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The Alphabet of Interpretation

There is much to celebrate about vernacular literature in India but translating these nuanced works into English remains an uphill task. Prashansa Taneja explores the challenges faced by translators in India.

Prashansa Taneja  24th Jun 2012

Illustration by Enakshi Roy | Dev Kabir Malik Design

hen the English translation of Hindi writer Yashpal's novel Jhootha Sach, This Is Not That Dawn, was published for the first time last year, critics and academicians breathed a sigh of relief. The 1,119-page novel is central to the discussion on Partition, but had been excluded from the dialogue because of the absence of a translation – and few are dauntless enough to read a mammoth novel in Hindi. Most readers of translations of vernacular literature can speak their mother tongue fluently but some find it difficult to read the script. And a few who do, often turn to English translations due to their snail-like reading speed.

Says writer and painter Daisy Rockwell, who wrote a book on 20th Century Hindi poet Upendranath Ashk, "There are two approaches to translating literature in Indian languages: one attempts to make the literature accessible to an international audience, say the same audience that might pick up an Indian novel originally written in English; the other approach is to translate for a purely South Asian audience. Sometimes words are left in the original language in translations of Hindi novels because the assumed audience actually knows Hindi but either can't read Devanagari or won't." For instance, Lakshmi Holmström, translator of Tamil literature, leaves words like veshti and thinnai untouched in her translation of Ambai's collection Fish in a Dwindling Lake.

"The whole idea is to maintain a name and not turn it into a description," says translator Arunava Sinha, recipient of the 2007 Vodafone Crossword Book Award for his translation of Sankar's Chowringhee. "I often leave the names of food unchanged, for example. When the item in question is spelt out in detail in terms of ingredients, I might translate it. But increasingly I'm veering towards maintaining the original name." Sinha is working on a translation of Bengali writer Rabi Shankar Bal's Dozhakhnama (The Book of Hell), written in the form of a dialogue between Manto and Ghalib from their graves.

Mini Krishnan, translator and editor at Oxford University Press, Chennai, says it's all about knowing your readership. "Even if the translation is for Indian or South Asian readers, if you leave too many words unexplained then you have not completed the translation," she says. "I'm quite sure that an Indian in Orissa will not be able to comprehend words left unexplained in, say, Kannada-English or Tamil-English makeovers. The translator, in recreating for another culture (both distant and at home), negotiates this space, taking decisions on how to interpret, explain and introduce the shades of the original work into English."

Poetry is fundamental to K.R. Meera’s writing, though she writes prose; so a literal translation is impossible if not absurd. — J. Devika

One of the biggest challenges faced by a translator is to maintain equilibrium between the source and destination languages. As critic and translator Tim Parks says, the art of translation is similar to "shifting the Tower of Pisa into downtown Manhattan and convincing everyone it's in the right place".

Last year, Penguin published a translation of contemporary Malayali writer K.R. Meera's collection of short stories Yellow is the Colour of Longing. J. Devika, associate professor at the Centre of Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, says that her translations of Meera's stories are not faithful in the conventional sense. "Poetry is fundamental to Meera's writing, though she writes prose; so a literal translation is impossible if not absurd. There is a certain strangeness, a sense of being alien, that her Malayalam conveys, which had to be transferred to English. I believe that the challenge of translating lies in whether we are able to carry the rhetorical charge of the translated text into another language – it is not really about simply transferring the literal meaning of a text from one language to another," she explains.

Shamsur Rehman Faruqi concurs and adds that translating the mystery novels of Urdu writer Ibne Safi was easier than translating his own work. "Safi wrote in the language of the layman, so it was easy. But in my novel, Ka'i Chand The Sar-e-Aasman, I've used many historical and literary terms from the Arabic and Persian languages, and finding English equivalents for them was a herculean task," explains the Urdu critic, theorist, poet and novelist. "There are many poems in free verse in my novel that borrow vocabulary from Persian, and at first it seemed impossible to translate them into English without coming across as ridiculous. So I tried to distill the thought of these verses and translate them without having to sacrifice their metaphorical content."

‘Translation is like a Mistress’TEENA BARUAH

An idea conveyed in English can seem odd to a translator as well as the author. Tamil writer Ambai's works have been translated extensively into English, yet she finds herself a stranger to their rhythm in English.  "After all these years, I still have not got used to seeing my stories in English. They disorient me the first time when I read them...the colours, rhythm and images come out so differently. Often I can't read out my translated stories because they don't feel like mine!" she says.

Poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, who spent 20 years translating vākhs attributed to 14th Century Kashmiri mystic Lal Děd, says that it is impossible to carry the lilt of the original into the translation. "Typically, efforts to preserve the cadence, the syntactical and metrical patterns of the original, in a translation, end up being clumsy and painful to the ear, eye and mind. In most cases, you are faithful to the original only when you betray it – when you fulfill the duty of carrying it into another language in a new avatar. The Latin word for translation, traducio, is also the word for treason. In Kashmiri, the biggest challenge is not so much in conveying the text as the context. The translator has the responsibility of taking the non-Kashmiri reader through the complex social, cultural and political history of a region that has been festooned with clichés – whether of the picture postcard variety or the front-page report kind," he explains.

Translations made it possible for Indian writers like Tagore, Manto, Mahasweta Devi and Bhisham Sahni to carve a niche for their works in the canon of world literature. Given the growing interest of big publishers in commissioning translations of contemporary vernacular writers, can we hope for a day where vernacular literature from India will be as widely read in the English-speaking world as translated literature from other countries? "Unfortunately, we are headed for lots of translation and not necessarily good ones. The greed for quick fame, the temptation to take short cuts, sacrificing quality for speed, the pressure on translators to deliver faster, higher, better etc may begin to affect the industry," opines Krishnan. "The more the English-speaking world is universalised, the greater need there will be to explore the regional language experience from this multicultural country. But since language and literature are nothing if not political, I don't see writing from all Indian languages attaining international popularity. Perhaps three of four Indian languages will 'get there'."

Chennai-based independent publishing house Blaft Publications has acquired cult status through its quality translations of Tamil pulp fiction, folktales and popular Urdu writer Ibne Safi's novels. The stories published in The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vols. 1 & 2 deviate from the broad definition of pulp fiction in the West. "Pulp fiction saw its heyday in the West in the '40s and '50s, whereas what has come to be known as Tamil pulp fiction gained popularity in the '80s," says Rakesh Khanna, editor, Blaft Publications. "Our translator Pritham Chakravarthy goes out and hunts stories for our anthologies. She translated Ki. Rajanarayanan's folktales, which, again, do not adhere to the way folk tales are generally perceived," he adds. Published by Blaft as Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? Folktales from Tamil Nadu, Rajanarayanan's folktales are known for their candid handling of sexual issues.

Translations open an entirely new world of metaphors to those who cannot read their mother tongues or other regional languages in the country. "Vernacular literature offers a variant to the worldview of Indian writing in English that can only be portrayed through regional languages," says Giriraj Kiradoo, founder and editor of Pratilipi magazine, a bilingual review that publishes translated material in Hindi and English.

"Cherishing translations of our literatures is one of the counters we have to the rapid loss of languages," adds Krishnan. "Every language holds a world and if we fail to appreciate our many worlds, we are losing our stories and our memories. Translation is crucial to the growth of Indian integration and to the quality of future of Indian writing in any language."

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