What Is a Translator’s True Calling?

To begin answering one riddle, you first have to consider another. In this case, the riddling starts with me, a translator, and a story I have translated into English from a story Indian author Vijay Dan Detha wrote in Hindi from a version he wrote in Rajasthani which was inspired by a Rajasthani folktale he heard from a neighbor. I call my version of the story "A True Calling," after Detha's Hindi title "Rijak ki Maryada," after an oral version that by tradition has no formal title. The riddle is this: If I have written this story in English from a story written in Hindi that in turn was written from a story told (several times, and in several ways) in Rajasthani, then who can be said to be the author of the English version?

Convention dictates that we name Vijay Dan Detha author of "A True Calling," but in doing so we become caught in the same snarl of contradictions Detha himself gets caught in, conforming to Romantic, even modern (European) notions of single authorship when the creative process itself is decidedly plural. By "original," do we mean Detha's Hindi version of "Rijak ki Maryada" that was published in the March 1997 issue of the literary magazine Kathadesh? Or the 1993 English version I wrote for my MFA thesis from a yellowed manuscript version Detha lent me? Or the Rajasthani version he published in 1962 through Rupayan Samsthan, the folklore institute he cofounded with longtime friend and folklorist Komal Kothari? Or the oral version he remembers hearing from a neighbor named Jatan Singh Rathour? Kothari told me he happened to be there when Rathour narrated the tale Detha wrote. Rathour's version was an animated but brief, conventional story of a low-caste barber who manages to outsmart all the high-caste courtiers when they become stumped by this no-account shapeshifter. In traditional versions, the bhand's death is incidental, the fact of the sati merely a plot device. It had all the da-dee-dum rhythm and simplicity of a joke. Kothari marveled as he told me: No one but Bijji could have heard that oral version and turned it into such a moving story of a shapeshifter's sacrifice for his art. No one, I would add, except an Isaac Bashevis Singer reworking traditional tales from his native Yiddish. Or an Italo Calvino writing folktales he knew from his native Italian. A Ngugi wa-Thiongo reembracing the oral traditions of his native Gĩkũyũ. My encounter with Vijay Dan Detha has made me realize that if we refuse to recognize the importance of these literary contributions because they are not deemed absolutely original, we risk losing much more.

What these examples has led me to wonder is what we have at stake in distinguishing an "author" from a "folklorist." Detha's is a particularly revealing case, since, like Singer, his material derives directly from the oral storytelling traditions he grew up with. At the beginning of his writing career, Detha told me, he unabashedly thought of himself as a folklorist, and made it his life mission to put into print the exceedingly varied and vibrant oral tales he grew up hearing in his native rural Rajasthan. And while he didn't state this directly, he made me understand that he began to feel frustrated with the unspoken mandate to copy down the tales exactly as he heard them. So he began to make changes-as would any storyteller in the oral tradition, I would argue-to bring out the full effect of each story. When I met him in 1988, he had already published fourteen fat volumes of tales written in Rajasthani as part of a series called Batan ri Phulwari (A Garden of Tales), and counted as his influences Russian fabulist and playwright Anton Chekhov (in Hindi translation), Hindi Progressive realist short story writer and novelist Premchand, and the German folklorist brothers Grimm (in English translation). Here I'll admit: as an aspiring writer myself, I was much more interested in learning matters of craft from magical Chekhov and mighty Premchand than nationalist sops like the Grimm brothers. I underestimated the difficulty of writing "folktales" in a way that would make them come alive in print. I assumed that the "folktale" was a static form whose only aim was to freeze-frame and therefore kill the ongoing dynamism of the oral tradition. And I was ignorant in particular of the complicated scholarly, creative process that yielded the stories now known so widely as Grimms' Fairy Tales.1 It was only when I began seriously to heed Detha's advice to "honor the seed of the story" that I understood that he-like the Grimm brothers, and I.B. Singer-was working according to a different set of expectations of creativity and narrative authority than was familiar. I began to see that Detha was as much a translator as I was, except that in his case he was translating from oral to written. And treating the seeds of these stories not as goods to be "carried across," as the etymology for trans-latus implies, but as vital, fleeting performances in an ongoing storytelling tradition. His work, like mine, was a different kind of translation, more in the spirit of the Hindi word anuvad, which conveys instead a "telling in turn."

And yet, such translations are lauded in India as literary. In 1974 Detha was awarded a prestigious Puraskar in literature from independent India's national Sahitya Akademi (Academy of Letters), the first Rajasthani author to be recognized by the organization. He has received countless awards since. But here it is relevant to point out: Rajasthani has yet to be constitutionally recognized as an official language; it has not been taught standardly in schools even in Rajasthan, and so few people read it. Detha's insistence in writing the local idioms he heard spoken around him was as much an effort to revive the language as the storytelling traditions. But if it were not for the efforts of Detha and Hindi translator Kailash Kabir to cull through those fourteen volumes of Batan ri Phulwari and translate stories from Rajasthani into Hindi, few would have been able to appreciate his writing. Thus it is safe to say that Detha's national reputation as an "author" has been based primarily on the Hindi versions written by Detha and Kailash Kabir. These stories are at least two versions away from any idealized original.

Which leads me precisely to the contradiction at the heart of the riddle I first posed: Detha may be considered the author of these stories so many people have read and lauded in Hindi, but he is not their exclusive writer, just as he is not the sole writer of the English version of "A True Calling." The problem is not that "A True Calling" and "Untold Hitlers" are mere translations, and that we just have to work out more carefully what part is authentic and original (i.e., the work of the "author") and what part has been tampered with (i.e., the input of the translator.) This so-called problem exists in the "original" manuscripts Detha wrote himself, whether in Rajasthani or in Hindi. After all, he heard a version of this story and then told it his own way, in his own language. By trying to identify a single person responsible for the creation of a story such as this, we spend much of our time gathering evidence to ascertain whether Detha is a folklorist or an author, whether Kabir and I are translators or real writers. We assume that if Detha is labeled a folklorist, then he should become a completely transparent conduit for the stories and should name the true creators of the stories as the original authors; or if he is an author, then he shouldn't claim any true kinship to the oral culture he evokes in his tales so that we can designate the origin of the stories as his (godly) imagination. The analogy with translation follows: either a translator is a transparent conduit for the stories (and therefore a "faithful" translator) or is working from her (blasphemous) imagination. The distinction is false. If our main goal is to keep these stories alive and well, it would behoove us to create a new set of criteria whose goal isn't so much to assess ownership as liveliness, eloquence, even emotional, political, or moral relevance. We need to think of the written text as yet one more performance of a story in a tradition necessarily various and multiple: each version a creative "telling in turn."

1For an interesting scholarly account of their work, see Jack Zipes, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (New York and London: Routledge, 1988.)

Adapted from "Are We the Folk in This Lok?: Usefulness of the Plural in Translating a Lok-katha" in Anisur Rahman, ed., Translation: Poetics and Practice (New Delhi: Creative Books, 2002): 67-79, reprinted in Sagar (Special issue on the Practice and Politics of Translation), Vol. 8, Spring 2002: 105-19.