Translating the Self by Vibha Shetiya


VibaOne of my favourite tasks is translating works from various Indian languages into English. I developed a love for this while enrolled in a graduate seminar on translation theory. The challenge of it all was mind-boggling – how do I reduce the jaggedness of despair running within the depths of someone’s soul into two-dimensional, Times New Roman, 12-point font? How do I convey an intangible phenomenon such as a believer’s union with god without losing the intensity of his or her experience? I loved the exercises, but it is only now I realize how much the concept of translation had also been intertwined with my own fiber of being.

When I lived in India and for many years afterwards, I went by Vib-ha, the usual pronunciation of my Indian name. I didn’t realize then that I didn’t identify with Vibha. A few years ago, I reverted to the Vee-bah of my childhood, the Anglicized pronunciation. It wasn’t so much as being picky, as it was about getting involved in the search for who I really was.

Growing up in an English environment since not quite the age of two, I automatically internalized the label of Vee-bah that my teachers and friends addressed me by, along with developing a “foreign” set of ideals and sense of self. “I’m Veebah,” would be a natural extension of myself; without thinking I had adjusted the complexities of being a little brown girl into one neat word: Veebah.

But by the sixth grade something wonderful was happening. I began to literally feel more comfortable in my skin – I no longer felt like I had to hide my Indian snacks from the rest of the class. I no longer felt I had to apologize for looking different or having a weird sounding, albeit Anglicized, name. And by the time I turned twelve, my changing mind and body soon began to embrace Veebah. It was like I had finally begun to own Veebah.

A year later, however, I moved to India, the land of my birth. My parents had come back “home,” but I had just acquired newly found status of “alien.” Could years of growing up abroad simply be undone by a one-way ticket and an unsigned contract between my father and Zamefa Pvt Ltd.? It got worse as time progressed. There were too many things to deal with. I sounded different; my ideas about music and movies were different; I was too outspoken; I looked much older than I was, and worst of all, I had a certain precociousness about me when it came to the birds and the bees. By the time I was fifteen, however, I managed to figure it all out. With a bit of help from others, I smoothened myself, rough edges, “over-smartness” and all into a two-dimensional being who, in turn, was soon transformed into an echo of everyone around her. An echo called Vib-ha. I was now in India, and had to go by Vib-ha, was what I told myself. With that label, I found myself pushing Veebah more and more into the background; I smothered her with my Indian sounding name and all the Indianness I thought ought to go with it.

As I grew older, I tried to fit in to the best of my abilities which would soon take on a distinct outward appearance – I shunned clothes I thought would show a hint of my curves. Soon I realized the best way was to ensure that there would be no curves left for people to point at my “a little too nice body.” My beloved red dress which I had bought on my twelfth birthday in America was given away; my bum was screaming for attention in it, you see. My prized high heels bought on the same trip I also gave away because I didn’t want to look two inches taller – and older – than I already did. In addition to bartering my soul for much sought but elusive approval, I literally shrank myself to near invisibility in the hopes that the pain inside would also disappear. I also began an unending inventory of the choicest of negatives reserved exclusively for myself.

Over the years, it got even “better.” I became the devoted wife who would get up at the crack of dawn to make breakfast for the man who – bless his heart – was working so hard on “improving” me. I began erasing myself to the point that I doubted every single thought I had. I was doing a good job – Vibha too was disappearing as “Western” illnesses began to ravage her, reducing her to dust on the window sill, to a curiosity, a joke “who just doesn’t know how to be happy.”

That is how it stayed for what seemed like eternity. Then one day while someone was asking me how my name was pronounced, I found myself saying Vee-bah. I’m not sure what set it off; perhaps in a moment of weakness I had temporarily set myself loose. It had after all been well over a decade since I had removed myself from a repressive environment, since I had surrounded myself with people who didn’t crush my heart “for your own good.” And most of all, I was in the company of someone who accepted me for who I was, someone who didn’t feel the need to always remind me that I was an utter anomaly.

I can’t say it was sudden, but I with that one word – Veebah – I felt liberated. Over the next few years, Veebah has gradually begun to own me – in a nurturing, benevolent and kind way; to coax me out of hiding and to embrace myself, blemishes and all. Yes, I still have that inventory; I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get rid of it, but I often can’t find it, which is the next best thing to losing it forever.

This, by far, is my most successful translation project yet.

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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Categories: General, Naming, Women's Voices

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18 replies

  1. Such a lovely story Veebah, thank you for sharing it! It reminds me of my sister who was christened Debora Jane but for 30 years she was called Jane. On her 30th birthday she decided to be called by the name she was given on her birth certificate and her life changed in meaningful ways …

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  2. It is wonderful that you found and now honor your authentic self.

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  3. Welcome home to yourself, Veebah. On the recent Goddess Pilgrimage, the participants told me that I speak in a different rhythm and use different hand and eye gestures when I speak in Greek. For me “becoming Greek” is about living more expressively and more in my body. But don’t get me started–I am a hybrid: I would not want to become fully Greek and have the restrictions and obligations Greek women still have in the villages, nor could I ever become more than half-Greek.

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  4. Names are so important, Veebah. I’m glad you’ve grown back into yours. When I was on a tour to Malta eleven years ago there were three of us named “Ann.” So I became Ann Marie (using my middle name) to distinguish myself from the other two who were Ann and Annie. When I heard my name spoken 24 times by the coach driver as he unloaded our bags from the back of the coach one day–I’ll never know why he did that–I decided that Ann Marie would be my name going forward. So far everyone except my parents and some old friends have taken it up. And once my mother even introduced me to someone as Ann Marie. She’s 89 now. I think it’s easier for others to come into their real name-beings when some of us take the lead!

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  5. Thank you everyone for all your support! I know it confuses a lot of people, since many of them first got to know me by Vib-ha. But, as I tell them, they don’t need to change it. This was something I needed to do for myself, given the history that went with moving to India. The symbolism of the change from Vibha to Veebah has been eye-opening to say the least.

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  6. I never before realized the struggles a person went through when as children they are moved from Country to Country. Thank you for sharing your story Veebah.

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  7. Wonderfully told story, thank you for sharing it with us.
    Another thing about your name transitions- they are also marking out temporal positions in your life. You can demarcate where you met someone based on the name that they call you.

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  8. Very interesting post, thanks, Vibha Shetiya!!

    On translating the self. As a child I was called Princess Summerfall Winterspring, because my initials are SW. I took that on somehow, and couldn’t separate the seasons, and still can’t maybe—the year just flows.

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  9. Veebah, I can so relate to the importance of your name! I grew up in Texas, in the United States, and in that state (and many others) there’s a tendency to give every child a nickname. I was named Julia by my parents on my birth certificate, but the whole family insisted on calling me “Judy”. As Judy, I was mentally and verbally abused by my step-mother and my adopted brother and sisters. I had such low self-esteem that I was even ostracized in school by the other students, and not a few teachers. It wasn’t until I had graduated High School and left home that I chose to go by my birth name: Julia. And that made all the difference in how I saw myself! It wasn’t overnight, of course, but eventually I came to realize that Julia is a person to be recognized and respected. To this day, I feel a little uncomfortable when a family member calls me “Judy” and I’m very quick to correct them: My name is Julia! Thank you for your story, Veebah, and I wish you all the best!

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    • Thank YOU, Julia, for sharing your story! I’m sorry you had to go through so much, but am happy and grateful that “Julia” helped you find the strength to respect and love yourself.

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  10. This was wonderful to read! One of the first exercises that I do with my students is to have them talk about their names: where they got their names, how they prefer their names to be pronounced, if they’d like to go by any nickname, etc. We work on the pronunciation until we get it exactly how that student identifies. This essay confirms and displays that there is something so important about names: the names we were given, the naming of ourselves, and how our ‘names’ may shift over time as our lived experiences shift. Thanks for speaking to ‘translating the self’ so eloquently!

    Best Regards,
    Jade, JadeTPerry.com

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    • Thanks, Jade! A former professor of mine taught me the value of asking students about their name – what do they go by, do they have a preferred nickname? I think I will adopt your approach to that too – where did they get their names from. A little story about names is much more than just names and labels; it’s about individuals and lives.

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  11. Thank you for sharing this story. Names truly are a window into the self. When I was 21, I changed my name to Shulamit. After a few false starts, like not answering when a supportive professor first called me Shulamit instead of my birth name, I’ve grown into the name. My birth name became my middle name on official documents, and it still feels like being referred to as someone else if anyone from my past calls me by that name.

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