‘Literary translation demands great deal of creativity…’


Eminent translator and scholar Valerie Henitiuk, a professor at MacEwan University, Canada, where she also serves as Executive Director, Centre for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFÉ) and University Advisor for Indigenous Initiatives was recently in Bhubaneswar for the release of Spark of Light – an anthology of translated stories by Odia women writers. The former Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation who has worked extensively on Japanese and Odia literature, spoke about various aspects of translation and women’s writing in an interview.

literary translation

Q: This was your first visit to Odisha whereas you have worked on Odia literature translation so much. How was the experience?

A: Yes, it felt slightly odd with both books (One Step Towards the Sun in 2010 and now Spark of Light) to be working on women’s writing from a part of the world I didn’t know personally. Of course, my co-editor SupriyaKar is from Bhubaneswar, and a specialist in Odia Literature, so I relied on her a tremendous amount. It was such a pleasure finally to arrive in Odisha, and finally see so many of the places (cities and monuments, for example) mentioned in the stories. And more significantly, to get a sense of the very real context–social, historical, political, and economic–in which those women wrote.

Q: Did you find the scenes and situations from Odia literature you have worked on, evident in the life here?

A: I had only a few days in Odisha, but it does seem to me that the stories came alive in my mind in a very different way from when I was only reading them on the page. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures of any author’s world—all of this helps flesh out the readerly experience in myriad and very real ways. It is my hope that some readers in Canada and elsewhere around the world are inspired by Spark of Light to visit Odisha and be as charmed and impressed as I was!

Q: You have come across female voices from Odisha in literature starting from the first Odia woman writer to some young ones from the present generation. How do you see their aspirations and situation changing over the years?

A: The diversity of voices in our book is worthy of comment. While I do agree that there are generational differences—after all, the first story in this collection dates from the late 19th century, while the most recent is only a few years old, and so the context from one to another has shifted—the voices remain individual and strikingly so. That said, many issues of particular importance to women remain constant: agency, community, the value of human life….

Q: Translation doesn’t seem to have got its due respect or popularity yet. Your opinion?

A: Translators have always had a challenging role, and this is unlikely to change dramatically, although we are making inroads in terms of the respect they deserve. The practice of literary translation demands a great deal in terms of creativity, writing and interpretative skills, in addition to the mastery of at least two languages. The need to subordinate one’s personal style to allow the author’s own voice and vision to shine through clearly is also important. And so the very qualities that allow the translation to succeed, to take on a new life in a new language and for new readers, are sometimes precisely those that allow too many to discount the translator’s immense contribution.

Q: How significant is it to have women’s literature translated into various languages?

A: I spent a decade working on women’s writing from ancient Japan, and am now working on contemporary woman author from northern Canada–Sanaaq, by Mitiarjuk, is a fascinating fictional text about the impact of early colonization on a small, semi-nomadic community. The unilingual Mitiarjuk wrote her novel in her native language of Inuktitut, over the space of some twenty years. It has been translated into French and more recently English, but both times by men, and (what is more) men who were primarily interested in anthropological rather than literary concerns. So it seems to me that there are other, more complex questions to be asked here. Yes, it is important to have women’s writing, women’s views of the world as it unfolds before them or in their varied imaginations, available to readers unable to access the original. But it is also important to consider who is translating, and why, for what purposes. Which interpretations make their way into a reader’s hands? And what other possible interpretations may thereby be forestalled (since typically a minority literature is translated only once into any given language)?

Q: What changes do you find in the expressions by women globally in literature?

A: When I first came across Japanese writing, it was a sort of diary written in the year 960, by a woman now known only as Michitsuna’s Mother. In that book, The Kagero Diary, she tells of her failing marriage, the challenge of being a single parent, of struggling to have her former husband treat their son with kindness and consistency. So, I would like to underscore how much women from other times and places may have to share about concerns that we may at first consider only part of our more modern world, whether Western or Eastern. But the differences are also striking, as is only to be expected. Writers produce within specific contexts, and are in many cases inseparable from the specific world they write about, or that informs their work. The trick for readers—and translators—is to find what could be termed the like within the unlike… after all, more unites us than separates us, whether as women or as human beings more generally. And world literature is the prime means for beginning to understand this fact in any real sense.

Q: Tell us more about the experience in bringing out Spark of Light.

A: When my colleague, Supriya Kar, approached me about bringing out a second edition of our first collection, I was happy to consent. My one condition was that we seek with a North American publisher. While both Supriya and I are very grateful to Bhubaneswar-based Rupantar for their support of One Step Towards the Sun, it was important to me that this time we make these stories more explicitly available to readers outside India. Working with Athabasca University Press, based in the Canadian city of Edmonton, and which has the resources to ensure wide publicity, allows all of the authors and translators included in Spark of Light to reach a much broader audience. Canada has a substantial Indian diaspora, as well as a readership more generally interested in such topics as the sub-continent, women’s writing, and postcolonialism, and I am confident that with this backing from a respected academic publisher overseas these stories will find their way into the hands of far more readers, as well as into libraries and university courses more globally. And this widespread interest will be repaid by the fine quality of the literature coming out of Odisha over more than a century of women’s writing.

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