Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Interview with Dr. Mini Krishnan

Dr. Mini Krishnan is a renowned Editor and a compassionate writer. She has been in publishing for more than two decades. She is best known for the translations of Indian literature that she sourced, edited and published first through Macmillan India and now through Oxford University Press where she is the Literary Translations Editor. She was the founding editor of the South Asia Women Writers Website commissioned by the British Council.
A successful publisher of textbooks in all subjects for schools, she has served on the Film Censor Board, the Kendra Sahitya Akademi panel for translation awards and the panel for nominations to the Ramon Magsaysay Award. She is the Concept & Series Editor, Living in Harmony, (Oxford University Press) a Peace & Value Education programme of books for national integration.
She has spoken on translation in the following universities- Cambridge, Leeds, Warwick (UK) and Austin- Texas and was Scholar-in Residence in Davidson College North Carolina (2000) and spoke in Queen's College, New York. She was invited by the French Government (Ministry of Culture) to speak to French publishers about Indian literature. She also writes on translation in The Hindu and The Deccan Herald
Excerpts from the Interview as the team PIO Indians caught up with Dr. Mini Krishnan:
PIO Team: You have said that when regional languages are translated into English, it is like ‘jumping a wall facing away from it’. What are the problems faced in this process of transferring the Indian soul into English?
Mini Krishnan: I rather think you’ve misunderstood the remark. I was referring to the world-wide norm of translators moving texts from foreign languages into their mother – tongues. In the case of Indian translators, they have entered a language which is not their mother-tongue, has no geographical base at all on the ancient linguistic patina of the subcontinent, made themselves sufficiently at home in the world of that language—English--- then done a double jump; usually the jump is single - moving a text from foreign language to one’s own language. My point is that the Indian is doing a doubly hard movement. That is why I said like jumping a wall (a difficult thing to do at any time!) backwards. The biggest problem is that you have to convey in a language which is not your own, social landscapes, voices and cultural intricacies from your world into another. For many of these things, English has no natural equivalent. For instance the notion of “madi” or ritual purity does not exist in English. Caste prejudices do not exist in English culture. There is no such thing as a panchayat head, a matrilineal household etc. A translator has to find the words or create twice over. Remember he or she is not a native speaker of the English language. The linguistic and creative demands this makes on a psyche are enormous.
PIO Team: Being an editor is to perform the arduous process of acting as a bridge between the author and the translator. How do you bring out the best from a translator?
Mini Krishnan: What the translator needs most of all is a long-term sense of security that no matter what happens the Editor is her friend and collaborator and that there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome with goodwill, persistence and determination Translation is lonely work and very often translators go into depression and have to be encouraged almost like  a patient has to be encouraged by a doctor and the translator should have the feeling that at any time she can ring or visit or complain to the editor and that the editor will walk him/ her through the bad times. Some people might call it emotional pampering but it is worth it. It is a close bond which once violated through falsehoods or doubletalk can never be mended. I would even say it is a sacred bond because it takes a very long time to draft, redraft and shape a text. Both parties have to trust each other utterly. If the translator has a feeling that the editor is laughing at him or her it would be disastrous. Translators do complain about the tyranny of editors but they need that tough hand to steer, to guide, to make them work on a passage over and over again and anyway the editor’s contribution is going to be subsumed by the text which will be published in the translator’s name. How many title pages of translations state: “edited by yz?”None! The other quality that an editor needs is patience. She should also read as many translations as possible to see what other translators are doing and what risks can be taken in the text under development. She has to do research to try out different strategies, to push the language to its limits. These are some qualities an editor needs to bring out the best in the translator. There is a danger that a translator might be oversensitive and feel that the editor’s language is better than hers. So it is very difficult as very delicate situations can come up. Since developing a translation is a collaborative exercise, drafting and revising together is a very creative and satisfying thing to engage in; one has to encourage the translator without a sense of possession or ownership.
PIO Team:What motivates you to constantly to push an author from obscurity to lime-light while choosing to remain behind-the-scenes? How do you perceive the art of writing and that of translation?
Mini Krishnan: My commitment to Indian writers is so deep, so personal that I do not expect anyone to understand it. I believe in the Hindu theory of punarjanma andkarma. I believe that it wasn’t for nothing that I was given the privileges I have received in this life. Am I here only to take care of my family and enjoy myself? No! What about the debt I owe to my fellow countrymen and women, many of who will never have a discussion about books or ideas? There is equally a great debt to pay to the country and culture which has shaped me. I thought that the literature of the land which mirrors the lives of the different people in it would be an ideal field for me to contribute to. My father was not a rich man but he put everything he had into educating me and my brother. What was I going to do with the degrees I received? Write articles and become well known? Not enough, though I felt that would have been a very easy path to walk. So I linked my unseen riches and training to the country’s unseen heritage. I feel privileged to be able to pour all my creativity and knowledge of the English language into moving, bit by bit, some texts from our languages into a world language. Who knows which key individual will pick up one of the many books I’ve sourced, edited and published and be moved by it? An editor never tastes the fruit, so this is fine by my philosophy.  As for the second half of your question: the balance between writing and translation- translation is every bit as challenging as original writing. That has been the point of all my articles on translation. It is a third language. Not English, not [for instance]Tamil but an exquisite hybrid which spins words into a powerful phantom loom trapping voices and colours from one culture and offering them to another. I’m not willing to explain this any further.
PIO Team:  You are also a strong proponent of Dalit Literature- stories closer to the earth. What is the importance of this literature of the marginalised?
Mini Krishnan: For centuries the dalits did not even have a language to write his or her experience in. Poykayil Appachan asks “where is the alphabet of my race?” And if you look at mainstream literature, it is only the voices of the dominant that are heard and only their preoccupations. Dalits appear only as walk-on cardboard characters and then only to be cursed or used. Indeed in the writing of one of the most popular Tamil writers, Kalki, one of the worst things a character can say to another is “You low-born creature!” What is this low and high? Is there a low-born flower in nature? Is there a high-born fruit or grain? What we have been reading all these years is only half of India’s story. The other half belongs to Dalits and Tribals whom we have neglected and suppressed brutally. Mainstream literature is about the concerns of a leisured class and completely ignores the blood and sweat of the labouring class whom they have always lived off. Today women’s writing is an important genre. Just 50 years ago it hardly existed. Imagine if it had never been sought out and brought to the reading public? Apartheid in writing! That time has ended when Dalits had no voice at all. In most regions of India Dalit writing is still in a state of what is called Identity politics. We have to see ourselves in the mirror that Dalit autobiographies and poetry gives us. You simply have no experience to match what you read. And to think that all these years you denied that very experience saying it was all right for them to suffer, to starve, to go uneducated. You made them feel inferior so that you could feel superior and pure. Apart from the social justice, it symbolises the significant thing about Dalit writing that the language dalits are using is something new and vigorous. Theirs is the voice that takes us back to the strength of Nature. It is not artificial or padded. Why is it important? Theirs is an Indian history which has never been written. And it is written in language which enriches all of known language. Look at this very short poem by Ravikumar writing in Tamil translated by Vasantha Surya---
Emptying the sea
pouring it over the sky’s head,
chilling the hills down to their stony roots
drowning the crops,
melting the paths,
on houses floating in the swelling flood,
it beats down in a frenzy,
the rain.
This wetness everywhere
turns everything
to mud and mire.
In my heart alone burns
a great fire.
The PIO Team: You have been in the publishing industry for two decades now. Has Indian writing in English come of age? What are the significant changes you perceive here?
Mini Krishnan: I think this happened at least 15 years ago when Amitav Ghosh, Rushdie, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande and others gave a body of work to the world. I’m not including Arundhati Roy here because her creative writing began and ended with a single work. There is a great deal of confidence in the new generation of writers working in English but also some pressure other than creative ones. They know that India is a gorgeous soup of raw material but do not have the patience or respect to live long enough in the country and experience it in some depth to write about its complexities so then they begin to write glossy racy stories. The writing is getting smarter but the substance is in my opinion, quite shallow. If you study the names of characters in some of the famous books you’ll see that there cannot possibly be such combinations! Then there are the literary festivals. I wonder how good awards and festivals are for writers because they then get the feeling that that is what they are writing for. Many writers are not comfortable speaking in public. You should see the expressions of the writers who make it to the short-list but do not get the prize. Is that what we should do to writers?  A great writer like Upamanyu Chatterji shouldn’t have to step off the dais feeling he has “lost”! I’m a little anxious when I see that writers are expected to be performers. And naturally the good-looking writers get more attention than those who are not. These things make me feel that we are pushing writers into a mall when they should be left alone on their verandas or at their work-tables. But maybe I’m old – fashioned. Also editors and marketing people are calling the shots. “No Indian words that are not immediately recognizable, we are a global group, etc” are actually instructions given to writers. It is “entertain or get out of the way for those who can”. And this in turn fast-forwards everything in translation too. You know the scandal four years ago when Kavya Vishwanathan was supposed to have “written” a script for a stunning amount of advance money? Well as you know it turned out that a team of editors sat down and cooked it up and plagiarised a great deal of it from a 1957 book by an Englishwoman everyone (except an elderly librarian in Britain) had forgotten. I feel the creative writer’s world is extremely vulnerable to this kind of unhealthy interference.
The PIO Team: On standing up for the next generation, freeing them from ‘extreme and ferocious competition’- Tell us something about the work that you do for children, especially projects like ‘Living in Harmony’?
Mini Krishnan: I don’t want to talk much about what everyone else can actually sense and see and do. Since I’m a publisher and with one of the biggest educational / academic publishers in India it is part of my duty as editor/publisher to try and publish something for a world that is rapidly becoming a very dangerous place for its children. Training their intellects is not enough and many parents are beginning to realise it. If progress is outsourcing parenting to schools then the emotional side of caretaking has also to be included in the curriculum which presently it is not. How to manage differences, how to manage the self should be an important part of growing up and becoming an individual. Peace Education is vital for a stable society. Let us at least introduce our children to the visions of such a programme. What they choose to be and do later is their choice. But if you don’t even tell them that there is such a thing as co-operative growth and leave them to think that the only progress is solo-growth then as one of our famous social philosophers said, our schools are preparation fields for war.
The PIO Team: Your efforts on educating the potential next generation on the importance of translation has borne fruit at St. Stephen’s, Delhi. How much is such academic guidance important for the art and craft of translation?
Mini Krishnan:  Please do some research! Why are you so impressed by what happens in Delhi? You don’t seem to have heard of the Comparative Literature course in the University of Hyderabad which has been functioning for years. And the great work Tamil Nadu colleges have been carrying out. From the time I published translations out of Macmillans, (1996) Bharathiyar University, the Women’s Christian College, the Stella Maris College and the Ethiraj College for Women to mention just the city colleges I’ve visited, have been teaching translation and they have been popular courses. One of the Vice Chancellors of Madurai Kamaraj University in the 1960s was T.P. Meenakshisundaram who was a distinguished translator himself and a course (emphasis on Tamil no doubt) has been running there for three decades. Courses on translation studies have two important roles: One is reclaiming the national linguistic and cultural identity which is important at a time when we seem to be in danger of slipping into an amnesia comparable to what happened when the British conquered India and decided that nothing Indian was worth preserving or studying. Why shouldn’t our writers be as important to our students as writers who have never even visited India? Students should be taught to respect their own languages and literatures. Two -the capacity to translate is a rare gift. If even one student from a class of thirty becomes a dedicated translator then we can say we did our jobs as providers of cultural education.
The PIO Team: What is your vision regarding taking the mosaic of Indian literature to the world- especially lesser known heritages and languages and the effort to encourage their literature?
Mini Krishnan: I have no visions. I’m a practical missionary with a burning ambition for our writers. I want first of all to get every single Indian who sets foot in an Indian college for a Humanities course to read at least five famous Indian works in a carefully edited and crafted English translation. They can learn as much sociology from our literature than they could from field trips and questionnaires. Hopefully that will lead them to other works, other writers. The rest of the world can wait. I’m not dying to take our literature anywhere except to our own people. The world will come for our literature if our own people learn to respect and treasure what we have. When films based on works written in regional languages are shown in Cannes then writers unknown outside their Indian language worlds will be as famous as Jhumpa Lahiri who lives in the US but appears in TIME magazine as an Indian writer. There is a Farsi saying“If you let the moon in your backyard shine through your house, it will light up not only your front yard but the whole world”

No comments:

Post a Comment