In the world of Hindi literature, Upendranath Ashk (1910-1996) was a towering figure. By the time of his death, Ashk’s oeuvre spanned over a hundred volumes of writings across several genres. Although best known for his six-volume novel cycle Girti Divarein , Ashk’s dying wish was to have his previously translated short-stories, which he feared weren’t good enough, edited. Hats and Doctors (Penguin India) offers readers in English a taste of Ashk’s short fiction, in which complex themes like marriage, mortality and the colonial legacy are rendered with a lightness of touch. The stories have been selected, translated and introduced by Daisy Rockwell, an artist and writer, who has previously authored Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography and The Little Book of Terror , a book of essays and paintings on the global war on terror.
In her introduction to Hats and Doctors , Daisy writes, “Perhaps a translator should hope that her readers will develop a taste for the author’s works in English, so that she can bring out more of the author’s works in translation in the future. My hope, however, is the opposite: that some of these stories will induce a few readers — even just one or two will do — to turn their feet towards a Hindi bookshop one day.”
She replied to questions in an e-mail interview. Excerpts:
Can you talk about what drew you towards Hindi literature and, more specifically, Ashk?
I started studying Hindi in college, mostly because I wanted to try a non-Western language, and I got hooked. I decided to study Hindi literature for certain after reading Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach (out in translation from Penguin India as This is not that Dawn ), which is an amazing novel. I started researching modern Hindi literature to figure out what I wanted to read next, and after reading (in English) about Ashk’s Girti Divarein series, I knew I had to read Ashk. I love reading Hindi literature (and Urdu, though I am slower) because it opens up an entirely different universe that I think is largely inaccessible if one only reads Indian literature written in English.
The stories in this volume appeared originally in different collections. What were the factors that determined this particular selection?
It was mostly personal. As I have written in my introduction, I was initially given a sheaf of translations by Ashk and asked to edit and fix them up for a collection. Most of the translations were not that good, and I wasn’t enamoured with all the stories. Ashk’s son Neelabh, suggested when we discussed the project after his father had passed away that I should go about it my own way. He suggested I read through Ashk’s short stories and choose the ones I wanted to translate. So by and large these are my favourites. They come from all different eras and span a number of topics but I think they give you a glimpse into his range as an author and his preoccupations (such as hats, and doctors).
Were these stories your first acts of translation? Did you have a blueprint or a set of principles with which to go about these translations?
Without going into too much detail, no, these aren’t my first translations, but they’re the first that have seen the light of day. I had undertaken an ambitious project before this that could not come to fruition due to copyright issues. I don’t feel bitter about it, however, because I think in that first project I really learned a lot about how to go about translating. The learning process is ongoing, but I generally take a two stage approach: first I translate a rough draft into English without trying to make anything sound any good, and then I return to the English text and edit it as a piece of English writing. I think it’s important to move away from the original text in the second phase and work on making it readable in English.
This project began in 1995, and is being published only now. What took so long?
I had a working draft of the manuscript by 1998, and what really took me so long was finding a publisher. The collection was rejected by just about every Indian publisher and some American ones as well into the early 2000s. I finally did find a smaller Indian publisher but broke with them after it seemed as though they were in a bit of a disarray. After a while I gave up on the whole thing until a few years ago when someone urged me to contact the current editor of Penguin India Classics, R. Sivapriya, who liked it and accepted the collection. Since then I dropped one story and added another and edited the stories a million more times, but the real roadblock was always finding a publisher. Ashk felt that there was a conspiracy against him in the publishing world, even in English, and who knows, perhaps he was right.
You are now translating his novel cycleGirti Divarein. How are the claims of translating it different from those of translating the stories? Have you tried translating his poems?
Translating a very long novel, though obviously demanding, can be simpler than short stories in some respects. In graduate school I was fortunate to take a translation seminar with the late scholar, poet and translator AK Ramanujan. He pointed out to me that in a long work one has the scope to teach the audience certain words and ideas in the original text. In a short work, there’s no point in trying to get the readers to learn the word ‘dada’, for paternal grandfather, for example, because it will just be distracting. In a long work, you can decide that ‘dada’ is a word you’d like the audience to know, and you can spoon-feed them the translation a few times until the word sticks. The same might be done with an article of clothing, or a food item that comes up again and again in the text.
Can you give us a metaphor for the relationship between a translator and a writer?
That’s a good question! For some reason I think about this all the time. Sometimes, when I am feeling down about translating, I think of it as slave and master (where I’m the slave). Sometimes it’s more like heckled, but slightly conniving wife and domineering but gullible husband (in that one, the translator is the wife). When I’m feeling grandiose, then I’m a psychic medium channelling the spirit of the author. I’d imagine a living author might also have all sorts of abuses reserved exclusively for his or her translator, especially if the target language is not known to the author. What is the translator doing to my book? Is he ruining it? Proust is said to have been quite unkind to his translator because his own command of English was poor, so he didn’t understand many of the nuances. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said very generously that the English translations of his novels by Gregory Rabassa are far better than the originals. What the relationship really boils down to is intimacy, fidelity, and occasional periods of resentment, which makes it sound a lot sexier than it actually is.