Pavan N. Rao is an Engineer based in Wisconsin, USA with broad interests in Kannada and English Literature. Active in the Kannada literary and arts scene in the city of Milwaukee where he lives with wife Anu and children Prajwal and Sanjana, he has translated many Kannada stories to English. He has recently translated the novel “Hijab” by Guruprasad Kaginele from Kannada to English. He believes that good writing cuts across linguistic and cultural barriers and its prime function is to enhance our awareness of the human condition. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about translating the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award winning novel “Hijab”, the current state of translations from Kannada to English, and his favourite works in translation.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Bengaluru, Karnataka. I’m an Engineer by profession, currently working out of the United States. I have a passion and interest for literature, especially Indian writing in English as well as vernacular Kannada literature.
First off, what languages are you fluent in?
English, Kannada and some Hindi.
How did you get started in literary translation?
I was first approached to translate short stories from Jayant Kaikini’s Sahitya Academy award winning Kannada short-story collection ‘Amritha Balli Kashaya’, which was published in English as ‘Dots and Lines’. Later on, I have translated several of Guruprasad Kaginele’s short stories.
Please tell us more about your translation oeuvre.
My translation oeuvre spans from short stories to some non-fiction to novels. All from Kannada to English.
Besides “Hijab” and Jayant Kaikini’s short stories, I have also translated Poornachandra Tejaswi’s ‘Tabarana kathe’ (unpublished) and Guruprasad Kaginele’s ‘Nobody’s Business’ (featured in the anthology ‘A little taste of Kannada’ published by Kannada Sahithya Ranga, USA.)
Can you talk to us a little about the process of building a bridge and segueing between Kannada and English? What is the relationship between the two languages like?
Any translation from a vernacular Indian language regardless of whether it is Kannada or any other, presents the translator with three main challenges.
One, the technical challenges of grammar, syntax and some linguistic differences. Two — the voice — since it is usually informed by the milieu it is set in and the original author’s story telling that is almost always informed by that voice and three, the idioms that are unique to the vernacular. This being said, the relationship and building a bridge successfully comes down to the translator addressing these challenges by being faithful to the original without compromising on the narrative strength of the original, while being cognizant of the English reader (Indian or Western) and his/her relative ignorance of the original language. In that sense a translation can stand as an independent work on its own.
What was it, exactly, that attracted you to translating the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award winning novel “Hijab”? Describe your experiences of delving into the prose of this book, both as a reader and as a translator. What challenges did this book’s translation pose?
There is a well-known quote from the iconic Black American writer Toni Morrison where she says that, ‘Americans in America means white Americans. Everybody else has to hyphenate.’ In that sense Hijab is a novel of hyphens. There are Asian-Indian-Americans, Sanghaala-Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Caucasians and so on. Upon reading the book it immediately became apparent to me that as a translator I have to address these hyphenated voices and the interests that they represent.
In addition, I have tried to bring the idioms and the flavour of the original Kannada writing to the readers whose first language is English. I have deployed language that is close to a Western reader while trying to be responsible to the original work. Guruprasad’s languid, elliptical prose lends a lot of credibility to this landscape of shared cacophony. Having known his writing for a long time, this book challenged me to bring the nuances of his narration. It has been a labour of joy for me.
How long did it take for you to translate this book? Was the project a close collaboration with the author, or did you more or less work on it on your own?
It took roughly about 8 months to translate the novel. This included some time collaborating with the writer- the time factors in discussions, email exchanges and other sundry chats.
What were some of the most rewarding aspects of translating “Hijab”?
As I have mentioned before, Hijab is a novel of hyphenated voices set in Midwestern United States. There is quite a bit of angst in places and situations that involve cross border migration in open societies like America. The most rewarding aspect for me was to render this angst as well as in the original work, without losing its engaging story telling.
What are your favourite portions in this book?
There are several. The chapters on Kuki are especially potent in the way the cultural clash of values is shown in relief.
What do you think about the current state of translation from Kannada to English, and vice versa?
I would say that while there is a good amount of translated output from Kannada to English, especially from writers from the Indian diaspora, the jury is still out on the quality of that output.
Who are some of the translators whose work you admire?
Among the great classicists, I have admired A. K. Ramanujan. He is a doyen and trailblazer of sorts in Kannada-English translation, and then there are the contemporary translators like Prof. Narayan Hegde and M.S. Nataraj who have been widely recognized.
And what are some works in translation you’ve read and loved recently – or ones you’re looking forward to reading this year?
The one book that comes to mind right away is Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar’. The book has been widely received to massive critical acclaim by both Kannada and non-Kannada reading public. A big chunk of the credit should also go to Srinath Perur, who has translated the book to English.
Are there any literary projects that you’re presently working on?
Nothing specific yet. But yes, there may be some literary projects in the pipeline in the future.
This article is the second in a series of interviews featuring literary translators translating from and into different languages.