We corresponded some more, she always in her distinctive curly longhand, so reminiscent of the frizzy hair in her photographs. Mindful of my handwriting, which at times even I cannot read, I responded in typewriting. Eventually, our exchange led to my translating her 1974 story collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You into Hindi. She had remembered my lamenting the fate of literary translations in India, that the task was an unremunerated labor of love. When she put me in touch with Virginia Barber, her literary agent at that time, Alice must have instructed her not to ask for any advance as “signing money” for the translation rights.
My translation was published in India in 1993. It was the first fiction by any Canadian writer to be published in Hindi (a language of approximately 550 million people). When she got a copy, Alice wrote again to say that, although she could not read it, it felt good to hold it in her hand.
Canada’s High Commission in New Delhi organized a seminar in October 1993 to introduce my translation. Kim Campbell, then Canada’s prime minister, sent a message, which was read out at an event with a light reception at the University of Delhi presided over by Prem Singh, the distinguished Indian linguist and literary scholar.
Translating Alice has not been without its rewards. Over the years, twice in 2019 alone, I have been invited to translation studies conferences to discuss the challenges of translating a 30-page story — a story that has the depth and gravitas of a 300-page novel — across cultural habitats and language domains. The conference participants, solemnly discussing the intricacies of conflicting translation theories, are invariably amused when, during my presentation, I tell them how Alice’s housewives face the threat of being seen as less than respectable women to Hindi readers.
For Munro’s characters often have a drink — more women, I can vouch, than men. Her average housewives, buying groceries or cleaning up messes, have a drink alone and enjoy it. In India, however, women do not drink for fun, much less a woman alone. Such a woman would be suspected of being — to use old-fashioned idioms still employed in India — of loose morals and easy virtue. Most Indian movies and television shows confirm the stereotype: regardless of age, hairstyle, or skimpiness of apparel, drinking and smoking have been a constant in the portrayal of vamps and prostitutes for the past 100 years.
For readers in Hindi and the other vernacular languages of India, drinking is still associated with getting drunk, with that home-wrecking, face-in-the-gutter kind of drinking that gets temperance advocates marching. M. K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, no mean temperance preacher himself, once said that he considered drinking to be “an evil worse than stealing or prostitution.” Seldom is there a middle ground. Some Indians will argue, and quite correctly too, that social drinking is acceptable, even for women, among certain sections of India’s middle class. But the stereotype of the bad woman remains alive in the minds of most indigenous language readers.
Twenty-five years later, my translation was due for a reprint. Alice Munro had since won Canada’s only Nobel Prize for Literature. The publisher, at my suggestion, agreed to launch a revamped edition of the book at a ceremony at the World Book Fair in New Delhi in January 2019.
Buoyed by memories of the 1993 event, I contacted the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi. The CHC, apparently, now had a section of personnel devoted to “fulfill[ing] Canada’s cultural mandate,” including “advocacy of cultural matters.” Our discussion went like this:
Me: It’s about the launch of the translation of a work by Alice Munro.
Me: [after explaining] I’d like a poster-sized photo of Alice Munro for the occasion.
CHC: We don’t do anything like that. [Same answer, even after my saying that they could print a photo from the internet.]
Me: The translation was funded by the Canada Council.
Me: Could we have a message, preferably from Canada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, for this occasion?
CHC: 1. Not sure about the message. 2. Can’t help in any other way.
It was already January and the Hindi publisher had publicized the launching. In panicked desperation, I reached out to the MP representing the electoral district outside Montréal where I live. His assistant, on vacation in the United States, got involved. After several appeals for urgency, I was — almost grudgingly — sent a message from Nadir Patel, the Canadian High Commissioner in India.
With Alice Munro’s name misspelled!
As the Indian publisher asked, incredulously, “What was there to misspell in a five-letter name?”
Back in Canada, I began to wonder who else could be standing on guard for Canada’s culture. I wrote about the frustrating experience to the Clinton News-Record, which is published in the Ontario town where Alice lives. The newspaper had recently featured a news item about the installation of a “charming bench […] designed to celebrate the much-cherished literary daughter of Huron County.” But they did not acknowledge my email.
The next, logical step was to share my outrage with the Writers’ Union of Canada, of which Alice Munro is a member. Besides a few words of commiseration, the WUC offered the puzzling suggestion to “connect with Alice’s publisher, who would have more of a direct connection to this sort of international promotion opportunity.”
Did Alice Munro win Canada’s only Nobel for Literature, or what?!
It was then that I thought of Douglas Gibson, the editor and publisher who has brought us so many works by Alice Munro — and who had told me when we had first met, “I am honored to meet someone who translates Alice Munro.” An almost-certainly bemused Doug wrote back and suggested a few places where I might send for publication my chronicle of Canada’s fulfillment of its cultural mandate in this instance. I decided to listen to him.
Anand, a Canada-based former print and broadcast journalist, is a translator of Canadian fiction into Hindi (Runaway, his second translation of Alice Munro, is due in 2021), and of Hindi fiction into English and French, including This is Not That Dawn, the saga of India’s partition by Yashpal hailed by The New Yorker as “perhaps the greatest long novel about India.”