Updated: Jul 10
The successive pandemic lockdowns brought several creatives to the social media forefront. Uma Shirodkar, popularly known as @lyrically_obscure on Instagram, spent her early quarantine translating song lyrics and poetry for her growing list of followers who were taken by the accuracy of the intent behind the source material.
The art of translation is a risky and complex undertaking. Not only can translated pieces read as cheesy if not tended to with care, they can also readily depreciate the original writing to a readership that may not be familiar with the source language. A fellow of the 2022 cohort of South Asia Speaks, Shirodkar, has eschewed such pitfalls. Her translated works draw the originally intended emotion and context with ease, subtly carrying a figment of her understanding as a reader. It's a delicate art that she has come to master. Take, for example, her post on Sanskrit verses and lyrics used in Hindi songs, where she not only translates shlokas but gives enough context about the origin of the verses and their necessity in the scenes where they feature.
In this interview, I try to pry open the genius that resides within Shirodkar and where it is taking her.
Uma, what would you say is the biggest challenge when translating poetry? Do you think the same emotional effect can be replicated or recreated?
I'd say the biggest challenge is striking a balance between a literal translation and a poetic translation. As translators, we need to ascertain what will work best without sacrificing the essence and lyrical quality of the original. Equally challenging is grasping what the poet is trying to convey; and the consequent replication or recreation of the emotional experience - that comes later on. For this, you need to choose accurate words and phrases. It is again tricky but not impossible. Like I said, if you grasp what the poet is trying to say, it's half the battle won right there.
Pictured here: Uma Shirodkar's translation of the song Pashmina from Fitoor (2016).
Talking about Urdu poetry, I find this particularly difficult while attempting to translate the classical poets like Ghalib, Mir, Zauq etc. Not only is the language very old-school, but the verses are challenging to interpret even for experienced readers. I use the word "attempt" because it is genuinely a challenge even to try.
Do you think subtitled cinema can be used as a language learning tool?
Absolutely! I think it is a great language-learning tool. Through subtitled films, you can see and hear the language being spoken in a real-life setting, as well as a translation of what is being said. It is constructive in understanding nuances in the dialogues and, in my case, improving vocabulary.
It has helped me become more culturally aware too. Because not only you are learning the language, you are also learning about the cultural aspects.
As far as Indian cinema goes, I have greatly expanded my understanding of languages like Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, and Bangla a lot due to subtitled cinema. It also helps get acquainted with dialects & registers different from the standard one. It has helped me become more culturally aware, too. Because not only you are learning the language, you are also learning about the cultural aspects. And this is where good subtitling comes into play - it can make or break a movie viewing experience for a non-native speaker.
What language pairs do you find easiest to work with, and what pairs take the most time for you?
I find it easiest to work in English to Marathi (my mother tongue) and vice versa. English to Urdu and Sanskrit respectively (and vice versa) take me the most time.
A piece you are looking forward to translating?
I have recently started expanding my reading in Marathi & there are some beautiful pieces of poetry that I would love to translate into English, in addition to old Marathi songs that I grew up listening to.
As a fellow of the 2022 cohort of South Asia Speaks (a literary mentorship for upcoming writers in South Asia), I'm translating a short story anthology in Marathi to English.
As a fellow of the 2022 cohort of South Asia Speaks (a literary mentorship for upcoming writers in South Asia), I'm translating a short story anthology in Marathi to English. Prof. Arunava Sinha is my mentor for this project, and I am looking forward to working on this.
Any other translators you follow for inspiration?
Sunjoy Shekhar, Mustansir Dalvi, and Agha Shahid Ali's poetry translations are some of the best I've ever read. I have been following Jerry Pinto and, of course, Prof. Arunava Sinha ever since I started translating.
What books are you currently reading or last read?
Currently, I'm reading the Urdu novel Alif by Pakistani author and screenwriter Umera Ahmed. I recently finished Frederick Backman's A Man Called Ove and K.S. Duggal's Sain Bulleh Shah: The Mystic Muse.
Would you consider publishing a book of translations in the future? If so, which poet’s work would you choose?
Yes, of course, I would consider it. I have absolutely no idea as of now because, again, there are so many things I want to work on!
You can follow Uma's work on Instagram @lyrically_obscure