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Interviews

On the Evolution and Craft of Gujarati Literature in Translation

An Interview with Dr. Rita Kothari

Jenny Bhatt and Dr. Rita Kothari talk about translation as a site of democratic aspirations and the state of Gujarati translation in India and beyond.
Jenny Bhatt (left) and Rita Kothari (right)

Dr. Rita Kothari is professor of English and the director of the master’s program in English at Ashoka University in India. A multilingual scholar and translator, her work spans the disciplines of literature, anthropology, history, sociology, linguistics, and more. While her focus is on the western Indian subcontinent, specifically the Gujarat, Kutch, and Sindh regions, she is also looked upon as a thought leader in the discipline of linguistic and cultural translation and language politics, especially with respect to marginalized communities, across the country. Translation is the prism through which she sees the Indian context, whether it is with respect to the Partition, Bollywood, or the various intersecting hierarchies of religion, caste, class, gender, and sexuality. Along with the prolific, award-winning Bangla translator Arunava Sinha, Dr. Kothari founded and currently runs a multilingual translation initiative at the new Ashoka Centre for Translation.

Fiction translations like the classic Patan trilogy (Penguin India, 2017-2019; co-translated with Abhijit Kothari) by K. M. Munshi and the award-winning Fence (University of Chicago Press, 2015) by Ila Arab Mehta are among her many works. Books like Translating India (Routledge, 2003) and A Multilingual Nation (Oxford University Press, 2018) are read and referenced by the average reader. Most recently, Kothari translated and edited The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told (Aleph Book Company, 2022), an anthology that showcased both contemporary and classic Gujarati writers. The recently released Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience and Indian Literature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) interweaves provocations about what translation means in the Indian context with the personal journey and reflections of an academic about self, language, and translation.


Jenny Bhatt (JB): The title of this interview could really be “the woman of letters,” because you cover multiple related disciplines, from writing, translating from multiple genres and languages (Gujarati, Sindhi, Hindi), and teaching, to scholarship, and even journalism (although, I’d say that your column, “Pikchar with Rita, is also a translation of sorts). Yet, nobody dreams of growing up to be a literary translator. How and when did you begin translation?

Rita Kothari (RK): You are right. Nobody grows up thinking of becoming a translator. Translation is an un-self-conscious act in India; it’s in the air, in the cosmos. And it’s hidden by being most proximate and natural. I was an MA student in the early nineties, studying at the University of Poona. I had begun to understand and speak Marathi reasonably well. My friend Kamalakar heard me speak Marathi on the phone and said to me that I was just such a natural. I should think of doing translation work. The thought stayed with me. I married soon after my MA and came back to Ahmedabad. In the course of pursuing my master’s in philosophy, I decided to take up translation from Hindi into English. I was faced with many difficulties, because this was an alien subject at Gujarat University. I had to take some guidance from Professor Bholabhai Patel in the Hindi department and had to undergo many changes in my advisors to get this degree. In any case, that’s how far back my professional interest in translation goes. After my master’s, I wanted to pursue doctoral studies. Initially, I was keen on working on drama, especially the plays of Girish Karnad. However, once again, something else emerged from a conversation with another friend. She heard me out one day while I was describing something, and she said: you have great observations on the politics of translation. I knew then this field was beckoning me again. The book Translating India (Routledge, 2003) had its seeds in that conversation.


JB: Let’s start with the state of Gujarati literature in translation today. In Translating India, you discussed the history and the complexities of Gujarat’s relationship with the English language given the Gandhian influences and push for language standardization, the deeply entrenched mercantile communities, and even language policies post-independence. You explored how these and other factors contributed to Gujarat’s inability or unwillingness to translate or trade with English, insisting on Gujarati as the main language for business, trade, education, and governance.

Today, Gujarat is one of the most urbanized states in the country and has premier educational institutions run entirely in English. Between my years growing up between Mumbai and Gujarat in the 1970s and 80s, and then living in Gujarat from 2014 to 2020, I saw a significant change in how English has become more of a part of the socioeconomic fabric. A lot of it is diaspora-driven, social media-driven, and politically driven (for example, Modi’s biennial Vibrant Gujarat summits that started in 2003 to invite global investors and businesses to the region. Right after Translating India had gone to press, I imagine). But local literary organizations have also been supporting translations. What are the big changes you’ve seen in Gujarati literature in English translation since Translating India?

RK: The biggest change is the amount of English you hear in Gujarat. Like the rest of India. More significantly the list of translators has gone up and there are excellent translations by you, Hemang Desai, Gopika Jadeja, Pratishtha Pandya, Tulsi Patel, and others. Our generation (me, Tridip Suhrud, Sachin Ketkar, Rupalee Burke) continues too. So, all in all, there is much to choose from. The cities of Ahmedabad and Vadodara also have a large number of non-Gujaratis living in them, not to mention the new industries that brought even the Koreans and Japanese to Gujarat. So the state is a neoliberal one, and English is an important part of its imagination now.


JB: Could we touch briefly on the matter of translations from English into Gujarati? I still have my mother’s European classics in Gujarati: Dumas, Verne, Zweig, The Prisoner of Zenda. But there’s also a significant number of Western pulp fiction novels and potboilers, which often sell better than original literary or canonical Gujarati fiction even if they may not be “legitimate” translations. You’ve written that “[t]he discipline of translation must also study the indiscipline of translation.” How does the Gujarati literary establishment today weigh legitimate versus not-so-legitimate translations into Gujarati? Is it still very different from how Gujarati readers view them?

RK: I don’t think the Gujarati readership makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate books. I used the latter to signal at the discipline of translation studies that used to make its object only the respectably published books. I would particularly like you to see an essay called, “The Fiction of Translation,” where I talk about Ashwini Bhatt’s novels and how his bestsellers were engendered by his experience of translating bestsellers into Gujarati.

As such, translations into Gujarati certainly give us a deeper insight into the region. For instance, there are many translations of books by Savarkar (who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi) and Hedgewar (founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the biggest Hindu nationalist and right-wing organization) on the one hand. How to make money, be successful—such books also dominate the shelves of English to Gujarati translations. They are expressive of the desires of the receiving community, which wants a “good” life—edible spirituality, economic success, and comfortable conservatism. We do not see translations of books that will unsettle the reading community, and provoke them to be different than who they want to be.


JB: This is so true. That said, in the last decade or so, the overall politics of translation activity across India has evolved a bit. We’ve seen a few more Gujarati-to-English translations getting published. This includes more feminist women writers’ works and a handful of works from marginalized Dalit communities too. Barely scratching the surface, though.

And, despite this year’s Booker International win for Tomb of Sand and the all-translation JCB Prize shortlist, there is the matter of the language pyramid in India, where literature from certain languages gets translated more (and hence is more accessible, visible, and dominant). You and other scholars have written extensively about some of the deeply rooted causes related to regional complexities, cultural politics, capitalism, and more.
With respect to the translation ecosystem overall in India, what are some of the positive changes you’ve observed in the last decade and some changes that you would like to see next?

RK: I said somewhere recently that translation is the site of democratic aspirations. There are unsummarizable ways in which translations are coming in from many quarters of Indian life. The historical economy in which Bengali reigned supreme and many other languages were simply its recipients has begun to change. The perception that some languages are “pure” or “richer” has begun to acquire a dent, but it has not gone altogether. For instance, The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told has received sufficient attention, not more or less than the Bangla anthology in that series, I think. At the same time, when I asked the publisher if they were interested in a similar volume for Sindhi, I was told, “we are interested in the major languages.” What this example tells you is that there has been a shift for Gujarati, which may have happened over the natural course of time, or due to the interest in Gujarat (fueled both positively and negatively) apropos its political power at the center (the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is Gujarati and was the state’s chief minister for over two decades). It may even be symptomatic of an increasing appetite for refreshing and new zones of literature. However, it also tells you that all forms of power have not shifted.


JB: In your recent Hindustan Times essay about the Booker International win for Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell’s Tomb of Sand, you quoted and concurred with the translator’s hope that such translations will induce some readers to turn to the original texts, not just read more of them in English translation. With Gujarati literature in particular, what do you think it will take for more readers to turn to the original texts, both classic and contemporary?

RK: It is rare to find readers going to the original language once they have read something in English. I am not saying it has not happened in the past. We know that people especially learned Bangla to read Tagore, or German to read Rilke. But a Gujarati reader who has not read Pannalal Patel or Munshi in Gujarati and read them in translation is unlikely to spend laborious years reading in a different script. Let’s remember that we are talking of generations that only know the Roman script. The effort involved in reading a script other than Roman is the crux of the matter today. It’s not that people don’t know Gujarati or Malayalam, but whether they can read in these languages is a different matter.

As to which texts would these be, if at all, people feel inspired to read? I am not able to think of any, really. The canonical names like Munshi, Govardhanram Tripathi, Suresh Joshi, and Dhiruben Patel may not mean much to those who are unable or unwilling to read these books. But these names do mean a lot to young writers of Gujarat, and I am happy to note that I do see new voices emerging, and the Gujarati literature festival works hard to encourage them. 

JB: Let’s turn to your specific practice of translation. First, some of your translation work is also co-translation with your husband, Abhijit Kothari. How does that process work between you? Do you have clear lines of responsibility outlined with each work? Or does the translation take shape organically? How do you pick projects together?

RK: Abhijit and I have collaborated so far on the K. M. Munshi trilogy. That happened because he had grown up on Munshi’s novels and had very fond memories of their fast-paced and intense narratives. When I was asked by Penguin India to translate Munshi, I was willing to do it only if Abhijit joined me. For one, I was less excited than him. Secondly, it seemed like a fun thing to do together. We devoted a Sunday to this project for many years and started the day with one of us reading aloud, the other one keying in a rough translation. We would then go over the translation together and iron it out. Sometimes he did the reading, and sometimes I did. So, in that sense, it was not a fixed set of responsibilities. However, we also discovered that my strength lay in the descriptive mode, while he could capture the action very well. Now, you may say this is gendered, or it may have to do with the kind of readings both of us had done. We also worked very hard on writing the introductions to the trilogy and read reams and reams of Munshi’s writings. My husband would make detailed notes, while I provided the framework f0r the essay. We had disagreements too, and, finally, we neither resolved them nor abandoned them, but wove into the introduction this duality of perspective! I have a chapter titled, “Elsewhere: Language, Gender, Translation” in Uneasy Translations. It addresses this question that came up when Abhijit and I were translating.


JB: Let’s talk about the technical aspects of translation. Which text (or aspect of a particular text) has been the most challenging for you to date? Which translation has most stretched the boundaries of your voice and range, and which has been the most pleasurable? You translate from Sindhi, too. Do you have a language preference?

RK: I would ideally like to do more translation from Sindhi than I have done. I have had difficulty finding things; the ones that interest me are published in Sindh, Pakistan, and it’s been a struggle to just build a good archive for myself in Sindhi. I am not saying I prefer one or the other. But I do feel now that there are many people translating from Gujarati, and I played my part when the field was not so well-served. Sindhi needs more people like me. It saddens me somewhat.

Coming to your question, which work has been most challenging? I want to talk to you at this stage about a chapter in my book, Uneasy Translations. I have delineated in that book that translators make incomplete journeys, which is to say, even when they think they arrived at a destination, they may discover in retrospect that that was a mirage. I have sometimes finished a translation “successfully” and, realistically speaking, I may not even change it later, and yet its lingering and elusive sides stay with me, reminding me something slipped away. I call that slipperiness “experience” inhabiting the text. I have felt this about Bhavan Bhagat in Angaliyat. I also think that I had not noticed the “caste” element in Ila Arab Mehta’s Vad (Fence in English). So what I am saying is that the question for me is not what I did, or would have done, or will do, but that it is the philosophical dimension of translation that haunts me.

To sum up, I think of challenging translations as ones that stay with me, making me feel that something got left out, but I also know the elusive left-out or leftover is outside language. I talk about this in an essay in Translating Bharat, Reading India (ed. Neeta Gupta, Yatra Books, 2016), where I discuss how every translation has taught me an important lesson.


JB: There are so many metaphors or analogies now for literary translation: bridge, journey, travel, ventriloquism, performance. You’ve talked elsewhere about translation as an intervention: a way to open up a conversation about a sociopolitical issue or even what’s considered canonical literature. Given that, how do you go about deciding, “This is the work I want to translate next.”

RK: I mentioned earlier that the Gujarati readership does not choose to feel uncomfortable. And Gujarati writers oblige their readers with comfortable things. I am not talking here of exceptional writing, but just very institutionalized, mainstream, upper-caste writing. Sometimes I translate what I think the Gujarati readers themselves would not have bothered to read, and sometimes (in the case of Munshi), I have translated what it has read most. Sometimes, I want to open up a conversation with one constituency, say outside Gujarat, and sometimes another constituency within Gujarat. I do not make popular choices. There’s an ecology and archive in my mind where it all fits in for different affective and ideological reasons, and this is a longer conversation. Let me give you an example. The year Agnipariksha came out is the same year the Munshi trilogy came out. And now, I am co-translating Akha Bhagat’s poetry with Abhijit. Agnipariksha reminds us how unsafe Gujarat has made Muslims feel. Munshi reminds us of what might be the genealogy of this cultural nationalism. Akha reminds us that questions were asked, perhaps far more in medieval Gujarat than in modern Gujarat. In my mind, all these moments are of interest. They help build in my mind a Gujarat that does not get settled and sedimented as only one kind.


JB: Do you believe translators are born or made? Because not everyone who’s bilingual or multilingual can become a translator, perhaps? There’s something innate that compels one to the art and craft of translation, to want to immerse oneself deeply into the words of another writer and to transform them. You teach translation too. What aspects of translation can be taught versus not?

RK: Some of us are born with an innate preoccupation with words from our language. Some of us are born with an innate preoccupation with words from any language. Translators are born when both of these things come together. But they get better with training. My colleague, Arunava Sinha, is much better at teaching translation. I am good at teaching how to think about translation in expansive ways. That’s why we make such a good team.


JB: You’ve talked about how the practices of teaching, translating, and writing all feed off each other for you. Could you share a couple of examples where this has happened, where your work in one discipline has shaped your work in another?

RK: The first example that comes to mind is Angaliyat. Arguably the first Dalit novel in India, this novel about the weaver (Vankar) community in Gujarat taught me so much about the sociology of Gujarat. I also learned about the political battles certain Dalit communities wage, while some others are nowhere near imagining those. The heterogeneity of the Dalit community in Gujarat was a lesson I first learned with that translation. The insights fed into academic papers like the Gujarati Dalit short story I wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly. My work expanded to social sciences, and scholars such as Jan Breman and Ghanshyam Shah noticed it. It opened up conversations with political scientists and sociologists.

Similarly, the introduction to Speech and Silence is fed by observations from women activist groups in Gujarat. My understanding of communalism and caste informed my understanding of Fence, which is an imperfect novel. Some of these observations straddle courses on caste, on Indian literature, and on translation. I move back and forth taking words/concepts and using them to understand the complex Indian social reality. In some sense, I remain a translator even when I teach a course like Scripting Caste or Indian Literature. And in a course on translation theory, my approach is multifold—I foreground the sociopolitical as strongly as the literary. My ethnographic work on Kutch is like that of a translator listening to people in their languages, but it also feeds into more serious anthropological writing, like a paper I have in Interventions on the Wadha community.

People find it difficult to slot me. I think translation, especially in the way I relate to it, makes it difficult. It ranges from being a linguistic act to one of retelling lives. This entire gamut is difficult to fit into any one discipline, so what you get in the end is a very idiosyncratic person who sees reality through translation regardless of what she writes and teaches.


JB: I’m absolutely fascinated with the work you and Arunava Sinha have begun with the Ashoka Centre for Translation. Especially the multilingual translations to and from Indian languages and not just English. What are the aims or aspirations of such an initiative? How might readers, writers, and translators support it?

RK: The Ashoka Centre for Translation (ACT) hopes to create more translators by commissioning projects. It also hopes to publish established translators by acting as a go-between and providing input wherever we can. We wish to unsettle the knowledge network by breaking easy synonymies between languages and regions. For instance, why should Periyar be read only in the South, or Kabir only in the North? It is through translation that we want to disrupt these synonymies. Why do we use the singular for source and target? Our effort is to go from many to many. Very importantly, we also believe that “translation” (a Latin-given English word) has limited use for us, and our multilingual ethos produces its own definition of this transaction. I have talked a great deal about this in A Multilingual Nation.


JB: What are one or two pieces of advice you would give to an aspiring or emerging translator from Gujarati (into any language, not just English)?

RK: You have to start respecting translation. Don’t say, “Oh, I am just a translator,” or, “I am only translating.” Have a conversation with yourself about what exactly you are doing in what you are doing. See that it is a creative act, it is important, and own up to it. You need to feel confident without being self-absorbed.


JB: Which classic or contemporary Gujarati works in English translation would you recommend to our readers? Ones that you consider foundational, canonically significant, or simply as gateways to get started with Gujarati literature?

RK: I will list some from an earlier period—start with any or all: Govardhanram Tripathi, K. M. Munshi, Dhiruben Patel, Pannalal Patel, Joseph Macwan, Suresh Joshi, Dhumketu, Jhaverchand Meghani. From among the contemporary: Mohan Parmar, Dalpat Chauhan, Varsha Adalja, Ila Mehta.


Copyright © 2022 by Jenny Bhatt. All rights reserved.

English

Dr. Rita Kothari is professor of English and the director of the master’s program in English at Ashoka University in India. A multilingual scholar and translator, her work spans the disciplines of literature, anthropology, history, sociology, linguistics, and more. While her focus is on the western Indian subcontinent, specifically the Gujarat, Kutch, and Sindh regions, she is also looked upon as a thought leader in the discipline of linguistic and cultural translation and language politics, especially with respect to marginalized communities, across the country. Translation is the prism through which she sees the Indian context, whether it is with respect to the Partition, Bollywood, or the various intersecting hierarchies of religion, caste, class, gender, and sexuality. Along with the prolific, award-winning Bangla translator Arunava Sinha, Dr. Kothari founded and currently runs a multilingual translation initiative at the new Ashoka Centre for Translation.

Fiction translations like the classic Patan trilogy (Penguin India, 2017-2019; co-translated with Abhijit Kothari) by K. M. Munshi and the award-winning Fence (University of Chicago Press, 2015) by Ila Arab Mehta are among her many works. Books like Translating India (Routledge, 2003) and A Multilingual Nation (Oxford University Press, 2018) are read and referenced by the average reader. Most recently, Kothari translated and edited The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told (Aleph Book Company, 2022), an anthology that showcased both contemporary and classic Gujarati writers. The recently released Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience and Indian Literature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) interweaves provocations about what translation means in the Indian context with the personal journey and reflections of an academic about self, language, and translation.


Jenny Bhatt (JB): The title of this interview could really be “the woman of letters,” because you cover multiple related disciplines, from writing, translating from multiple genres and languages (Gujarati, Sindhi, Hindi), and teaching, to scholarship, and even journalism (although, I’d say that your column, “Pikchar with Rita, is also a translation of sorts). Yet, nobody dreams of growing up to be a literary translator. How and when did you begin translation?

Rita Kothari (RK): You are right. Nobody grows up thinking of becoming a translator. Translation is an un-self-conscious act in India; it’s in the air, in the cosmos. And it’s hidden by being most proximate and natural. I was an MA student in the early nineties, studying at the University of Poona. I had begun to understand and speak Marathi reasonably well. My friend Kamalakar heard me speak Marathi on the phone and said to me that I was just such a natural. I should think of doing translation work. The thought stayed with me. I married soon after my MA and came back to Ahmedabad. In the course of pursuing my master’s in philosophy, I decided to take up translation from Hindi into English. I was faced with many difficulties, because this was an alien subject at Gujarat University. I had to take some guidance from Professor Bholabhai Patel in the Hindi department and had to undergo many changes in my advisors to get this degree. In any case, that’s how far back my professional interest in translation goes. After my master’s, I wanted to pursue doctoral studies. Initially, I was keen on working on drama, especially the plays of Girish Karnad. However, once again, something else emerged from a conversation with another friend. She heard me out one day while I was describing something, and she said: you have great observations on the politics of translation. I knew then this field was beckoning me again. The book Translating India (Routledge, 2003) had its seeds in that conversation.


JB: Let’s start with the state of Gujarati literature in translation today. In Translating India, you discussed the history and the complexities of Gujarat’s relationship with the English language given the Gandhian influences and push for language standardization, the deeply entrenched mercantile communities, and even language policies post-independence. You explored how these and other factors contributed to Gujarat’s inability or unwillingness to translate or trade with English, insisting on Gujarati as the main language for business, trade, education, and governance.

Today, Gujarat is one of the most urbanized states in the country and has premier educational institutions run entirely in English. Between my years growing up between Mumbai and Gujarat in the 1970s and 80s, and then living in Gujarat from 2014 to 2020, I saw a significant change in how English has become more of a part of the socioeconomic fabric. A lot of it is diaspora-driven, social media-driven, and politically driven (for example, Modi’s biennial Vibrant Gujarat summits that started in 2003 to invite global investors and businesses to the region. Right after Translating India had gone to press, I imagine). But local literary organizations have also been supporting translations. What are the big changes you’ve seen in Gujarati literature in English translation since Translating India?

RK: The biggest change is the amount of English you hear in Gujarat. Like the rest of India. More significantly the list of translators has gone up and there are excellent translations by you, Hemang Desai, Gopika Jadeja, Pratishtha Pandya, Tulsi Patel, and others. Our generation (me, Tridip Suhrud, Sachin Ketkar, Rupalee Burke) continues too. So, all in all, there is much to choose from. The cities of Ahmedabad and Vadodara also have a large number of non-Gujaratis living in them, not to mention the new industries that brought even the Koreans and Japanese to Gujarat. So the state is a neoliberal one, and English is an important part of its imagination now.


JB: Could we touch briefly on the matter of translations from English into Gujarati? I still have my mother’s European classics in Gujarati: Dumas, Verne, Zweig, The Prisoner of Zenda. But there’s also a significant number of Western pulp fiction novels and potboilers, which often sell better than original literary or canonical Gujarati fiction even if they may not be “legitimate” translations. You’ve written that “[t]he discipline of translation must also study the indiscipline of translation.” How does the Gujarati literary establishment today weigh legitimate versus not-so-legitimate translations into Gujarati? Is it still very different from how Gujarati readers view them?

RK: I don’t think the Gujarati readership makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate books. I used the latter to signal at the discipline of translation studies that used to make its object only the respectably published books. I would particularly like you to see an essay called, “The Fiction of Translation,” where I talk about Ashwini Bhatt’s novels and how his bestsellers were engendered by his experience of translating bestsellers into Gujarati.

As such, translations into Gujarati certainly give us a deeper insight into the region. For instance, there are many translations of books by Savarkar (who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi) and Hedgewar (founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the biggest Hindu nationalist and right-wing organization) on the one hand. How to make money, be successful—such books also dominate the shelves of English to Gujarati translations. They are expressive of the desires of the receiving community, which wants a “good” life—edible spirituality, economic success, and comfortable conservatism. We do not see translations of books that will unsettle the reading community, and provoke them to be different than who they want to be.


JB: This is so true. That said, in the last decade or so, the overall politics of translation activity across India has evolved a bit. We’ve seen a few more Gujarati-to-English translations getting published. This includes more feminist women writers’ works and a handful of works from marginalized Dalit communities too. Barely scratching the surface, though.

And, despite this year’s Booker International win for Tomb of Sand and the all-translation JCB Prize shortlist, there is the matter of the language pyramid in India, where literature from certain languages gets translated more (and hence is more accessible, visible, and dominant). You and other scholars have written extensively about some of the deeply rooted causes related to regional complexities, cultural politics, capitalism, and more.
With respect to the translation ecosystem overall in India, what are some of the positive changes you’ve observed in the last decade and some changes that you would like to see next?

RK: I said somewhere recently that translation is the site of democratic aspirations. There are unsummarizable ways in which translations are coming in from many quarters of Indian life. The historical economy in which Bengali reigned supreme and many other languages were simply its recipients has begun to change. The perception that some languages are “pure” or “richer” has begun to acquire a dent, but it has not gone altogether. For instance, The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told has received sufficient attention, not more or less than the Bangla anthology in that series, I think. At the same time, when I asked the publisher if they were interested in a similar volume for Sindhi, I was told, “we are interested in the major languages.” What this example tells you is that there has been a shift for Gujarati, which may have happened over the natural course of time, or due to the interest in Gujarat (fueled both positively and negatively) apropos its political power at the center (the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is Gujarati and was the state’s chief minister for over two decades). It may even be symptomatic of an increasing appetite for refreshing and new zones of literature. However, it also tells you that all forms of power have not shifted.


JB: In your recent Hindustan Times essay about the Booker International win for Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell’s Tomb of Sand, you quoted and concurred with the translator’s hope that such translations will induce some readers to turn to the original texts, not just read more of them in English translation. With Gujarati literature in particular, what do you think it will take for more readers to turn to the original texts, both classic and contemporary?

RK: It is rare to find readers going to the original language once they have read something in English. I am not saying it has not happened in the past. We know that people especially learned Bangla to read Tagore, or German to read Rilke. But a Gujarati reader who has not read Pannalal Patel or Munshi in Gujarati and read them in translation is unlikely to spend laborious years reading in a different script. Let’s remember that we are talking of generations that only know the Roman script. The effort involved in reading a script other than Roman is the crux of the matter today. It’s not that people don’t know Gujarati or Malayalam, but whether they can read in these languages is a different matter.

As to which texts would these be, if at all, people feel inspired to read? I am not able to think of any, really. The canonical names like Munshi, Govardhanram Tripathi, Suresh Joshi, and Dhiruben Patel may not mean much to those who are unable or unwilling to read these books. But these names do mean a lot to young writers of Gujarat, and I am happy to note that I do see new voices emerging, and the Gujarati literature festival works hard to encourage them. 

JB: Let’s turn to your specific practice of translation. First, some of your translation work is also co-translation with your husband, Abhijit Kothari. How does that process work between you? Do you have clear lines of responsibility outlined with each work? Or does the translation take shape organically? How do you pick projects together?

RK: Abhijit and I have collaborated so far on the K. M. Munshi trilogy. That happened because he had grown up on Munshi’s novels and had very fond memories of their fast-paced and intense narratives. When I was asked by Penguin India to translate Munshi, I was willing to do it only if Abhijit joined me. For one, I was less excited than him. Secondly, it seemed like a fun thing to do together. We devoted a Sunday to this project for many years and started the day with one of us reading aloud, the other one keying in a rough translation. We would then go over the translation together and iron it out. Sometimes he did the reading, and sometimes I did. So, in that sense, it was not a fixed set of responsibilities. However, we also discovered that my strength lay in the descriptive mode, while he could capture the action very well. Now, you may say this is gendered, or it may have to do with the kind of readings both of us had done. We also worked very hard on writing the introductions to the trilogy and read reams and reams of Munshi’s writings. My husband would make detailed notes, while I provided the framework f0r the essay. We had disagreements too, and, finally, we neither resolved them nor abandoned them, but wove into the introduction this duality of perspective! I have a chapter titled, “Elsewhere: Language, Gender, Translation” in Uneasy Translations. It addresses this question that came up when Abhijit and I were translating.


JB: Let’s talk about the technical aspects of translation. Which text (or aspect of a particular text) has been the most challenging for you to date? Which translation has most stretched the boundaries of your voice and range, and which has been the most pleasurable? You translate from Sindhi, too. Do you have a language preference?

RK: I would ideally like to do more translation from Sindhi than I have done. I have had difficulty finding things; the ones that interest me are published in Sindh, Pakistan, and it’s been a struggle to just build a good archive for myself in Sindhi. I am not saying I prefer one or the other. But I do feel now that there are many people translating from Gujarati, and I played my part when the field was not so well-served. Sindhi needs more people like me. It saddens me somewhat.

Coming to your question, which work has been most challenging? I want to talk to you at this stage about a chapter in my book, Uneasy Translations. I have delineated in that book that translators make incomplete journeys, which is to say, even when they think they arrived at a destination, they may discover in retrospect that that was a mirage. I have sometimes finished a translation “successfully” and, realistically speaking, I may not even change it later, and yet its lingering and elusive sides stay with me, reminding me something slipped away. I call that slipperiness “experience” inhabiting the text. I have felt this about Bhavan Bhagat in Angaliyat. I also think that I had not noticed the “caste” element in Ila Arab Mehta’s Vad (Fence in English). So what I am saying is that the question for me is not what I did, or would have done, or will do, but that it is the philosophical dimension of translation that haunts me.

To sum up, I think of challenging translations as ones that stay with me, making me feel that something got left out, but I also know the elusive left-out or leftover is outside language. I talk about this in an essay in Translating Bharat, Reading India (ed. Neeta Gupta, Yatra Books, 2016), where I discuss how every translation has taught me an important lesson.


JB: There are so many metaphors or analogies now for literary translation: bridge, journey, travel, ventriloquism, performance. You’ve talked elsewhere about translation as an intervention: a way to open up a conversation about a sociopolitical issue or even what’s considered canonical literature. Given that, how do you go about deciding, “This is the work I want to translate next.”

RK: I mentioned earlier that the Gujarati readership does not choose to feel uncomfortable. And Gujarati writers oblige their readers with comfortable things. I am not talking here of exceptional writing, but just very institutionalized, mainstream, upper-caste writing. Sometimes I translate what I think the Gujarati readers themselves would not have bothered to read, and sometimes (in the case of Munshi), I have translated what it has read most. Sometimes, I want to open up a conversation with one constituency, say outside Gujarat, and sometimes another constituency within Gujarat. I do not make popular choices. There’s an ecology and archive in my mind where it all fits in for different affective and ideological reasons, and this is a longer conversation. Let me give you an example. The year Agnipariksha came out is the same year the Munshi trilogy came out. And now, I am co-translating Akha Bhagat’s poetry with Abhijit. Agnipariksha reminds us how unsafe Gujarat has made Muslims feel. Munshi reminds us of what might be the genealogy of this cultural nationalism. Akha reminds us that questions were asked, perhaps far more in medieval Gujarat than in modern Gujarat. In my mind, all these moments are of interest. They help build in my mind a Gujarat that does not get settled and sedimented as only one kind.


JB: Do you believe translators are born or made? Because not everyone who’s bilingual or multilingual can become a translator, perhaps? There’s something innate that compels one to the art and craft of translation, to want to immerse oneself deeply into the words of another writer and to transform them. You teach translation too. What aspects of translation can be taught versus not?

RK: Some of us are born with an innate preoccupation with words from our language. Some of us are born with an innate preoccupation with words from any language. Translators are born when both of these things come together. But they get better with training. My colleague, Arunava Sinha, is much better at teaching translation. I am good at teaching how to think about translation in expansive ways. That’s why we make such a good team.


JB: You’ve talked about how the practices of teaching, translating, and writing all feed off each other for you. Could you share a couple of examples where this has happened, where your work in one discipline has shaped your work in another?

RK: The first example that comes to mind is Angaliyat. Arguably the first Dalit novel in India, this novel about the weaver (Vankar) community in Gujarat taught me so much about the sociology of Gujarat. I also learned about the political battles certain Dalit communities wage, while some others are nowhere near imagining those. The heterogeneity of the Dalit community in Gujarat was a lesson I first learned with that translation. The insights fed into academic papers like the Gujarati Dalit short story I wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly. My work expanded to social sciences, and scholars such as Jan Breman and Ghanshyam Shah noticed it. It opened up conversations with political scientists and sociologists.

Similarly, the introduction to Speech and Silence is fed by observations from women activist groups in Gujarat. My understanding of communalism and caste informed my understanding of Fence, which is an imperfect novel. Some of these observations straddle courses on caste, on Indian literature, and on translation. I move back and forth taking words/concepts and using them to understand the complex Indian social reality. In some sense, I remain a translator even when I teach a course like Scripting Caste or Indian Literature. And in a course on translation theory, my approach is multifold—I foreground the sociopolitical as strongly as the literary. My ethnographic work on Kutch is like that of a translator listening to people in their languages, but it also feeds into more serious anthropological writing, like a paper I have in Interventions on the Wadha community.

People find it difficult to slot me. I think translation, especially in the way I relate to it, makes it difficult. It ranges from being a linguistic act to one of retelling lives. This entire gamut is difficult to fit into any one discipline, so what you get in the end is a very idiosyncratic person who sees reality through translation regardless of what she writes and teaches.


JB: I’m absolutely fascinated with the work you and Arunava Sinha have begun with the Ashoka Centre for Translation. Especially the multilingual translations to and from Indian languages and not just English. What are the aims or aspirations of such an initiative? How might readers, writers, and translators support it?

RK: The Ashoka Centre for Translation (ACT) hopes to create more translators by commissioning projects. It also hopes to publish established translators by acting as a go-between and providing input wherever we can. We wish to unsettle the knowledge network by breaking easy synonymies between languages and regions. For instance, why should Periyar be read only in the South, or Kabir only in the North? It is through translation that we want to disrupt these synonymies. Why do we use the singular for source and target? Our effort is to go from many to many. Very importantly, we also believe that “translation” (a Latin-given English word) has limited use for us, and our multilingual ethos produces its own definition of this transaction. I have talked a great deal about this in A Multilingual Nation.


JB: What are one or two pieces of advice you would give to an aspiring or emerging translator from Gujarati (into any language, not just English)?

RK: You have to start respecting translation. Don’t say, “Oh, I am just a translator,” or, “I am only translating.” Have a conversation with yourself about what exactly you are doing in what you are doing. See that it is a creative act, it is important, and own up to it. You need to feel confident without being self-absorbed.


JB: Which classic or contemporary Gujarati works in English translation would you recommend to our readers? Ones that you consider foundational, canonically significant, or simply as gateways to get started with Gujarati literature?

RK: I will list some from an earlier period—start with any or all: Govardhanram Tripathi, K. M. Munshi, Dhiruben Patel, Pannalal Patel, Joseph Macwan, Suresh Joshi, Dhumketu, Jhaverchand Meghani. From among the contemporary: Mohan Parmar, Dalpat Chauhan, Varsha Adalja, Ila Mehta.


Copyright © 2022 by Jenny Bhatt. All rights reserved.

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