Read To Win

Three translated books you must not miss

An acclaimed translator tells us about the books that have helped her gain in translation.

I have to say I’m tired of people talking about all that's “lost” in translation ‒ the nuance, the subtlety, the local flavours of language, the poetry. All I can think of is how much is gained in translation ‒ new and splendid worlds, ideas, colours, lilting turns of phrase that surprise, images that startle. Given that more and more of us read literature only in one language, it's a real gift to have so many works from such different times and spaces translated into languages that we read with ease and pleasure.

I’d like to talk about translations that have stayed with me over the years rather than ones that thrilled me in 2014. Obviously, behind every great translation, there is a great book.

The Leopard
One that I return to often, just for the pleasure of reading, a book that I read slowly because I don't want it to end, is Guiseppi di Lampedusa's The Leopard (Il Gattapardo in the original Italian). Written in the late 1950s, it tells the story of a dying moment in Italian history, when Garibaldi has begun the process of unification and traditional feudal elites face change and the destruction of their way of life. The book had been translated into English as early as 1960 by Archibald Colquhoun, and this remains the primary (if not the definitive) text for English readers to access this marvellous piece of writing.

Even though the  story and the context are specifically and utterly Sicilian, there is something about the elegant majesty of Don Fabrizio, the prince who watches his world change with a delicate detachment, that is oddly compelling. There is a langour to the prose that refracts the Sicilian sun ‒ the burnished hues of the harsh landscape are softened by the loving eye that captures them for the page.

The book is cynical and humorous, compassionate as well as clear-eyed, gentle and forgiving as it gazes, along with its Prince, at a fading glory. The writing lulls you into thinking that this a story without a central event, but when you wake from the reading dream, you realise that an entire world has died.

A Woman in Berlin
Another book from the 1950s has had me in its thrall for a while now ‒ A Woman in Berlin (Eine Frau in Berlin) a book that called attention to itself in another language before it reached its “natural” readers. Although the book, (in the form of a diary which recounts the occupation of Berlin by the Red Army in the weeks before Hitler's suicide), was written in German, it first appeared as excerpts in an English translation.

It was published in German a few years later, attributed to Anonymous (and if you read the book you'll know why this was necessary). The translation that I've been reading is by Philip Boehm and he captures the flat, uninflected tone of the original and produces a chillingly mundane account of the unspeakable horrors inflicted upon women and others in a city that has been ground into the dust by bombs and jackboots.

The centre of the diary, its ghastly rhythm, in fact, is the continual rape of the city's women by occupying soldiers. The diarist is one of the women who is raped countless times over eight weeks, often more than once a day by one man. With and through her, you become witness to the degradations of a peace that is thrust upon the defeated after a war ‒ hunger, fear, disgust, cunning, even hope ‒ as she does all that she can to preserve the fragile soul inside her brutalised body.

The Gita & Kalidasa
Closer to home and closer to my own work, I remain struck by Mani Rao's translations from Sanskrit, first of the Bhagavad Gita and more recently, of Kalidasa. The Gita has become so shrouded in its commentaries and expositions that we have forgotten the voice of the text itself. Rao restores that, finding a sharp and provocative tone for her reading of it.

At the centre of the Gita lies the vishwarupa,  that awesome moment when Krishna reveals his universal form to the warrior Arjuna. It is a terrifying image of blood and gore and flames and dead soldiers streaming in and out of god's mouth, skewered on his fangs. If there ever was a mysterium tremendum, surely it is this.

Rao's language reminds us that this was a lesson to a warrior on a battlefield, to a man who has to reminded to perform this dharma as a kshatriya. Moreover, she resurrects the Gita as a poem, albeit as a mystical one, with a secret teaching at its core.

Her translations of Kalidasa (notably of Shakuntala and Meghaduta) carry a strong, fearless, poetic voice, her own, as she pulls these texts into our century. It's wonderful to read a work that is not afraid of the text it translates. It becomes, rather, a re-newed work that revels in all that a contemporary voice can add to a well-known and well-loved text. Rao's translations from Sanskrit prove that a classic can never be exhausted by multiple translations, it can only be enriched.

Arshia Sattar translates from Sanskrit into English.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.