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#Bookmarked – ‘Breaking new ground with gentle provocations’

Rita Kothari’s ‘Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience and Indian Literature’ published by Bloomsbury Publishing is a quietly political book that questions what we consider legitimate knowledge

Saman Waheed

30 September, 2022 | 6m read

Rita Kothari is a Professor of English and the Director of the MA in English Programme at Ashoka University. She is also the Co-Director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation.

As a multilingual scholar and translator, she has worked extensively on translating Gujarati and Sindhi writings into English. Her new book, “Uneasy Translations” interweaves the personal journey of an academic into reflections around self, language, and translation with an eye on the intangibly available category of experience. From exploring the language of Hindi film songs to establishing the demarcation between shame and humiliation to explaining the relationship between gender and translation, this book questions the normative. 

We spoke to Professor Kothari about her experiences with translation and how this book took its course. Here is what she had to say.

What were some of the foundational experiences that compelled you to pursue translation professionally and academically?

I think as somebody who was from a minority language (like Sindhi), I ended up learning the majority language of my region. People who come from a minority language are almost always more multilingual than others. A Tulu-speaking person will know Kannada in the same way as a Bhojpuri-speaking person will know Hindi. 

As for your question about what drew me to pursue translation, this is one of explaining something that had many moments, not just one: Considering that I was a multilingual English literature student, I always felt that all the expressions that I had learned from Hindi film songs were not being used to teach us. We were not learning metaphors and similes from Gulzar’s works. We were learning them from English poetry. So, when I started teaching at a very young age, I made it a point to use those examples, and always found them to actually carry much more resonance with students. 

English can sometimes be alienating or even intimidating. So, my desire to occupy multiple languages constantly is in some sense, a desire to occupy the space of translation—the two are not separate from each other.

What made you choose the title ‘Uneasy Translations’? Is the process of translation itself uneasy or does it aim to make the reader a little uncomfortable and uneasy?

Actually, it is both. 

My book is really not about the cliches that people associate with translation, like the difficulties or challenges of it. It is more about the fact that when we cannot resolve something, we sit with it—we live with it. This idea of living with it is uneasy, but we live with that unease. 

I know that there are forms of dissonances between the many lives that Indian bhashas and our English has. So, what I call uneasy translation is between ourselves and the languages, which for some reason did not beckon us to them. We went to the trade of English, because of the symbolic power that was associated with it. But I think we live with a slight unease about that. So it is partly that. 

Therefore, it is a book about sitting with unease and not necessarily resolving it—not thinking that translation is a skill, but a predicament of life in which meanings do not always match with each other. So, what do we do about that? Do we certainly know that one day it will be resolved? There is a certain gap that will always remain. Is that one of loss and mourning or is it simply one of an absence of a conclusion? My book is about the absence of conclusion.

The form that you have chosen for the book is a mix of personal experiences and textual examples. Why did you choose to go ahead with this form? Did you face any issues while going back and forth from one form to the other? 

No, actually. I did not face much of an issue, because I think this particular book was there in me—it just happened. It took its own life, its own form. I did not think this is how I want to do it. So, the book has a hybrid form—it is not entirely personal. It talks about both self and the experiences linked to it.

The prologue of the book begins with the lines, “It must have begun as some kind of a transaction. Otherwise, why would a 15-year-old be expected to teach?” I go on to describe how my family was facing a lot of financial problems. In order to help them out, I was teaching at 15 to two little children in my neighborhood. I used to feel resentful, and quite poor, but I also felt a sense of power, because teaching gives you that. Even today, my primal feelings in a classroom are one of headiness and power, but also of some vulnerability. For me, when I am in a class, I do not keep myself outside. I do not believe in keeping the objective and the subjective separate. 

It then goes on to ask—what is a classroom? A classroom is not only a physical location, it also constitutes a general engagement with knowledge. As far as I am concerned, this conversation between us right now is a classroom, but that does not mean that I am teaching. What it means is that we are both, in some sense grappling at what we think knowledge is. 

How can we grow to become proud of the language that we have grown up with—our mother tongue and break away from the hegemony of the English canon?

Well, some of that the Ashoka Centre for Translation is doing. 

This book, however, is actually not even so much about being proud of the mother tongue. Pride, sometimes has other connotations that can easily lead to chauvinism. 

The book is saying that I am constituted by multiple contexts. So, why do I sanitize myself and take a sliver out of these multiple contexts, to say, only this is what matters? So when you come to Ashoka University and you are studying something, it does not mean that other aspects of your life have ceased to matter. Maybe, they are informing how you respond to a particular text. 

To give an example, in my course on Partition, I was teaching “Sunlight on a Broken Column” by Attia Hosain. There is a lot of description of the walls in the house—Ghar ka aangan, Ghar ki deewarein. I was basically telling the students to inhabit this house with me to understand the textural components of it. Sometimes you miss that certain texture and people term it as homelessness. But, maybe it is actually not homelessness, it is a homefulness because sometimes you are too full of the home. When I said this, I was a little moved by it as I am now. That is because I changed many homes, and not out of good reasons. Each time, it was a more modest home that we moved to. Moving each time was filled with memories of home. 

So when you are so filled with that feeling of home, does the word homelessness even capture what you are experiencing? It does not. Is that not an uneasy translation?

Do you think that the exercise of translation, in some senses, rids you of the accountability to be answerable for the content and purpose of the original text?

It binds you too much. Actually, it does not rid you of responsibility but makes you very responsible. The challenge for the translator is to strike a balance between that responsibility and their own ideology. Some translators own up to the fact that the authors they are translating are people of their own and that they are not merely speaking in a borrowed voice. 

One of the things that I also mention in the book is that translation is anuvaad—it is speaking after. It is like saying, aap baat karo, main baad mein baat karti hu (You talk, I will talk later). So, the translation rids you of the arrogance and narcissism of the original.

Does reading the book in its spatial and temporal context, require a conscious effort on the part of the translator or does that come unconsciously with time?

When you read something from a distant past, do you not try to make an imaginative leap and inhabit that century as much as you can? Translators who become inward with the text make that leap. On the other hand, sometimes they may want the author or the text to speak in a contemporary voice, wherein translators have to translate accordingly. In both cases, it really depends on what the translator wants to do—whether they want the author to speak in the 21st-century voice or they want to go with that temporality themselves. 

If the translator wants to make the text easy for the reader, then instead of bringing the reader to the text, they will bring the text to the reader by domesticating it. However, sometimes translators make a decision to foreignise the text. In that case, the reader has to work hard and walk that extra mile to understand the text. I prefer the latter. I do not want to domesticate something so much, especially because if it has been translated into English, then it also means that I concede to English the power to rule my regional writer. I am not going to do that. It goes against my principles. I think English can be made to learn a new habit. I do not want my Hindi, Sindhi, or Gujarati to kind of bend over backward. 

How do we address the gap that exists between personal experience and theoretical practice?

We have to strike a balance. The challenge lies in that. We have to know when to not overdo it because there are chances of that happening and then it becomes an exercise simply of navel-gazing. The idea is not about making the self an all-consuming thing but to recognize a mediation of the self.

There is an example in the prologue of the book about a student who has talked about the challenges she was facing at home, which had to do with the fact that she was a Muslim woman. She says that none of the theory helped her. It talked to her about misogyny, race, and gender in other regions. But it did not tell her what she was supposed to do about the parents she dearly loved but could not live with. 

I argue in the book that the category of the home then is missing from theory. Is there a theory that tends to tell us what is the home or is it always about the cosmopolitan, the traveller, the troubadour? Theory is also about people who are out there. It is not about non-action or about ennui. I think even the domestic is a site of knowledge.

Is there anything else about the book that you would like the readers to know?

I think the book is going to be an uneasy one because it is a very quietly political book. It calls to question what we think is knowledge. It asks what we consider to be legitimate knowledge and what we consider to be experience which we think is only what happens at home or in life. It is asking why that experience is not knowledge. It is also asking if experience can order theory and is not dismissed as a mere anecdote.  Theory might not be written that way, but more often than not, it ends up being consumed in a disembodied manner, bereft of experience.

It happens very often that we encounter knowledge that comes to us in unexpected forms. We do not have the eyes to recognize it as knowledge because we think that it should look a certain way, should be dressed as an article or a book, should be in English, it should have a specific kind of expression and jargon. We are just not ready for a very odorous and particular form of knowledge that comes to us from different quarters. We are not treating the world as a university, which it is. We are only treating the university as such, almost as if what is outside does not matter. 

Therefore, this book is a critique of who we are as academics, which may contribute to the uneasiness that will come with it. 

(Saman Waheed is currently an Assistant Manager at the Office of PR & Communications, Ashoka University. She is a former Young India Fellow from the batch of 2022.)

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