translation

Writing beyond English: The Challenges of Inventing Non-English Worlds in English-Language Novels

World Literature Today has published my observations on what it meant for me to invent a Tamil world in English in my most recent novel Ghost in the Tamarind. Language, politics, translation–the essay touches on these and other challenges. “Writing beyond English” started as a presentation at this year’s AWP, so a shout-out to my most exemplary co-panelits Nandi Odhiambo, Stephanie Han, Samrat Upadhyay, and Peter Kimani.

You can find the essay here.

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The Fantasy of Translation: SynTalk Podcast

Sharing information about a podcast on translation for which I was in Mumbai last week. I got to talk about translation in the context of my work as a novelist (including how do you write in English about communities that don’t function in English as in GHOST IN THE TAMARIND?), as a translator from Tamil and as a scholar with my fabulous fellow guests poet and translator from Urdu and Marathi Mustansir Dalvi and philosopher of science and language Sundar Sarukkai. It was nice to be able to bring together questions of craft/ technique and theoretical issues with them and the superb host Rajat.
 
SynTalk is an amazing project helmed by the dynamic Rajat and Jyoti. They have over a hundred episodes focused on concepts. The approach is interdisciplinary and engaging. And they are based in Mumbai! I recommend the series highly–you can find them on Soundcloud and WordPress.
And you can find the “Fantasy of Translation” episode here.

Love is Just a Word, and Related Notions from a Life between Languages

A key moment in South African writer Nadine Gordimer’s extraordinary novel July’s People depicts the white protagonist Maureen as she is confronted by her black “houseboy” July. Maureen has been displaced from her privilege by violence accompanying the (imagined) end to apartheid. Without warning, July, so re-christened years before by his employers, uses his new found freedom to talk at her in his own language, making Maureen realize with sudden shock her utter ignorance regarding vast areas of July’s life. Instantly, Mwawate, for that is July’s true name, is transformed from transparent familiarity to opaque difference. Maureen is forced to recognize she hardly knows him, that she is only dimly aware of his fears and desires. Language becomes a powerful marker of the chasmic differences between them.

Those of us who, like Mwawate, have lived our lives between languages will recognize this scene. Our conditions may not be as dire as that of Mwawate and Maureen at the end of apartheid, but we will relate to the sense with which Gordimer leaves us at the end of the scene—that languages are freighted with emotions, histories, and ideologies that have their own autonomy, that what we feel and who we are are not separate from the language(s) in which we feel and have our being.

I am not a language relativist—a votary of the notion that languages are irrevocably different. I wouldn’t translate (as I have) if I was; however, while linguistic differences may not be insurmountable, neither will it do to pretend that such differences are inconsequential. Do we envy or pity in the same way in all the languages? Do we laugh in German the way we do in Tamil? Or love in English the way we do in Hindi? How, for example, might this unforgettable Hindi love song from Guide translate into English?

Is the “love” expressed here in Mohammed Rafi’s inimitable voice accessible to non-Hindi speakers? I know I can explain in English, translate if you will, what I feel in this song in Hindi, and that is significant indeed; at the same time explanation and feeling are quite different, aren’t they?

Enough said—love, like hate, is no more and no less than a word. And owning that fact, as Gordimer shows us, is the very opposite of dismissing the significance of love.