An Ode to a Translator

My mother was the daughter of a popular and gregarious college lecturer. They lived on the college premises in Pune. The first 20-22 years of her life were spent in a bustling household with at least 12 permanent members. These were also the first 20-22 years of Independent India, a young nation full of hope.

My grandfather had friends in every walk of life, and his house was a hub for excited discussions, even arguments. Dreams took shape in the living room, and projects were proposed for a newly independent people. The whole family participated, as did my mother. There was never much time for her mind to rest.

Then she fell in love and got married to a young civil engineer. They moved into a two-room house in the camp on a construction site in Marathwada. He was building an aqueduct on a small river, and the camp was about 20-25 miles from the nearest telegraph office.

The walls of her house were made of brick till the height of her waist, and of wicker above. In afternoons, narrow rays of sunlight entered through the gaps in the roof tiles. The bathroom was just a small cubicle in the kitchen. A watchman brought in two buckets of water twice a day to be used for washing and cooking. A cupboard for food stood with each leg resting in a bowl of water to prevent ants and other insects from entering it.

The hardest change though was the silence. The only person capable of forming five grammatically correct sentences was her husband, and most of his day was spent at the construction site.

What could she do to employ her mind?

My mother was pregnant at the time. One evening, while watching fireflies glide in and out of the open window, she came to a decision. She got up and found her pen and a notebook, and in the light of a polished kerosene lantern she began to translate Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Both my parents loved the book, and had bought it as a wedding gift. Translating it into Marathi was not easy; my mother had not done much serious writing in that language. Though her mother tongue was Marathi, her degree was in English literature.

The ambience of the story was alien too, and the nuances were bound to be lost. Still, she would translate it for her children, she thought, and they would read the original later.

Laboriously, she worked on the first few chapters before her life was taken over by the new baby. Years passed, my father’s work took them to other camp sites. As new members got added to the family, Scout and Jem took a backseat in my mother’s life.

The first we kids heard of To Kill a Mockingbird was on a hot summer afternoon in Nagpur. There were six of us cousins who often spent summer holidays together. Afternoons in May were always made more complicated by the scorching heat that trapped us inside the house.

To keep a restless group of children entertained, my mother offered to read us something. I must have been 10 or 11 and remember that afternoon clearly. She read the first chapter to us, closed her notebook and looked up. Our excited and expectant looks made her open the notebook again and read the next chapter, and the next.

And then she stopped. That’s all she had in there, she said, only the first three chapters.

We were devastated. This was real torture, we told her. She should never have started, when she knew she wasn’t done with the whole book. Our complaints and demands went on for hours. Finally, come dinnertime, she promised to start translating again.

Also read: The Fixer

The next few months were some of the most wonderful and exciting ones of my childhood. My mother taught at college in the mornings, translated in the afternoons, and read to us in the evenings. Every evening was full of anticipation as the whole family gathered around her after dinner.

Listening to the story, we laughed and cried, and we got angry and we got worried. We were surprised that the people in Scout’s world were much like those in our own. We renamed our neighbours, and we asked our father if we could address him by his Christian name. We were also frustrated to find that Harper Lee had written only one book.

One thing this translation did for us was it made us want more. It made us want to read, and to read English. It made us want to know the history of this place Scout and Jem came from, and if the treatment of the black people was any different now. We learnt about the civil rights movement. We, who disliked history in school, were asking to know history without realising it.

Then I grew up, stopped asking uncomfortable questions and stopped crying at the unfairness of the world. And yes, I read the original book a few times and watched the movie too. But even today, on that silver screen behind my eyes, Scout Finch makes all her arguments in Marathi. All the gossip in the little town of Maycomb, Alabama is exchanged in pure Marathi, and though I loved the gentlemanly, pot-bellied Gregory Peck in the movie, in my mind’s eye, Atticus Finch always delivers his extraordinary soliloquy in my own mother’s tongue.

The history of translation is probably as old as the history of humankind. Traders took their languages around the world and brought home new ones. The teachings of Buddha and Jesus and Mohammad reached every corner of the world. Huen Tsang took books from India to China, and we read Tolstoy and Dumas in the language of Shakespeare.

That is what translation can do. That is what translation does. It brings people closer; makes the world smaller. Yes, there may be something lost, but it’s nothing compared to what is gained.

A Marathi publication, Jyotsna Prakashan, has started translating Iranian stories for children such as The Tiger Who Wanted To Be A Cat by Jamshid Sepahi. These books also have beautiful illustrations by the Iranian artists. I can’t stress enough the importance and need of such projects. Many children, by choice or by necessity, attend vernacular schools. Many prefer one particular language for communication. They too love stories and books, and pine for a peek into a new world. For them, translations provide a window.

Growing up, I worshipped B.R. Bhagwat, a great translator and story teller in Marathi. He gave us Jaichi Navalkahani (Alice in Wonderland), Arasenagarit Jai (Through the Looking Glass) and Ajab Deshat (Wizard of Oz).

He gave us access to The Count of Monte Cristo (Kaidyacha Khajina) and Treasure Island (Khajinyachya Betawar).

From other translators, we got The Gold Bug (Soneri Bhunga, by S.R. Devle) and Little Women (Choughijani, by Shanta Shelke) in Marathi. We knew all about Jules Verne and his contribution to the world of imagination and science.

This treasure trove was made available to us by the translators in a language we could follow. They were our heroes.

My mother’s translation of To Kill a Mockingbird may never get published, and that’s a great misfortune of Marathi-reading, Marathi-speaking children. There are strict rules of copyright.

Still, books do come out of the copyright restrictions, and sometimes publishers are not too stubborn. I appeal to those who can create an atmosphere of wonder on paper to search for books that will add to the world of a child or an adult. They will have our eternal gratitude.

Narmada Khare is a student and a teacher, a reader and a writer. And she likes all things biology.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty