Daisy Rockwell
Daisy Rockwell

I’m not worried about AI: Daisy Rockwell

Daisy Rockwell speaks to Chittajit Mitra on getting the NEA Fellowship and the role of AI in translation

You have been awarded the NEA Fellowship to translate Pakistani writer Nisar Aziz Butt’s Urdu novel. What is the book about?

Nisar Aziz Butt was actually Pashtun, and learned Urdu later. This novel—The Traveler Wandered from Town to Town—is somewhat autobiographical. It’s about a young woman—an orphan—who is shuttled between her uncles’ houses, before ending up in a sanatorium after being diagnosed with TB. She recovers and goes to Lahore, but she can’t take exams because of the schedule. She has a tutor, and eventually manages to get her BA, but the whole time she is desperately reading novels by writers such as Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky. She really wants to fall in love, but all guys fall short. I don’t want to give spoilers but there’s a happy ending.

What inspired you to learn Urdu?

There were many authors I wanted to read in Urdu. Also, I was teaching Hindi, at the time, at a university in Chicago, and my students were mostly first- and second-generation immigrants from India and Pakistan. I found them to be quite ignorant about the similarities between Hindi and Urdu. So, I decided to learn, and then teach the Urdu script alongside Hindi. That was my immediate inspiration.

There have been speculations over AI taking over translation in the future. What is your take?

I would like to say, “Fiddlesticks!” AI knows how to transfer from one language to another, but that is a tiny part of what a literary translator does. All these clouds of meaning around words involve culture, history, association and intuition, which robots don’t understand. That is why I’m not worried.

You, along with other translators, came out with a statement against the Palestinian genocide. But, why are such conversations missing in the literary-fest circuit?

There are certain issues considered controversial, which authors will embrace and say, “Yes! This is what I believe.” But, this is not like that. It’s a taboo to speak up on behalf of the Palestinians because there’s a dominant narrative that it will make them appear anti-semitic.

Is there a writer you haven’t translated yet, but wish to?

My dream, which has been thwarted repeatedly, is to retranslate Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Dariya, which she translated herself, but abridged it to 200 pages shorter. She also toned down the anti-colonial rhetoric. I’m told she had British friends and didn’t want to offend them. In Urdu, she is much more hard-hitting, but she didn’t want anybody else to translate it.

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