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The Translator Relay: Jason Grunebaum

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For August's installment, Alta Price passed the baton to Jason Grunebaum, a writer and Hindi translator whose book-length translations include Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol and The Walls of Delhi. He has received an NEA Literature Fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and his work has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature. He teaches at the University of Chicago. 

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

My connection to India began with an improbable migration. In 1960, the parents of my best friend from high school were the first Indian family to settle in Buffalo—this was before the Immigration Act of 1965 when the national quota for Indians was still 100. Their family story is an exceptional one. My friend Vijayan and I were planning on backpacking around Europe after graduation, but, as happy fate would have it, one evening before our trip, we both found ourselves dining at Rigoletto’s, moms in tow. The four of us ate together. Vijayan’s mom asked, “Why don’t you two come to India with us?” “Us” was Vijayan’s mom, his brother, his brother’s wife, and their three-year-old. India sounded way more exciting than Europe, and that trip was the beginning of my connection with India. Hindi study began two years later as the obvious way to fulfill my twin desires of majoring in Comp Lit and returning to India. Later, my connection with Hindi and India continued and deepened on the ghats of Banaras, in the prisons of Kashmir working as an interpreter, and through many friends and teachers and travels along the way.  

Can you give us an example of an "untranslateable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

I’m probably not the only translator who bristles at the concept of the “untranslateable.” The word makes me feel instantly defensive, as if even uttering it concedes failure, an acquiescence to notions of translation as an impossible, doomed task and inferior art. (“But Eliot Weinberger says, ‘Everything can be translated. That which is “untranslatable” hasn’t yet found its translator!’”). Or I’m reminded of listicles making the rounds (“13 Untranslatable Amharic Adverbs!”) that are more about the lack of easy equivalences between languages for culturally specific concepts than about the process of translation. “Untranslateable” itself reminds me of the neverending imperative to talk about this possibilities/choices/decisions process among the uninitiated. I almost feel duty-bound as a serious translator to reject the notion of untranslatability.

What I find interesting are words or phrases that seem like translation gimmes, but aren’t at all—like English words used in Hindi that, more often than not, I find myself translating using a different English word. This depends on the audience, whether it’s Indian or American. Sometimes I also find it’s important to keep Hindi words in my English, but try to sneakily gloss them within the text so no one’s left out.

Do you have any translating rituals? 

I read my work out loud. I revise like crazy. I go back and forth, again and again with this choice or that. The final version must pass through my reader of record. I wish I had more unusual rituals, perhaps something involving Ganges water, a poster of Amitabh Bachchan circa 1975, and a pot of patchouli oil—but I don’t. Not yet, anyway.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

In that dreamy world where translators’ work is widely respected and essentially understood, we won’t need to use metaphors when talking about translation. We’ll say, “I’m a literary translator,” and the images that will pop into a person’s head will roughly correspond with what we actually do.

But obviously we’re not there yet, so I talk about things like the performance of a text into English, or the distinction between being the author and writer of a text. I try to have a few handy concrete examples of the process—from translation challenge to several possibilities to a single, considered choice—that will hopefully enlighten more than bore. I situate the process as much as possible within the familiar framework of writing. I’ve recently taken a great liking to the notion of translation as the purest form of writing: no other mode of writing is as exclusively focused on language as translation. I like this idea because it’s provocative, and rings true.

Nevertheless, I’m still on the lookout for that magic un-metaphor metaphor that can explain what we do on our own terms, without having to conjure conductors and jazzmen and ventriloquists.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

In 1958, the Ministry of Education, Government of India, published a seventy page booklet called “Basic Hindi Vocabulary: 2000 Words.” Each word is given in Hindi, transliterated Devanagari with diacritics, and an English equivalent. Basics like “idle talk,” “poorman,” “manure,” “rice-pudding,” “clod,” “austerities,” “utensil maker,” “continued rain,” “small boil,” “portable hearth,” “unrib,” “crushed substance,” and “be satiated,” are all included. I thought it would be interesting to write two stories, one in Hindi and one in English, each one using all 2000 words. I haven’t decided what, if any, subsidiary constraints I will impose. The authors were nice enough to categorize the words by part of speech. It’s not a conventional translation project, but translation will very much inform what I end up doing.

Alta Price's question: You translate from one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, yet shockingly few works in Hindi have ever been published in English translation—especially in the United States. Do you think it’s important that translators working into English stick to traditional publishing platforms, or do you have some more radical ideas of how to open the gates a bit wider?

Traditional publishers that stick with South Asian voices originating from English rather than languages other than English bear some blame. And I’m all for non-traditional publishing platforms: any smart way for writers to reach an audience deserves support. But as much as I wish there were, there isn’t a huge bottleneck of fine translations of terrific authors being shut out. What’s needed more—for Hindi, for all South Asian languages—is a stronger community of translators to be fostered by workshops for South Asian languages modeled on the BCLT Summer School, a meaningful translation prize for works from South Asian languages, and for South Asian publishers to reach out, German Book Office style, to US- and UK-based publishers and editors. These would be great steps in the right direction. It’s also important to recognize that right now, independent voices and thinkers and writers who don’t conform to the ideologically driven right-wing powers-that-be are being targeted throughout the subcontinent. Writers are being murdered and books banned. Just this month, the Prime Minister of India spoke at the World Hindi Conference, where the hot topic was the “purification” of Hindi: eliminating Perso-Arabic (and English) words that, for them, “pollute” the language. The need now is more urgent than ever. 

Published Sep 23, 2015   Copyright 2015 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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