Vermonter wins international award for translating contemporary Hindi literature
How difficult was it for Bennington’s Daisy Rockwell to translate “Tomb of Sand”, Geetanjali Shree’s novel, from Hindi to English?
“It’s really experimental, and it’s also a very rebellious and rebellious book, particularly, against the conventions of storytelling and the expectations of what a novel should be,” Rockwell said. “Many readers complain that the main character doesn’t get out of bed for the first 200 pages. But I find it fascinating. You never really know where it’s going.
Rockwell’s fascination paid off. She and Shree received the 2022 International Booker Prize at a ceremony in London on May 26. The prize rewards the best book translated into English and published in Great Britain or Ireland. Rockwell and Shree will split the £50,000 – around $63,000 – in prize money they received in conjunction with the prize itself.
Shree’s novel follows the journey of an 80-year-old Indian woman to Pakistan. It weaves themes of femininity, family and trauma with a narrative centered on the partition of British India. Some of his experimentalism can be seen in his ever-changing viewpoints, including the perspectives of crows, the sun, and even that of a door and window.
“Tomb of Sand” is the first Indian-language novel to win the International Booker Prize and the first Hindi novel to receive a nomination, according to The New York Times. It is Shree’s third novel and her first to be published in Britain.
“They really make sure there’s a lot of suspense, so very few people know who’s going to win — like the judges, a few organizers — so it’s kind of built and built,” Rockwell said. “So at the time it was released, I was a nervous wreck.”
When they learned that their book had won, Rockwell and Shree were both in shock. Rockwell compared his response to being on a plane, where they tell you in an emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.
“I tried to process it quickly and then they told you to have a sample speech in case you won so I pulled out my speech and then I went to see (Shree) and she was completely shut down “, said Rockwell. “I had to kind of tell him what happened and give him a hug and then bring him on stage.”
Rockwell said she had never won such a prestigious award at this level. She considers the International Booker Prize to be the highest honor in the English-speaking world of literature.
“It’s funny to me because actually none of my books have ever been published in the United States,” she said. “Even in the western world of translation, I’m not known at all, so I think that surprised me a lot. We sort of come out of nowhere, like the underdogs.
Currently, an American publisher has picked up “Tomb of Sand”, the official announcement of which is expected in a moment.
Rockwell said she’s been trying unsuccessfully to get her work published in the United States for decades, and that many of her friends who translate from South Asian languages have had similar difficulties.
“Tomb of Sand” was published in the UK in August by a small publisher, Tilted Axis Press, founded by Deborah Smith, who won the 2016 International Booker Prize for her translation of “The Vegetarian”, alongside the author Han Kang.
“She calls it ‘Tilted Axis’ because her idea is to kind of tilt the axis of the world of translation and literature towards greater inclusion of literatures that have not been recognized in the West”, said Rockwell. “She mainly publishes translations of Asian languages.”
Smith spotted “Tomb of Sand” while researching books in India, and Rockwell was chosen as the translator through a recommendation from another translator, Rockwell said.
“It’s my first book to be published outside of India, and I would say very well, the reason it’s my first is because there’s really a strong bias in the world of edition,” she said. “Any type of aesthetic judgment can also be racist or xenophobic.”
Rockwell hopes people in the United States will continue to become more open-minded and travel through literature, choosing to read in translation as a way to cross borders.
“Americans are very insular and monolingual, which leads to a kind of self-deception and limitation of perspective,” Rockwell said.
From the first meeting to future projects
“Fiction is the most intimate of all arts, the only one in which we can truly inhabit another mind,” said Frank Wynne, chairman of this year’s jury for the International Booker Prize. “Since writers tell stories, translators bring them to the world. »
Wynne is the first translator to chair the panel.
“Translators matter. This is something worth repeating in the somewhat solipsistic English-speaking world,” he said. “The joyous cacophony of Geetanjali Shree is captured in the playful poetics of Daisy Rockwell.”
Rockwell and Shree only met in person last week for the awards show. Initially, Rockwell planned to travel to India to collaborate, but the pandemic interfered with those plans.
“All of our interactions were through email. We didn’t even zoom in or talk on the phone,” Rockwell said. “By the time we met last week, we felt like friends.”
Rockwell said she looked forward to working with Shree on additional translations of her work.
“Where would we be without Daisy, who gave this book its English incarnation, making it accessible to everyone?” Shree asked her audience at the awards show. “Thank you, Marguerite, thank you, thank you.”
where it all started
Rockwell’s love of languages and translation began when she began studying Latin in seventh grade. She continued her Latin studies in college in addition to taking French and German classes.
“I decided I wanted to try something really different and challenging,” she said. “So I started learning Hindi, mostly because it fit my schedule and I stuck to it.”
She then went to graduate school to complete a doctorate. at the University of Chicago in South Asian Languages and Literature and became more serious about translation. She also translates Urdu, a South Asian language similar to Hindi.
“I read other South Asian languages, but not well enough to translate them,” she said. “Languages are like people or countries: some of them you gravitate to, some of them you fall in love with, some of them just aren’t for you. So for me, for some reason, it’s became my life partner.
Rockwell said his process involved a rough first draft with the only main goal being to get the story out of the original language and into English, which often feels mechanical. After that, the process takes on a more creative slant, making the story “live” in another language.
“But at the same time, I’m in a situation where I’m translating a language, Hindi, from a country that experienced colonialism, and I’m translating it into the colonial language, English, so there’s a differential of power,” Rockwell said.
Rockwell is careful to remain sensitive to this power differential and to the fact that she herself is not Indian. She has found that many of her readers are Indians who cannot read Hindi, so in her translations she tries to prioritize maintaining the intended cultural elements of the Hindi language.
“English is still a huge language in India as well. It has its own style and its own flavors,” she said.
Yet she struggles with the delicate process of balancing the need for readability and accessibility with the need to preserve the integrity of the original – while keeping in mind all her readers, Indians who prefer to read in English to the American neighbors of Vermont.
Additionally, Rockwell said, she decided to move away from translating literature written by men a few years ago when she realized that all of her translations so far had been men’s books.
“I started to be really aware that women’s voices often go unheard or unheard in men’s books,” she said. “There’s obviously a lot of objectification, a kind of sexualized descriptions of women that don’t allow them to become complete characters.”
In her spare time, Rockwell enjoys painting and spending time with her 13-year-old daughter. She finds she does her best job of translating in busy spaces, like the waiting rooms for her daughter’s dance class.