“Translations are important for disseminating your work far and wide”

says Geetanjali Shree, winner of International Booker Prize 2022, in conversation with Varsha Verma.

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Geetanjali Shree needs no introduction. She won the International Booker Prize in 2022 for her book Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand). She is the author of 5 novels, 5 short story collections, many articles in English and in Hindi. Her work has been translated into English, French, German, Serbian and Korean. She also writes for theatre. Born in Mainpur, Tomb of Sand is the first of her books to be published in the UK. She has received and been shortlisted for a number of awards and fellowships, and currently lives in New Delhi.

Here, Geetanjali shares her views on the status of Indian content and more in conversation with Varsha Verma.

On Indian content…

“Indian content is going global but it’s still a picture which needs a lot of improvement. And in fact, over the past years, there was a very minuscule bit of Indian literature that would reach the West. Whatever little there was, it was in English. The generation of R. K. Narayan et al were hardly known abroad. And it was only post Salman Rushdie that suddenly there was some spurt and some popularity to Indian literature in English. But except for a few authors, it was not such that everywhere you can find the profusion of those writers. And in other languages, there was almost nothing. So it’s really been a story down the decades which needs improvement, and compare it to big Western writers. Think of Tolstoy and other great writers from the West or the Victorian literature from the UK, and also from other countries, they have been translated and have become part of the entire world. But that is not the same story with Indian literature,” shares Geetanjali.

“If we go back further and go to our great writers like Tagore and Premchand, even those writers were translated more in English than in other languages of the world. It was because English was a link language in India. These translations were more for India than for abroad,” she adds.

The International Booker Prize win…

“Now, something like the International Booker Prize has certainly made a difference. Suddenly, there is a attention because when somebody gets a big award, then it doesn’t highlight only that one particular work. It also highlights the whole linguistic area, the whole cultural world. Certainly, attention has suddenly increased on the subcontinental literary scene in other languages or other than English languages as well,” she adds.

“But, one award and the attention that it brings in all that hype and moment of euphoria and elation is not enough. It has to sustain. And big publishers from Europe and other countries like Germany, Switzerland, France, etc have shown some interest in contemporary Indian literature in the recent past. It’s usually very small publishers who have taken these initiatives, and they don’t have the wherewithal to really spread the word, and they don’t have those means. They’ve done it more for love than for anything else. As such they’re not earning huge profits out of that and the work is not getting publicized on such a large scale,” shares Geetanjali.

Need of the day…

“What needs to happen is that the big publishers have to take it up in a big way. And only then, there’ll be a real sea change. So one is hopeful. I know that in the US, a huge fund has been granted for translations from South Asia. Suddenly, you can see that there is more interest generated all around and more curiosity, but we have to see how it unfolds over the next years, how much it is sustained, what support it gets, and only then it will be a success story,” hopes Geetanjali.

Think Indian, think global…

“The thing is not just about global; it is about the dissemination of your work as far and wide as possible. It’s not only about going global, it is also about more exchange and more visibility within the Indian scene itself. We don’t know each other’s literature, and whatever little we know, we know through English. What has to happen is that translation has to be given a lot more priority, attention, support, not only in English, but in other Indian languages as well. So we should be able to read each other in our own language. Everything should not be just via English. This has to change. People have to just think so much more seriously about translation as something very important, and translation in many languages. That is what is important. Whether you’re talking of just one country, India, or whether you’re talking of the world, even in the world, it should not only be translation in English, it should be translation in other languages as well,” asserts Geetanjali.

On the quality of translations available in India…

“It is uneven. Like I said, more interest has been generated, and there are some people who are taking it seriously. Now we have translation centers and we have people who are seriously thinking about it, training for it, and so on. But you also have a lot of amateurish translations that go on. You need good training and good application to translate well. We have a lot of bad translations, but we are beginning also to have some good translations. So, it has to become a sustained, serious, and well organized activity,” she opines.

On translations of Ret Samadhi

“My experience of working with Daisy Rockwell was all very good. It was very exhausting but that is an indication of how serious and thorough a person she is. When she’s doing something, she does it with complete involvement. We never met, but we had lots of email exchanges. She was asking and expressing her doubts in detail and I was replying her in detail as well. It was, you can say, very tiring, but it was also very satisfying,” shares Geetanjali.

Interestingly, Ret Samadhi had earlier been translated by French translator Annie Montaut. “She also did a very fine translation, and the experience was very similar with her too. In Daisy’s work, at least, I could have some idea of what she had done but in the French work, I had no idea. But the questions that Annie would ask me, the kind of concerns she had, the way she noticed my play of language and the nuances and the twists and the jokes and everything, that gave me an indication of how deeply immersed she is in the translation and how she would be doing all that in French,” adds Geetanjali. Both the translations took good two years to complete.

On asking about if there any more translations of Ret Samadhi in the pipeline, Geetanjali replies, “Yes, they are going on slowly but it’s not an easy book to translate and more so because it’s in Hindi. Finding good translators from Hindi to other languages in other countries is not easy as they need a translator with good linguistic and translation abilities. Besides, it is not an easy work and it is my desire that as far as possible, a work should be translated from the original piece only unless it is impossible to do it,” she adds.

On asking about her next work, Geetanjali shares that she has been working on a novel.

On International Booker Prize win…

“It is a beautiful thing to have happened and a huge recognition. Booker Awards have sustained their credibility and reputation. Booker is decided with a lot of rigour, fairness, commitment etc and winning the Booker brings instant visibility which brings overnight change in the fate of the book,” concludes Geetanjali.

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