Early in her graduate studies in South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Daisy Rockwell, AB’91, AM’98, PhD’98, took a translation seminar with A. K. Ramanujan, a poet, linguist, folklorist, “and a beautiful literary translator,” Rockwell says. Ramanujan was one of the few academics she encountered who valued translation as an end in itself: “The seminar was eye-opening and continues to inform the way I think about my practice.”

Since 2013 Rockwell has worked as a translator of Hindi and Urdu texts into English. In 2022 she was awarded the International Booker Prize, in conjunction with Hindi author Geetanjali Shree, for the English version of Ret Samadhi, published as Tomb of Sand.

In addition to her work as a translator, Rockwell is a painter and the author of the novel Taste (Foxhead Books, 2014).

When did you consider translating as a career?

I taught at Loyola University Chicago for five years in a visiting position. Then I took a job at the University of California, Berkeley, as the vice chair for the Institute for South Asia Studies. I was there for three years. When I left Berkeley, I didn’t have a plan of any kind.

I used to translate in graduate school. I actually had a book-length completed project, a book of short stories by Upendranath Ashk [Hats and Doctors (Penguin, 2013)], about whom I wrote my dissertation.

Around 2010 I had a chance email exchange with a graduate student at New York University, a translator, who gave me a contact at Penguin India. The new editor there was interested in Indian writing from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, which is what I was interested in. I sent her that manuscript and she took it.

So you’re translating for the Indian market?

I know, it sounds funny. But the American and British markets are very hostile to South Asian translations. I—and many other translators I know—have tried repeatedly and gotten no interest whatsoever.

Most people in India are multilingual, but that can mean many things. If you went to English-speaking schools, you might be able to read Hindi, but haltingly, even if it’s your mother tongue. You might not know literary language particularly well, because there’s a lot of vocabulary that one acquires through reading.

India has a huge English-language publishing industry. The number of Indians who read in English is probably only about 1 percent of the population. But it’s a big population.

So your readers might know the culture better than you do.

My main audience is either South Asian or South Asian diaspora. They might have a small amount of relevant knowledge—or they could be capable of reading the book in Hindi, but just don’t.

I now conceptualize my readership as this huge tent, and I’m trying to keep everybody in it.

You went back and forth a lot with the author of Tomb of Sand. Is that common?

It depends. Some authors have no interest.

Geetanjali’s writing is very, very idiosyncratic and poetic. There were quite a lot of things that I simply could not understand based on a dictionary. I would show the text to native speakers, who can sometimes perceive things I can’t, and they said, Sorry, I have no idea what’s going on.

I don’t think writers should have to answer the kinds of questions that I had to ask her: What were you thinking here? Why did you do this? In theory, they should be left alone to write. But I had to ask.

Since she speaks English, did she consider doing the translation herself, as some authors do?

Indian English can be very formal. Often when Indian authors try to self-translate, they have trouble getting it out of a formal register.

But Geetanjali never wanted to self-translate. She wants to concentrate on writing. People often ask her, Why do you even write in Hindi at all? She could write in English and immediately have a bigger market. She finds it disturbing that people ask why she’s writing in her mother tongue.

She didn’t like the title Tomb of Sand. What would her choice have been?

She brings this up every chance she gets. Sometimes we have arguments onstage. We’re like a married couple. I got my way, so she has the right to complain.

The title in Hindi is Ret Samadhi. Ret means “sand.” But samadhi means a wide variety of things. To her, tomb means a marble mausoleum with a dead body inside. I feel like tomb has a wider meaning in English. A tomb of sand is obviously not made of marble. It becomes a question mark, almost a micro fiction: What could that be? What is a tomb of sand?

But to Geetanjali, she’s lost samadhi, which can also mean a deep, trancelike state. That was what she meant. She likes to point out that it’s actually in the Oxford English Dictionary. She wanted the title to be Sand Samadhi. I say that sounds like a beach yoga class.

You’re also a painter. How do you divide your time between translating and painting?

I have moods. During the lockdown, I didn’t translate much at all. I was finishing Tomb of Sand, but just dragging to the finish line. I was painting all the time.

A library in a nearby town [Manchester, Vermont] asked if I would like to do an exhibit, which went up last summer. The paintings were lying all around the house. I had 70 pieces. I had no idea I had done that much.

The analogy that always comes into my mind is Mary Poppins. She leaves when the wind changes. I have these two selves, and one of them will leave. Suddenly, I don’t feel like translating at all. Or sometimes I just have no interest in painting. I have to live with that.

You painted the artwork for the cover of Tomb of Sand. Is this a first in publishing?

Maybe? What’s funny is before my translation came out, the original Hindi book had gone through a new edition because we found a bunch of typos while I was translating. So I made a different painting for the new Hindi edition.

Having a translator do the cover at all is unusual. But to have the translator do the cover of the original text is very strange—so strange that nobody has even remarked on it.

You’ve also published one novel of your own, Taste (Foxhead Books, 2014). How did that come about?

After I left Berkeley, I started to do some creative writing. I wrote two more novels that aren’t published. I may go back to my, quote unquote, own creative writing at some point.

I felt like writing non-translation, to borrow from Robert Frost, is like playing tennis with the net down. A translation is this highly structured kind of creative writing—very intellectually challenging. But on the other hand, when you’re translating, you never have to face a blank page.

How did it feel to win the International Booker?

Surreal. Translators don’t get out much, especially during COVID. So a gala event was a bit shocking—but thrilling.

It was a difficult book to translate and took me much longer than other books have. It doesn’t necessarily happen in life that you get an enormous prize for something that was really hard to do.

And honestly, if we hadn’t been recognized by the Booker, probably no one would have read our book— because it’s long and hard. Geetanjali and I joke that before we got long-listed, only our husbands had read it.

In Tomb of Sand, I noticed the word dude. Do you translate into American English, or do they say dude in India?

That’s a great question. I try my hardest not to use American English. Whilst I’m not writing in Indian English, I have to echo it a bit.

Tomb of Sand is the first contemporary book I have translated. Dude was something I felt tempted to use in certain settings, but I wasn’t sure. So I put out a Twitter poll, which specifically asked for responses only from people in South Asia. The vast majority said everybody—but especially young people—say it.

English people think it’s an Americanism. But people all around the world are saying dude—except the British.

Does it seem like the work of translators is being recognized more than it used to be?

I think it’s a trend. I put all the credit on the International Booker Prize as conceived since 2015. It’s a prize split equally between the writer and translator, which was never done before.

Since then there have been more prizes created for translation. The National Book Awards added an identical prize to the Booker into their array of prizes, split equally between the writer and translator. There’s also a movement to include the translator’s name on the cover, spearheaded by Jennifer Croft, who won the International Booker for translating the Polish Nobel Prize–winner Olga Tokarczuk.

Translators in other periods of history and other cultures have been regarded very well, even been revered. For some reason, our times have been a low point for translation. Partly it comes from the aesthetic of the invisible translator: the notion that as a reader, you should feel that you’re communing directly with the original text.

That view is changing. There’s starting to be an awareness that translation is a creative process in itself and is not just mechanical.

In your experience in academia, translation was not taken seriously. Why is that?

In my particular field, South Asian studies, we are all translators. We’re writing in English about things going on in other languages. We have to translate to do the most basic analysis—you can’t just drop in a chunk of Sanskrit text. So in that sense, it’s valued.

But there was no training put into making your translation sound good or interesting. It’s a utilitarian approach. Out of that utilitarian school of thought, people do emerge as literary translators. I’m not the only one. But it’s despite the training.

One exception: right at the beginning of graduate school, I took a translation seminar with A. K. Ramanujan. You will find people throughout academia who are exceptions, but they’re rare, and they probably did not get tenure with their translations. I had envisioned a graduate experience where I would be working with him and making beautiful translations, and suddenly he died.

How did you learn to do literary translation?

I taught myself. I instinctually understood the idea of recreating something in a new language as a creative act. It’s not just the simple transfer of meaning, which is how a lot of people think of translation.

Tell me about your decision to translate only women writers.

My first idea was to make it equal. I’d translated four books, and I realized I’d translated only male authors. That was a totally unconscious decision.

So my first goal was to even it out, but I’ve gone over that mark. It’s possible I’ll go back, or make an exception here and there. But I don’t feel that tempted.

You’ve also gone on what you call a “diet” of reading only women authors.

I pinpoint it to two reading experiences. I was translating a novel by Ashk, In the City a Mirror Wandering. There’s this scene where a woman character is beaten by a male character and it becomes a focus of a huge shout down within the neighborhood. And she never speaks. This person’s experience is simply not explored. No interest is taken.

At the same time, I was reading Les Misérables in French. Fantine is in similar kind of situation—she’s down and out and becomes very ill. But her feelings are not of much interest. She can be left for hundreds of pages and it doesn’t really matter.

So I decided to see what it would be like to cut men out of my literary diet. As I went on, my rules got more and more stringent. Next I cut out Anglo-American women, then white women, then anything written in English—it had to be translated or in the original.

After I stopped reading male writers, I realized all the things that we are used to, in terms of the male gaze and misogyny. Then a new Haruki Murakami novel came out. I always liked him, so I thought, I’ll make an exception. It’s a big joke on the internet that male authors will always lead with the breasts when they’re describing female characters, but it’s true. I put it down.

Do you have a particular way of working?

I do all my first drafts handwritten in notebooks. Then I type them. Before I send a book to the editor, I go through ten drafts at least.

What kind of notebooks—spiral?

No, no. Never spiral. I use Moleskines. Never lined. Because I’m also an artist, I draw around the margins.

So Moleskines, or other types of notebooks. As long as it’s pretty, I will use it. Tomb of Sand filled up three exactly. A gold Leuchtturm and two Hello Kitty Moleskines. On one, she has a balloon. The other one has a little speech bubble that says, “Inspired?”

After I won the Booker, I splurged and bought this beautiful lavender fountain pen. I ran into the English-language Booker winner, Shehan Karunatilaka, in a stationer’s shop. He also writes all his first drafts by hand. We were in the basement where there was this grotto of fountain pens. He talked me into getting a fountain pen and then I talked him into getting a teal fountain pen—not just a boring fountain pen. So we had a little Booker celebration moment.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy Daisy Rockwell