South Asian Literature in Translation: The Play of Dolls

The Play of Dolls by Kunwar Narain; co-translated from Hindi into English by John Vater and Apurva Narain

Publication date: 20 January 2020
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics (India)
ISBN-13: 978-0143446958

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

AN and JV: Kunwar Narain, primarily a poet and a very private one at that, has written across several genres of poetry and prose and is regarded as an iconic figure in modern Indian literature. His experimental collection of stories (translated for the first time since its publication half a century ago and published as a Penguin Modern Classic with the title of The Play of Dolls) appeared in the original Hindi in 1971 as Ākāroṁ Ke Ās-Pās (Near and Around Shapes)—a significant departure from the norm of the genre then, reconfiguring for a whole generation of writers how the short story could be written. 

These provocative stories range from surreal, poetic masterpieces to witty tales of satire and human aspiration. At times bordering on the fairy tale, at other times essay and thought-experiment, they reflect on the daily injustices and absurdities meted out to individuals in everyday places of public and private exchange: the office, the market, a road, a train, or even alone at one’s desk. Narain innovates on the genre to counterpose universal inner values and external compulsions in a way that will resonate with world readers. 

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

AN: Before this book, I focused on translating Narain’s poetry—when my first book No Other World came out in 2008/2010 from India/England, there was limited modern Hindi poetry available in translation. After it, there was a long hiatus in my work for personal reasons, and it is only in the last two to three years that I got back to it. At that time, I often wondered what these stories from the pen of a poet would look like in translation and my co-translator, John, had already begun translating them. We both felt this would be a most interesting book to collaborate on, not just for its own remarkable literary merit and novelty but also for what we as translators could complementarily bring to it. And so this translation.  

JV: What we translate often reflects what we like to read—and not just like to read but also find significant. For me, it was marvelous to discover an author who (like other twentieth-century giants) took big, foundational arguments and frames through which we think about life and set them against one another to naturally unfold and compete across the story—an almost scientific, literary way of testing their validity. Narain applies a poetic microscope to all kinds of relationships, including their contradictions and junctures. I was drawn to his classical dualism—how he subtly unravels, through a variety of viewpoints, the intersections between the internal and external, reason and feeling, and being and understanding. And then looks for a morally grounded non-dualism amidst this paradox. Through translation, I was drawn to look too.

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

AN: When I delved into the stories, they opened up vistas I never imagined—poetic, parabolic, ironic, cinematic, Kafkaesque by turn; beneath their austere surfaces lay tales that were slowly and deeply expansive. It was a translation delight, and occasionally reminiscent of the challenges of translating Narain’s poetry—where it was sometimes not easy to translate the deliberate simplicity of the construct. At the same time, one also sensed an interconnectedness of sorts, not just across stories but also between the stories and some of the poems (and in sync with the quiet, gentle persona of the author himself.) This seemed to suggest that there were larger paradigms or worldviews being constructed in his work (and life), something I’ve alluded to in this book’s afterword—and the sense has been strengthened while working on my forthcoming translations. A key challenge, then, was to not let the stylistic and linguistic idiosyncrasies of these highly individual stories eclipse their collective import in the translation and vice-versa.

JV: In his ‘Note to the Reader’ (titled ‘Preface’ in the book), Narain explains how he applies the structures unique to the short story and combines them with other genres—like essay, poem, fable, and fairy tale—to open a dialogue with the world and his readers. Narain’s ‘romances with reality’ surprisingly manifest through a style that is at times magically realist, surrealist, dream-like, or absurd. When translating, each story thus required its own inventiveness. These aspects, as well as the stories’ intellectual tenor, created a universality that had to be mediated through specific cultural and linguistic contexts. One challenge (and joy) was retracing the author’s varied inspirations—from humanistic South Asian traditions, such as the insights of the poet-saint Kabir, to the techniques of global authors he admired. How Narain merged the tangible and intangible is novel, which demanded similar novelty with English.     

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

AN and JV: These stories are largely not the typical kind. While accessible on the surface, they are often complex and multidimensional; and while interconnected at a broader level, each holds its own stylistic integrity. Several stories, such as ‘She’, ‘Dubious Moves’ or ‘Near and Around Shapes’, often invite the reader as an intellectual participant in them and so may need a different, patient reading to unfold their latent intentions.

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

AN: With just a tiny fraction of Narain’s overall corpus in translation yet, he remains largely ‘undiscovered’ for the non-Hindi reader—his works will be a priority for translation, including poetry, epic poems, another story collection, and several books of non-fiction. Immediately, I am about to complete a new selection of his more recent poems that were not part of my earlier book. Titled Witnesses of Remembrance, this book will come out around Feb-Mar 2021 from Westland Publications, India. 

JV: While completing my MFA at the University of Iowa, I had also made inroads into translating another short story collection. Progress continues, but other research and writing projects have necessarily arisen. My critical and literary work tends to come in waves, and I look forward to returning to translation very soon. 

Author Bio: Kunwar Narain (1927–2017) is considered one of India’s foremost poets, thinkers, and literary figures of modern times. His diverse oeuvre of seven decades, since his first book in 1956, is said to embody, above all, a unique interplay of the simple and the complex, and includes three epic poems regarded as classics of Hindi literature; eight poetry collections; translations of poets such as Cavafy, Borges, Herbert, Valéry and Różewicz; as well as books of stories, criticism, essays, conversations, and writings on world cinema and the arts. His honors include the highest accolade of India’s Academy of Letters, the Sahitya Akademi Senior Fellowship; India’s national poetry award Kabir Samman; the civilian honor Padma Bhushan; Italy’s Premio Feronia for distinguished world author; and the Jnanpith. A reclusive writer, some of his works remain unpublished. [Image Source: Apurva Narain]

Translator Bio: Apurva Narain is Kunwar Narain’s son and translator. His books include a translated poetry collection, No Other World, and a co-translated story collection, The Play of Dolls. A book of poetry translations, Witnesses of Remembrance, is forthcoming soon. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals such as Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Poetry International, Asia Literary Review, Indian Literature, Columbia Journal, Two Lines, etc. Educated in India and at the University of Cambridge, he writes in English and has professional interests in ecology, public health and ethics. [Image Source: Apurva Narain]

Translator Bio: John Vater holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. The Play of Dolls is his first book in translation, co-translated with Apurva Narain. In 2018, he was selected as an emerging translator from the US to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre Residency in Canada. His translations have appeared in PloughsharesAsia Literary ReviewWords Without Borders, and Exchanges. He works as a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore. [Image Source: Apurva Narain]

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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