Rita Kothari is a translator who hopes to bring about a re-examination of the canon of Gujarati literature. An academic by profession, she currently teaches Translation Theory, Dalit Literature, and Partition studies at Ashoka University. In her own words, Kothari is interested in the hybridity and purity of language, and questions of identity and how they play a role in language. Her work in translation studies primarily focuses on how a multilingual state like India brings a fresh perspective to the practice of translation. She co-edited the book Chutnefying English: The Phenomenon of Hinglish. Her recent work focuses on what it means to be in the language bazaar of India.
She has translated Fence, a novel by Ila Arab Mehta, and a collection of short stories written by women in Gujarat titled Speech and Silence, both published by Zubaan. She also translated Angaliyat or The Stepchild by Joseph Macwan, and, with Abhijit Kothari, the rich and vivid trilogy written in Gujarati by KM Munshi, The Patan Trilogy.
Kothari has stretched translation practice into thinking through its peripheries with books such as A Multilingual Nation: Translation and Language Dynamic in India and Decentering Translation Studies. Her prolific work offers an insight on language politics, identity politics, religious and caste politics, and gender politics. She spoke to Scroll.in on the practice, politics and problems of translation. Excerpts from the interview:
As a translator of Dalit literature and generally texts that portray the stories of the marginalised with books such as Angaliyat and Fence, what do you feel about the question of representation? Or this question of who is translating.
Are you asking me what the translator’s politics of translating Dalit literature should be?
Yes. Or for any of the books you’ve done that come from marginalised communities. In your foreword to Fence you do make it a point to mention that is a story about Fateema Lokhandwala, the kind of person we would never hear about. Her father collects scrap – lokhand, hence Lokhandwala. How do you feel translating a story like that?
So I think basically, translation for me is a way to open up a question. A question that has hitherto not being discussed or has been swept under the carpet. So with something like Fence which is called vaad in Gujarati, it is a story by a mainstream Hindu upper-caste Gujarati writer who chooses to tell the story of a young Muslim woman who is looking for a mohallah, a neighbourhood which is a mixed one. Not one that ghettoises her, but one that includes her. And one that includes her without making her assimilate completely.
Now this in itself is a very real question for our times. For Gujarat particularly, but even otherwise. So for me translating something like that is to say, let’s talk about this. It’s also to say let’s disrupt the notion of what constitutes the canon of Gujarati literature. It is to actually make an intervention in that canon by saying we can always establish an alternative canon.
In doing so it sort of also makes me encounter questions of contemporary politics, questions of inequality, of the sociology of our times. So for me translation is one manifestation of the abiding interest that I bring to linguistic communities, to vernacularisation, to processes of identity politics and so forth. So I don’t see translation ever in isolation. Or as something outside these concerns.
And therefore I am not only a translator ever. I may do linguistic translation, but I am also translating constantly even in academic writing, even in the ethnography I do, even in the questions I talk about.
As to the other politics here, I don’t know if there is any special politics to every text that I do. To me it all constitutes a universe in which I feel something needs to be brought to the fore. So for instance when I did Angaliyat or The Step Child, really speaking that also began as a very small step in the direction of understanding a particular community which I was surrounded by when I was teaching at St Xavier’s College.
This is the community of weavers in Gujarat and a lot of our teaching, non-teaching staff came from that community. And they would recommend, saying that there is this book about us and since you are so interested why don’t you read this. So for me it was really a way to try to understand that. And in the process it sort of made me encounter questions of rural Gujarat, questions of caste, and so on. So that is what it is.
Now if for instance there were a couple of more people from the Dalit community who would be able to translate, they wouldn’t even need people like us. That I might still do it or I might do it for reasons of my own is a different matter. I’m sure there will be a time when we will not need savarna translators to translate Dalit works or anything.
But for me the question was not some kind of grandiose claim that I was making, thinking “oh my god I am bringing this story to the light of people”. There was nothing of that sort. Translation forces you to engage with something. Because it is a very intimate, very involved form of reading and working on something. It’s also a kind of research which leaves you enriched in the process.
So the labour came without actually thinking I was doing anything special. I still don’t think I have done anything special. But it gave me an opportunity to get to know Joseph Macwan really well and I have very warm memories of that association. So you also manage to have some friends in the bargain.
In The Step Child, you talked about a specific kind of mud house mentioned in Gujarati that you did not know the meaning of. And that you found out it was a mud house when you visited the author. In this situation you knew the author and could enquire when you had difficulty in translating some words. But you might have encountered many texts where the community at first seemed very close to you but also became very far. What would you do in situations where you didn’t know the author?
You’re absolutely right. In fact there is a paper of mine which is published in Pakistan, which talks about the experience of translating from Sindhi which is my first tongue, my mother tongue. And because it is my community and yet it is a land that is not accessible to me through partition, it wasn’t as if I could go there and see “okay how is this particular fish made?” In those situations you look for different archives, you look for older people in the community who can tell you.
I’ve been translating KM Munshi’s Patan Trilogy. The third one has just come out. And that is medieval Gujarat. When they describe the palace, you can’t make out whether something is a small window or a door. The architectural terms are quite different. In which case you go and talk to someone who specialises in heritage architecture.
Every situation will throw up a new set of archives you have to consult. I see translation as something that needs to be done at its own pace, slowly, like a solid sort of a work. I don’t see it as something that is only done for one’s glory. To me it’s a very serious business.
The texts you choose have a layered quality. There are always people of different voices talking. Especially in Fence, I noticed you even mention in your foreword that you tried to bring a change in the language when the voice shifts from rural to urban. How do you bring this nuance into English, which is usually read in a particular pitch?
No, yeah, I completely get it. I think in Fence I have been a little more successful. So we did this exercise in class recently, in my translation practice and theory class, and the students could pick up different registers in the way the old mother speaks and so on. What are the ways that one does it?
I think, Suhasini, you hear it in your head. You think, okay this doesn’t sound like Fateema’s mother. Whereas this does sound like her. You can see if she speaks very pakka English, you know there is something wrong. So you can use Indian English. Some of the strategies of Indian English are when people say, “oh she’s good na.” You use a certain kind of intonation, a certain sort of inflection.
That’s one way to do it. You may change the syntax a little. Or retain an Indian word if you feel it is absolutely necessary. So you try and vernacularise English. You may not be able to produce multiple registers of that vernacular English. But you would still be able to disrupt its standard goal.
I was also thinking about your personal politics and how it may come up in your translation. In the book Handful of Sesame, the Kannada translator Maithreyi Karnoor writes in her introduction about a female character: “When introducing Maina, a literal translation would have been – she is making the men go mad.” But she wants to hold men accountable for their behaviour so she actually translates it as “the men were madly in love with Maina.” It’s a very small change she makes here, and she retains the meaning while also, as she says “ensures her own integrity was intact.” How do you deal with these questions when they come up in your translations?
The way I deal with these questions is exactly the way I deal with them as a researcher. Which is to say you have to read the text in its own time. So if for instance there is a patriarchal meaning in the text, I am not going to make that into a feminist meaning. I don’t think that’s the burden I can carry. If that makes me uncomfortable, I don’t translate that.
But once I translate it, the book needs to be read in its own time. With its own history. That’s the way I teach texts. That’s the way I deal with texts. Which is to say it has to be read in its own time. You can’t make a sixteenth century text into a twentieth century text. You cannot even bring to my mind an epistemological framework which the text of its own time has not generated.
In Speech and Silence, you write in your introduction: “No one would argue when women write, it takes much more doing than when men write. Time and again, women writers have spoken of the ways in which they experienced patriarchal constraints on their creativity and articulation.” Do you feel that as a female translator you have also had to suffer in the way the writers of these stories have had to? Is there a similar framework you find in the translation industry for women?
No. Not really. I think if at all I had to think of experiencing some kind of peripherality, I don’t know if there is a noun form of periphery but I hate the word marginalised, but it would be more apt of a certain kind of demography, a question of class. So which is that I don’t belong to the Delhi elite. There are certain questions I have certainly faced out of that. Which is to say, “who is this person?”
And because the power centre is situated in Delhi, there is a tendency of Delhi to see itself as the national. And to see anybody else as somebody who is only seen in the light of the regional. So that is a very different thought politics. I have clearly experienced that. And I think I continue to. To a much lesser extent but I certainly do.
But that’s quite different. It doesn’t have much to do with me being a translator. That being said I think it’s quite possible that someone who translates from Gujarati or someone who translates from Assamese or Garo or Khasi, there will be a tendency to ask that person questions only about that language, not thinking that this person might have a broader view on translation. Whereas someone situated in Delhi would be asked more general questions. There is a tendency to do that.
As an academic, do you pick texts to translate that are close to your studies? Or is it the other way round? It’s interesting that you are teaching Dalit literature and that you are also translating Dalit literature. So how do those interact? Do they affect each other?
But actually when I translated Angaliyat, which was so many years ago 2003, this is 2019, I didn’t do Dalit literature. I wasn’t a part of institutions where it was possible for me to do it.
And Partition studies?
Partition also – I started doing it in the last few years. So I think I rose into...I think my smartness is a very delayed think. (Pauses to laugh). It’s much later that I thought, god, why am I working so hard? I should actually draw from my own writing also. It’s not something that I always...even when you brought those concerns to class, how could you not?
But no, it wasn’t a strategy. It wasn’t always a well thought-out strategy. I think as you become more senior in the field, you also own up much more of the things you have experienced. Basically you own up the gift that your experience has been. You don’t see your experience as a prison house.
I was thinking, there is a certainly a shift in Dalit literature. It’s now possible for someone like Manoranjan Byapari to win the Hindu Literary Prize in non-fiction. There is Navayana. Words Beyond Borders recently did an issue on Hindi Dalit literature. But do you think that the industry, whether it is publishing, writing, or translating industry, is it doing enough to actually think about the Dalit experience or just casteism in India? Are there ways there could be…
I think Navayana does a lot. Didn’t you do a paper on Navayana when you were in my class? I think Navayana is certainly doing a lot. I think even Samya where Mandira Sen is, they’re doing a lot. I think Zubaan has constantly tried to do it. Kali for Women has tried to do it. I think the smaller presses have always been doing it. And I think that we don’t give them enough credit.
We are so constantly dazzled by the big presses that we don’t look at the smaller presses who have done it tirelessly. And not today, for all along they have done it. So I don’t even see it as a new thing frankly. Because I have watched very closely the work that for instance Kali for Women has done. So I think it would be unfair not to take that into account. And I think in all their other things, in the activism that they do, the intersectionality that they see, they are certainly doing it. People also have businesses to run, so I suppose it is a question of priority for different publishing houses. But I have a lot of respect for smaller and independent publishing houses.