Geetanjali Shree, author of the novel Ret Samadhi was in conversation with two of her translators, discussing the nuances and setbacks of the work of the translator.

On Monday, the Barnard College Translation Studies Program and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society celebrated the publication of Aftab Ahmad’s Urdu translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand). The members of the panel included the author of Ret Samadhi herself, Ahmad, who is a Senior Language Lecturer in Hindi and Urdu in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, and Daisy Rockwell, a painter and award-winning translator of Hindi and Urdu literature who translated Ret Samadhi into English. Shree and Rockwell are co-winners of the 2022 International Booker Prize for Translated Fiction.

Rockwell started off the event with a lighthearted anecdote of the first time she met Ahmad at UC Berkeley and the extraordinary experience of visiting Rockwell’s favorite Urdu writer in their own porch and suddenly being unable to speak Urdu. Although this was a playful story, Rockwell and Ahmad also pointed out that it exemplifies the complicated state of Urdu in India, since they had to go to the writer’s own house to acquire a book in Urdu instead of being able to buy it at a bookstore.

Then, the three panelists talked about the journey of translation and their personal take on what it is that “lies between” in this process. Rockwell said that “translation is the journey that you take between two houses,” and although the reader can only see the houses—the book in its original language and the translated book—translators can see the whole road. 

For her part, Shree said of translation that “it is the process, it is the bridge, it is the road—a place of dialogue, a place of misunderstanding, a place of miscommunication.” Shree also talked about another in between: the translation of trying to carry what is in the writer’s imagination into the written work. She also discussed her relationship with her two translators, Rockwell and Ahmad, and said that “the kinds of questions all good translators ask are terrible for the writer.” She accompanied this with a reflection on the role of the translator as someone who makes the writer have to research themselves in order to answer why they wrote what they wrote and what they meant by it.

Ahmad shared that his “in between” as a translator had been the methodology and approach to translation, which, despite being a mostly word-to-word process translating from Hindi to Urdu, required a lot of creativity. He talked about striving to remain faithful and respectful to the original text and provided a few examples of when he resisted the impulse to add punctuation in order to maintain the eccentricity and ambiguity of the original. Ahmad jokingly stated that translating this book had been easier than reading it, in reference to its unusual formatting, punctuation, and use of odd sounds. He made the audience chuckle when he shared a few examples of words which had been a problem to translate, but upon finding the solution he “even [felt] that this was better than the original.”

Throughout the panel, Rockwell and Ahmad showed the audience yet another kind of collaboration between them: a presentation of multiple of Rockwell’s paintings which incorporated Ahmad’s translations into Urdu. The three panelists also did trilingual readings of many of the poems featured in Rockwell’s paintings, such as Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken,” and Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”

“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens

They wrapped up the event with audience questions and a reading in Hindi, Urdu, and English of an excerpt from Ret Samadhi about “mechanical words” that become magical, which contained heavy alliteration. Rockwell and Shree explained their choice of excerpt as wanting the audience to grasp how the different sounds of a language can change the feel of a text. This passage elucidated one of the themes brought up continuously in this panel: the fact that “a language can impose a gaze on the text you’re translating.”

All Images via Author