India Currents readers who have engaged with my book reviews over the past three decades know that I love to discover a new voice. The fun here is that we get to discover an old voice (Dhumketu’s) and a new one (Dhumketu’s translator). Upon completing my review of The Shehnai Virtuoso, I looked forward to a spirited back-and-forth with the “Translator Virtuoso,” Jenny Bhatt.
IC: Before we dive into this marvelous short story collection, can you tell our readers about your life outside of writing fiction?
JB: Home is a tricky concept for diasporans. I was born and raised in India, left as a teenager for the UK, worked across the UK and Europe, then moved to the US and lived in various parts of this country. In 2014, I moved back to India for nearly six years after decades of being away. Home is not about a physical place so much as it is about people.
With respect to translation: I grew up multilingual and continue to be so at home. So translation is a vital way of being. I translate to uplift and celebrate different literary traditions beyond the dominant western ones; to recover and reclaim our literary lineages.
IC: Have you lived in all the settings of your fiction? Are your characters modeled after people you have known?
Jenny: With my own fiction, yes, I’ve lived in almost all of the settings I included in my story collection, Each of Us Killers. But I’ve also written historical fiction about times and places where I have not lived. I certainly do a ton of research so I can imaginatively inhabit the settings I’m writing about, even if only a fraction of the details I’ve gathered will ever make it into the story.
I don’t believe any writer creates characters completely from their imagination. There are always going to be parts of people we know—including our own selves—in our fictional characters. The question is how we choose to portray them and why.
I teach creative writing workshops at Writing Workshops Dallas and I push my students to resist the same old stereotypes and tropes when they’re writing about a particular culture. There’s a thing called #MangoDiscourse in desi or South Asian fiction writing, which I’ve become acutely sensitized to over the years as a reader, writer, and book critic. I wrote about it at Desi Books last year.
IC: Your newsletter is called “We Are All Translators.” Can you expand on that?
JB: To quote Ken Liu: “Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.” An emotion or idea goes from sensation to emotion or thought to words and, already, it’s been translated many times over.
Growing up in multilingual Bombay, translation was as natural as breathing. We spoke Gujarati at home, Hindi and Marathi with people around us, and English at school. Our neighbors spoke Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Bangla, Kutchi, Sindhi, Parsi, and more. Every act of reading is an act of translating whatever the author had intended into our own meanings based on all the contexts and experiences we bring to bear on the text. So, yes, we are all translators and some of us get extra training and do it for a profession.
IC: Have you read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Translating Myself and Others? She says: “All translation must be regarded first and foremost as a metamorphosis: a radical, painful, and miraculous transformation in which specific traits and elements are shed and others are newly obtained.”
JB: Yes, I’ve read it. That particular quote applies just as well to any kind of creative writing, not just literary translation, no? If we approach our creative writing in the right manner, it will transform us. In one of Dhumketu’s stories in this collection, he talks about how, as the artist creates their artwork, the artwork also re-creates or transforms the artist.
IC: In my review of Lahiri’s book, I proposed substituting “All migration” for “All translation.” Given your peripatetic life, what do you make of this?
JB: Yes, migration, even when it is a displacement at will, is transformative and can be a metamorphosis. Assimilation requires that we let go of some aspects of our lives and values and take on others. Yet, there are people who seem to assimilate wonderfully in their new home countries but don’t really change their innate value systems and are, sometimes, blind to the values of the society around them. We all know folks like that, right?
So migration as a metamorphosis can only be “a radical, painful, and miraculous transformation” if we have the self-awareness and sensitivity to know what to let go of, what to hang on to, and what to adopt or take on. This is a lifelong art and craft in itself.
IC: What inspired you to translate Dhumketu’s collection? Any concerns?
JB: Dhumketu was my mother’s favorite Gujarati writer. In her small personal library, she had collected all of his fiction: 26 volumes of his short story collections and the nearly 30 or so novels. After she passed away, I began translating some of her favorite Dhumketu stories for my American nephews and nieces. It was a way for all of us to connect with her again.
The first concern was due to the temporal distance because some of these stories were written almost a hundred years ago. So I was concerned about the inevitable difficulties with colloquial Gujarati and rural dialects that we don’t even get to hear today.
The second concern I had was whether the stories would resonate enough with me so that I could immerse myself well enough into their language intricacies, plots, characters, and themes.
The third main concern was that, as much as it was a privilege and an honor to translate a great Gujarati litterateur, I didn’t lose the musicality and lyricism that he, as someone who loved the Gujarati language, worked hard to make a part of his craft. Still, I hope that readers can “hear” the Gujarati underlying the English in my translation.
IC: Your thoughts about Dhumketu’s relevance to the modern reader?
JB:Dhumketu’s themes of social inequalities due to gender, class, caste, religion, language, migration, etc. are timeless. That said, he was a man of his time with certain privileges. As self-enlightened as he was, like the rest of us, he also had his blind spots.
As a translator, I did not want to whitewash or sanitize anything for today’s readers.
IC: In the short story, “The Shehnai Virtuoso,” you magnificently rendered the image of the father’s hand on his blind son’s hand; it has immediacy, conveying the silencing of the son’s shehnai. Are there any other images from this book that have staying power for you?
JB:Oh, there are many.
One scene is from the historical story about the medieval courtesan, Amrapali, in “Tears of the Soul.” The opening scene is a crowd scene with the kingdom’s elders (all men) gathering to discuss what to do about this obstinate woman. Then, she makes this grand appearance and I remember being absolutely delighted with it when translating it even though I’ve heard/read the scene (even watched a movie version of it) many times. I could easily pick at least one such striking scene from every single story in the collection.