What can the experience of translation teach the writer of fiction? Is it possible to run away from that prickly question: is fiction writing an act of fabrication or translation?
The question arises when the contemporary vision of the translator runs into trouble with a text from the past. What a strange tug-of-war happened inside me as I translated into English Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Shubhodrishti as The First Look, the tale of a young man of the leisure class in colonial Bengal, who takes to hunting after the death of his wife. A story as deeply rooted in time and place is an explosive challenge to present to a 21st century global readership, as demanded by the collection for which I was translating the story. Quickly, however, the intensity of that challenge paled next to the kind of social and environmental violence that seemed to define our protagonist. After Kantichandra and his rich cronies chose a peaceful village for their hunting expedition, they created such a bedlam that ‘the village women could no longer bathe at the river or draw water from it. Gunshots echoed along the river all day; classical singing resounded through the nights, shattering the villagers’ sleep’.
When love blooms
But you see, Kantichandra was not a villain; indeed, he was very emphatically the hero of the story. And the hero of — and here’s a serious rub — a romance that is upsetting to the liberal 21st century sensibility on so many fronts, even before we start to weather the storm of #cancelculture. One morning, as he sat on the deck of his boat cleaning his guns, he saw a young girl at the bathing ghat, carrying two ducks close to her chest. How young? Here’s his experience, in my rendering: ‘The girl’s beauty was so raw and fresh that it felt as though God had just shaped her and let her out in the world. One couldn’t quite tell her age. Her body had bloomed but her face looked young, as if nothing of this world had touched her yet. She seemed unaware of the fact that she had become a woman’.
Our hero is at least in his mid-20s, very possibly older. The girl is just about pubescent. How does the romantic imagination of the upper-class man bloom around the village child recoiling from his nature-ravaging gunshots? ‘Wonderstruck, Kantichandra stopped attending to his gun. He hadn’t expected to see such a face in a place like this. And yet it was a face that felt more natural here than among royalty. A flower sits better on a tree than in a golden vase. Next to the river, kash flowers sparkled in the autumn dew and the early morning light; in the middle of this, the pure and innocent face evoked a lovely image of the goddess who was due to appear soon in the autumn festival. The poet Kalidasa had forgotten to write that on some days the young goddess Parvati would come to the bank of the Mandakini river, holding baby ducks to her chest’.
An alternate vision
The biggest problem is that this is not supposed to be creepy; among other things, I know from my extensive reading of Tagore that few male writers are as sensitive to the female mind. But how does one find a contemporary idiom and aesthetic to render the celebration of this unexpected romance, even if it appears to be paedophilia to today’s reader, and readers far beyond the cultural context?
Do you need to be blind to the ethical demands of the present, and turn on an alternate vision? How does such blindness translate reality, language, life? ‘A miracle of blind eyes, yaaro!’ says Baba, the blind narrator-protagonist of Joginder Paul’s Urdu novel Blind, translated by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Hina Nandrajog. ‘Look at someone as your own and he becomes just that’. Who can make another life, another world, their own?
How does translation grope across languages? ‘Vision is not just in the eyes, Baba!’ Blind offers insights into artistic craft woven with shocking beauty when it speaks of Sharfu the basket maker: ‘If he were to rely on his eyes for his sight, his fingers would go blind and he wouldn’t be able to make a single basket worth its while’.
Using all the senses
Is that why blindness is such a powerful metaphor for creativity? Not just a metaphor but also a sensory mechanism. John Milton dictated Paradise Lost to his daughter in the last throes of his blindness, casting Inferno in a psychedelia of colours, a glittering Las Vegas casino. His sight all but gone, James Joyce dictated Finnegans Wake to his secretary, a young Samuel Beckett, a would-be-writer and lover to his daughter, creating a novel that is a cornucopia of the senses.
The linearity of our vision stays focused on what is ethically and politically acceptable to the times. But like Sharfu the basket maker, sometimes translators need to reach out to other organs to complete their craft, sometimes an appendix that is a remnant of the past. There are occasions when a disjuncture calls for the cancellation of historically distant texts. But there are other moments, as with this story, when a classic shakes us with its grating worldview. That is why translation is such an invaluable experience for the writer who carves fiction from lives not lived in English and values out of joint with liberal modernity.
The writer’s novels include The Firebird, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger.