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In Other Words—Sitting Down with Maithreyi Karnoor

Maithreyi Karnoor is a translator, a poet and a writer. She has translated Shrinivas Vaidya’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Kannada novel, Halla Bantu Halla to its English version, A Handful of Sesame, which has been shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize this year. She has also published a translation of a Sahitya Akademi publication of a collection of musical plays by H.S Shivaprakash. Her poem Degrees was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2017. Her works have appeared in The Hindu, The Wire, Indian Express, Daily O, Muse India and Indian Literature. The MIT Post had the chance to speak to her about work and future endeavours at m.i.l.a.p 2019.

What is it like being a translator, and what drove you to this profession?

Translation is not something that I decided or thought of when I was a kid. It was something that just happened. It is perhaps because of my closeness to language that I decided to do it. Strangely, although my mother tongue is Kannada, I’ve read more in English than in Kannada, and the Kannada I speak at home is very different from the one that is used in literature. There are a few writers who have written in the colloquial Kannada of my region, but that is not the popular one. So, I felt more at home with English. As I grew up, I wanted to reach out to my own language and literature and read it for myself. So I thought, translation is a good way of reading it to myself. Therefore, I didn’t start off with any big ambition of taking my language to the world, but it was mostly to acquire it for myself and to understand it properly. So translation for me is a very personal and passionate exercise, and it’s not my day job as I freelance as an editor and writer.

Do you find it difficult to shift from translating works to writing your own?

I do it simultaneously. I think translation is a very creative work at the end of the day. You can’t give it to machines to do it for you. It’s not transposing words from one language to another. You have to think about it idiomatically. It’s not so much about carrying just the meaning but also the spirit and the mood of the context into a different language which may be culturally very different from the one that you’re translating from. That also feeds into my whole writing. For instance, I’ve just written a draft of my first novel. Fiction is something that I absolutely love and have been wanting to write. I used to write as and when things came to me. So it feeds into each other and creativity is not something that you extinguish. The more you create, the more energy you get to create more.

In languages, exclamations and certain phrases have ambiguity. How do you ensure that the essence of it is not lost while translating?

So there are many methods of translation which are used given the context. There’s literal translation, faithful translation, and free translation. So what I do isI read it, I assimilate it, and then I put it back together in the new language. That sounds a little abstract but let’s say, for instance, if there’s some humour and the exact phrase cannot be constructed. Then I look for the context, and I see how the humour is used in Kannada, how the words are used to bring out the humour and I write it in English. I like to think that a translator is a writer for whom there is a ready plot. If you’re writing on your own, you’ll have to create the plot too. 

You’ve done a lot of theatre reviews. What do you look for in a play, in terms of quality?

My approach to most things is textual. I look at how well a story is being told. The most important thing is whether a lot of work has been put in. Sometimes people bluff their way through it. I mean I don’t look for perfection, a little mistake here and there can be ignored. How good a story it is, is what counts. I remember seeing a student production from a government college, where the students had to fight with their families to be allowed to participate in the play. When I saw the play, I could see that there were some flaws, but the amazing energy made up for it. Their hard work came through, and I gave them a fantastic review. So I would say it’s all in the sincerity. 

Do you think breaking the language barrier can lead to loss of cultural richness?

I think translation is important and necessary. It’s important for cultures to talk to each other. There are problems while translating. Sometimes there are no equivalent words, and in such cases, you need to move something around to form an equivalent, or annotate a little bit and explain something. In some cases, what I do is, retain the original word. If the word has been repeated enough number of times, then, there is a contextual meaning that the reader can relate to. 

Have you considered translating works in English to Kannada?

It really depends on your skills. My writing is in English. If a writer is equally conversant in both the languages, then great, otherwise, be more at home in the language you are translating to. Worst translations happen when you go the other way around. 

Tell us about Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame that you translated.

It’s a fictionalised family memoir. Halla Bantu Halla, which is the original title, is a warning call about the rising river. It is a shout to run. The book conveys a sign of changing times, and more importantly, the rush of changing times. Set between 1857 to around the time of Gandhi’s assassination, the political and social scene forms the backdrop to this book. 

Shrinivas Vaidya’s Halla Bantu Halla, translated by Maithreyi Karnoor. (Image Credits: Amazon Books)

When you went about translating this, did you feel a need to connect to the author personally? 

I had to be connected to him. Incidentally, I come from the same region as the author and from a very similar cultural background. The book was written in the Kannada that I spoke in. So the whole story seemed very familiar to me. I didn’t really need to talk to him and ask him questions though I did talk to him when I felt that something needed to be edited to make the story flow smoothly in English. 

One of your poems, Degrees, got shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2017. What message did you want to convey through the poem? 

The poem is about how we go through different phases in life. I was very close to my grandfather, who was a professor in English, and someone who was very passionate about literature. However, he was teaching in a college where the students were not particularly interested in literature. They just wanted to get their degrees, get their jobs and move on. I was trying to see how people’s lives are shaped around the whole idea of a degree. In the poem, the mother is seen hanging on to this piece of paper, that is the degree, even after the person is dead. She keeps it safe among her jewellery as if it were still important. I wanted to end it abruptly to show the futility of this whole idea. 

Featured Image Credits: Montreal International Poetry Prize