Interview: Rahul Soni, translator - “I often wonder, is hopefulness a truthful stance?”
On translating ‘Magadh’ and ‘The Roof Beneath Their Feet’ from the original Hindi, the hubris of power, and how awards don’t automatically mean a spike in sales
Take us through your process of translating Magadh by Shrikant Verma and The Roof Beneath Their Feet by Geetanjali Shree. Do you write every day or prefer working in sporadic shifts? Do you obsessively self-edit or do you fear that it would tamper with the meaning?Magadh, I think I’ve said elsewhere as well, I started translating as soon as I started reading it, pretty much. A friend had recommended it to me, and I was so taken with the voice, with the diction, that I felt I had to learn how to do it in the language I wrote in, i.e., English. And so, I began translating – not realizing, really, that what I was doing was translating. The process of doing the first drafts was a rather feverish and intense one, I think, looking back at it – what was critical though was what came later – revising, editing, learning, and discovering more of what Verma was trying to do, and trusting the text more, and trying to push those poems that I had made closer to the originals. It’s a process that still continues – the new edition I think contains some crucial improvements.
The Roof Beneath Their Feet required a very different approach. This was a commissioned work. Geetanjali Shree does some very interesting things with language, too, though in a very different way from Verma – and I wouldn’t have taken on the task of translating it if I hadn’t felt so. But her maximalist approach posed a very different challenge from the spareness of Magadh – I felt I had to create a different sort of English to capture what she was doing. I remember it took me months to strike the right note with the first paragraph, which I tried repeatedly until it seemed like I got it – and then the rest of the first draft flowed relatively easily. Again, of course, revising and editing were crucial parts of the process – something I cannot stress enough – as an editor I see, again and again, authors and translators handing in first drafts, or drafts that have not been worked on enough, honed enough, thought through enough. Editing does not “tamper with meaning” – editing is the process by which one is able to better approach meaning.
So strong must have been Verma’s conviction that despite his allegiance to the Congress party, he condemns its actions in his poetry. I also believe that the overarching metaphor of Magadh played a significant role in such transgression. How do you read Magadh?
Sure, Magadh comes out of a time in history – one cannot ignore that. But it isn’t a work that can be reduced to just that time – this is not an allegory. Magadh also references a number of historical and mythical places and people – but, again, reading too much into the specific details of those names is not really a useful way of approaching the poems – or, rather, it is perhaps a reductive approach.
The key to Magadh, at least in my reading of it, is (as I say in my translator’s note) not in the details of place or time, but more in the idea of history being cyclical, of the essential nature of things (ie, people, kingdoms, power) remaining the same, the fact that there are discernible patterns which will repeat themselves, and the weariness, the sense of resignation and futility that such a realisation engenders. And, indeed, the realisation of the futility of art in the face of this inexorable turning: “What I wrote, useless / What I did not, / meaningless”.
I cannot speculate on Verma’s motivations, of course, but it is tempting to read a note of warning in here, and of resignation. Also of guilt, and a need for penitence and absolution – the collection is dedicated, not coincidentally, to the great Hindi writer Nirmal Verma, a friend of Shrikant Verma’s, who was also among the very few people in the artistic/literary community to be very vocal and severely critical of the Emergency.
There are and will be readers who dismiss the collection because of who the author was – indeed, as Apoorvanand notes in his foreword to the new edition, “(Magadh) was received with bafflement by critics when it first appeared, and their response was largely ambivalent. It could have been mainly to do with the personality of the poet himself… The readers found it difficult to reconcile the fact of the poet being an integral part of the power apparatus with a poem which seemed to talk about the futility of the claims of power”.
Ashok Vajpeyi in his preface to the first edition used the extraordinary phrase “poetics of witness and complicity” (stress mine) – it is the second part of the phrase that is key; we hear about “poetics of witness” often enough, but a poetics of complicity? To recognise that complicity, and to turn that into the great, unique strength of the collection – to recognise the universality of that complicity – that I think is one of the key achievements of Magadh, apart from its masterful craftsmanship, and what gives the collection its incredible power, at once accusatory and empathetic, and its emotional heft.
Magadh questions, in a big way, the gradual change from democracy to despotism when leaders begin to exercise unbridled power. Here Ashoka’s reckless desire to conquer and expand is on stark display. Written as a response to the Emergency then, these poems resonate aptly with sociopolitical injustices in contemporary India. This also makes me wonder how like time, power remains a ubiquitous, destructive force.
The hubris of power – the arrogance of civilizations, of nation-states, of people … the idea that any apogees of “greatness” (however you define it) will last forever, that anything will last forever – that is what Magadh is a response to. Again, to reduce it to a response to any one thing or any one moment, I think, does it a disservice. It takes one of the great themes of art – and like all great works of art, its relevance extends to far beyond any one time or place or person.
In Verma’s own words: “Avanti, Malwa, Ujjaini, Kshipra, Champa, Kashi, Kosambi, Kapilavastu, Kosal, Kalinga, Vaishali, Amrapali, Vasavadatta, Vasantasena, Chandragupta, Bimbisara, Ashoka, Ajatashatru – a procession of characters, of protagonists, of cities, of memories, a crowd that has gathered – that is what my poems are. Their main themes are death, destruction and moral corruption. I know what Magadh is – Time beyond time!”
He uses the work kaal to describe the central theme of Magadh – a concept that he thought difficult to translate into English. A poor substitute for it, he said, would be “time”, but he felt the idea closest to kaal was actually “death”. My preference is for the word “time” nevertheless – I feel it encompasses more, including death, that it enlarges the scope of interpretation, that it conveys better the cyclical view of history we see through Magadh. It’s a discussion I’d have loved to be able to have with Verma. Perhaps his was a darker view and perhaps with the use of “time” instead of “death” I’ve introduced that metaphorical crack that lets the light in, and leaves room for some hope. But then again, I often wonder, is hopefulness a truthful stance?
My favourite passage from The Roof Beneath Their Feet comes very early in the book, and sets the tone for everything else in a way – coincidentally (or not?), this too involves repetition – a device, an idea, that I’m clearly very fond of:
I suspected nothing when I heard the doorbell ring.
I wasn’t even startled. I just glanced at the telephone once and got up to open the door. A heap of moth wings on the ground stirred and settled down again.
I just stood there, realizing that this was all I had ever been doing – opening the door and finding Lalna in front of me. That action, of the parting of the two planks of wood, seemed to happen again and again in my life with the ceaselessness of slow motion. I keep opening the door in slow motion. I keep finding Lalna standing there.
There is also the motif of doors and windows, and watching and going through them, that occurs throughout the book in subtle variations. The ideas of liminality, of changing places. But also the idea of inevitability and inescapability. There is the fluidity of time – an attentive reader will note the subtle shift in tense. And then that lovely image of the moth wings… So much emotion and resonance packed into this little passage (which also, incidentally, inspired the cover of the new edition).
With last year’s JCB and Booker win, it’s heartening to see translation find its footing in the literary landscape. Funds and fellowships are also adding to long-term market sustainability. However, this visibility remains confined to translations into English. In some cases, writer friends have had to leave their Hindi translations of Homer and Dante to rot in damp, fungating corners because of a lack of proper contracts, signing amounts, and in most cases, no visibility for their earlier translated works in the market. What do you think of this as a translator and as a publisher at HarperCollins?
To be honest, while there are some award wins and a lot of conversations around translation and translated literature (in English) – that hasn’t quite converted to a proportionate increase in readership. Awards don’t really change sales too much (unless one wins the Booker or the Nobel) and there are not close to enough grants and fellowships for long-term sustainability. I do believe that things like proper contracts etc. are now more the norm in Hindi publishing and publishing in other languages than they used to be – but things like signing amounts and royalties etc. in any language remain a function of the market and readership and that will take massive changes in the country’s economic and social and cultural make-up to change.
Kinshuk Gupta is the associate editor of Usawa Literary Review and the poetry editor of Jaggery Lit and Mithila Review.