Skip to content
Help us bring a world of writing to readers in 2022. Give now.

The Translator Relay: Vivek Narayanan

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. 

For November’s installment, Jeffrey Yang passed the baton to poet, translator, and editor Vivek Narayanan.

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

Sanskrit is undeniably an elite, upper caste language—lower castes were sometimes punished for knowing it, that is the harsh truth. As a Brahmin child, I memorized some of its liturgical poetry; as an adult I tried to get as far away as possible. Yet the inkling of a few truly great poets—Valmiki, Vijjika, Asvaghosa, Māgha, and so on—and the wonderful possibility of translation as a kind of argument with the original pulled me back in. Interestingly, there is a tradition in Indian English poetry of this latter kind of “questioning translation”—right from Toru Dutt in the nineteenth century through A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and so on. You get the sense that in each of these cases the translator works not to be an area specialist or expert but to secretly explore, in the writing, some essential questions about their own divided—or multiplied—selves. Finally, you could say that I read the Ramayana to learn Sanskrit, and not the other way around.

Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

One obvious—or perhaps not so obvious—word would be “dharma.” The word survives, I think, not because it can’t be explained in English or is somehow ineffable to the Western spirit, but because it hides several different meanings, a whole history of vigorous disputes, evolving conceptions of the state and the self, and so on. On the whole, however, I do feel skeptical about the idea of “untranslatable” words—isn’t every language a system, isn’t translation about movement and not verbal equivalence?

Do you have any translating rituals? 

Nothing better than memorizing a verse of the original . . . ?

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?

I like the idea of translation as soul-fusion technology. It demonstrably results in the fusion of souls—including the writer’s and translator’s—but I say “technology” in the sense of “techne.” It can be eked out.

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

I’m drowning in Valmiki right now—when I make it out, I’ll let you know!

(Jeffrey’s question for you) Vivek, you’re working on a new translation of the Ramayana. How do you keep madness at bay? Are there any books, translated or otherwise, that serve as models in your mind, as inspiration for how you’ve approached your translation?

The Ramayana itself has a fascinating history of translators who rewrite it—at least 300 in written form, by one count, though that’s surely a gross underestimate. When you read, for instance, Kamban (Tamil) or Tulsidas (Hindi), you can see that they’ve studied Valmiki very, very closely, and revere him—and yet, they’re happy to amplify, cut, nuance, or outright invent scenes. Each translator of the Ramayana is also revealed as a reader of it. Maybe that’s true elsewhere in the world until about the nineteenth century, who knows. Gavin Douglas’ Aeneid! Moving to contemporary poetry in English, of course Christopher Logue’s War Music was an early inspiration for this project, and I still go back to it; but now it’s mostly all in Pound’s Cantos (translation as central to his figure). That may not be a very good way to keep madness at bay, but let’s see.

Vivek Narayanan’s two full-length books of poems are Universal Beach and Life and Times of Mr S. His honors include fellowships in poetry at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University and at the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library. A collection of his selected poems was published in Swedish in 2015 by the Stockholm-based Wahlström & Widstrand. He is coeditor of Almost Island, a nine-year-old India-based journal, literary organization, and publisher.

Published Dec 1, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.