Bombay Showcase

Translation is the noblest failure: Jerry Pinto

A few days before writer Jerry Pinto leaves for the United States, he agrees to meet us at Kitab Khana in Fort on a humid, long-shadowed afternoon. Wearing a T-shirt and pair of grey shorts, Pinto enters the bookstore, and is welcomed by a battery of eager staff members. Pinto greets them back, calling them by name, and sits at a corner table in the bookstore’s café. “It’s silent here, so unlike Bombay,” he says, settling into the comfortable familiarity of books.

Six months ago, Pinto received a phone call informing him that he had won the prestigious Windham-Campbell prize. He is now all set to make his way to Yale University to attend the award ceremony. The last few months have been a double blessing for the writer; he’s not just won the $1,50,000 prize for his fiction novel Em and the Big Hoom, but his third published translation, Vandana Mishra’s I, the Salt Doll, has also hit the bookstores. Pinto will be speaking about the book and his other translated works at Godrej India Culture Lab on Friday evening.

Found in translation

Pinto’s first translation, which was published in 2013, was Marathi writer and filmmaker Sachin Kundalkar’s captivating debut novel, Cobalt Blue. He then went on to translate what is arguably the first Dalit autobiography in Marathi, Baluta (2015), by poet and author Daya Pawar. A year later, his translation of I, the Salt Doll was released. The book is Mishra’s memoir as a renowned actor in Gujarati and Marwari theatre, and in many ways, of the city as well.

“These three are just the published ones. I translated eight books as training wheels first. Those I wouldn’t inflict on the public. They were things I did to see whether I could translate or not,” says Pinto, digging into his Bombay bhel.

While translating, Cobalt Blue, a fiction novel that tells the story of a brother-sister duo who fall in love with a paying guest, Pinto was aware that the emphasis was more on style than content. “Mark Twain said that all stories have been told and he said that back in the 17th century. [But] the question is, how have they been told? That’s what makes the difference,” Pinto says. “What makes a new book new is that the old story has been told differently. Now, when you’re translating, you’ve got to respect the newness of the telling,” he says, realising that there is a danger of slipping into an old English romance by stumbling into ways of writing that reflect a writer’s own reading of love stories.

Comparatively, translating the autobiographies was much easier for the Mumbai-based author. “Most people visit non-fiction shops for information. If you can tell the information compellingly, that makes for a good autobiography,” says Pinto, who believes Baluta and I, The Salt Doll, are both captivating stories, but in different ways.

Baluta, in Pinto’s words, narrates an unvarnished account of life lived at the bottom of the heap. While in Mishra’s memoir, there comes a time when the actor rises from deep poverty to a period of monetary comfort and independence, only to find herself going back to testing times after marriage. But according to Pinto, she never spells out her misery. “You’re going to have to [glean that from] the book but she’s not going to tell you. In that sense, what Vandana Mishra didn’t say about what might’ve been in the back story of her life made it a very modern kind of telling. It invited me in. I was required to fill in the gaps with a sympathetic reading,” recalls the writer. He remembers meeting Mishra during the translation process, and was delighted by the former actor’s storytelling skills.

A three-stage process

Pinto stumbled upon Mishra’s work while reading a column written by Shanta Gokhale, a renowned writer and translator who has played a vital role in connecting Marathi literature with non-Marathi readers. “When I read [Mishra’s book], I liked the book because the time period in Bombay, in which the book is set, is like a mystery to me. It’s like a large darkness with faint gleams of light here and there, and here’s where I thought I’ll find some light,” says Pinto. He strongly believes one must not translate a book unless one is an evangelist for it.

The author, who won the Hindu Literary Prize in 2012, relied on Marathi newspapers and word of mouth to guide him towards selecting the books he translated. Pinto then read the book a few times and translated it cover to cover. “When I finished reading and writing Cobalt Blue, I read it to Neela Bhagwat, who is my Marathi teacher. After I did one level of correction, I read it to Shanta Gokhale, and when she sort of approved it, [the translation] went to Sachin Kundalkar, who had some minor corrections to make,” Pinto says. He has followed a similar process for his other translations.

Working in rhythm

Despite sieving his work through several rounds of editing and corroboration, Pinto says all translations are ultimately a failure. But they are the noblest failure.

“Take a simple word in Cobalt Blue. In the beginning, he uses the word, ‘ re’. I struggled with it. ‘ Re’ is a loving undertone of, ‘what you have inflicted on me’. ‘ Kai re karto?’ (What are you doing?) Now the closest I could come to that was ‘love’, ‘man’ or ‘men’. They came close but they weren’t equivalents. Then [it’s] better to drop it and try to find the rhythm that conveys this feeling than do an actual word-by-word translation,” says Pinto.

Translating I, the Salt Doll, however, brought along a set of unique challenges. The book is peppered with poetry and lyrics, and not just in Marathi, but in Gujarati and Marwari as well.

“When you’re translating a song, you have to work harder to get a lyrical feeling. You never do as well as you should, but you try,” says the writer.

To compensate for what is lost in translation, Pinto has provided contextual information in Baluta and I, the Salt Doll as footnotes.

“Marathi writers are utterly positive that everyone knows what they’re talking about. They go so far as not putting full names. Like mama and his wife, Sujata. It’s assumed you know who the mama is. In the Marathi community, it is an acceptable practice, but not in English. It is a bit disconcerting because you start to feel like an outsider, and I don’t want my readers to feel like outsiders. So I put in those footnotes,” says Pinto.

According to the writer, he is healing the scars Hindi and Marathi inflicted on him in school, through translation. Pinto confesses that he struggled with Marathi as a student, but in his thirties, he decided to explore the vast world of literature in the language.

“But what makes me so sure I can deal with Marathi [as a translator]? Complete and total foolishness. I believe that it was madness to even start translation, but I’m happy I did it,” he grins, and calls out to a friend sitting across the café, reprimanding the person who kept her waiting.

Pinto is now working on translating Marathi writer Mallika Amar Sheikh’s autobiography Mala Udhvasta Whaychay. Sheikh gives an account of her traumatic marriage to celebrated Marathi writer, poet and Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal. According to Pinto, she lived the first 20 years of her life on fast forward, loaded with complexities.

It’s clearly a challenge that Pinto is up for.

Found in translation — an evening with Jerry Pinto will take place today at the Godrej India Culture Lab, Vikhroli East, at 5 p.m.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 8:53:12 PM |

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