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Lost in Translation—Sitting Down with Deepa Ganesh

Deepa Ganesh works as Deputy Editor at The Hindu, Bangalore. She primarily expresses her love for the English language through translation work. Her book on the doyen of Hindustani music, Gangubai Hangal, ‘A Life in Three Octaves’, has been published by Three Essays. She has served as editor of the Sahitya Academy journal, Aniketana, since 2014. She has translated nearly 25 books for Tulika, a children’s publication.

Tell us about your journey towards getting into translating languages.

I don’t know what made me start, but I’ve always been a student of literature, in the sense that I read Kannada and English as a passion and interest. So at some point I just started translating on my own, it’s not like now when you translate and it gets published, there was no such thing 20 years ago. I used to translate just out of my own interest and then at some point, some of my friends knew I was interested in translation so I started getting small assignments and that’s how it started.

How hard is it to do justice to the nuances of a language while translating literary works? How much gets lost in translation while switching to another language?

Actually, I don’t even think that you can transfer from one language to the other as one understands translation. You’re always trying to recreate it in another language. A lot gets lost in translation because when you say something from Kannada to English, there is really no equivalence because you’re also translating between two cultures. It’s not just a lexical transfer, you’re not looking for an equivalent word but you’re transferring an idea or a thought. The least inaccurate expression I think is what you can hope for in a translation.

Credits: MILAP 2018

You’ve written a book, ‘A Life in Three Octaves’, about Gangubai Hangal, one of the most revered figures in Hindustani music. What made you choose her?

It was very serendipitous. I didn’t choose her, I worked for The Hindu and on the occasion of her 94th birthday, her grandson wrote a letter to the newspaper and said “See, here is the doyen of Hindustani music who has won the highest awards of the country, and don’t you think a national paper like the Hindu and our magazine, Frontline, should write about her?” So my editor called me and put me on the job. I went to Hubli to meet her on her 94th birthday to write for Frontline, and when the article was published, these publishers from Delhi, Three Essays, they wrote to me and said they’d like to write a book on her. And then our editor also said I should do it, so that’s how it came together.

What was it like getting into the headspace to write about a time before you were born while working on her biography?

It wasn’t easy. First of all, in the sense that in my mind, she was a diva. I had always seen her on stage, with her androgynous voice and power and her music was larger than life. But when I went to meet her at 94, she was diminished in size and the glory of her golden years had faded. It was very difficult for me to come to terms with the Gangubai i had seen and imagined onstage and the Gangubai I was meeting. That was the first struggle that I had to face.

The second thing is, as you said, I was born into a world of modernity and I had my own baggage of feminism, women’s rights, freedom and at that time there was a woman who came from the devdasi community, and very quietly and doggedly, great sense of conviction and determination had closed the doors of her past for her future generations. It was a very humbling and a re-learning experience. I think she changed my perception about life and everything moving forward.

The cover of ‘A Life in Three Octaves’

In the description of your book, you also said that Gangubai’s life and music are inseparable from each other, so do you feel like it’s always essential to know about the life of a musician before listening to their work?

No, not really. In my case, it was imperative because I set out to write about her and so knowing about her life was very important to me. And also because I simply didn’t want to make it a biography, I wanted to set her in the context and how in hundred years Karnataka had become the centre of Hindustani music. Before that it was predominantly carnatic, but in a hundred years, Hindustani had come into Karnataka in a very big way and we produced the five national legends of Hindustani music from here, so it was very important for me to understand her life, her times, the context from which she came and in the course of that journey I realised that her life, her music were not two separate things for her. She lived both with equal sincerity, equal humility and equal commitment.

She emphasises that we shouldn’t stray too far from our roots and stick to tradition. Do you agree with this, since there are some things in our tradition that we had to abandon to become progressive?

I find her the most progressive human being I’ve ever met. Not just in her own personal life, but even politically, she was an MP in the Rajya Sabha, and the kind of debates that she held and things that she said proved how she was always working towards the betterment of society.  She was quite a revolutionary in that sense, she closed the devadasi practice. She was the last in her family and the future generations led normal lives like us, and she made sure that her children and grandchildren did not have to face the devadasi practice.

Did you get to pursue your interest in translatory work equally as an editor for The Hindu, versus in Aniketana?

Not really, journalism is very demanding. So it takes a lot of time and energy, and work doesn’t end with your workspace. You always take work home, and especially since being with the features I head the culture supplement, so I was always trying to think how the cause of Kannada can be furthered in English newspaper where there’s very little space for anything that’s regional and local. But Aniketana is a different kind of space, where you imagine that there is a niche audience who’s very keen on reading Kannada literature in English. But there are a lot of similarities too, even here you know I’m always trying to reach out to an English audience or second generation Kannadigas who can’t read English, so I’m trying to take Kannada to the next level. They are very similar, but in The Hindu, I don’t do much translation. Aniketana was a journal that is meant for translation, so that was more concentrated work.