The Loneliness of Translation: An Interview with Daisy Rockwell

CJLC Editor Kena Chavva interviews Daisy Rockwell, a writer and translator of Hindi and Urdu-language literature, on her new English-language translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel, Tomb of Sand. Tomb of Sand tells the story of an eighty-year old woman’s relationship with her daughter after her husband dies. The pair travels from India to Pakistan, forcing a confrontation with the trauma left by Partition in the protagonist’s teenage years. Despite the gravity of the issues in the novel, it maintains a playful, experimental style, and thus urges its readers not to abandon levity in the face of tragedy. 

Rockwell’s translation of Tomb of Sand (Tilted Axis Press, 2021) was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, and is the first ever Hindi novel to be shortlisted. Her other translations include Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (Penguin, 2015), Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (Penguin, 2018), Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard (Penguin, 2018), and Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There (Penguin, 2019). She has also written a biography of Uprendranath Ashk, titled Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography (Katha, 2004), a novel titled Taste (Foxhead Books, 2014), and The Little Book of Terror (Foxhead Books, 2012), a collection of paintings and essays about the War on Terror. She lives in New England.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

March 27, 4pm

Kena Chavva: Congratulations on being nominated for the 2022 International Booker Prize. How does that recognition feel?

Daisy Rockwell: Totally amazing, because translation is a lonely activity, and I’ve never had any of my books published outside of India. This one is different because the project originated with Deborah Smith, who runs Tilted Axis Press. She was the first translator to win the International Booker. She’s a Korean to English translator; she translated The Vegetarian [by Han Kang], and she started Tilted Axis Press. She has a lot of interest in South Asia, has spent time in India, and she took an interest in Ret Samadhi [Hindi title of Tomb of Sand]. She had read some earlier books of Geetanjali Shree’s in English, and she wanted this project to happen. I don’t usually translate contemporary literature. Since I come from a scholarly background, I have an interest in so-called “classics.” One reason why I agreed to this project is because I could get my books out of India! Publishers in the US and the UK have zero interest in South Asian translation. Every now and then somebody gets something through, but it’s usually a quirk. I did this partly not just for my work, but for all of our work. The person that helped put together the matchmaking is a Bangla translator named Arunava Singha, who’s really prolific; he’s translated something like eighty books. He put it together. It’s not just a big deal for me, or a big deal for Hindi, but for all of us translators raising awareness that South Asian literature isn’t just written in English. 

KC: I do feel like on the global literary landscape, South Asian writers who write in English are quite prominent, whether they’re diasporic or from South Asia. But translated literature, like you’re saying, is not getting that attention. 

DR: I don’t think people even know it exists. I think that’s part of the reason they’re not interested in translated literature on a publishing level. They’re like, “We don’t need that! We already have India!”

KC: Do you think there’s something about the system of publication, or the way the publishing sphere is structured, that is not friendly to translated literature?

DR: Certainly, in the US, translation is considered risky and niche. Publishers don’t have very many translated works, and usually if they do, it’s not much of a gamble, since the book was already a bestseller all over the world. And of course, there’s the controversy about putting translators’ names on the cover, but in the US it’s much worse than that — it’s not just that the translators’ names aren’t on the cover. Sometimes you actually have to look on the copyright page of a book to see if it was translated. You can’t even tell. They think that readers don’t like that, or are scared of translation. 

You see a totally different situation in Europe, with French and Spanish and Italian. There’s tons of money for translating between those languages and getting English books into those languages, but I think part of that problem is how big English is. English readers don’t need those other books, theoretically speaking. But I think it makes Americans so blind about the rest of the world, because they’re just reading American authors all the time. It’s an insularity that builds on itself. 

KC: America absolutely is a multiracial, diverse, society, but because of that, people don’t feel like they need to expand, because they feel like they’re already reading from other races or cultures. It’s true that American authors are diverse, but—

DR: But they’re all like, living in Brooklyn!

KC: Exactly. I’m curious about the translation of Tomb of Sand, and how long it took you to translate that — I know the book is very long — and your experience, challenges, and things that surprised you about that process. 

DR: The book is actually half as long in Hindi! I didn’t realize how long it was, and I know that’s a weird thing to say, but I have a friend who’s a Bangla translator who says that usually the books he translates grow about twenty percent when they come into English. That may be a function of the shapes of words or something mysterious like that. I find that’s true too. I would expect a twenty percent expansion. But this one doubled. There are other ways you can explain it, like the Hindi publishers are trying to save paper, so they cram everything together, or no page breaks for different chapters. I did put in all of those things; this is a dense book that needs room to breathe. But I still don’t feel like that explains everything, it’s kind of a mystery. Tilted Axis Press also has a small page format. They like to have all their books be the same height and design. Most of their books are novellas or short story collections. They’ve never really done a big book, and so it ended up looking like a phone book, which I think terrifies a lot of readers, because you see something like a brick and you think, “Oh, that’s a commitment.” 

But it also did take me a long time. I don’t even know how long because it seeped into the pandemic, and you lose a sense of time. It took me longer than I thought; it was much harder than I thought, and I was actually stunned when they sent me — you know, you do all your editing in Word, and I thought of it as about a five-hundred-page book at a point — but then they sent me back the PDF for typesetting, and it was over seven hundred pages. I was totally surprised. I thought, “No wonder it was so hard!” 

Another reason why it was so hard was that the prose style is very experimental and idiosyncratic, and there’s sections that are not plot-related but kind of poetic. Ultimately, I started to realize it was more like translating poetry than prose in a lot of sections. I think of it as translating Ulysses by James Joyce, or something like that, where this person has created their own language so you have to create your own language to translate it. That’s obviously pretty rough to do. 

KC: Did you feel like you were switching between modes when translating the different sections of the novel?

DR: Yeah, absolutely. In the Hindi, I redid the way the italics are used in the book. In the Hindi, only the poetic sections are in italics. But I put thoughts in italics, because I felt like I needed to make some kind of intervention like this. I used italics in a kind of contemporary English novel-writing convention. Then Deborah [Smith] took all of the italics out of the intervening sections because she thought that it was confusing to have different uses for italics. In my mind, the italicized sections were a completely different translation exercise, like poetry. There is so much wordplay. [Geetanjali Shree] wanted me to recreate it in English — not to take her literally but to “play,” as she put it. That was another challenge, as I’m used to translating dead people, or nearly-dead people. 

KC: How iterative was it? Did you go through this process over and over again with her?

DR: I write my first draft by hand, then I type it up, and then I go through the whole thing again. Sometimes, you think you have a question but it later gets answered in the text. I go through the whole thing two or three times, and then I went through section by section with questions for her. Then that conversation would go back and forth. It’s funny because sometimes her writing is very vague and impressionistic, and I would try to pin her down. Even if I make it vague and impressionistic, I still have to know what she meant. But then she would then write an explanation in English that was vague and impressionistic. And I would be like, “I still don’t know what’s going on here.” 

The hardest part was a passage where she compares the human brain to a jalebi. We went back and forth, sentence by sentence, word by word. I felt like an idiot, because it’s a joke in a way! It’s a really funny comparison, but I was trying to understand exactly the mechanism she was describing. I realized suddenly towards the end that if I was successful, it would be breezy and fun. If you’re reading it, you’ll laugh! You wouldn’t think that would be the hardest part. 

KC: With previous translations, like you just mentioned, like Ashk, do you feel that everything is in your hands? 

DR: I have many friends and colleagues that I call upon. I have lots of people to bounce things off of, but actually I am often frighteningly on my own. Nobody is going to correct me. Even Indian editors don’t know enough Hindi, so I don’t have anybody to tell me that I’m wrong, and I have to constantly check in with people to make sure that I’m on the right track. I’m sure there are things where I’m wrong, but ultimately translation isn’t only about accuracy. That’s something I think is important to remember. Word-by-word accuracy is only one factor of the equation, and accuracy of feeling and aesthetic experience is also important. Sometimes you have to end up slightly changing a semantic meaning just to get the feeling right, so I can’t obsess too much about whether or not I am wrong. To a certain extent I do, and then I have to let go. 

KC: I would love to hear you talk about your journey into Hindi and Urdu, and becoming a translator. 

DR: I started learning Hindi in college, and I was a language person, so I studied French and German before. I was actually a classics major, so I had a lot of Latin too, and I started Greek. Then some kind of switch flipped in my head, and I was in a required social sciences class in my second year of college. The professor was Susanne Rudolph, who is a famous political economist of South Asia with her husband [Lloyd Rudolph]. They wrote all their books together. She talked about how she and her husband spend every fourth year living in India, and she just opened up this window! When you’re in classics, everything’s been picked over. People are just analyzing the use of an accent mark. I was feeling kind of drab about the whole trajectory. Hindi fit into my schedule. That’s how I got into Hindi. But I was also really fortunate in that I was able to take, right at the beginning of graduate school, a translation seminar with A.K. Ramanujan, who died promptly after that. I learned so much from him in just three months. It was a very intimate seminar, with people working on all different languages. He was full of amazing aphorisms that just stuck in my head forever. 

KC: What do you remember? 

DR: The famous one is: every footnote is a confession of failure. This is partly because he was mostly translating poetry, so it’s a hot mess to have footnotes at the bottom of a beautiful poem. What he was partly telling you is that you have to try to fit what you need to explain in the text. Even if it’s five hundred pages, there must be some way to throw in a word here and there to make that explanation, so that you don’t make people feel bogged down with a scholarly apparatus. That was one of his big ones. He also pointed out that if you’re doing something long — which I always am — you have the leisure to teach people certain words. In Russian novels, you start to learn different food words, and you just get used to them, because it’s repeated over and over again. 

I created a corollary to that in my mind, which is yes, you have the leisure, but you can’t overdo it. People will start to feel swamped if they truly don’t know. I have a problem since my books are only published in India. A lot of Indians have a very high comfort level with vocabulary. I try to keep it down so the books can travel. I want people to be able to enjoy them even if they don’t know any Hindi. That’s a balancing act. I think of the words I’m going to teach as little gold nuggets, and I have to ration them out through the book. I can’t just decide that the readers are going to have to learn all of this. 

With Tomb of Sand, the biggest word was samadhi, which is in the title. Samadhi means tons of things. Geetanjali really did not like the title Tomb of Sand because she said, “How can a tomb be made out of sand?” She felt it implied something marble or granite. I said, “Well that’s what makes it a good title.” You ask that question; how can a tomb be made of sand? It’s the kind of thing that makes you open a book. Writing a title is a different exercise than writing with an audience. You want people to feel welcomed or intrigued. 

What I did was put an actual definition of samadhi right at the beginning of the book, after the title page. Within the book there’s extensive discussion of samadhi. During one of those passages where she gets into depth about it, I actually slowly teach the word to the reader. I start out using only English. It’s not like I’m inserting tons of extra prose, but I tease out the definition piecemeal. There’s a particular paragraph where I really nail it down, probably about two hundred pages in. I think she understood why I did that, because part of her objection was that she hated to lose a weighty word that means so much. I think I demonstrated that we weren’t going to lose it, but we had to draw people in. 

KC: What are the big definitions of samadhi, usually?

DR: It can mean a deep state of meditation, like an ultimate stage of yoga, or the Buddha is in samadhi, like when someone is meditating for a thousand years. Also, if you go to Delhi, there’s a big memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, and it’s called the Gandhi Samadhi. Samadhi can also be a tomb or a final resting place. Ret Samadhi is like if you imagine someone meditating in the desert, and they become totally covered in sand. That’s the image she’s going for. But how could you say that in a few words? Tomb of Sand takes you to the point where you want to know what that means. It gives you a question to ask. 

KC: Given that you’ve studied a number of different languages, what is your experience of Hindi as a language? 

DR: For me, languages can be like people. Some of them you love, some of them you hate, some of them you just don’t gel with. I love learning grammar. It’s not so much that I love to learn how to converse with people in another language; rather, I love the nitty-gritty. That’s why I liked classics, because I enjoyed doing that sort of painstaking parsing of grammar and so on. 

What interested me about Hindi was that it has kind of a hugeness. In some ways it’s like English in that it is a huge language that many people use to communicate. It’s a big blousy language that has many manifestations and can take in words indefinitely from any language, especially from English, Persian, Portuguese, and Sanskrit and so on, but it just soaks them up, which is similar to English too. 

Hindi literature is very experimental because it forked off from Urdu — Urdu is much more standardized — not that long ago, around 1900. Everybody started to try and figure out what it meant for the language to be Hindi and not Urdu. They grabbed from Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Bihari, and Punjabi and all these different languages to try and create regional flavors, and reach into folk ways of expression. Hindi literature is hard to get a handle on, because you have to have a vast knowledge of a complicated region. What you learn in class is very limited to Khari Boli Hindi [standardized Hindi]. 

What’s funny is that I’ve studied Urdu much less than Hindi, but in some ways it’s easier for me because it’s so clear. The grammar and all the words are in the dictionary. One of my professors liked to say that Urdu is like French, and Hindi is like Spanish, in the sense that Spanish is all over Latin America and nobody can control it because it has a crazy amount of vocabulary coming from all different directions, but French has the French Academy keeping it under control.  

KC: In terms of dialects and your own translation, is there one that you’ve ended up working on a lot? 

DR: Ashk, Krishna Sobti, and Bhisham Sahni are Punjabi, so I’ve tended to translate a lot of Punjabis. It’s not that I know Punjabi, but I can muddle my way through. None of their books are in Punjabi, but there’s always figures of speech and certain kinds of vocabulary that they use.  

I’ve always been interested in Partition literature, too, which reflects that area. One of the first novels that I read in Hindi, Jhutha Sach, was set during the Partition. It is two volumes, and the first volume is set in Lahore. I got really into this book, and it’s very detailed about the streets of Lahore, and so I ended up being like those people who feel like they know Paris even though they’ve never been there. I have been to Lahore now, but there’s a Lahore in my mind and I’ve translated lots of books set in Lahore in both Hindi and Urdu, so that’s where my heart is. 

KC: What about the Partition era interests you? 

DR: Some people disagree and say they’re sick of Partition literature, but it’s interesting structurally in that there’s a sudden moment when everything changes. Everything that was up is down, and people are uprooted, fortunes change, and families are broken. In a literary context, you see this moment of complete transformation which offers endless possibilities of reorganization of characters. What’s interesting with Ashk is that his books are not about Partition, because they’re set in the thirties, but I think of them as Partition books because he’s writing them in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, so there’s an incredibly detailed portrayal of life right before Partition — when Jalandhar and Lahore were just a hop and a skip away from each other, and you could jump on a train or get on the back of a bus and go to Lahore and come back. Lahore was the big city for them; it was Paris. That’s where you would go to college and develop a love of literature and art. I’m fascinated by that historical moment and that kind of lost city. 

KC: In terms of your translation decisions, I know you’ve talked in the past about your decision to translate more female authors. What are your reflections on that choice? 

DR: I think it came hand-in-hand with a decision to only read female authors. It’s an interesting exercise, like going on a diet. At first, it seems like it’s hard, but actually it’s not that hard. If you go back, you realize everything you were putting up with. The male gaze is very real. It’s disturbing how much we accept that point of view. If you spend a whole year not reading any books by men, you will see when you go back what you’ve tolerated, and you wonder how you could possibly have done that. I spent about a year being very strict, and then I picked up a new Murakami novel because I’ve always liked Murakami, and it’s just breasts on the second page, as the first characteristic of the woman character. I never noticed that about him but he’s just as bad as everyone else. 

KC: That makes me want to do that once I graduate, and nobody can assign me books anymore. 

DR: I realized looking back, I’ve never liked all these things but I just felt that I had to put up with them. It’s the same with translation. Somebody I know who translates from Bangla who’s a woman was talking about the books she’s translated, and I started to notice she’s mostly translating women’s literature. I wanted to elevate women’s voices, and it was weird when I realized I had not translated any books by women at that point. 

Looking only at women’s perspectives in South Asia is really fascinating. I wrote about this in the afterword of The Women’s Courtyard, because that is the ultimate example. The action of the novel never leaves the women’s courtyard, which is called aangan, and that’s how the women are limited from the public sphere. The men come and go, and even women come and go, but you never follow the main character out of the courtyard. That novel is another kind of exercise of asking, what would it look like if I only showed the women’s sphere? In the West, even if women are much freer and whatnot, there’s a big debate about the flâneur novel, about a young man wandering the streets at night. You can’t have a narrative like that about a woman. There are different degrees of that, but it’s very interesting to explore that both in South Asian literature and outside too. 

KC: Now that you’re not as strict with your male-author policy, do you find that you just have less of an interest now in reading them? 

DR: Basically, I don’t read them anymore. Now and then I let one in — I love Ishiguro, he’s great, he’s not a misogynist. I just read one of his books and I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Right now, when I’m on the longlist, I decided I would try to read the other books. But overall, there is much more sexualized writing in men’s books than in women’s books. 

KC: Aside from gender limitations, what do you tend to read?

DR: I tend to read translated literature by women from around the world. In peak lockdown, I was super stressed out, and for some reason the only thing that could comfort me was writing by English ladies — like 1940s, Barbara Pym, very dry little sarcastic narratives where people are snubbing each other over tea. At that time, I suddenly started reading tons of English murder mysteries too. I guess I discovered some part of my psyche that finds British lady writing really soothing. I’m off it now, back on an even keel. 

KC: A Passage North was nominated for the Booker last year, but I was reading an interview with its author, Anuk Arudpragasam, and he said he only reads one ‘original’ English-language book a year. Everything else he reads is in translation. It’s interesting what you can learn from setting these structures on your reading. 

DR: Yeah. I set that limit too, except for these British ladies. Generally, if I go into a bookstore, I try to develop an ability to judge whether something is a translation from the spine. There’s something about the aesthetic of presses that only do translations. 

KC: They’re beautiful, I find. 

DR: Yeah, but the bookstores generally don’t separate them out. You have to hunt them down. I hunt around for translations and tend to read more of the Asian ones. 

KC: Given the theme of our journal this year — Women in Translation — I feel like many of my fellow students are very interested in translation from all kinds of languages, but I get the sense that the university hasn’t yet really addressed this interest. Do you see that changing at all — not necessarily from a university standpoint, but institutionally?

DR: I’m down in my translation rabbit hole, but people keep saying to me lately, “The time of the translator has come. Translation is now.” There are more literary prizes for translations now. The International Booker in its current manifestation is only six or seven years old. There used to be just one prize, and it could be for a translated work or not, but now it’s split so one is English-language and one is translated. The International Booker is especially important for translators because it splits the prize in half. 

For a while, that was the only prize like that. Now there’s a National Book Award for Translated Literature in the US that’s new, too, about four years old. Now there’s more of these prizes and movements to put the translator on the cover of a book. #TranslatorsOnTheCover is the hashtag.  

Jennifer Croft, who translated Olga Tokarczuk, has been really loud about it because she won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. She’s got a big platform, and she’s using it; she’s berating publishers. Now there’s also more momentum about getting translators royalties. I’ve actually always been able to get royalties in India, but they’re in rupees, so it’s not much. In theory, they’ve treated me well. 

KC: It’s the principle!

DR: Yeah, exactly. There’re all these movements — translators are used to being in the shadows, and they’re coming out. Many translators are active on social media, and I’ve especially noticed, now that I’ve been put on the longlist, that all these translation groupies exist out there. It’s still kind of niche, but there’s these subcultures of people that only read works in translations. I did not know about it. 

There are shadow Booker committees, too. They all read the longlist, and then they create their own shortlist, and then apparently, I’ve heard that they even show up to the awards ceremony. They have a representative who comes and hands out their award to the people they choose.  

KC: Does anyone get to attend the ceremony? 

DR: No, it’s like the Oscars or something! It’s this fancy banquet with all the glittering literati, so they must be invited. I’ve seen the actual committee retweeting the shadow committee. 

KC: Okay, so there’s some relation there. 
DR: Yeah, translators are usually pretty nice, because they aren’t lionized celebrities like famous authors are.

Tomb of Sand is now available through Tilted Axis Press.
More information about Daisy Rockwell and her work can be found at