Do you know who first translated Tagore’s Kabuliwala (1892) into English or Premchand’s Godan (1936) for that matter?
Translators, the unsung heroes of the literary world, make stories and – by extension the cultures they are set in – accessible to readers. But it is a thankless job, done more for love than glory.
On World Translation Day, we spoke to five translators, who translate regional literature into English, on the challenges that are a part of their job:
Classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction
The biggest challenge is translating dialects. When you are translating a speech in a regional dialect, which is not in the same language as the rest of the book, into English, it is difficult to maintain the difference as it’s hard to choose an equivalent dialect in English. There is a book I’m currently translating, Khwabnama by a Bangladeshi author Akhtaruzzaman Elias. It is set in a remote, rural area where the spoken language is nothing like the Bengali we speak in cities. Translating it into English is an unhappy compromise.
A 10-volume translation of the unabridged Mahabharata, the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit
Translating from the Sanskrit into English is somewhat different from translating from the Sanskrit into a vernacular language, which has a certain affinity with it. English is a completely different language: the sentence structure and grammar are different. And there are certainly some words which can’t be translated satisfactorily into English. The challenge is to retain the authenticity of the translation.
Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue & Daya Pawar’s Baluta from Marathi
The challenges I face while translating are cultural. The most insignificant words become the biggest stumbling blocks. Say when you have to translate a word like “re” which has overtones of affectionate disgruntlement in Marathi into English. What is it suppose to become? Or say if the author has used a word that means rapture or ecstasy and a few lines later, he moves into the ironic mode. In English, it’s difficult to use rapture or ecstasy ironically unless you are ridiculing something.
Selected works of Intizar Husain, Saadat Hasan Manto, the poetry of Shahryar (Urdu), Premchand and Phanishwarnath Renu (Hindi), among others
Usually, the big challenge is translating poetry. Any poetry is difficult to carry through in another language because it relies as much on sounds as meanings. But when the languages are as disparate as English and Urdu, it becomes especially difficult. Unlike English, metrical patterns in Urdu depend on line lengths and lengths of syllables rather than stresses. Frog marching the rhythm of the Urdu ghazal or nazm into English can result in ungainly, dangling sentences.
Then there are the oddities of poetic expression. Jigar in Urdu means liver but is used for the heart or the rough equivalent of a heart. Saying pierced by an arrow through the heart is one thing but to say pierced in the liver is another!
Vivek Shanbaug’s Ghachar Ghochar from Kannada
One of the reasons I agreed to translate Ghachar Ghochar was so I could get back in touch with my mother tongue Kannada. My main obstacle was the state of my Kannada, which I read falteringly. So there was a good deal of looking up words in the dictionary, parsing sentences this way and that, and, as a measure of last resort, calling up Vivek [Shanbaug] and going, “Look here, what does this mean?” In retrospect, I wonder if all this grappling with the original text might actually have been a good thing for the translation. In terms of the mechanics of fiction, it took me a few attempts to find the right voice for the book’s narrator.
From HT Brunch, September 30, 2016
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