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An Interview with Vivek Shanbhag: Accessing Literature through Translations

Feb 2017

An Interview with Vivek Shanbhag: Accessing Literature through Translations

Vivek Shanbhag is a writer and translator, who works in Kannada. Ghachar Ghochar, a novella by him, has been translated by Srinath Perur into English. The work which captures the shades of a family’s relationship with newfound wealth, and consequently each other, has garnered universal praise. This blogger caught up with him in the Author’s Lounge. Here’s what he had to say:

  • You said that the story of Ghachar Ghochar had been with you for ten years. What inspired its writing?

It’s very difficult to say what sparked it. The story was there, and I wrote it in about three months’ time. When a story stays with you for such a long time, it grows. It takes a lot of things with it. In Ghachar Ghochar, the story may look like one continuous stream, but it moves back and forth, as we do in life. Even though we are living in this moment, we have the past, the present and a little bit of the future in this moment. The story also moves like that.

  • You mentioned that you take a long time to write and a short time to edit. Why is that?

When I write, I prefer to let the story come in one go. When I write, there is something unknown that comes out, something that surprises me. I let it come without hindrance. A story is as much inspiration as it is a craft. Then one has to work on the story and it takes a long time. It is like shaping something, like carving something out.

  • Is editing the most important part of writing, then?

No, both are important. It is very difficult to prioritise one over the other. Every writer has something in them that tells them, ‘This is the right time to write a story.’ It is different for everybody.

  • Who are you influenced by? Are they people from Kannada literature?

It’s difficult to point out one person. Kannada is a language that has a 4000 year literary tradition and the texts are still available today. People read, recite and enjoy these texts. I am influenced by them as well. But I am also influenced by the modern writers. I am also influenced by other Indian writers, such as great Malayalam writers. I was not born with these skills: as you read and learn, you accumulate things that find their way into your writing.

  • I had recently attended the launch of a book of short stories in Tamil that took stories from a 100 years back as well as contemporary writers such as Perumal Murugan. Can something similar be done in Kannada literature?

Why not? It can be done for last thousand years also. Literature is everywhere, even a religious text can be seen as literature. A K Ramanujan has translated 12th C literature, just as in Tamil, Sangam poetry has been translated.

  • How important is a translator’s relationship with the author in the source language for a translated text?

The language that I’m translating into, that should be very comfortable for me. When you’re translating certain phrases from one language to another, you must be careful to let the correct meaning carry through and not let it be changed. If you’re translating from that language, you can manage, you can take others’ help. But if you’re translating into it, that cannot happen. A relationship with the writer is not necessary and it is not always possible either. But if you have it, there are certain advantages. You can take some liberties, you can check with the writer. It becomes more effective.

  • You mentioned that Salman Rashdie and Chinua Achebe came and spoke in your college. What was the experience of watching them speak like?

I heard Rashdie speak. That was when he had just published his book. A lot of writers would come to our college and there was an environment in which you could meet and talk to them. When you are young, it is not so much knowledge but inspiration that matters. Even a meeting with a writer or seeing somebody can be so inspiring. It can influence you to do great work.

  • There is a lot of conflict in Ghachar Ghochar, but not much violence, whereas in the writings of people like Rashdie and Achebe, violence occupies a lot of space. Which kind are you drawn to?

Violence makes one take positions in life. It makes you think you are stronger and others are weaker and you can do anything you want. It creates a power relationship. I think, for me, it depends on awareness of what is going on around the world. If something is happening in Syria, why are we pained? It is because this is something we can visualise, because we can see the pain in the details of the writings to emerge from it. Pain is individual, it is not collective.

  • What is the work of literature in a world that is experiencing so much upheaval?

I think it’s the same work that we had yesterday: we have to respond to it. We have to make people sensitive to what is happening. That is our responsibility: don’t let people forget what is happening. A bombing is not just a number. I once met a writer from Iran who made a two-minute film about a boy who had both his limbs, but was practicing to walk with a prosthetic limb. It’s because there are so many land mines there that you don’t even know when you might lose one of your limbs. That is a war zone, and it is our duty to let people know what it means to live in it.

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