Discover the shortlist: Daisy Rockwell, ‘I think of the translator and the author as ballroom dancers’

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Daisy Rockwell is translator of Tomb of Sand.

She details the rich and diverse world of South Asian literature and the liberation she feels while experimenting with language.

Daisy Rockwell

Written by Daisy Rockwell

How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker – an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win?

It’s wonderful! The translation universe within South Asia is huge and rich. There are many, many talented translators bringing literature into English and also translating between various South Asian languages. Very little of that work is ever published outside of the region, so I’m excited that we can bring a taste of that to the greater world with this tremendous recognition.

What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find translating fiction in particular?

In some senses, I was trained as a translator from a young age, because I started learning Latin when I was around twelve, and was deeply immersed in reading and translating Latin all the way through high school. I started studying Hindi in college, and developed an interest in translating Hindi specifically because of a translation exercise our teacher put to us when I was a senior in college. It took many more years for me to actually start in earnest, but the seeds were there from the start. I have never translated non-fiction—it simply doesn’t interest me. I am also an artist, and translating fiction has a deeply creative side, because you must bring forward the way a work ‘feels,’ something beyond a mechanical reproduction of words and sentences.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

In third grade, our teacher told us we would be creating a ‘book worm’ around the classroom. Every time someone finished a book, they would get an oval segment, made of coloured construction paper, and they would write their name and something about the book. In this way, the worm would continue to grow around the room the more we read. A few months in, I read Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. The book is hundreds of pages long and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, but when I was handed my little worm segment, I felt somehow cheated that my enormous book would end up as just one more link in the chain! I guess my love of long books developed very early.

What did you enjoy most about translating Tomb of Sand?  What did you find most challenging?

For the most part, I have translated mid-twentieth-century classics of Hindi and Urdu literature. Tomb of Sand was my first truly contemporary translation. This was great fun for me because I am usually constrained in my use of language—I need to avoid modern slang and anachronisms, for example. But for this book I could use words like ‘dude,’ and other slangy expressions. It was liberating, in a way. But at the same time, the book was also one of the most difficult I have ever translated because of the experimental nature of Geetanjali’s writing and her unique use of language. There’s a particular passage in which she compares the human brain to a jalebi (a curly Indian sweet). I have honestly never translated such a difficult passage before. Geetanjali and I exchanged numerous emails about it; we probably discussed every single sentence, often multiple times. In the midst of this process, I suddenly had a revelation: if I managed to translate the passage successfully, it would come across as breezy and fun! And that’s an interesting aspect of translation—the ‘difficult’ passages are not necessarily the ones a reader might identify as such.

Daisy Rockwell

But this is always what I tell people when they express anxiety about reading such a long book: In Hindi, it was half the size, so it really isn’t as long as it looks!

Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?

Sometimes it’s useful for translators to read from related genres in English while translating a work, because it helps nail down the style. While I was working on Tomb of Sand, I felt that contemporary African writing in English was helpful. I read The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell, which resonated with what I was trying to do. I also felt echoes of Salman Rushdie and G.V. Desani when the writing was coming into English. Throughout the book, Geetanjali references many great Hindi and Urdu authors, as well as other Indian authors who write in various other languages. I felt their presence by my side, especially the late Hindi author Krishna Sobti, to whom the book is dedicated, and whom we both greatly admired, Intezar Hussain (Urdu), Paul Zacharaiah (Malayalam), Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Sa’adat Hasan Manto (Urdu). There is one surrealistic chapter late in the book when many of the great authors who wrote about the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan assemble at the border checkpoint between the two countries, and Geetanjali quotes directly from their books. This was particularly fun for me, as I had actually translated some of those books, so I could directly quote from my own translations.

What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?

Translators love metaphors for what they do; there’s even a metaphor implicit in this question: marriage! But really marriage sounds too permanent. Lately, I like to think of the translator and the author as ballroom dancers. The author is Fred Astaire, and the translator is Ginger Rogers. The translator must follow the author’s lead, but do everything backwards, in high heels. If the translator is successful, the author will receive great accolades for his mastery and innovation, and the translator will flash a dazzling smile and cling to the author’s arm.

Tell us a lesser-known fact about you.

I painted the cover image for the Indian edition of Tomb of Sand. I had previously done the same for the cover of my translation A Gujarat here, a Gujarat there, by Krishna Sobti, so my editor asked me to do this cover as well. Geetanjali didn’t take to it right away, but then it grew on her so much that she asked if it could be on the cover of the re-issue of the Hindi original. The Indian publisher was not keen on that, so instead, I painted a new image for the Hindi edition. Both feature the main character in the novel, Ma, but I based the portraits on photographs of the Hindi author Krishna Sobti, whose influence can be felt in the character, as well as in both of our writing styles (and who briefly shows up in person in the book).

And an interesting fact about the book.

The Hindi edition of the book is 384 pages. The English version is 739! I knew it would come out longer, because whenever I translate, the English is always about 20% longer (a figure my friend and fellow translator Mahmud Rahman came up with for Bangla, but I’ve found to be correct for Hindi as well). I had also inserted page breaks between chapters, and Tilted Axis [Press, the publisher] uses a small page format, but I still was not prepared to see it mushroom to twice the original size. But this is always what I tell people when they express anxiety about reading such a long book: In Hindi, it was half the size, so it really isn’t as long as it looks!

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

There have been so many! But since we’re on the topic of Hindi literature, I’ll choose the epic novel Jhutha Sach, by Yashpal (translated by his son, Anand, and published under the title This is not that Dawn, by Penguin India). Jhutha Sach was the first full-length Hindi novel I ever read. It’s about a thousand pages, in two volumes, and follows the life of a young Hindu woman from Lahore, who is abducted during the Partition in 1947, and later comes to India as a refugee. The writing isn’t difficult, but my vocabulary was weak, and I was using the book as an exercise to build up my vocabulary base. My Hindi professor, the late Colin P Masica, had assigned it for the purpose of teaching us rapid reading (which is a different skill from typical language learning). I had an elaborate system for memorizing high frequency words, but the gripping plot was what kept me going. And it worked! After that, I was able to read rapidly and proficiently. I felt so accomplished when I was done. I sort of wished I was still in third grade, so I could fill out a bookworm segment and tape it to the wall.

What book haven’t you finished?

I’m sorry to say there are many of these. I’m not the sort of person to power through to the end if I can’t get into a book. But the one that my husband will never forgive me for was Anna Karenina. I was appalled to see that after our heroine flings herself on the train tracks and expires, the book just keeps going! And the rest of it is all this stuff about agrarian policies and such. I decided the story I had been reading had come to an end, but my husband, who would never abandon a book even if he loathed it, was disgusted.