Daisy Rockwell is a painter and translator of Hindi and Urdu literature, living in northern New England. She paints under the takhallus, or alias, Lapata (pronounced ‘laapataa’), which is Urdu for “missing,” or “absconded.” Daisy grew up in a family of artists in western Massachusetts. From 1992-2006, she made a detour into Academia, from which she emerged with a PhD in South Asian literature.
We talk to Daisy about translating the Urdu language, painting and poetry.
What was your journey to becoming a translator?
I started studying translation in graduate school, where I had the good fortune to take a translation seminar with the late translator, folklorist and poet AK Ramanujan. Since then, I have been honing my art.
Congratulations on being nominated for the 2022 International Booker Prize. How does that recognition feel?
We are still in a state of disbelief, I think. But happy, all the same.
What is your process of translation?
I first get permission to translate from the copyright holder. Then I write out a very rough draft in long hand. After that, I type in the translation on the computer and then many drafts follow!
On the global literary landscape, South Asian writers who write in English are quite prominent, whether they’re diasporic or from South Asia. But translated literature, is not getting that attention. Why do you think that is?
It’s hard to say, but I think publishers in the West feel that they have South Asian literature covered, due to the books they are publishing which are originally written in English. But there’s also a lack of awareness, which we hope will change with the International Booker Prize.
You are interested in Partition literature, what does this make you feel and what are some recommended reads?
Partition literature is a large genre in South Asian literature. There are contributions in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Bangla, as well as English. There’s so much to read! The Urdu stories of Manto are widely available in English translation, some writing by Intezar Hussain, Qurratulain Hyder, and others. I personally have translated Khadija Mastur and Krishna Sobti’s last novel, which is also about Partition, as well as one of the most famous Hindi novels of Partition, Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas.
Don't tell me now
Can you tell us more about The Women's Courtyard written by Khadija Mastur. What led you to translating this novel?
The Women’s Courtyard is a classic Urdu feminist novel from the sixties. It had been translated before, but I felt that the previous translation did not capture Mastur’s austere writing style. One of the most interesting features of the novel is that all the action takes place in the aangan, or courtyard, of the family home. This allows the author to focus on women, because the domain of men is outside the house.
You have mentioned you feel a connection to Lahore, what attracts you to the city?
It’s hard to say, but probably it’s because I’ve read so many works of literature set in Lahore in the 1930’s and 40’s. I feel like I was there! It’s the same for people who read a lot of English literature, or French literature. That’s how they feel about London or Paris.
Can you share some of your favourite Urdu words?
Probably my favorite is the word for rabbit, ‘khargosh’ because it has a breaker in the middle and then it ends in a sheen and I love sheen. I also like the grandeur. In English the words rabbit and bunny are kind of silly sounding. Khargosh sounds a bit regal to me.
You are also an amazing visual artist, painting under the alias Lapata, which means "missing" or "disappeared" in Urdu. Why did you choose to do this?
I left the academic world in 2006 and started painting again after a long hiatus. A friend invited me to write on his blog, Chapati Mystery. I said I didn’t want to do anything public, as I was sort of in a state of retreat from my life for the previous fifteen years. He said I could have an alias and no one had to know, so I chose a takhallus, ‘lapata,’ because people kept writing to me and asking what had happened to me. ‘You’ve disappeared!’ they would say.
How does your visual art connect to the written word and your interest in language?
There’s not always a connection, nor does there have to be. But I do love calligraphy, especially Urdu, and I often include some Urdu in my paintings.
What inspired you to explore calligraphy as a form of expression?
I’ve always love Perso-Arabic calligraphy, as long as I could remember. After I learned to read and write Urdu in my early thirties, I had an opportunity for a short while to study with an Afghan calligrapher. It was a brief stint but I learned a lot, and I’ve been doing it ever since, in some form or other.
Through your paintings you explore poetry, can you tell us more about this?
Yes, I’ve been translating Urdu poetry into English and creating paintings with calligraphy and images that have inspired me from the poems. I’ve also done quite a bit of the reverse—my friend Aftab Ahmad has been translating American poetry into Urdu with my help, and then I create images to go with those translations.
Are you currently working on any visual art projects?
I just installed a large art show in Vermont, near where I live, so I’m taking a bit of a breather. But inspiration is everywhere, and I have a poem by Parveen Shakir in mind for the next thing.
What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you and how can translating literature contribute to its development?
Translating literature gives people who know nothing about a culture or a part of the world a connection, or a doorway into new ways of thinking and seeing. As a translator, I try to open as many of those doors as I can. As a visual artist, the pathway is sometimes even more direct. From the eye to the heart, no need for the brain. Islamic art, heritage and culture is a precious gift and I see wonderful artists and writers all over the world contributing to world knowledge through all different modern and traditional media. #persiancalligraphy on Instagram is lit! I consider that to be a wonderful sign.
For more information check out http://www.daisyrockwell.com/
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