Mugdha Karnik is a sociologist, a rationalist, and specialises in conservation and biodiversity. A teacher for 20 years, she is at present the director of the Centre for Extra Mural Studies at University of Mumbai. In short, she is the last person you would think of in relation to fantasy fiction. Yet here we have a serious academician donning a translator's hat and giving us the maiden Indian language translation of the epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings – in Marathi. How's that for magic realism? Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you choose to translate Lord Of The Rings?
When I translated Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, I had come across a quote by John Rogers, the KFMonkey blog-writer and a comedy movie maker. “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves Orcs.” Very spiteful and uncharitable, but it has truth only in its first sentence. The seed of temptation to translate the other giant of a novel was sown in my mind thanks to this bad quote. But at that point, I was busy translating another of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead.

In 2012, my daughter, a great Tolkien fan, came across a recent Marathi translation of The Hobbit. She was actually hurt by the quality of the translation. She cribbed and cribbed, and pestered me continuously to take on the translation of The Lord of the Rings. “Someone else might ruin it!” she said.

I finally started on LOTR the following year, in 2013, succumbing to her insistence and my own temptation. I had read it only once before. So another reading followed, which was done with a clear objective. I wanted to gauge my own language capabilities – whether I could do justice to Tolkien’s prose.

Within a month, I decided it was not only possible, but that it would be enjoyable too. Compared to the philosophical novels of Ayn Rand, the content itself was easy to translate. But Tolkien, being a philologist, had an inimitable style. He had also created various new languages for his magnum opus. Being faithful to the beauty of it in Marathi was the real challenge.

How long did it take for you to translate the magnum opus?
After translating Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, LOTR was a completely different genre for me. I started the work on April 10, 2013 and finished the third book on September 27, 2014 – a little less than one and a half years.

The Lord of the Rings has been translated into 38 international languages. As the first Indian language translator of LOTR, did you face any special challenges?
Everything about translating LOTR was special; it was a very enjoyable challenge. Achieving the crispness of Tolkien’s language and his poetic and evocative descriptions was certainly challenging, but it was not unassailable. I can say that nearly nothing was lost in translation because the matching vocabulary was available in Marathi – Marathi is a rich language and so is my command over it.

The limericks in the original were somewhat difficult to render, as Marathi does not have a rich tradition of limericks. The short poems and the long poems were no problem; but I am sure that because of the complexity of the content of most of the serious poems, I have not been able to do great justice to them. On the other hand, most of the poems are supposedly translated into common speech by either Bilbo or Aragorn... and they themselves declared them to be not so fair translations. So that gives me an excuse if I decide to seek one!

One utterly fascinating aspect of the epic fantasy was the different languages spoken by each of the races. How did you go about translating those?
The dialects of Orcs and hobbits or even Gollum’s garbled speech could be tackled fairly easily, as there is a huge variety of dialects within Marathi. But I took the decision not to translate the elven language. I have merely transcribed the elven conversations and translated the English translation of the same.

Who is your favourite LOTR character? Did you find any characters or plot points to be particularly difficult or evasive in the course of translation?
LOTR has a gallery of characters and they all get established gradually. My only grievance is about Tom Bombadil. A brilliant character was conceived and then let go of. Even the movie-makers ignored him.

I personally loved Tom. His place in the plot could have been secured easily, but he comes in merely as a tease. Also, the whole concept of Lothlorien is so lovely that one hopes that it will survive at the end. As a reader, you also hope that the Ents would someday meet the Ent-wives... that is the success of Tolkienesque plotting!

As a villain, Gollum is greatly detailed – but he has no shades of grey. He has become entirely evil, with no contradictions, even when he is debating with himself as Smeagol and Gollum. No other villain in LOTR can hold a candle to Gollum’s villainy. It was a tremendous pleasure translating Gollum into Marathi.

His monologues were particularly fun to translate – my precioussss! The translation of “preciouss!” was something I had trouble finalising. The exact equivalent Marathi word for “precious” would not yield the same stress and meaning. So I had to use another commonly used term of endearment along with the equivalent word.

Tolkein wrote The Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings to help translators maintain the essence of his work. Did you refer to this work? Was this guide, meant for Germanic languages, useful for a Marathi translation?
I had read about Tolkien’s views on translations of his works, as well as about the controversy related to the first translation of LOTR into Swedish. Tolkien disliked this translation intensely, mainly because the translator Ake Ohlmark had taken undue liberties while translating his verses and had also changed the proper names in the book. After this controversy, JRRT wrote The Guide to the Names in the Lord of the Rings. I did read this, and I saw this as very clear instructions from JRRT. So the effort and temptation to translate some names were nipped in the bud.

The people of Maharashtra have always been known to be pioneers and connoisseurs of indigenous culture. How different is the contemporary Marathi reader, and do you believe he is ready to consume Western epic fantasies like LOTR?
This kind of epic fantasy will surely be welcomed by Marathi readers. Though Maharashtrians are proud of their indigenous culture, Marathi has a very long tradition of translated works from other languages. My Ayn Rand translations were also well received.

The Lord of the Rings already rings a bell even with readers who haven't read the book, as many of them will have seen the Oscar-winning movies. Many of the bilingual readers have already welcomed the translation, as it will give them a different kind of pleasure – of reading LOTR in their mother tongue and comparing the two. Maharashtrians are also known to be critical!

Which Indian literary work or author, in your opinion, compares to LOTR/Tolkien?
LOTR strongly reminds one of Vyasa, except that that epic is now seeped in religiosity. The presence of a gallery of characters and the war between good versus evil are some of the major similarities between the two. I do not see any other contemporary writer who created a legendarium like Tolkien. I may be ill-informed, of course.

Tolkien derived heavily from Norse mythology. How well do you think your readers, who are used to Indian mythology, will relate to it?
The Marathi or, for that matter Indian, readership is hardly acquainted with Norse mythology. But since everyone here is familiar with the highly imaginative Indian mythology, I think they would readily accept LOTR.

Do you plan to translate The Hobbit and The Silmarillion as well?
The legendarium enveloped me entirely once I started translating it. In fact, I really wish I could redo The Hobbit translation, which has been done by somebody else (and was the partial trigger for my own). But as for Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin, I do not think I will translate them any time soon, as I have already committed myself to bringing Asimov’s Foundation series – seven books – into Marathi.