Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, has been translated into 49 languages so far. The Czech edition of the acclaimed novel was published three months ago by Dobrovský (Knihy Omega). Translator Lenka Lichtenberg spoke to Scroll.in about the challenges of taking Roy’s work into a different language, the writer’s popularity in the world of Czech literature, and more.
Well-timed maternity leave
As a translator primarly of non-fiction, Lichtenberg secretly nursed a desire to plunge into fiction even as she spent most of her days translating academic texts. That was when The Ministry of Utmost Happiness came her way. “It was kind of good luck and fate at play. In the past, I was, as a translator, involved mostly in academic texts or books connected with my university studies, which were typically non-fiction. For years, in the academic world, I was tempted to embark on more sophisticated and soulful language of fictional literature and this chance came when I went on maternal leave,” she said.
Working for a publisher with a sizeable list of books for translation was a boon for Lichtenberg. She was allowed to pitch for books on this list even if none of them had been assigned to her. “When I saw Roy’s book among the offered titles for translators, I couldn’t resist. It was exactly what I hoped for, a novel strong in thoughts and emotions, where I can embrace my professional experiences in Indology, philology, religions and philosophy,” Lichtenberg said.
Three translators, one winner
According to reports, three translators were asked to “make a demonstration of the translation” into Czech. So what gave Lichtenberg an edge over her possible competitors? “Every translator has to present a demonstration of his/her translation and the publisher selects the best one, so I was probably chosen, unaware from how many. I have to admit I consider myself very lucky. There are many ways to translate the same text, it is the personality and creative art of the individual translator which gives the translated book its unique shape and spirit. I think my knowledge of Hindi and Indology was also decisive,” said Lichtenberg, who is familiar with Roy’s first book and was enamoured by the second book too. “Just when you open the book and start to read the first page and the beginning of the first chapter, you can’t help but be captivated, it is so strong. You have to use all your sensitivity to create the same feeling and impact in a completely different language.”
“Not an Easy Book to Read”
Speaking about The God of Small Things, Lichtenberg explained how the universe of Czech readers connected with Roy’s characters and their sentiments. “The book provided a deeper window into the world so different and yet understandable for the Czech readers. The God of Small Things was first translated to Czech in 2001 and the second translation came in 2016, but was heavily criticised over wrong transcription. So, the discussions continue, some people reread the book, etc. Of course, it is not an easy book to read, but we are a nation of book-readers. They recall the experience as one of the best with a book. Unrepeatable atmosphere, poetic pictures and rawness, complicated but beautiful language and timelines – quite a strong masala emotionally. Definitely a book not to be forgotten even after many years.”
And what does she think about readers’ responses to her translation of Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness? “I think it might have an eye-opening effect on Czech readers who are still caught up in an idealistic, romantic picture of India, which has been prevailing here since the beginning of the 20th century. They have very little information about the actual situation in the country, either cultural or political. More realistic views are shared only among professionals. On the other hand, Czech readers are quite well-educated, they are likely to know about the social problems in the Indian society, about Kashmir or Bhopal accident, for example. The book is only three months on sale here, so it is too early to judge the reaction.”
Of Old Delhi, Jantar Mantar and flyovers
So, was The Ministry an emotional ride or was it a project that had to be mechanically translated? Is the engagement of a reader different from a translator’s engagement? “Of course, it is not easy to translate the parts depicting the fierce violence, intense cruelty and hopeless human condition, with a few pages you can spend several days translating, putting the meaning into the right words can be tough, especially when you know this is not entirely fiction. ” she says.
About her favourite bits in the novel, Lichtenberg said, “There are many parts of the book I really enjoyed both as a reader and as a translator. My favourites are the poetic parts somewhere between dream and reality, where the author creates a tension potent with what is yet to happen or what has already happened, which we are not able to fully understand or cope with. I (also) particularly enjoyed almost descriptive pictures of Old Delhi and its unique atmosphere, which made me feel like buying an air-ticket and going to see it again before it disappears in history. I liked the ‘Flyover’ story Anjum tells little Zainab, comic and bitter description of activists at Jantar Mantar, and the delirious experience of Biplab Dasgupta who is in a state of inner decomposition when Anjum and her friends suddenly arrive at Tilottama’s flat.”
English to Czech: How does a translator negotiate?
From the emotional to the technical compulsions, how daunting was it to strike a balance between the linguistic register and the sanctity of the cultural nuances? The Slavic sentence structure is unique in its own way. Czech uses a flexible syntax and word-endings are important. Robert Wechsler, Founder, Catbird Press, describes Czech as “an inflected language”.
“The Czech language is quite complicated compared to English. It has a rich morphology, seven grammatical cases (similar to Sanskrit) and flexible word order, which makes it ideal for subtle expression of feelings and meanings. So, the Czech version of Ministry sounds really great and it keeps the depths of its emotional power as well as the beauty of the verbal expression of the original. There is a standardised Czech transliteration and transcription for Hindi/Urdu, Sanskrit and some other Indian languages, which I used in the translation,” Lichtenberg explained. But Roy uses a lot of Urdu and Hindi words too. How did she tackle those?
“It’s not easy to cope with English transcription of Hindi words if you want to transform them into Czech transcription. You actually need to know Hindi, or how to write the word in Devanagari or at least the Arabic script. The Czech language reads every letter in the word, just as in Hindi, has short and long vowels just as in Hindi, and some of the letters are pronounced differently from the English alphabet. For the few Marathi sentences in the book, I was helped by an Indian woman writer (Ushakiran Khan), who kindly rewrote the sentences in Devanagari for me, so that I could make the right transcription.
“You’d be surprised to know that many Czech words have the same roots as Sanskrit words. I had some problems with Kashmiri and Malayalam though, for there is no Czech transcription for them. Transforming the English transcription into the Czech one was sometimes challenging and would be impossible without my knowledge of Hindi/Urdu. Because the text is full of words and even poems in Indian languages, which I think makes it very authentic, I added the index explaining the meaning and context at the end of the book, including the translator’s foreword about the book and the author.”
The translator’s responsibility
Should a translator manipulate or be submissive? Is there a dilemma about the sanctity of the original text? For Lichtenberg, the translator has a moral responsibility. “The translator has the power to determine the interest in the text to a great extent. It’s called creative translation and it’s typical for fiction. In non-fiction, you concentrate more on the accuracy of the meaning in each sentence, but in fiction, you are much freer in conveying the feelings and meanings, atmosphere, etc. I think, it could be also viewed as a philosophical or an ethical problem, because there is space for manipulation. So, the translator has a moral responsibility.
“Every language has its own linguistic means, different styles and word games which can make the text sound dull, funny, academic, deep, etc. I call it a language game. And the Czech language is particularly good at language games! For example, in English (if a sentence reads): Her eyes widened, in Czech, it could be Her eyes like two moons in the night sky. (If you want to sound romantic). Or, let’s take another example: It would be a mistake to do it again (in English). This can be: Only a fool steps into the same river twice (using Heraclitus’ famous words to make the sentence more interesting and deep).
Much ado about the book title?
More often than not, the book title poses a real struggle to the translator. Was The Ministry easy? “The Czech title of the book is translated literally Ministerstvo nejvyššího štěstí, so it keeps its exact ambiguous meaning, which makes you think deeper about the paradoxical combination of the words: Ministry and Happiness. The two being from different realities or universes. And the same could be said about the book itself. Beauty and horror, love and complete loss of humanity, poetry and almost documentary-like description of contemporary India, all in one picture.”
A translator’s routine
Even though Lichtenberg didn’t have a chance to interact with Roy, she said she didn’t really have to overcome stumbling blocks during the translation process. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to communicate with the author about the book and my translation during the process. On the other hand, I didn’t find it hard to understand the text in terms of cultural, religious, political references or the author’s specific sense of humour, for example. My studies in the Czech Republic as well as in India gave me valuable insight. It took me more than six months to translate the book during the year 2017. I don’t think I suffered any ‘translator’s block’, but the effect of ‘living’ with such a book for half-a-year is pretty strong. The process of translation offers a much deeper experience with every thought and emotion in the text, compared to just reading it. It was very transformative.”
So, do translators too follow a routine like authors, do they give themselves a target of finishing x number of pages, daily? “Yes, I do have a routine, I work on weekdays, at the time my children are at school, and in the evenings. Daily deadline is between 5 and 10 pages, but I’m quite flexible (I have to with small kids!). If there is something important to do instead, I just rearrange my plans, but I try to keep the number of pages in a week or a month according to expectations.”
What the future holds
For Lichtenberg, translation is not a profession, it’s more of a hobby. Does she follow any translator or is she inspired by anyone in the Czech literary world? “I don’t follow the work of other translators enough to have my favourite, there are too many of them and their work is heavily under-financed. It’s more of a hobby than a profession for me.”
Future plans? “Right now, I’m working on American fantasy series, using old Czech vocabulary and different types of popular language to create an authentic fantasy world. In the future, I hope to return to my favourite topic, which is India, and if there is a chance, I’d be more than happy to bring more Indian authors to Czech readers.”
Lenka Lichtenberg is a translator of both fiction and non-fiction from English and Hindi to Czech. She did her MA in Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Masaryk University in Brno, and also has an MA in Indology-Hindi language from the Charles University in Prague. She also studied Hindi at Kendriya Hindi Sansthan in Agra, and worked as an assistant professor at the Department of South and Central Asia at the Charles University in Prague.