Writer & Translator
Awarded the International Booker Prize 2022
The Interview : Daisy Rockwell
(Rachna Singh in conversation with Daisy Rockwell)
The Wise Owl talks to Daisy Rockwell, a painter, writer and translator of Hindi and Urdu literature, living in northern New England. She paints under the ‘takhallus’, or alias, Lapata , which is Urdu for ‘missing.’ She posts her paintings regularly to Flickr and has shown her work widely.
Rockwell has published numerous translations from Hindi and Urdu, including Ashk’s 'Falling Walls' (2015), Bhisham Sahni’s 'Tamas' (2016), and Khadija Mastur’s ‘The Women’s Courtyard’. Her translation of Krishna Sobti’s final novel, ‘A Gujrat here, a Gujrat there’ (Penguin, 2019) was awarded the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary in 2019. Her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand’ won the International Booker Prize 2022. Rockwell has also written ‘The Little Book of Terror’, a volume of paintings and essays on the Global War on Terror (2012), and her novel 'Taste' was published in April 2014.
Thanks, Ms Rockwell, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted and honoured that you could make time for us.
RS: You started your creative journey as an artist and went on to win accolades as a writer and a translator. Your first book was a biography of Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk. Our readers would love to know what made you turn to literature and what attracted you to Hindi and Urdu literature in particular. How did you develop such expertise in these languages?
DR: I started studying Hindi in college and went on to pursue a PhD in South Asian studies at the University of Chicago. Along the way, I began reading Hindi literature, slowly at first, and simply fell in love. The first Hindi novel I ever read was Yashpal’s Jhutha Sach, a mammoth Partition novel. After that I couldn’t get enough. I am not a native speaker of Hindi, so reading Hindi is never easy for me, but I enjoy it because it allows me to be a life-long learner.
RS: Apart from your biography on Upendranath Ashk, you have also translated several of his books. Our readers would be curious to know what attracted you to his writings.
DR: I love Ashk’s attention to detail, his literary style and his sense of humour. His great novel, Girti Divarein (Falling Walls) is an incredibly slow-moving and detailed portrayal of what it means to be a writer and all the associated pitfalls. I’ve learned so much from him.
RS: Your translation of Geetanjali Shree’s book, Tomb of Sand that won the International Booker Prize 2022, has been beautifully done. When I read the book, I was truly charmed by the way you have kept the essence of the original language and cultural ambience intact. Please tell us how you did that.
DR: Well that would take a whole book in itself! Translation is an art that one is constantly perfecting. Tomb of Sand was my ninth or tenth book-length translation project and it was extremely challenging due to the word-play and the author’s idiosyncratic style. I strove to match Geetanjali’s style in English and bring it alive, whilst reminding readers of the underlying Hindi.
RS: I notice that you started as a writer with your biography of Ashk (2004) and novels i.e. The Little Book of Terror (2011) and Taste (2014) and then started doing translations. What made you turn to translations of literary works? (We are glad you did of course).
DR: I had started translating many years ago, in graduate school, but various factors impeded my projects ever coming to fruition. I returned to translation with a manuscript of Ashk short stories that I had already translated years before when a young fellow-translator urged me to get back in the game and put me in touch with the Penguin India classics editor.
RS: In one of your blog pieces (6 years back) you have rued the fact that translators are given ‘scant praise’ and are ‘invisible.’ Do you still feel that after being awarded the Booker for your translation?
DR: Well, obviously no! The International Booker Prize in its current incarnation began in 2016 and it has done wonders for the visibility of translators. Since 2016 there has been a growing movement to acknowledge the work that translators do, such as putting their names on the covers of book, compensating them fairly, and generally discussing what it is that translators do. It’s an incredible honour to be the recipient of this prize that has done so much for translation, and of course, now it would be hard for me to complain about invisibility!
RS: I was looking at the books you have translated and noticed that most of these books are set in partition India or immediately after partition, the only exception being Fifty-Five pillars Red Walls. What made you pick up these books for translation?
DR: Well, as I noted above, the very first Hindi novel I read was Jhutha Sach. It is a highly detailed account of the Partition, which was something I knew next to nothing about. Since then I have continued to be drawn to projects surrounding the Partition, and it has come to be an era I know a great deal about, everything from the actual historical events to the architecture of houses in Punjab during that era (translators need to know these things).
RS: I was looking at some of your translations of poetry. I was especially taken by your translation of Avinash Mishra’s ‘Ode to an Untranslatable Poem about Hindi Orthography’ where you have translated poetry in what you call ‘Indologist style’, ‘Google translate Ishtyle’ ‘freestyle’ etc. I can’t resist asking what ‘inspired’ you to write them.
DR: I am fascinated by the idea of untranslatability and what that means. His poems were explicitly about Hindi orthography, and I liked them very much. I wanted to set myself the goal of grappling that impossibility.
RS: Our readers would be eager to know if you have any other books in the works. Please share details.
DR: So many! I’m finishing up a novel by Usha Priyamvada, Won’t you Stay, Radhika?, and I’m also close to completing a first draft of Channa, Krishna Sobti’s first novel that was first published shortly before her death. I recently completed a prose poem by Urdu poet Azra Abbas, called Sleep Journeys, and I’ve been working on some of Geetanjali’s short stories. And then I am also hoping to soon begin work on an Urdu novel called Nagari Nagari Phirta Musafir, by Nisar Aziz Butt, which I like to tell people is like Magic Mountain meets Middlemarch in the Northwest Frontier Provinces of Pakistan.
RS: You are an award-winning translator. Do you have any advice for upcoming translators of literary works?
DR: 1. Never translate more than a sample of a book before you have written permission from the copyright holder. If you want to avoid this process, which can be difficult, find yourself an author who is out of copyright. 2. Read a lot of books in the target language. To be a good translator, you must be able to write in a variety of literary styles. Being familiar of the possibilities is very important. 3. Learn how to love editing! Translators often edit their work at least ten times. It’s a lengthy process which brings about the needed polish to your final product.
Thanks a lot Ms Rockwell, for taking time out of a busy schedule to talk to The Wise Owl. We feel delighted and honoured. We wish you the best in all your creative endeavours and wait with anticipation for more beautiful translations from your pen.