I ask Shanta Gokhale, novelist, translator, theatre critic and sounding board for most of Mumbai’s intellectual community, whether we can begin by talking about the economics of translation. She offers me an image of herself as a translator, taken from around the 1970s.
“I am sitting at my desk and working on a translation. I am writing it by hand because that was how I did my first drafts in the days before computers. An aunt of mine who used to live close by, a dear and beloved aunt, walked in and gave me a friendly thump on my back. ‘What are you doing spending so much of your time on this work?’ she asked. ‘No name, no fame, no money.’”
Now that Shanta Gokhale has won the richly deserved Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Laxmibai Tilak’s spirited and charming autobiography in Marathi, Smritichitre (translated as Smritichitre: The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife; Speaking Tiger), and the phone calls keep coming, she wishes her aunt were still alive to see this moment of triumph.
Gokhale should have won this award many times over: for her work on the playwrights of her time, Satish Alekar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Vijay Tendulkar; for her translations of path-breaking novels such as Embers by Uddhav Shelke (Speaking Tiger) and biographies such as I, Durga Khote (OUP) and Adventures of a Brahmin Priest: My Travels in the 1857 Revolution (with Priya Adarkar, OUP).
The seed of this fruitful career was sown by Shanta’s mother, Indira Gokhale, a woman she has written about beautifully on her website (though this is now only in Marathi). “I was on my way to England and she asked me, ‘What are you going to do with this wonderful education that your father is paying for? What will you do with this language that you will acquire?’ I said that I would teach. She said that this was a fine thing but she added, ‘You could also translate the best of our literature into English.’”
Gokhale returned from abroad, got married to a Navy officer and was living the life of a peripatetic Forces Wife when another friend, the theatre director Satyadev Dubey, took a hand. She told me about this when I was editing a reader of her work (which would eventually become The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale, Speaking Tiger): “In 1971 I got a two-line letter from Dubey when I was living temporarily in Vishakhapatnam. “What are you doing vegetating out there? Use your time to translate this.” “This” turned out to be C.T. Khanolkar’s play Avadhya, in which four men in a seedy hotel room watch a young couple making love on the other side through a hole in the wall.
That was the beginning. “In the 1970s, many of my playwright friends were writing plays that dealt with taboo topics which would fall foul of the censors. They would land up in court and sometimes the lawyers and judges would need translations and that task would fall to me.”
This was not paid work. “Who expected to be paid? Madhav Gadkari, a well-known journalist and editor of the Marathi newspaper Loksatta, had spent some time in Goa. He fell in love with the place and wrote a book about it. He read my translations and asked if I would translate his book. I had never met him before. I translated the book and enjoyed reading about the kinds of fish that were to be had and the ways in which they could be cooked. I learned a lot about Goa’s history and culture and handed it over. I don’t know what happened to it, whether it came out or not. Publishers weren’t very interested then and, anyway, no one ever thought to tell you what had happened to your work. This was in the time of hand-writing, remember, so before you ask if I have a copy of my translation, I don’t. It vanished.”
In the time that it takes for that to settle in, Gokhale adds: “Anyway, in the 1970s, money was a bad word. I remember there was a time when Satyadev Dubey actually made some money on a play. He had eleven thousand rupees burning a hole in his pocket and that made him deeply uncomfortable. He began scattering it about to everyone, like manna in the wilderness, but still the money kept coming in. And so he decided that he would shut down the production on the grounds that it must be a bad play to have become so popular.”
But there were unexpected moments of reciprocity. Gokhale has survived breast cancer—which she has written about in an extraordinary memoir of the body, One Foot on the Ground (Speaking Tiger). “One day Tendulkar visited me because he had heard I had been ill. There had been a Tendulkar event in New York and he had made a speech there about charity. His contention was, if memory serves, that one should do charity and not talk about it. To talk about it, he said, turned charity into self-interest. The critics here tore that speech to shreds, asking what made him an expert on the subject, had he done any charity, and so forth. When he came to visit me, he handed over a cheque of twenty-five thousand rupees, just like that. And he said, ‘This is your royalty.’ That was very nice of him, but the truth of the matter is that there was no expectation of reward. Translation was a necessary service that I was rendering and I had a certain skill at it.”
A necessary service
Two elements of this strike me immediately. What makes translation a necessary service? I ask. “I learned the meaning of translation as a necessary service when I was in England. Bristol had a very small community of Indians and everyone knew everyone else and also who was Marathi and who was Goan and so on. And so there was a court case, and the matter concerned something the plaintiff or the defendant, I forget which, had written in Marathi. I was asked whether I would translate this and did so. And then there were the plays that had to be translated for the court. It was then that I made my list of books that I thought I should translate into English. These included Smritichitre by Mrs Tilak, Brahmankanya by Shridhar Kelkar, Shyamchi Aai by Sane Guruji and Mazha Pravaas by Vishnubhat Godse. Dilip Chitre told me he was doing the last so I dropped it from my list. But he never did get around to it and then Priya Adarkar took it up and asked me to work with her when she ran into trouble.”
Shyamchi Aai has been published by Puffin and Speaking Tiger will be bringing out Brahmankanya soon.
We do not ever mention the fabled invisibility of the translator but in passing, Shanta Gokhale tells me a story about a book by Godavari Parulekar, freedom fighter, Marxist, activist and a close family friend. “She had written a book called Jevha Maanus Jaagaa Hoto and a comrade had translated it for her. She was not happy with the translation and asked if I could work on it. I knew by then that one cannot help a translation, one can only redo it. And so I redid it and named it When Man Awakens. She was very happy with this version but she could not let her comrade down and so she told me that my name would not figure. However, she thanked me in the introduction for typing the manuscript. By the way, even the typist does not get paid when you work for a Communist.”
Getting under the skin of the text
And the skill? “That I gradually discovered that I could get under the skin of the text where the author is and where the author is giving herself an external face in the form of the words she is using. Through that face, one learns how to reveal that face and those words in another language. So it isn’t about getting the right words by discerning the aim or the objective of the text. It is about getting to the person behind the words and that particular voice. To do that one has to dig into one’s latent vocabulary. I always do two or three drafts but in the first draft, I simply go with the flow, I write as it comes and at this stage, I use the first word that comes to mind because I know I will be coming back, rewriting and making changes. It is at this stage, in the second draft, that one’s latent vocabulary begins to operate. Words float up suddenly and they must be incorporated while respecting the flow and the rhythm of the sentences. It took me ten to fifteen years to get to the point where I knew what I was doing. At the third draft, I go back to the original text and look at my version to see how far I have drifted from the original. The author’s prose style will have certain characteristics that don’t belong to your speech patterns. But you can catch those patterns if you let your latent vocabulary do some of the work. This is not like fishing where you sit by the edge of a lake and cast your line and haul up a fish. It is about allowing your subconscious to come to the rescue, throwing up a felicitous word or a phrase or even a solution to a problem. And now I am reading my translation. I am now a reader. If you have become a sensitive reader, you know how a sentence works. I can see the rhythm of the sentence on the page. I don’t need to read it aloud to know if it works; I can see if it is working on the page. You can also catch the little things, which you should not have done if you were keeping to your original objective of keeping the particular texture of the prose. I guess natural translators do not have to do all this work, but I do and that is why translating is rather a slow process for me. Which is also why I don’t like publishers to have stringent deadlines. I am aware that publishing is a business, I am aware that there are deadlines, but I would like to proceed at my own pace. I work every day…”
Saturdays and Sundays included?
“Of course. Most days, I don’t know what day it is. It is a work day. I don’t have any rituals associated with the weekend. Some people go on a trek on Saturdays or they watch Gujarati plays which, in Mumbai, play only on weekends, so they have to keep an eye on the calendar. What day is it today, by the way?”
Rewards of translation
The rewards of translation? “The most gratifying moment of my life in translation—other than this award and the award I got for translating Em and the Big Hoom [ Em aani Hoomrao, Popular Prakashan]—was when I was in England in 1992 on a British Council grant. It was a small grant but since I was already in Berlin for the Festival of India, and my son, Girish Shahane, was in Oxford at the time, I thought I could hop across and see some theatre as part of my work for Playwright at the Centre [a stupendous work subtitled Marathi Drama from 1843 to the Present, Seagull Books]. I had gone to Bangalore and seen plays there, likewise to Calcutta, so I thought this would help in some ways. A niece of mine, Charu Shahane, was working with the BBC and [was] posted in Birmingham where she heard that the Birmingham University Drama Department was going to put up my translation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Pratibimb, which I had called Reflections. This had been brought out by Seagull as a standalone playscript. Charu mentioned that the translator was in the country and the director, Chris Banfield, asked if I could be persuaded to make a trip down to Birmingham to see it. My return flight was the very day of the performance, but Girish suggested that we try and delay by a day. This was duly done and we went down to see it. The director later said that they had not changed a word of the script; the actors had found it so easy to say. And that was the best compliment I could have received.”
This would have been a great place to end but there was an aftershock. “I was so delighted I came back and mentioned this to Mahesh because I thought he would be delighted at the thought of his work travelling in this unexpected manner. Instead he said, ‘But they didn’t ask me’ and sent them a legal notice. The poor director must have wondered why he had brought this on himself by inviting the translator at all. He did write to Mahesh and say that it was a student production, it was not a profit-making venture, it was part of the educational activities of the university and that he had written to the publisher for permission and received it, but Mahesh was adamant. Finally, the university relented and paid him royalty of which he paid me my share.”
Ritu Menon once told me that when Ismat Chughtai translated her novel Aag ka Dariya as River of Fire, she chopped and changed. Does Gokhale, who has translated both her own novels, Rita Welinkar (Disha Books) and Tya Varshi (Crowfall, Penguin), take the same liberties with her work?
“No. Arun Kolatkar would often do that, but you need that leeway when you’re working with poetry, I think. But I kept to the same rules that I had established for other writers. They were as challenging as any of the other novels I had done, but in the case of Rita, there were passages that became painful to do because they dealt with an extramarital affair and that cut close to the bone. The problem there is not so much as it could be if I were a writer who used both languages as languages of creative expression. In that case, you would have a different voice which is expressive in a different way.”