Translation Talk: Christi Merrill

Christi Merrill is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature; South Asian Literature and Postcolonial Theory at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. She has translated works by Vijaydan Detha, Baisantry Dohara and others. Her most recent book, Riddles of Belonging: India in Translation and other Tales of Possession, was published by Fordham University Press in 2009. She is currently writing another book on Dalit literature entitled Genres of Real Life: Mediating Stories of Injustice across Languages in addition to her translation work. Assistant Editor Alex Niemi interviewed her for M-Dash.

M—Dash: The first question I like to ask is, how did you get into translation?

Christi Merrill: I had decided I was going to live in India. I was teaching in a school in Jaipur, but also wanted to start a freelance career. I was interested in folktales, so I started recording the students in the school where I taught. I asked them to tell stories because I wanted to create a textbook for them in an English that wasn’t like the former colonizer’s version of English. And in this process, I came across a writer named Vijaydan Detha who was doing just that, but doing it really, really well, so I decided to translate one of his stories and interview him for a magazine article on folktales in Rajasthan. I, very naively, thought it would be straightforward to translate. When I started translating the story, I discovered that translation raised a lot of complicated questions, especially when you’re talking about colonial issues. I was already very attentive to postcolonial issues, but this was before postcolonialism was a word in the academy. It was only after I did my MFA in literary translation that people started recognizing something called postcolonial studies. And I thought, oh, this makes sense!

Also, I got along very well with Vijaydan Detha. When we met, we were naturally aligned in our politics and literary enthusiasms. There’s a funny story, just to show what he was like: I got an email one time right after the Detha volumes came out, saying “I’m not sure if you know, but Vijaydan Detha is on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in literature!” Then I started reading about it, I thought, “What? What??”

So, apparently, someone called him up and, it’s just so much like him, his first response was, “Says WHO?!” So, I wrote back. They wanted me to write an article about working with him and I asked, “Will this article still run if he doesn’t get the prize?” And the editor was great, it was an organization called DNA that was based in Mumbai and they said, “We’re all in favor of using this to get more publicity for vernacular writers. That’s hard in the US, but it’s also hard in India. There’s just not that many people who read work in translation.”

M—: You’ve written a lot about the difficulties of translating people who are writing down stories from oral traditions. Western literary tradition has a sort of cult of originality. How have you dealt with, and what do you think are the best ways to deal with, translating something that exists in multiple versions simultaneously? How do you do justice to that?

CM: Right, good question. My response to that was to take advantage of what ended up being my dual position as a literary translator and a scholar of literary translation. I use my scholarly position as a teacher and scholarly writer to shed more light on the importance of not reading for the genius author. That has been an interesting project because Detha himself has an ambivalent relationship with authorship. And that’s one of the things I don’t think I said explicitly when I was writing about his work in Riddles of Belonging, but, in some ways, he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to be considered the great genius author, in the singular, and he also wanted to cash in on these oral traditions and be a folklorist. So, when I interviewed him the first time, he was talking a lot about the Brothers Grimm, but then he was also a big fan of Premchand, who is a very important Hindi writer, and he loves Chekhov. Right now, I’m thinking about how to bill him as someone who plays consciously with Western traditions. There isn’t a pristine, authentic Rajasthani culture that he’s trying to preserve and there’s also not a complete ignorance of storytelling traditions and an embrace of Western world literature. So, that’s one thing I do in my scholarship.

As a translator, I also try to use my position to write a preface or an introduction and add footnotes. When I was a student in the MFA program in Iowa, some people thought it was bad to have footnotes in a literary translation and it was bad to have a critical introduction, endnotes, any sort of outwork or paratext. I think that point of view comes from the privilege of people who are working in traditions that are closer to English. I first heard this from Lawrence Venuti when he was talking about the importance of having an introduction. There are a lot of people in the past couple of decades who have put pressure on publishers to let us include introductions and other paratext. I advocated in the Detha translations that I wouldn’t go with a publisher unless they let me write a critical introduction. For this project coming up, I’m going to write a manifesto.

M—: Oh, wow!

CM: A manifesto that says: this must have footnotes. The thing I’m working on, Kausalya Baisantry, Doubly Cursed is not a scholarly work, but she has footnotes and, to support and authorize that, I need to be putting in footnotes and making the footnotes interesting to read. We should see it as an important tool and not use a voice that pretends to be objective and impersonal, but acknowledge the existence of power imbalances. I also have this thing that I’m writing about the marginal status of the translator.

M—: Yes!

CM: So, that’s what I’m thinking. A long answer to your short question.

M—: That’s really interesting and it also brings us to your current work, which is with Dalit literature.

CM: Yes, so another play on the marginal!

M—: Yes, I actually had two questions about that. First, I was curious about access. How do you go about accessing communities that are marginalized in ways that create a give and take relationship? You have access to them, their stories, their literature, but so that they, in turn, have access to more ways to further their activism. Along with that, how do you think translation can function as a sort of arbiter of justice?

CM: That’s what I’m writing about right now!

M—: Great! So, tell us!

CM: All right! Let’s see, I’m still writing, so after I’ve written it I think it’ll be easier to have the three-sentence answer! The answer to the first question is that there are a lot of different Dalit communities. One of the things that’s been happening in India is that there’s a well-educated upper-middle class or middle class Dalit population, primarily urban, that identifies with and yet has an ambivalent relationship to the illiterate, non-activist, and I would say poor, not working class, Dalit community. There’s a huge gap. Often, this falls into urban/rural binaries and other divides. So, the writers that I’ve been working with have found a way to use the Indian version of affirmative action, which is called reservation there, over the generations to have a better situation for themselves. They are really smart self-advocates. One of the things that happens is they are very forthrightly and consciously instrumentalizing someone like me and there’s a history of this. There are several leaders in this group, but one of them is Dr. Ambedkar, who came to the United States and did a Ph.D. at Columbia University a century ago. He has an essay called “A Plea to the Foreigner.” He’s writing this in 1945, just before independence. He writes to the British asking, “Whose freedom are you talking about?” If you hand over the government entirely to upper caste Hindus, the Dalits, or as he says, untouchables, are going to continue to have no freedom. There has to be a way of safeguarding the rights of people who are currently the lowest of the low according to the caste system. He was very critical of Gandhi and similar criticisms have gotten a lot of airplay recently. At the time, he fought publicly with Ambedkar. So, there’s a long history of this type of Dalit activism.

In my book, what I’m arguing is that we need to pay attention to the way that we construct the Indian subject and think about the divisions within society and where we put ourselves. My experience is that it’s a very different project to be working with someone who’s a landowner like Detha. His family was very interesting because they were from a storytelling caste, a caste of bards that, in every other area of Rajasthan that I could see, was on the low end of the caste hierarchy. But, in his village, his grandfather received a jagir, which is an award of land, for his poetry and it basically made them landed gentry. They had their own genealogists and all these things that made them seem like upper-caste Hindus. So, it’s very different to translate the work of someone like Detha, who grew up with a communist ideology, but in a landed family versus, Mangalesh Dabral, another author I’ve translated, who comes from a Brahmin family, but is very attentive to issues of caste versus someone like Kausalya Baisantry or any of the Dalit writers who are urban, educated, but scorned many times because of the caste system. A lot of the time, this homogenization of the subject doesn’t happen so much with the writers, but rather with the postcolonial theorists, there is a very simplistic binary between colonized and colonizer. Some of the writers and theorists, especially those who are thinking more about Dalit issues, say we need to complicate those binaries.

M—: So, in line with complicating the postcolonial narrative, what is your idea of postcolonial translation as an actor of justice?

One of the books that I really have paid a lot of attention to over the years Siting Translation by Tejaswini Niranjana. I can’t remember if I inflicted that on you.

M—: No [laughs]!

CM: So, she talks about how much translation was complicit in the colonial project and I agree with her and yet I think there needs to be a more complicated question of agency. Another postcolonial theorist who talks about translation in a way I really like is Arun Mukherjee, a professor in Toronto, who translates a Dalit writer named Omprakash Valmiki and who also talks about the need to complicate these binaries. She has this confessional mode in, I think, the preface of her translation to Joothan where she talks about not really recognizing her privilege as an upper-caste Hindu and how, she doesn’t say this exactly, but it’s kind of like playing the race card, Indians of all castes will say “O, we people from the third world are all in the same category.” She says we have to stop that, we have to make it a lot more complicated.

The way I’ve been thinking about it recently, more than recently, is trying to put together some of Gayatri Spivak’s ideas in “Politics of Translation” with her comment in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” We have to avoid “white men saving brown women from brown men” and the old tropes of the civilizing mission. And how do you use a civil institution like literature, but not assume all of that superiority and the elitist trappings? A lot of people now working on Dalit writers take up what’s called a Dalit consciousness, or being aware of caste-based injustice and having that inform their work. And so, that’s part of what I’m trying to argue about. Footnotes, for example, are a very specific, technical tool that we use as translators, or don’t, that allows us to think about societal position: who’s up and who’s down, who’s marginal and who’s not. I want to play on that so that I don’t pretend that my voice is the same as Baisantry’s in my footnotes. I make my own acts of mediation more visible while still turning her prose into something that reads like her in English.

I’m also still working through all sorts of things about voice and the way we think about voice. How can any of us ever speak directly from a completely authentic place? Anytime you’re trying to talk about your rights, you’re already entering into a relationship with people who might not agree with you. Injustice is part of language. Then you add the extra layer of other languages. It’s a struggle, so what I try to do is make that struggle more visible and not do what I understand Anuradha Dingwaney and Carol Maier critiqued in their essay in Between Languages and Cultures on the translation of Rigoberta Menchu, that’s a debate that I’m reviving now over the ways the third-world subject is expected to speak directly and kind of pathetically to the first world reader. Back in the day, that translation of Rigoberta Menchu ‘s life story really worked, but, on the other hand, it pretended that there was this transparent, unmediated representation of Rigoberta Menchu’s life story that’s impossible. They point out that she really, and David Damrosch also talks about this in What is World Literature?, instrumentalized her anthropologist interlocutor and then the translators in a way that worked for her and there’s nothing shameful in that.

So, that’s how I think of it. If this can do anywhere near as good a job in advocating for some of the concerns that Dalit activists have as well as Rigoberta Menchu and her group of activists, it’s great. I don’t think it’s shameful to use the system, but I do have a little bit of a concern about the way that print capitalism works, that it will only accept the seemingly unmediated, transparent Subaltern speaking—the more pitiful, the more compelling the story, the better.

M—: Yes, print capitalism might prefer glossing over all of those subtleties that you’re trying to explain about the multiplicity of the Dalit community. And speaking of print capitalism, there are certain books that people are probably reading or aware of at any given time in the literary community. The latest prize-winners, for example. What have you been reading that nobody else is reading right now?

I will confess that I often fall asleep putting my daughter to bed and I wake up in the morning and I want to write and I read stuff that’s awfully theoretical, like Lydia Liu’s Translingual Practice, but there are two books on my bedside table right now. This might surprise you, but the first is the J. D. Vance memoir. I’m not really liking it as much as I thought I would, but I loved the interview that he gave last summer at the New York Times where he was helping us to understand Trump supporters. The other book is The Warmth of Other Suns, I think it’s called, it’s written by a journalist and it gives a genealogy of the great migration of African Americans from South to North. The reason I was interested in that is that she talks about racism in America as a caste system. To me, the comparison makes a lot of sense. She also interviewed a lot of people, so it’s a composite of all these different life stories. It’s a really interesting book for me to be thinking about. She uses the word caste in an interview and that was how I got interested in it. When I started reading, I was really surprised that she’s very forthrightly talking about caste. And the big difference between caste and class is that class is something you can move out of and caste you can’t, so it’s genetic. In my theoretical stuff, I’m connecting genealogy and genetics and thinking about race and caste. There’s a lot of stuff about that, but it’s also just fun to read right now because it’s hard not to watch what’s going on politically and be thinking about other countries. I’m thinking about the comparisons between right-wing upper-caste Hinduism and what’s going on in the US. There’s a lot of similarities.

M—: Like what for example?

CM: One is the way that upper-caste Hindus, I think, convince the lower castes and untouchables that they are all Hindus and that if they align with the upper caste interests they will be in the dominant group. They villainize the Muslim minority, for example, and the lower-caste Hindus actually perpetrate acts of violence against them.

M—: That is very similar!

CM: And one of the basic things I see that worries me is that, when the majority group perceives itself to be victimized, they’re very dangerous. I feel like that’s going on right now. And the rhetoric has increased that perception of them being victimized. I see it happening in both countries.

M—: Hopefully the activists will prevail.

Yes, I hope everyone will be safe.