Vermonter Daisy Rockwell wins the International Booker Prize for her translation of 'Tomb of Sand'
Daisy Rockwell comes from a family of artists — some of whose work may be displayed on your kitchen calendar, or the surfaces of your chinaware, or hanging on the walls at your local doctors office.
Rockwell is the granddaughter of Norman Rockwell, who spent his later years living in Arlington, Vermont. She learned to use a paintbrush before a pencil. Her artistic work is truly inspiring, but it’s her work in translation that has brought new fame to the Vermont-based artist, writer and translator.
Rockwell has won the prestigious International Booker Prize for her translation of the novel Tomb of Sand, by Geetanjali Shree, from Hindi to English.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with author, artist and translator Daisy Rockwell. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Daisy Rockwell: It's very exciting for me, because I have been translating for many years, decades in fact, but all my work has been published in India. It has been very difficult to find a publisher outside of India. So I was commissioned to do this project by Tilted Axis Press in the U.K. And the success coming from the long-listing and short-listing and subsequently the award makes it possible to publish the work in the United States for the first time. And that deal was just announced with Harper Via.
Mitch Wertlieb: I'd love to hear more about the relationship between translator and author. How did you two find each other? And how was this translation work done?
I was actually approached by a Bangla translator, who had been contacted by the U.K. publisher — [Shree] wanted to have this book translated. So he was kind of a matchmaker between me and the author.
So, initially she agreed to allow me to translate it. And then I did an entire first draft, which takes a long time. Then I started sending her questions, and I was going to go to India to work with her on it in person, because it was a very difficult novel to translate. But then the pandemic hit. So we ended up exchanging hundreds and hundreds of emails. We never Zoomed or spoke on the phone. And we actually met for the first time last week in London.
"... illustration and translation are very similar, because in both cases, you are transferring one thing into an entirely different medium. And even though translation is words, it's still a completely different set of words. The translator rewrites the entire book in a different language, so they've written every word of the book, they've reinterpreted it."Daisy Rockwell, winner of International Booker Prize
What was that like, when you actually finally got to meet each other after this two-year correspondence of translation? It must have been amazing.
It was amazing, but we also felt like old friends. I mean, we had been through so much together already. So it was in some ways just like meeting someone I had known forever.
If you had to describe this book to someone, what about it stood out to you? What makes it a great book, in your estimation?
This book is extremely experimental, and Geetanjali plays with conventions and crosses borders in all different ways. And lately, I've been thinking that the English book that it most resembles for me is Ulysses by James Joyce. So think about that totally unconventional use of language, that pushing of the borders of the language that you're using.
And you know, plot is there. But for example, it's for some readers consternation, the main character doesn't get out of bed for the first 200 pages, while her family is swirling around her doing their thing, because it's a big Indian, joint family. And it's in that way kind of pushing the conventions of storytelling: What do you expect a story to be? What is a plot? You know, what are protagonists supposed to do? And then on top of it all, just those constant word-play and linguistic pyrotechnics.
I'm so curious too, about your journey from artist to translator. I mean, right in your bio, you say you made a detour into academia in the late 90s. And I'm wondering if that's when you started to get into translation work?
Yeah, I mean, I always enjoyed studying languages from middle school on. I then went on to college and eventually started studying Hindi, kind of on a whim. And it just drew me, and it was very challenging for me, because I had no background or previous knowledge about Indian culture.
But I just was drawn in, and I ended up getting a Ph.D. in South Asian languages and literature and pursuing kind of an academic career for some time. So I did start to translate at that time, when I was in graduate school.
I wonder if you think translation is a kind of artwork in that you are painting a picture from something else. I mean, these words are going to be translated into languages that people are familiar with and that they can understand. But it's not the original. You're painting a kind of picture in a way, aren't you?
Absolutely. And I've been thinking about this a lot, because I also painted the image that's used on the cover of the Indian edition of the book. And I started to think about how illustration and translation are very similar, because in both cases, you are transferring one thing into an entirely different medium. And even though translation is words, it's still a completely different set of words. The translator rewrites the entire book in a different language, so they've written every word of the book, they've reinterpreted it. So in some senses, I think there is a lot in common between translation and illustration.
I want to ask just one more question. And this is not related to your translation of this book. But you know, Rockwell is a fairly common name. I'm just curious, though, when people do meet you, if it does come up in conversation from someone you've never met before that, "Oh, I, you know, Norman Rockwell was my grandfather." What is the reaction to that? Is it overwhelming in some ways? And what is it like to be the granddaughter of someone so famous?
It was a bit overwhelming, you know, to be an artist myself, and to have that kind of hovering over my head. But what's interesting to me is that a lot of people, when they find out I studied Hindi, and now that I'm a translator, they somehow think it's a contradiction in a way — that Norman Rockwell is so American that it's kind of contradictory that I would study an Indian language.
And it's funny, because they don't realize what a cosmopolitan man he was. And he in fact, traveled to India and Pakistan, and he painted the portrait of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. So that's really not contradictory in my mind at all.