Interview: Vishes Kothari - “Translation does become an act of activism”
Translator Vishes Kothari discusses his inspiration for translating Rajasthani author Vijaydan Detha's work, the challenges of conveying sociocultural contexts, and the importance of preserving regional languages. Kothari also highlights the rise in linguistic identity assertion and the work of the Rajasthani Bhasha Academy in promoting the language. They express their plans to translate more Rajasthani authors in the future.
This is your second work of translation from Rajasthani but of the same author Vijaydan Detha, what inspired you to translate his work specifically?
Detha was the obvious choice, given that I wanted to work with Rajasthani prose. The fact that his prose is based on the traditional oral literature of the land makes it all the more important. One of the reasons to choose Detha is of course the amount of work that is available. A very small number of stories have been covered in both the books, so still there’s a lot more material that remains untranslated.
While translating something one might come across many sociocultural contexts and terms which are difficult to express in English, did you experience the same while translating Detha’s work, and how did you deal with it?
I think that this will always arise while translating something as we also need to translate the culture. So, there were the usual challenges but there was an additional challenge also – the fact that Detha had very successfully woven in oral traditions with the written form and still retained their orality. The challenge was then to focus on keeping a sense of orality alive – that was difficult to achieve. To give it a feeling of being connected to Rajasthani as well as give it a sense of orality, many different techniques had to be employed at different places, including using Rajasthani words, caste names, kinship titles, etc. Some of it also involves transliteration as well or translating something which would seem clunky in English but conveys the sense of the spoken because we speak in ways which might not be literary.
Do you feel you have a unique responsibility to bring out stories from a language that, for a very long time, has been kept away from what is considered the mainstream?
Yes, one does feel the responsibility towards the stories and the language, and one also feels that the language shouldn’t be conflated with Hindi. Hence, when certain words are written in Rajasthani, there’s some pressure to include an equivalent word in Hindi but then one has to make a clear point that it is indeed a different language even though it doesn’t have the constitutional recognition. So translation does become an act of activism in some sense or the other.
Would you say that the work of authors like Detha is actually not just an act of preserving local cultures but also of rejecting Hindi imposition?
Yes, absolutely! From what I have read in Detha’s prefaces, in the late 1950s, he was counselled by Govardhan Lalji Kabra, whom he looked up to. He advised him to return to his village and seek out stories and experiences from oral traditions prevalent in the area. But his advisor and mentor also cautioned him that the task would be akin to suicide as all the emerging markets were in Hindi and the support of educational institutes, employment, journals, etc. were all only available for Hindi as well. It would be a dangerous and radical proposition for him to now focus just on Rajasthani. Detha subsequently went back and started writing in his mother tongue which sometimes he would then translate into Hindi. He was of the view that his mother tongue be recognized as a language and a legitimate means of literary expression. His dream remains unfulfilled to this day.
I recently spoke to some young university students who were adamant that their native tongues, Bhojpuri, Haryanvi etc, are languages in their own right. How do you see this change?
There is definitely a rise in assertion of linguistic identity which is simultaneously happening along with other kinds of social assertions, some of which are linked to caste, region or other such identities. There are major social shifts happening and there’s a new elite emerging – one that is not necessarily urbane. This kind of regional identity assertion is happening in tandem with these social processes. One of the outlets for these expressions has been social media where people have broken away from the need for formal institutional recognition and are simply sharing their stories. Women sharing recipes or rituals or folk songs in Rajasthani to farmers sharing tips on relevant farming issues, all kinds of content are now being made – it’s hyper local content, really. It is great to see this movement gathering so much force.
Tell us about the work of the Rajasthani Bhasha Academy and its future plans?
Rajasthani Bhasha Academy was primarily founded as a digital medium where we simply wanted to make available formal language learning programs online for people who want to learn Rajasthani. We continue to have it online; we run basic as well as advanced courses. The latter is picked up primarily by academics and scholars from varied subjects like anthropology, history, etc. who need the language for their research work, academic as well as field work. There was a demand to have an even more advanced course and we are finally starting with our first in-person programme in Bikaner in June and it has already gotten a very good response. We have been able to do small interventions but hopefully it will build into something more solid and lasting as time goes on.
What advice do you have for future Rajasthani translators and for writers who want to start writing in their native language?
To be honest I am not in a position to advise anyone. There are a lot of writers writing in Rajasthani and I have not read many of them – so I’m not really well placed for this. Similarly, my introduction to translation was not with the fascination to explore the act of translating but it came from a sense of responsibility towards the language – to use translation as a means to create awareness. It was led by an instinct towards activism or an instinct towards assertion rather than by a purely literary impulse.
Are you currently working on any other writing project?
I do have plans to translate other Rajasthani authors now – modern or otherwise. Let us see what the future holds.
Chittajit Mitra (he/they) is a queer writer, translator, and editor from Allahabad. He is a co-founder of RAQS, a collective working on gender, sexuality, and mental health.