After a long day of classes, Ailin and I hurried to the faculty residence. We were to interview Rita Kothari, one of India’s leading translation theorist. She writes in both Gujarati and English; her research interests are partition and cinema. Our stomachs were replicating the birds circling the Ashoka campus, flapping their wings loudly. We rang the bell, and Rita ushered us in. As we sat down, she folded her legs onto the armchair and settled in to hear what we had to say.
Our conversation began with a question on the category of “translators”. They don’t exist as a subset of “writers”; they are always secondary. Why is there a sense of theft attached to their writing? ‘The notion of a translator as a secondary person is not very old in the South Asian context,’ she said. ‘In the European context, original writing was seen as a part of “the soil of the earth” in the Romantic Age. Any wrenching out of that plant from the soil would entail a certain kind of loss, trauma, and pain. A kind of biologism came to attend the idea of the mother tongue in the nineteenth century. The work written in the original language became so unique that translation inevitably lead to a loss.’ As the provocateur of this loss, the translator becomes a ‘treacherous person’, she explained. ‘This was the post-nineteenth century context in the west.’
The assumptions that underlay pre-modern writing in India, were very different. For instance, ‘John Hawley wrote an essay about author and authorship. He translated Kabir and Surdas. He went from place to place with a text, and heard people reciting Surdas ke pad. He came away with an important insight—in India, there is a notion of authority that is more important than authorship. But authority is not limited to the idea of authorship. People were composing Kabir verses and often interpreted them in very personal ways. But the authority still rested with Kabir as far as they were concerned. The institution of authorship is a very limited one. And therefore this idea of the modern author, of the kind that Roland Barthes is talking about in “Death of the Author”, does not operate in the premodern context. And some of India still lives with that; while some of India is more anxious and more, if you like, wedded to the idea of modern authorship. So, for instance, if I was a 16th century person, and I was reading some text and I thought ki mujhe ye apni bhasha me kehna hain, toh main aisa nahi samajhti ki main kuch inferior kar rahi hun (I thought that I want to say this in my language, then I wouldn’t see it as something inferior). I would have thought, like Tulsidas, kuch uski kahi kuch apni kahi, hum bol gaye jo humko bolna tha (I told some of his story, I told some of mine. We have said what we wanted to). I would have seen my role in a completely different way. So we have to understand that some of these are notions that we have inherited with modernity. That is its limitation.’
There is a perception that the “original” work has been contaminated by the translator. When translators bring a work into another language, do they influence it? ‘He/she would, and they must,’ Rita said. ‘Am I going to refine myself out of existence and behave like I don’t exist? Something about the way I see a book will influence the way I translate it. And that’s perfectly fine; that is the way it should be. It’s not a machine doing it!’ Considering the fact that humans design the algorithms used by machines, they might introduce their own bias if set to work on translating a piece.
What does this sense of contamination do to our perception of The Truth? ‘I think all our relationships with all kinds of truths should be provisional, including the original author’s truth,’ she quipped. My imagination cowered against a statement so provocative, and I lost my train of thought thinking what a world without The Truth would be like. Gathering my wits nervously, I soldiered onto the next question!
Translation is often perceived as an act of conversation that extends across diverse cultures. Does this notion necessarily complicate the idea of the Supreme text with a singular reading of it? Rita thinks that it bypasses the notion rather than complicates it. ‘When I say I am translating this text so that you and I can now have a conversation about this, what I am also saying is that mehfil mein nayi-nayi cheezein aani chahiye (what I am also saying is that new things should be brought to the table). So, let’s just bring this to that mehfil (table). And very often that’s the way I am thinking about it. I am just thinking that our conversation is a bit static here, because we don’t know what is being said in Tamil, we don’t know about this particular work in Bangla, so for that to come into the mehfil, unfortunately it has to be available in a way that many of us can read,’ she shrugged. It is interesting to think what this could do to the idea of authorised translations.
In the process of translating a text, its culture also comes to be reconstructed for the eyes of the often-ignorant reader. But all cultures abound with untranslatable cues, the sense of which cannot be expressed precisely. How does one navigate this? ‘Emily Apter has a dictionary for untranslatables. They actually reveal so much,’ she smiled. ‘When you think you have to “deal with it”, it almost seems like these are problems. I don’t see them as problems. I see untranslatability as an opportunity to reflect on how these differences are obtained and sustained. When the text encounters such situations, I think each translator—depending on her location, commitment, the relationship with the text, the language in use, and the period—comes with her own alternatives. Again, I am not saying “alternatives to a problem”, I am saying “alternatives to a situation”. People don’t usually say this, but there really are no universal laws to good translation.’
The location the translator roots herself in affects her worldview significantly. So, we asked after her sense of place. Where did she root herself as a Sindhi who lived in Gujarat, as someone who both writes and translates? She hesitated, her fingers cradling her chin, eyes gazing into the distance. ‘That’s a tough one, actually. I think there is a past, a place, a history that has come to me from my own community,’ she paused. ‘There is a part of me which...I haven’t even lived there. So it is kind of stupid to talk about nostalgia for a place where I’ve not even lived. But there is a part of me where that place is important, and it stays with me.’
Rita was raised in Ahmedabad, where Sindhis weren’t very well accepted. ‘To me, intimacy with a language, a community, a place, a location is when you can hear the nonverbal language of that place. So it is not as if I would think of Gujarat and Ahmedabad in completely celebratory terms. But then Ahmedabad is also a city where I am firmly ensconced in a huge civil society; part of a social and academic circle. Here in Ahmedabad, I understand things that are not spoken out. So I occupy one [Ahmedabad] in the present, through the body. Another, I occupy in some other way. But they are both places that matter to me. In my head, I insist that I don’t occupy the Indian nation state. I like to think that I’m a product of undivided India, never mind the fact that it has been divided. So I like to think of myself as a person in the Indian subcontinent, and behave like the divisions don’t matter to me.'
This would make our polar opposite—our sworn enemy—coincide with our “selves”. But a translator always deals with the pantomimes of Selves and Others as they traverse imagined boundaries. What is a “foreign” language then? Rita believes that the classification of foreign is a political project. ‘So, while speaking in Hindi, a khadi boli Hindi word is used instead of an Urdu word; or the other way round. You think of one as belonging to the language, and the other—“jo kahi aur se aaya hai”—as borrowed. This entire rhetoric, of what belongs and what is borrowed, is constructed to maintain certain boundaries of a language. Therefore, the question of what is foreign would depend on where you draw the boundary of that language.’
If the boundaries are at our mercy, can we redraw them to include English as an Indian language? After all, the widespread use of English is considered problematic because it was the language of our colonisers. Kothari took us down a different road. ‘The problem with English now is not so much that it was the language of the coloniser, but that it is the language of the elite. So, it is not some external colonisation; it is an internal colonisation. So, we have to make sure—and this is what academics don’t do—to use a language that is not obtuse and filled with jargon.’ She thinks that it can exclude people. ‘I think tum doosri bhaasha istemal karne ki baat kar rahe ho. Jo use kar rahe ho pehle usko toh saral banao. Don’t turn everything into a completely conceptual, intellectual language. You’ve got to break it every now and then. Mess it up a little bit,” she said. “But hegemony doesn’t happen only through English. By itself toh English bhi kahan hierarchical hai? It is hierarchical in its relation with other languages.’
Rita’s self-image of being a citizen of “undivided India”, made the problem of defining the Sindhi identity across both nations a juicy bone we couldn’t resist. In Pakistan, there is a certain defiance—people try to protect their Sindhi identity—whereas in India they try to delineate themselves from this identity. Does this have something to do with the power structures that dominate these countries? ‘I’ve talked about this in a paper called “The Paradox of a Linguistic Minority”,’ she offered. ‘I’ve basically argued there that when Pakistan was formed, although it was, it is and it will be a multilingual and multi-ethnic country, some of its imagination was quite monochromatic. So the Sindhis, the Baluchis, the Pashtos—their language, their ethnicity—got somewhat sidelined to foreground a more Urdu speaking majority. As a reaction to that, and some of the very heavy handed policies of the Pakistani state, Sindhi nationalism became a very big thing in Sindh. And there were economic reasons and many others. The Sindhis who came to India were not facing a draconian state, but were facing an everyday crisis: the world they came from and the language they came with, was different from the one they were encountering. And considering that they were a minority in numbers—they were dispersed all over the country—they were not all in one place; they did not feel they had the wherewithal to resist something and therefore to steadfastly hang on to ingredients that defined their culture. And so they let it go. So sometimes you become rebellious in the face of what is [a] very outward domination. But when there is stigmatisation, you shrink away.’
Questions buzzed around in our heads but we swatted them away; our time was up! With profuse thanks we said our goodbyes. On the walk back to the dorms, Ailin and I exchanged a series of remember-what-she-saids and oh-so-trues. The damp-green smell of freshly watered lawns greeted our nostrils, mingling with the pleasant, golden warmth of sunset. In the sepia coloured rue de memory, it became the day of the new and the invigorating.