Painting in words: An interview with Vikrant Pande

Monday, 14 April 2014 - 5:09am IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: DNA
After making a laudable debut with his English translation of Marathi writer Ranjit Desai's novel on painter Raja Ravi Varma, writer Vikrant Pande has his hands full with new works for translation. In this interview with dna, he discusses his experiences and the finer nuances of this literary category

It took five years of painstaking work since the time he embarked on his project, to finally seeing the translated work in print. And when acclaimed Marathi writer Ranjit Desai's celebrated novel on painter Raja Ravi Varma hit the stands, it was gobbled up in no time. The translated work was in English, and the one who hit on the idea was engineer-turned-writer Vikrant Pande. He now lives in Bangalore with his family, and the city and its weather being what they are, Pande doesn't feel the need to run to a hill station anymore for a writing vacation. He's now here for the long haul, and working on more translations. Excerpts from an interview...

Q.Engineering (which Pande did for graduation) and management (he's an alumnus of IIM Bangalore) on one hand, and translations on the other don't quite appear to go hand in hand. Do they?

A. Not at all. I would not like to use an engineering or a management approach here. Translation is a passion as it requires a restraint on one's creativity, as well as the ability to get into the mind of the author who may not be available for consultation. I call translation 'creativity within a defined space'.

Q. How did you happen to zero in on the Raja Ravi Varma novel? Were there other works of fiction that were jostling for space in your mind too at that time?

A: I was born in Baroda and have seen Raja Ravi Varma paintings in the museum there. I (still) am fascinated by his work and have collected hundreds of his oleographs over the last many years. When I read Ranjit Desai's novel, I realised that the story of Varma needs to be told to millions of Indians who know about his paintings, but have no idea of the life of India's number one painter. It was my first attempt at translation. Having translated the novel, I now have been given a mandate by HarperCollins and another publisher to work on a few more books. A couple of them will be released this year, and two more next year.

Q. What was the readers' reaction to your first work? Do you think there is a readership for translated works at all? Is it substantial enough for publishers to make financial sense of them?

A: I have received fantastic reviews, and people have been touched by my work. I say it is not my work, and the credit goes to the Marathi author who wrote such a fascinating story. There is a very large latent demand for Indian works in English. I say 'latent' as people are not aware of the classics which are available in different languages, whether Marathi, Bangla, Tamil, or other Indian languages. There are a huge number of gems in Indian literature, and there is a great need to get them out to the larger majority. Today's generation may not enjoy reading in the original vernacular and are more comfortable reading in English. Financially speaking, if marketed well, I believe Indian translations have more value than English bestsellers, and can make a lot of money for the publisher.

Q.And how much do you think is lost in translation? How much of the literary nuances and cultural sensibilities need to be compromised in order to reach out to a wider readership?

A: Translation is a fine art. The balance between using one's own creativity and being loyal to the author is a tough task. Yes, some of the cultural nuances can get lost, but that's where the translator's ability lies — in preserving literary and cultural sensibilities. At the same time, it is important to preserve the essential nature of the original language. It is an effort to tell others 'what' the author said as well as 'how' he or she said it. If I make it into a pure English novel, it will lose its charm. For example, I believe in keeping a lot of Indian words rather than using the English equivalent as that is what gives it its 'Indian-ness'. Having said that, not all works are translatable. Some lose a large part of their originality in translation. Rabindranath's poems are a good example.

Q. Translating a book is more than just sitting at a computer and converting a work in one language to another. How much of research did you have to do? How long did the entire project take?

A: Translation is surely not 'transliteration'. I don't do much of research, but I do spend time reading about the subject, if available elsewhere. In some purely fictional subjects, one may not have an opportunity to do research. But reading other novels of the same author gives a sense of his style. Novels involving historical figures or novels talking about a particular period in history or a specific geography of India may require background work to get a sense of that time, period and space. Typically, a novel of 250 pages would take a year which would involve the first draft, second draft and a couple of rounds of editing by me as well as the publisher.

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