'Tomb of Sand' – And Why There is No Such Thing as 'Untranslatibility'

Translation has always been the bridge between stories tethered to their regions of origin and world literature.

Art and Culture
4 min read
Hindi Female

Last year, when novelist David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, won the International Booker Prize, the cover of the novel did not feature the name of the translator. Although the £50,000 prize money was shared with the translator, the recognition seemed lacklustre.

This year, things looked different. As Geetanjali Shree's Ret Samadhitranslated as Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell – was awarded the 2022 International Booker Prize, every edition of the book featured the names of both women on its cover, making the win a beginning in many ways – be it for the triumph of an Indian language, or the delayed recognition that its translator is getting across the world.

The Hesitancy Towards Translations

Though the award, which shares the £50,000 prize money with both the translator and writer, was always reflective of rightly recognising translators, the visibility, acceptance, and circulation of literary translations still has a long way to go.

In an interview with Barnard College scholar Kena Chavva for the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, Booker awardee Daisy Rockwell had expressed that often translated works are regarded as 'risky' or 'niche'.

"It’s not just that the translators’ names aren’t on the cover. Sometimes you actually have to look on the copyright page of a book to see if it was translated. You can’t even tell. They think that readers don’t like that, or are scared of translation," Rockwell said.

Translation has always been the bridge between stories tethered to their regions of origin and the wider cannon of world literature, but only a few works of literature manage to make that journey.

Jenny Bhatt, a writer, literary translator and the founder of Desi Books, told The Quint, "Outside of India, it’s not just our translated works that suffer in terms of visibility, demand, and recognition when compared to European and even East Asian languages. I believe that even South Asian literature written in English doesn’t get its due unless the book is either – a) confirming the expected biases, stereotypes, and tropes about South Asian countries or b) conforming to western literary traditions and approaches. And, of course, our translated works from the Indian languages are often neither of the above."


International Booker & the Significance of 'Ret Samadhi'

The International Booker Prize is awarded to a work of fiction from around the world that is English or has been translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. In this form, it was awarded for the first time in 2016.

Tomb of Sand, which was published by the Tilted Axis Press (run by translator Deborah Smith), marks a turning point in the world of Hindi literature, and by extension the literature of other Indian languages.

This is precisely what Shree also lay emphasis upon in her acceptance speech at the prize ceremony in London, when she said that "behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi and in other South Asian languages."

She continued, "World literature will be richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages."

While many would believe Ret Samadhi's recognition a long overdue feat for Hindi literature, one that obviously adds to the landscape of global literary tradition, one of the most prolific Indian translators, Arunava Sinha, stresses that "we have to celebrate the book".

"The main thing is that a fantastic book like this actually held its own against some of the finest and best-known writers in the world and translators from established languages, and won," Sinha told The Quint.

For a Hindi-speaking reader, Ret Samadhi seems so interlaced with memories and traditions of northern India, and so dependent on the Hindi language itself, that one might not falter to ask if it can ever be translated. If it is untranslatable.

But this is exactly why Tomb of Sand is worthy of the recognition, says Sinha. He says,

"I think there is no such thing as untranslatibility. Tomb of Sand is a perfect example of that fact."

The Myth of 'Untranslatibility'

Jenny Bhatt also holds that "everything is translatable".

"I think more in terms of “easily translatable” vs “not easily translatable” instead of “untranslatability.” In the end, everything is translatable, just not in any single perfect way," Bhatt states.

Even in the universe of transposing texts, this may be something that experts differ on. In his conversation with The Quint, poet, author and translator Dr Hemang Ashwinkumar explains that his journey with translations has been a challenging one.

"Personally, my journey with translations has been very arduous as I have translated between Gujarati and English, the two languages which are marked by spatio-temporal separation and in love-hate relationship because of the experience of colonisation," he says.

And this is why translation is as much about an "opportunity of creation".

However, Dr Ashwinkumar stresses that this is not to say that one should be dissuaded from such an undertaking, but in fact encourages us to arrive at a maxim – that "the more we respect and celebrate difference, the more prosperous we would be."

Besides, literature, and great works of art communicate something much more vast than their medium, something universal. As Bhatt states, "There’s far too much found in translation than lost."

This is what Sinha, too, expounds in his response to the question of untranslatibility. He says, "Literature doesn't work only at the level of the individual word, right? It works at the level of music, sound, silences, what is unsaid. That's how literature works, and that's what translation aims to reproduce."


A Hopeful 'Coming of Age' of the Indian Publishing Industry

So far, we have gotten a glimpse into the conflict, the discovery, and the urgency that lies at the heart of literary translations, but why has it taken the world so long to recognise Indian literature beyond just what the English language presents it to be.

After Tomb of Sand, India literature in the west may mean more than just books written in English, says Sinha, but western society may not be the only one which has opened itself to this revelation.

"Why can't we have our own publishing programmes for readers of the world? So why aren't our publishers ambitious enough to say we'll publish you in India and abroad?" is the question that Sinha poses.

Dr Ashwinkumar, meanwhile, expresses, "This breakthrough event should mark “the coming of age” of Indian publishing industry involved in bringing out English translations... I fervently hope that industry will commission more translations and offer better deals to translators."

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Topics:  literature   Translation   tomb of sand 

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