Literary Review

‘I am not perfect but I work hard’

"I’ve tried my best to respect the primacy of Baluta," says Jerry Pinto. Photo: S. James  

That it should have taken three and a half decades for Baluta, the first Dalit autobiography in Marathi to be made available in English, is surprising. Jerry Pinto’s translation makes the wait for Baluta worthwhile. This gut-wrenching, candid personal narrative, marked by linguistic variations, is sensitively interpreted for the contemporary English reader.

How is it that Baluta — the first Dalit autobiography — remained untranslated for so long when other prominent Dalit texts such as Baby Kamble’s autobiography, Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry, Urmila Pawar’s short stories, among others, have been translated into English? Was the translation initiated by you?

Priya Adarkar was supposed to do it and she never got round to it. So I got lucky and jumped in and did it. 

The obvious question is, therefore, your familiarity with Marathi as a language.

 I studied Marathi in school and was pretty bad at it. I still am. I can read it well and I read it every day. I read Hindi and Urdu and English every day too. But my spoken Marathi is still a bit shambolic. I make no apologies for that. There are many perfectly bilingual people who should be translating but are not. I wish they would. Then I could just sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour. I have always maintained I am not the perfect translator but I work hard, I do several drafts, I work again and again, first a rough and literal draft, then a reading with my Marathi teacher, Neela Bhagwat, then a reading with my translation guru, Shanta Gokhale, then another rewrite to get the English version the way I want it, the way I would like it to read. When the perfect translators come along, I will sit back with a sigh and go back to reading Marathi just because I can. 

The original text is known to have linguistic nuances and includes local dialects. How challenging was it to interpret these in another language?

It’s not just Marathi. It’s a Mahar using Marathi in two registers: the register of his community and the register of this reading. He’s playing with both and there were often times I would feel he was playing me as well. And then he is also a poet. There were so many people I relied on but one of the key players in all this was Santosh Thorat, my assistant for many years. He was deeply interested in Baluta and he kept an eye out. He found me the first volume of a Dalit encyclopaedia of customs and a Dalit dictionary. I asked him to ask his mother about some customs and traditions. Then there was Pradnya Daya Pawar [Pawar’s daughter], who was very good about filling in the gaps in my knowledge. So, yes, I have seen further into Daya Pawar’s world because I stood on several shoulders. 

Translators often take liberties with the text, to modernise and contextualise — Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translation of Kabir’s poetry comes to mind. What, in your opinion, was your contribution to Baluta ? Also, as a writer, how hard was it to stay true to the narrative without letting your own voice and style seep in?

I respect what transcreators are doing but my own belief is: I don’t think anyone wants to read Jerry Pinto when they pick up Baluta. I think they want to read Daya Pawar. So my first concern is that this text must come through as much as is possible. No, it’s not possible to bring it all across. The boat leaks into the river of language as we cross from one side to the other and even the water dilutes the material and the boatman also soils it, by mistake. It cannot be helped. But when I was beginning to give up, I would say to myself: how much poorer we would all be without Tolstoy and Marquez and Basho and Saramago. What would we know of poetry without Basho and Basavanna and Cavafy? And I would row on. I am not so naïve, however, that I believe I have not contaminated the text. Even word choices are determined by life choices. So I’ve tried my best to respect the primacy of Baluta, and to remember that what drew me to it was what I want to share with others.  

You mention in your Translator’s Introduction that you never met Pawar and yet it is titled ‘Daya Pawar and Me’ giving the impression that an intimate friendship was forged during the process of translation. Do tell us about the process and research, the understanding of Daya Pawar the person as well as his socio-political and cultural context.

How much can one know? I could only read. I can never be a Mahar. I can talk to Mahars but I am an outsider. I hope I have been a respectful outsider, aware of how alien I must be, so I read and I read and I read and I sagged under the weight of how much more there was to know, and how little I could know. And then I jumped in. 

You’ve also translated the Marathi novel Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar. How different is it to engage with an author who is present at the time of translation as opposed to a posthumous translation?

The good thing about a living author is that if they give you the imprimatur, you’re fine. The bad thing about a living author is that this imprimatur may not be easy to get. But the thing about Sachin was that he loved the translation, he had a few comments and corrections which we sorted out over coffee and then I sent it off to the publisher. 

Dalit literature is being studied internationally, alongside African-American writing, for similarities in their narratives of discrimination. What, in your opinion, is the relevance of Dalit literature in our own country today? Who are the other prominent Dalit writers you would like to see translated into English?

I wish I were in a position to be able to give you an answer that is full and complete in all respects. But I can only say this: one of the reasons I read is to get an answer to the question: what is it like to be you? But having said that, I must say I don’t make any special cases in my reading. I won’t read a book because it is by someone who is a Dalit or gay or challenged or because s/he belongs to any of the other subsections of society that are marginalised. I read books that engage me and this may happen at any number of levels. So, yes, we must study Dalit literature but we must study all of it. And we must read to keep our consciences alive and we must read for pleasure. We must, no, scratch that no one must read. I wouldn’t force something I love on anyone else because I wouldn’t want someone else forcing their likes on me against my will. So I hope that Baluta is read widely but I hope it is loved and it is cherished and people mark their copies, and argue with the book in their heads and laugh and cry and go back to the original in Marathi, read around the text, look for Pawar’s poetry, read other Dalit authors in other languages. I wish I could answer neatly but chaos is often so much more productive. I hope even this answer, inadequate, arguing from a position of jouissance, indefensible, almost apolitical in a time when we know that even the apolitical is a political choice, will be a beginning rather an ending. 

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 1:31:23 PM |

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