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portrait of Kavita Bhanot

Writing and translating are not neutral: an interview with Kavita Bhanot

Kavita Bhanot is a writer, editor, translator, teacher, and activist based in Birmingham, UK. We were lucky enough to chat to her about her work and her perspective on translation – translation as a political act, a form of violence, and a tool to foster dialogue when used responsibly.

You’ve worked with literature in different capacities and you seem to be very interested in the power dynamics at play. Could you share a bit about your journey?

I started off writing fiction, and via the fiction I got interested in the politics of writing, which is something that I explored in an anthology I edited, Too Asian, not Asian enough (2011). The anthology questioned the boxes that writers end up being put into, what publishers are interested in publishing and the limitations of this. Through this, I started thinking about ideology and how writers internalize a certain gaze or way of looking. I saw myself doing this in my own writing – in the early years I was writing for a white gaze in a way. I did a PhD, in which I wrote a novel and a thesis looking at British Asian literature published between 2000 and 2015 through the idea of Britishness and the white gaze that gets internalized and recreated. In this writing, published in the first fifteen years of the 21st century, South Asian languages and culture were associated with shame and the desire to assimilate into Britishness and whiteness. I wrote “Decolonise, not Diversify” at the tail end of that work. Since I wrote that in 2015, there has been a shift. At the time, people were talking about diversity, but when I was looking at the literature, it felt like it was ticking the diversity boxes but wasn’t different in its perspective and ideology from the literature that white writers would write. There has been a shift in recent years, questioning and rejecting this shame and assimilation, but perhaps it doesn’t always go so deep. For example, nowadays many people seem to be using the term decolonise to mean the same thing as diversity. And there is another kind of white gaze in the performativity and fetishising of our identities, languages etc, othering and fixing these, rather than seeing them as alive.  At the same time, hierarchies and supremacies can be brushed over and equalised.

I ended up going towards Panjabi and Hindi literature and translation – probably due to my dissatisfaction with what I was reading in English. It’s a journey, because the more you dig, the more you see that there are further layers. Through understanding the specificity of a region or language, we must interrogate its internal hierarchies, including patriarchy, caste, sexuality, religion etc. I’ve been invested in examining the supremacy of Hindu Brahminism, as someone who comes from that location. In the West, we tend to consume Hindu Brahminical perspectives from India, including in literature. Writing that exposes this, that shows other perspectives, can be powerful. This is true of the feminist anti-caste short stories of Hindi writer Anjali Kajal, published in English under the title Ma is Scared (Comma Press). As her translator, I have been committed to being true to her stories as well as to interrogating my own internalised perspectives over many years. At the same time, my positionality and lived experience, as well as the English language, remain a filter to the text; translation isn’t simply a transparent window. It’s an ongoing journey to understand what we have internalized and how it influences our writing and translation.  

So, you are saying that translation is not neutral? In how far is it a political act and how does that affect your work as a translator?

I’m fairly new to translation, even though I have written about the fact that growing up in the diaspora, I have been translating every day, all my life. Thinking about literary translation came much later. Part of a political approach to translation is to question what it is to be a translator and who gets to translate. It involves thinking about translation differently, not necessarily in terms of professional translators or learning a language in a detached, academic way, but considering those who come with different kinds of experiences, who come to language in different ways. This includes thinking about what you bring to translation when you live within a language, when you are invested in it, when you have something at stake. This is explored in Violent Phenomena, the collection of essays I recently co-edited, including the first essay (by Gitanjali Patel and Nariman Youssef) and the last essay by Madhu Kaza.  

So, another aspect to consider is how we translate and whom we translate for. I’ve been looking at some of the theoretical discussions around this, including Lawrence Venuti’s influential work. He tends to talk about domestication vs. foreignization. There are important arguments made critiquing the idea of domestication and writing or translating for a white or western reader. In other words, a neutral, invisible reader who you’re making things palatable to, who you’re explaining things to. But on the other hand, the idea of foreignization is also connected to the white gaze. It’s similar to the recent wave of resistance to the pressure to assimilate along with shame and erasure of non-western languages and cultures, a resistance that can slip, particularly when it’s commodified, into celebration and fetishizing. Foreignization is also a form of fetishization and othering while the ‘neutrality’, centring and power of the white gaze remains intact.

Consciously uncentring the white reader, remaining true to the original along with facing and writing towards those who inhabit the text, changes how you translate. For example, not explaining or making the translation palatable to a white reader, including avoiding footnotes or a glossary. Other ways include retaining non-English words (without italicising) and Indian English words which are not used in the same way in the west (for example ‘government school’ instead of state school and ‘cycle’ instead of bicycle or bike). It is also important to think about the bias within the English language, for example words like ‘slum’ and ‘jungle’ (derived from Sanskrit, and similarly reflecting a bias in this context).

Translators are often seen as bridge-builders, who help to create understanding and connections between different people. But in Violent Phenomena, the essay collection you co-edited with Jeremy Tiang, the editors and contributors present a different perspective – you problematize the notion of access, making something accessible via translation. Why?  It seems that translation can also be understood as a form of violence. In what ways?

Khairani Barokka writes about access in her essay in the anthology and others like Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi and Mona Kareem touch on this as well. The terminology used around translation often reveals entitlement. Metaphors for translation such as bridges and crossing borders are problematic because they flatten the terrain, approaching languages, cultures, and contexts as if they are level; it’s just about having access and entry into that terrain or at best ‘dialogue’, even from a position of power. This framing ignores the power dynamics or hierarchies between people, places and languages, between the translator and writer. These power relations have shaped the role of translation historically, and continue til today.  In the introduction we talk about the relationship between colonialism and translation, due to the need to understand societies better, in order to rule them. This colonial relationship continues to manifest today – for example, in her essay, Kareem writes about the relationship between translation and western surveillance. These dynamics play out within nation states as well of course, including those that were formerly colonised. Knowledge is another manifestation of violence, including situating yourself as having a neutral perspective from where everything else is othered and accessed freely. Meanwhile, for translators from colonised societies, there is a danger of falling into the role of the native informant; providing a ‘window’ into ‘other’ cultures, languages and literatures.

Since translation is often tied into relationships of power and entitlement, withholding or refusing to translate can be a form of resistance. In her essay, Khairani Barokka shares the powerful example of a performance by the Balinese poet and theatre artist Cok Sawitri at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival when she delivers an entertaining monologue critiquing the impact of tourism on her home island, in Indonesian and Balinese, directed only at certain listeners and untranslated.

Meanwhile, translation can also be powerful and useful. Yogesh Maitreya’s essay in Violent Phenomena is important in terms of showing the importance of translation across non-hierarchical contexts within India and internationally. He talks about communication across Indian languages and States and the connections between Dalit writers and Black writers. Translations can foster dialogue. It can help to counter the dominance of upper caste perspectives in literature, in the subcontinent and in the West. At the same time, it shouldn’t slip into a narrative of upper castes or the west ‘saving Dalits’ through translation, publication etc. Dalits should not be patronised, fetishized or commodified, this is also a form of dehumanisation, of violence. Translating literature through a framework of historical and continuing resistance and activism, respect and commitment to equality and agency is important, as well as constantly interrogating why we’re doing something and how we’re doing it.

As translators, we are responsible for the work we do. Do you have any suggestions for translators who want to position themselves or who want to express an awareness of this responsibility in their translation practice?

I have been thinking about this for myself as an ‘upper caste’ translator, translating a Dalit writer; it is important not to brush over this or simply acknowledge it in a surface or tokenistic way.

It’s not that one cannot translate from a different positionality from the writer, but it’s important to engage with larger structures and politics, for example to connect to anti-caste resistance struggles, to think about the dominance of ‘upper caste’ perspectives, how they are internalized and reproduced. It’s an ongoing journey to question these. While accepting that I will never ‘achieve’ a kind of de-casteing, it is necessary to be committed to the journey.

It is important to acknowledge that what I do is not neutral; it is not objective. It’s very much subjective, connected to my location but also what I have absorbed and internalised from the structures of the world. So, for a responsible practice we need to understand the specific context, but also ourselves and what we bring. Questioning, listening and reflecting is important. And we need to be open to being critiqued and questioned.

Meanwhile, for those of us who have any privileges, we need to think about sharing these. To not play the role of a gatekeeper, but to share knowledge, connections, opportunities and to step aside as well. Basically, allowing more space to others rather than centring ourselves.

Ma is Scared by Anjali Kajal will be published by Comma Press on 30th March. You can pre-order your copy via the Comma Press website here.

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