Srinath Perur, with his translations of Vivek Shanbhag’s novels Sakina’s Kiss and Ghachar Ghochar, has become almost synonymous with the author for English-language readers. After tasting immense success with Ghachar Ghochar – several international awards nominations, glowing reviews in various national and global publications, and further translations into Indian and international languages – the duo has returned with Sakina’s Kiss after nearly eight years.
The new novel follows Venkat and Viji as they try to put together the puzzles of their college-going daughter’s disappearance. The result is a taut psychological drama that makes the reader feel dizzy as they witness the several undoings that have led the family to this point in time in their lives.
As the novel steadily garners critics’ and readers’ approval, I wondered about how Shanbhag and Perur working in close association helps the translator, to which Perur said it is particularly useful for understanding the author’s “sensibility”.
Apart from Vivek Shanbhag, Perur has also translated the memoirs of the iconic polymath, Girish Karnad – which was both a challenge and a joy. While translating Karnad, it became clearer to Perur how different translating fiction and nonfiction is – fiction is about understanding the author’s sensibility while in nonfiction ambiguity of language must be carefully dealt with.
In a conversation with Scroll, Perur also talked about writing his own fiction, reading, and some observations of being the chair of a major Indian literary award. Excerpts from the conversation:
After seven years, we have a new Srinath Perur fiction translation. Were you on a break or did you want your next fiction translation to also be a Vivek Shanbhag?
Neither, really. It takes me time to translate and there was This Life at Play, a nonfiction book I translated in between. I’ve also been chasing other interests of mine.
At any point in these intervening years, did you want to translate other fiction writings from the Kannada language?
I translated “Journey”, a short story by Shanthi Appanna and “V See and London”, an essay by S Diwakar, but nothing book-length.
In another interview, you said you have to be a good fiction writer to translate fiction. But the book that you have authored If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai is a travelogue – a nonfiction. Do you write fiction too? Perhaps as a practice exercise before you start a translation project?
I don’t think being a writer of original fiction is a prerequisite for being a good translator. Rather, there’s a craft to writing fiction that translators need to employ to do their work well. Translation is not a mechanical process. It is an active act of writing.
In my case, I have written some fiction in the past. Much of it was useful only to me, as a means to understand where I came from, and only a few short stories were published. But the time I spent on the craft has proved enormously rewarding. It helps me as a reader, as a writer of narrative nonfiction, and yes, as a translator.
As someone who has translated both fiction and nonfiction, how is translating nonfiction – if at all – different from fiction?
I’ve only translated two short novels [Ghachar Ghochar and Sakina’s Kiss by Vivek Shanbhag] and Girish Karnad’s memoir. I’m not sure how much I can generalise from my limited experience, but I did find that the memoir posed challenges that didn’t come up with the novels. In particular, ambiguity in language had to be dealt with in different ways. Let’s say a novel contains the description of a house imagined by the author. The nature of language is such that the picture it conjures up in the translator’s mind is bound to be somewhat different from what the author was seeing. But it’s okay as long as the description in the translation is internally consistent. This gets tricky when that house actually exists in the world. I remember struggling to translate a chapter in Girish’s book where he goes into great detail about the sets and the shooting of the film Samskara. I had to refer to the original novel, its English translation, the film itself and a documentary on its making to pin down certain details.
You also said at the launch of Sakina’s Kiss that it took you about two years to translate the novel which is quite long for a relatively slim book. I am interested to know, how do you go about translating a book? If you could tell us a bit about the process…
With Sakina’s Kiss, we went back and forth a good deal. I sent off a draft of my translation to Vivek and our agent Shruti Debi after working on it for about six months. Translation demands a really close and slow engagement with the text, so it’s hardly surprising that I had questions for Vivek about the book’s workings. He had notes on the translation for me. And Shruti had some very astute comments for both of us. Vivek in some instances made changes to the Kannada text. But novels are delicate things, and a small change in one place could mean he had to look at other parts of the book as well. I did another draft based on his changes and comments and we did this passing the parcel a few more times before sending it out to publishers.
You read Ghachar Ghochar with the intention to translate it. Vivek already knew you before you were his translator and he has also been closely associated with the translation of both books. In what ways does this personal acquaintance help when you are doing your translation?
I think what really helps is Vivek’s willingness to be part of the translation and publication process. He and I have had long conversations around literature and that’s been useful for understanding his sensibility. I also have some experience of the worlds he writes about, which certainly makes things easier.
If I can ask bluntly, will you stick to translating Vivek or are there other authors you are also interested in translating?
It really doesn’t have to be one or the other. I don’t think of myself as a particularly committed translator, as someone who’s always looking for something to translate. But if something interesting comes my way, why not?
A translator has two ways of reading a book perhaps – for the pleasure of reading and with the intention to translate. For you, what are some things to keep your senses open to while you are doing the latter?
Maybe the two have become somewhat mixed up for me. Even while reading casually in Kannada I find myself going, “Now how would I translate that?” And I am certainly taking pleasure in reading when I am deciding whether I want to translate something.
You know, even when a writer does not have a book coming out, they are advised to remain “relevant”. These days the lit fests, social media, et cetera help but to me, you seem like one of those writers who likes taking it slow. It seems like a choice. Would you say creative existentialism is something you don’t exactly suffer from?
I suppose it’s a luxury of sorts to be able to work on what I like without much hustling on my part. It helps that I write about many different subjects – books, science, travel and so on – and there’s always something or the other to do even if I am not in-your-face relevant all the time.
As the chair of this year’s JCB Prize for Literature, you must have read perhaps every novel of note that was published in the last year. This makes for a unique reading experience for you as a reader as well. What are some of the shifting tides you noticed in new Indian writing?
I expected to read a fair amount of fiction based on history and mythology, but even so, the number of such books surprised me. And many of them weren’t doing much with what is truly fascinating material. Still, we did read some excellent historical fiction, as a look at the shortlist will attest.
Several novels we read attempted the difficult task of dealing with the present political moment, almost an act of writing fiction in real-time. I wonder if the novel’s ability to handle interiority makes somewhat tractable a world in which, forget understanding, even just establishing the facts can be a struggle. If so, we’ll probably see more such books.
I found it particularly interesting to read novels written in English alongside novels translated into English. For a while now I’ve felt, very broadly, that English novels tend to be more assured in their prose, and translations tend to be more convincing when the underclass or a non-urban setting is involved. That is still the case but the difference is not as stark as it used to be. It’s being bridged from both ends, which I think is something to be happy about.