Although the given title for my talk is “The challenges and rewards of translation”, I have re-titled it “The goddess in my puja room”, hoping to make it less yawn-worthy and more intriguing, perhaps eliciting questions like who is this goddess, and where is this puja room. The puja room is in my mind and the goddess is Constance Garnett, the translating machine who lived from 1861 to 1946 and translated, during fifty of those years, some 70 volumes of Russian prose into English, some of which I read growing up and perhaps you did too.

Garnett started off not knowing Russian. She had to take a Russian émigré’s assistance to help her translate. But she soon wearied of the arrangement, studied Russian, went to Russia (where she met Leo Tolstoy in the flesh) and began to translate unaided.

If today, the first line of Anna Karenina – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – is quoted in the English literary world as one of the finest first lines ever written, it wasn’t written by Leo Tolstoy. It was written by Constance Garnett.

To put her in my puja room then, is the least I can do by way of genuflection. I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the age of 13, when its theme lay way beyond my experience of life. If, despite that, I was captivated, the credit must go to Garnett’s translation.

Back then I imagined her as a thin, ascetic woman who spent her days and nights in a garret going clackety-clack on her typewriter even as the rest of the house slept. The image, as it turns out, was not anachronistic as far as the typewriter went. The Underwood No 5 had become a fixture of offices and homes by 1900 when Garnett was 29. However, that wasn’t how Garrett worked.

Her friend DH Lawrence has described her as “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvellous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the ground without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high – really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”

And me? Although I’ve been through translating manually with a fountain pen, ballpoint pen and then on three progressively more advanced typewriters, I have worked comfortably on a computer for the last thirty years. And yet, metaphorically speaking, the sheets have not piled knee high on the floor beside me. I cannot even complain that it is because of the close-set type of Marathi books that puts such a great strain on my eyes; because who knows how the Russian books Garnett had to read were set and, anyway, she was apparently half-blind even before she began translating.

Constance Garnett
Constance Garnett with her son David in the mid-1890s. | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

If Garnett’s output and style of working are enough to shame translators like me, the fact that it has not been bouquets all the way for her in recent times, must engender in us a sense of fellowship. In my case, a certain individual named Mr Dam, once summarily dismissed a book of three Premanand Gajvi plays of which I had translated two, in the pages of an upcountry Sunday newspaper.

I dismissed the review equally summarily; but my anguished editor felt compelled to complain on Facebook that Mr Dam had damned the translations without offering a single reason why, and had done so in badly crafted sentences to boot, some samples of which he was only too happy to point out.

The wholesale damming of Garnett’s translations has come from critics of greater consequence than Mr Dam. Although Ezra Pound contended that without Garnett, the nineteenth-century Russians would not have been such a profound influence on early twentieth century American literature, and Earnest Hemingway swore that the depth and accomplishment he saw in the Russian writers as translated by Garnett was like having a great treasure offered to him, Vladimir Nabokov declared her translation of Anna Karenina “a complete disaster”.

Pointing to a passage in her rendering which read, “Holding his head bent down before him”, Nabokov comments acidly, “Mark. Mrs Garnett has decapitated the man.”

Joseph Brodsky on his part, said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”

Some translators might take that as a compliment. For instance, Tim Parks, British author of 14 novels and translator of works by Moravia, Calvino, Calasso and Machiavelli. His article on translation in The Observer begins, “Who wrote the Milan Kundera you love? Answer: Michael Henry Heim. And what about the Orhan Pamuk you think is so smart? Maureen Freely. Or the imaginatively erudite Roberto Calasso? Well, that was me.”

I would be very upset if I were told that an author I had translated sounded like me. The aims and ideals of translation have travelled with time. Today we strive to keep as many of the textural, syntactical and rhythmic qualities of the original text intact in our translations as we possibly can. Garnett’s times were different. That is why I dismiss Nabokov’s and Brodsky’s comments about her work as ahistorical, just as I dismiss Tim Parks’s hubris as misplaced.

Authors are authors. Translators are translators. Authors are great. Translators are not.

If you can’t stomach that hierarchy then, whether you translate Moravia or Machiavelli, they are going to sound like Tim Parks. Therefore, writerly pride in pocket, the translator submits to the original author’s voice. She doesn’t take over the original. She allows herself to be taken over by it.

If the author of the original text writes a rough-edged prose that deliberately disregards some conventional rules of grammar and syntax, to smoothen out the rough edges would mean drowning out the author’s authentic voice. The translator must instead, stretch the possibilities of her language to accommodate that voice. In the process, she might even enrich her language.

Walter Benjamin says, “The opportunity offered by translation is not a defensive one: to preserve, to embalm, the current state of the translator’s own language. Rather, it is an opportunity to allow a foreign tongue to influence and modify the language into which a work is being translated.”

I would claim to have once risen to that ideal when I translated Gieve Patel’s play, Mister Behram into Marathi. Patel uses a formal, constructed language in the play. He is not writing realistic dialogue. He is writing a classical-modern dialogue that puts a formal distance between speakers.

The commonly used language in contemporary Marathi theatre, depending on the story, is realistic or colloquial or “poetically” heightened. Aiming low, I could have converted Patel’s uniquely inflected prose into something closer to what my audience was accustomed to. But that would have been an act of “embalming the current state” of Marathi rather than grabbing the opportunity to allow Patel’s language “to influence and modify it”.

So, I severed all links with the voices of Marathi theatre that filled my aural memory and concentrated on Patel’s voice alone to guide the translation. In rehearsal, the actors were at first uncomfortable with speaking this language. But they soon settled down to it. When it was staged, the audience too was uncomfortable at the start. But they too settled down, allowing the freshness of its new register to challenge and excite them.

Translators are often asked the question. “Does your choice of language depend on the readership for which you translate?”

What the questioner has in mind is whether we orient our translation towards the American or the British reader. Some translators might. I don’t. I do not translate for a particular group of readers, wherever they live. I do not “planish and pat a masterpiece into a vilely beautiful shape” as Nabokov puts it in his essay on the art of translation, “to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.” For Nabokov, such an act constitutes a crime that belongs to the third degree of a translator’s turpitude, “to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.”

A crime that Brodsky points to is dropping words and phrases that you don’t know the meaning of; and not giving yourself enough time to hunt for the meaning. Translation needs as much time as original writing. I find it very difficult to translate with a deadline hovering over my head. How do you know what traps lie in wait for you in the original text?

I have spent days trying to find the meaning of a dialect word or phrase and more days digging for its nearest equivalent in English. The picture of Garnett finishing sheet upon sheet of translation makes me wonder if she skipped words and even whole sentences as critics have observed, because she was running to catch deadlines.

Not blessed with Constance Garnett’s productive energy, nor indeed by the press of publishers that came knocking at her door, I have been very selective in the books I have chosen to translate. Susan Sontag says in her St Jerome Lecture on Literary Translation, “By literary translation we mean, we could mean, the translation of the small percentage of published books actually worth reading: that is to say, worth rereading. I shall argue that a proper consideration of the art of literary translation is essentially a claim for the value of literature itself.” The purpose of translation, “the evangelical incentive” as she puts it, “is to enlarge the readership of a book deemed to be important.”

I have chosen to translate only such books as are important landmarks in Marathi literature and have been reread or deserve to be reread over time.

That is why I have translated Durga Khote’s autobiography Mee Durga Khote, Uddhav Shelke’s novel Dhag, Makarand Sathe’s novel Achyut Athavale ani Athavan, Prabhakar Barve’s essays on art, Kora Canvas and the plays of Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar, G. Deshpande, Vijay Tendulkar, Premanand Gajvi, Shafaat Khan, Rajeev Naik and others. That is also why I will one day translate Laxmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre and Sane Guruji’s Shyamchi Aai.

Smritichitre: The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife, Lakshmibai Tilak, translated by Shanta Gokhale.

At the risk of elevating myself, I will admit that I possess something of “the evangelical incentive” that drives me to translate. That is why I am somewhat bemused when unknown people call me up and ask me to translate their books, beginning with, “My friend so-and-so gave me your number and recommended you for translating my book.”

That puts me in the category of grocers. “My friend so-and-so highly recommends your papads. Can you send me a packet please?” Once you are known as a translator, it is assumed that you have set up shop and have nothing else to do in life.

When I receive such requests, I decline firmly but politely. But there are always those sticky ones who will not take a polite no for an answer. One such individual believed that if I only but set eyes on his book, I’d grab the opportunity to translate it. He brought the book across one afternoon and put it down before me with a flourish. It was about his management philosophy.

I said, “Nice” and gave him tea and biscuits. That should have put him on his guard. It did not. He opened the pages of the book for me, read out its impressive contents, explained his philosophy and finally said, “I’ve sold thousands of copies in Marathi. It’ll sell lakhs in English. You’ll be famous. Here’s my card. Get in touch and we will discuss your rate. I am told it is ten rupees a page. That will be two thousand for this book. No problem. No problem at all.” As he got up to leave, I said, “You’ve left your book behind.” Finally, he got the message.

(An edited version of a talk given at Elphinstone College, Mumbai, on February 22, 2014.)