancements can enable apprehension of meaning, expanding the possibility of understanding, making it not entirely dependent on verbal cues and codes. Appendices and glossaries are schematic formats that make it easier to recognise details. They serve when complexity begins to obscure the perception of patterns.
We have learned the practical benefit of these supplemental aids in our own exploration as researchers. What we tend to forget or underestimate is the struggle that the mind encounters when perceiving and ordering a new system. Translation is centrally about that process, about communicating configurations of knowledge.
How have your various strategies for translating, editing, and annotating different genres of writing evolved? How have they overlapped with other aspects of your scholarly work?
As a language learner, I translated to make sure I understood the words and syntax and could convey a text in readable English. This is still an important aspect of teaching Hindi: translation as auto-feedback. For my first book-length translation, The Third Vow and Other Stories, an anthology of short stories by Phanishwarnath Renu, I thought annotation should be kept to a minimum in the interests of flow.
Then with the Nautanki plays in Grounds for Play: The Nautanki Theatre of North India, the objectives were archiving and preservation, on the one hand, and recontextualising and re-presenting, on the other, so a fairly extensive scholarly apparatus was necessary. I didn’t toy with the oral texts themselves. I treated the transcripts as artefacts, as sacrosanct.
With Somnath Gupt’s history, The Parsi Theatre: Its Origins and Development, I intervened quite a bit, enhancing the original with corrections, footnotes, illustrations, and appendices to make it a more comprehensive (and hopefully more interesting) reference. By the time of Stages of Life: Indian Theatre Autobiographies, my thinking about texts, authors, and selves had evolved with the literary theories of the day. I had moved away from the notion of the fixity of the word and its meaning, through the idea of multiple meanings, and to the possibility of meaning being ever fluid, constructed in performance.
For those who know you primarily as an expert on Indian theatre, can you speak a bit more about your early work on Phanishwarnath Renu? What unique challenges arose in translating Renu’s writings? Why had his work resisted translation for so long?
My translations of Renu were something of a mishmash, because of the ambiguity of the intended audience. They were done initially for a Western readership, then edited for publication in India, but without consistency. And there were other difficulties.
Throughout my work on Renu, I had a lot of trouble finding experts who knew the local references. I was really interested in Renu’s borrowings from oral culture (stories, songs, dramas), but I was only beginning to recognise the oral genres myself, let alone find anybody who knew about them. The process of discovery was much more than linguistic, and it really continued for years, as I turned to folklore and folk theatre as objects of study in their own right.
The limitations of my translations loomed large: it was very frustrating to be dealing with so many unknowns. I managed to produce something that was roughly workable, filling the gap for an author who was considered untranslatable precisely because of the local allusions and their obscurity. I suppose I decided that it was better to have something in English rather than nothing to represent such an important writer.
For the anthology The Third Vow, I put untranslated words into a glossary at the back of the story collection. I didn’t want to “intrude.” And yet the curious thing was that Renu himself provided footnotes to his novels and stories. He had to gloss his own texts, such was their difficulty!
What in particular attracted you to Renu’s story “The Third Vow” and its film version Teesri Kasam (directed by Basu Bhattacharya in 1966)? As you have written, the film is an anomaly among popular films of its time and is itself a kind of translation of Renu’s regionalism, shot on location in Bihar and featuring folk instruments and regional language dialogues. Thinking about your shift from Renu to Nautanki, how did you adapt your translation strategies when you confronted the story, the film, and the other rich materials of Grounds for Play?
“The Third Vow” led me to Nautanki, because it revolved around an actress who works in a travelling Nautanki company. I needed to know more about the context of that folk theatre, and about its stories and songs, an example of which was present as Renu’s story’s subtitle, “Mare Gaye Gulfam.”
When I discovered a large cache of sangits (libretti) in London at the British Library and connected them to the Nautanki/Svang performance style, I knew I had a major project in front of me. Out of this trove new imperatives emerged: to describe the repertoire, which was really huge, and to preserve the texts, develop an archive. I’ll come back to the archiving piece in a minute.
In writing Grounds for Play, the main task was reclamation. I was in essence translating a lost cultural text, to bring it out of its marginality and obsolescence into the discourse of today. As for the specific translation of a sample libretto, Indal Haran was one of the radio recordings I collected, and it had to be transcribed first. We developed a verbal transcript and also rendered most of it in musical notation. I used the sung material in Grounds for Play for musicological and metrical analysis.
Thus I had gained a feel for – and technical grasp of – the rhythms of the lines, their patterns and variations, which was quite exciting. Could I carry any of this into an English translation? Impossible: this was going to be simply an exercise in storytelling.
Indal Haran is one of the fifty-two episodes of the great Alha cycle, the old oral epic of Bundelkhand. Even to have the Nautanki version of the story in English would be valuable, I thought. Well, stories have their essential features – characters, time, place, action, and such – but when one is dealing with the word-for-word transcript of a poetic drama (and this probably applies to folktales and narrative songs too), the basic information often is missing.
The names and places are altered, elided, alluded to in cryptic ways. The Nautanki text of Indal Haran was quite opaque in Hindi. Consulting other versions of the story was one way of filling in the blanks, making sense out of the abbreviated references. In the finished translation, I added crucial facts in brackets. The translation appeared in an appendix, an odd strategy, now that I think about it.
Speaking of brackets and appendices, your translation of Somnath Gupt’s history of Parsi theatre is really one of my favourites. Your supplements to Gupt’s original text are embedded so lovingly from start to finish, creating almost a book within a book. You perform the usual prefatory notes explaining the limitations of your interventions and thanking your university (and so does he). Your endnotes, rearrangements, and additional images enhance Gupt’s own notes and images. For me, this method makes visible the processes of knowledge accretion that are usually hidden. The resulting text is both a valuable source of information on Parsi theatre within the architectural and social environment of Bombay and a cultural artefact in its own right. Can you explain why you thought that translation of this text into English was long overdue?
I first translated some passages from Gupt for my own use. As time went on, I realised it was a core reference for me and could be useful for others as well. True, it was pretty dry, mainly an assemblage of details, not much narrative or analysis. To round it out, I intervened quite a bit, both to clean it up and correct some errors and to make it more appealing.
The translation is not a book you can easily read cover to cover, but you can look things up in it, and it has an interest for the specialist. The apparatus was driven by the scope and variety of Parsi theatrical productions over a long period. Gupt was not an impartial source, but he understood the secular moorings of Parsi theatre and gave credit to all the communities involved with it. I suppose I translated this work to provide legitimacy to a forgotten art.
When phenomena have a published history, they seem more real. Unless the history is published in English, however, it lacks authority, to say nothing of the limitation on access. Books in Hindi pretty much get ignored beyond a small literati readership in India, and they go out of print very rapidly. Although certain publishers are making efforts to change this, the bias towards English-language publication in India is definitely greater now than when I began studying Hindi in the 1960s.
Can you think of other works like this that might be translated into English? What kinds of theatre, performance, and autobiography archives, a few of which you mention in Stages of Life, might continue to be sources for future scholars who hope to contribute to the kinds of historiography that you have developed in your own scholarship?
I know of valuable works in several Indian languages, and I’m sure there are other books in Hindi too. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, sketches of theatre personalities, life stories of actors, and notes on theatrical productions started appearing in India. First they were focused on English theatre. It was a kind of gossip, who’s who on the stage, what’s showing where.
As theatrical activity came to be concentrated in the hands of Indians, similar vignettes about Indian actors filled the pages of newspapers and magazines. So there is quite a lot of performance history available, in English as well as in regional languages like Bengali, Tamil, and Marathi. Commercial theatre flourished first in urban areas – Calcutta, Madras, Bombay - thus, it’s natural that the sources would be in those languages.
Coming back to the issue of the balance between commentary and translation, in Stages of Life how were you able to navigate this challenge? It seems you had to choose between the presentation of an “archive” that has a very strong voice and the orchestration of that archive into a coherent narrative / historiography through commentary / analysis. Is there a poet inside every translator?
Yes, and sometimes that poet gets support to emerge due to intellectual trends that might seem quite tangential. I had already been intrigued by the idea of multivocality when I began writing Grounds for Play. In the first chapter, I experimented with crafting a multistranded narrative, playing off different sources (Renu’s short story, the libretto of Sangit Nautanki, some interviews with actors) against each other. This kind of interlaced structure is now ubiquitous in TV serials and novels. But it’s still not that common in academic writing.
Similarly, with Stages of Life, my thinking about autobiography was influenced by deconstruction and performance theory. The word and its meaning had lost the aura of permanence and truth. Canonical texts were no longer viewed with the reverence of old. This was a huge boon for folklorists and people who were working on popular culture, since it opened the door to all kinds of projects. The possibility of meaning being always fluid, always constructed in performance, really created an expansive space.
This theoretical shift freed me to take even greater liberties in translation. With the autobiographies of Parsi theatre actors, I had lots of misgivings about reliability, whether the narrators were telling the truth. It turned out that a couple of them didn’t even write their own autobiographies; they used collaborators or ghost writers. But they were all great raconteurs, able to talk about themselves with gusto at great length. I had to cut all of the autobiographies severely, take out a lot, trying to leave the juiciest bits.
In this book, I think I achieved the right balance of commentary to translation: about 50/50. There’s a lot of information on the authors and the theatre contained in footnotes, appendices, and introductory material. I also have several sections that are totally interpretive or theoretical. Maybe translation in this case was an occasion for me to perform, so to speak, to develop themes and elaborate upon them. Those actors’ voices gave me an opportunity to orchestrate translation with background material and release layers of meaning.
Can you say more about how your training in Indian classical music has come in handy at various points throughout your career? How has your musical background shaped your research and your approach to translation?
For a long time, I was interested in Hindi and literary matters in India, while on a completely separate track I was immersed in learning Hindustani (and later Karnatak) music. I had the good fortune to meet and study from a great master, the sitarist Nikhil Banerjee, while I was a graduate student. That experience carried me into a depth of appreciation that was quite transformative. For a number of years after finishing my PhD, I practiced sitar religiously, and when I lived in Canada I performed publicly and also organised a number of musical events.
The musical aspect of my engagement with South Asia merged with my academic work when I discovered Nautanki, a folk opera form. For the first time, I was able to focus on a literary tradition that relied on music for its unique character. My training in Indian classical music enabled me to get beyond the negative appraisal of Nautanki’s musicality.
Most recordings of Nautanki singing at that time were quite distorted. The technology wasn’t up to the job of capturing the traditional outdoor presentation style, where actors sing with full voice and often in high register. I realised by interviewing singers that the melodies were formulaic but very appealing, and that the entire musical ensemble (including drumming on the naqqara, a specialised kettle-drum set) involved a lot of artistry. I wanted to write about how well-adapted the musical drama was to its environment, how moving it must have been for audiences in the days before mass media.
Then, I suppose, the idea of improvisation was something that I imbibed from Indian music. I went through a phase in my sitar lessons of trying to figure out how to play alaap, being completely puzzled about how you improvise on a few notes so that it is your own invention, while conforming to the stylistics of alaap.
I would dream about how to do it, but still not be able to produce the phrases. I think it is similar to language learning, where you understand the language and know a lot of words but are struggling to become fluent. You suddenly start speaking, like a child. Improvising was that kind of skill, and getting the hang of it had a big impact on my writing and translating. All of these activities are forms of expression, and for me the breakthrough into expression is a challenge and a thrill. Again, it’s about apprehending a new system, configuring it, communicating it back.
Can you think of a way, perhaps using digital archives, that scholars might more readily convey to readers the musicality and meter of forms of Indian theatre and performance? What should be the role of scholarship more generally in efforts to archive, preserve, and promote such forms – an effort you yourself undertook for Nautanki sangits?
When we talk about preserving and archiving something like folk plays, we have to explore our assumptions about fixity and change. What is the thing we are trying to preserve? How fixed is it, and how mutable? Is change okay? What if change leads to contamination, or even extinction? Folklore theory has moved away from the concept of the Ur-text, the search for pure origins, the ideal form of the story or song.
The prevalent opinion is that the object of study is the text / performance as we find it in the present moment, bearing all of its changes, mediations, and adaptations. The problem is that these changes can’t be recognised if there is no prior entity for comparison. Personally, I’m not compelled to search for the “original form” of a story, song, or play. I don’t care that much about the earliest manifestation of a text. But I am interested in boundaries, in what defines a genre, what endures to create continuity over time.
My approach has been to mobilise historical awareness and make use of different kinds of sources to create a longer view. By looking at a larger set of data, we can identify similarities and differences and create aggregates that reveal common characteristics.
For example, Nautanki as a genre can be identified by its distinctive meters. These are visible in the texts of the nineteenth century as well as the performances nowadays. With a firmer grasp of how the genre coheres, preservation makes sense as an effort to record and document samples at a particular juncture. It’s not as though these samples inherently possess greater legitimacy. They will probably acquire that added value by being archived.
So archiving is an intervention, and we need to be clear about that. It does fix the text and reify its features. But it also has the power to make the text accessible. Again, “access” is not the same for everybody everywhere. Still, because of the possibility that access may broaden the reach of communication, I’m in favour of it.
I agree that with digital media becoming widely accessible, we have more tools now and can attempt a multimedia approach to preservation. I don’t know of any models yet for this. Videotaping live theatre, especially musical theatre, is a challenge, and of course it is costly. Still, it is more common now for ethnomusicology monographs to include a CD or DVD. YouTube is a real instructional resource: there is so much amateur video that has merit. I expect the frontiers to keep shifting.
Let’s return to “old media” for a moment. Can you talk about your experiences having a dual publishing life in the United States and India? What have been the rewards of publishing in both places? What kinds of relationships, legalities, and sensibilities must one negotiate in order to do this effectively? Have you ever felt there was something you couldn’t say, had to say differently, or needed to say more emphatically in either context?
When I started going to India and meeting living authors, invitations came to translate their stories and publish them in literary magazines in India. This was a different enterprise from my student exercises. It was translation for consumption as “literature.” The stakes were higher in regard to accuracy and style, plus there was the issue of the Indian reader, who did not need (or want) awkward equivalents of kinship terms, food and dress items, or culturally specific vocabulary.
After The Third Vow, my interests turned towards folklore material that was equally obscure for Indian and Western readers. I would have been able to skirt the issue of the distinct readerships for a while, except for the fact that I became very involved with gender theory. Gender norms had been evolving in South Asia as elsewhere, but it really was a little cheeky of me to speak to Indian feminism, and insert my voice.
I did this with my article on heroic women, “The Virangana in North Indian History, Myth and Popular Culture,” where I argued for a third model of womanhood after Sita/Savitri and the Shakti goddesses. Surprisingly, that piece has been reprinted several times, and it has been assigned on course syllabi in India.
Over the years, networks grow to reflect the relationships we build. I look back with pride at the years I’ve enjoyed with my friends in South Asia who were leaders in women’s studies, gender studies, and feminist activism. It’s really such an honour to have known them, and their work and perspectives have created a context for my scholarly growth. They’ve helped me develop as no other network has.
I don’t censor my presentations in India. I’ve found that academic audiences have very high standards, so it’s essential to give one’s best effort and be ready to defend one’s argument. When I read a paper once at the Sahitya Akademi on female impersonation and gender formation, the veteran Parsi theatre artist Fida Husain was sitting in the front row, eagerly taking it in. He had been a female impersonator himself in his youth. The academics in the audience responded in their usual style, but he gave an appreciation in Hindi – an oration, actually – that touched me the most.
As far as legality is concerned, earlier in my career I never worried about it. Piracy was the norm and nobody bothered about copyright. That’s still true in some cases, but there’s more of an attempt now in India to clear copyright and get permissions. With the Somnath Gupt translation, we had to find the author’s heir, who was a Superintendent of Police in Rajasthan, and get his consent – not easy!
An SP in Rajasthan? Incredible! One thing that really strikes me about your work is that you have been able to convey the idioms of Bombay as well as those of the qasbas of North India. Because theatrical companies travelled extensively in India, your research compels us to understand both their cosmopolitan and local orientations. What has this aspect of your work taught you about the travels of Hindi, Urdu, and other languages of the theatre more generally
Hindi, Urdu, and other languages of India are so capacious, they reveal so many variants and inflections historically as well as geographically. It’s fascinating to think about how certain kinds of theatre and literature communicate with their audiences at different points along the social spectrum.
I’ve looked at the Hindi literati’s reaction to Renu’s writing right after Independence and their buttoned-down approach to language. His fiction was saturated with localisms, and it challenged the idea of a standardised version of Hindi that they were promoting. Nautanki probably appealed to Renu’s villagers because it was still a notch more sophisticated than their own folk dramas. It had an allure, a promise of classiness that was carried through its Urdu verses.
For cosmopolitan audiences, Parsi theatre did the same thing on a larger scale. It projected a European style of representation, drew on a broad universe of dramatic situations and tropes, and was linguistically quite eclectic. In each case, the appeal seems to be the expansion of boundaries, the encounter with new worlds. There is a desire to explore at the leading edge, which the language is able to facilitate because of its inherent plasticity.
I’ve enjoyed working with this set of cultural media since Hindi links them all. These forms also defy some of the usual assumptions about social hierarchy, especially in the mutual exchange between the local and the cosmopolitan.
In Grounds for Play, you write, “dictionaries are slanted mirrors of language and society, reflecting the linguistic tapestries constructed by social, political, and economic forces at different moments of history”. Here, you are discussing the sidelining of “nautanki” and its omission from standard Hindi and Urdu dictionaries. Thinking more broadly, especially about the centrality of translation and the dictionary in South Asian studies, what advice would you give junior translators inclined to move beyond the limitations of dictionaries and other accessible objects of study?
Knowing one language even extremely well is usually not enough. For anyone training to work in or translate from South Asian languages, I would stress the need to study Sanskrit, historical linguistics, and secondary languages as appropriate to one’s field. This is because the borders between languages are very fuzzy in the South Asian context. One language interpenetrates another to a large extent.
As far as dictionaries and their limitations, I’m afraid the problem is getting worse as South Asian languages are refashioned to catch up with the present. It has been a real challenge, collaborating on the translation of my scholarly articles into Hindi. Some of the theoretical and conceptual vocabulary has to be coined on the spot by the Hindi-speaking translator, and I wonder how it comes across – probably as even more obscure than the original English! Nonetheless, we need more and better translations, and part of the excitement of this kind of mental activity lies in the sleuthing.
Suzanne L Schulz holds an MA and PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently pursuing an MFA at Hunter College, New York. She has a background in documentary film production and has published several articles on the intersection between politics and film in North India.
Originally published in Sagar (2013).