In India, we keep translating every moment of our life and most of us are bilingual if not multilingual by necessity. We often mix languages and shift from one to another almost unconsciously in our everyday speech. This is true not only of the middle-classes — unfortunately turning increasingly monolingual under the impact of modern education — but even more of the poor who are forced to learn more than one language to earn their livelihood. I have seen fish-sellers at Delhi’s INA market announcing the day’s arrivals in Malayalam as the fish-loving Keralites frequent this market, and the rickshawpullers of Hyderabad switching over from Telugu to Tamil, Hindi or Urdu, depending on the mother tongue of the passenger. We need translators to hold India together and help us understand one another’s culture, literature and world view. Multilingualism is the very soul of our collective being and our great poet-visionaries like Kabir, Nanak, Vidyapati and Meera each composed their verses in many tongues, adapting their speech to the people they addressed.
Indian literature too is founded on translations, especially of the epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In fact, many of our languages attained maturity through these translations. Ezhuthachan who translated/composed Adhyatma Ramayana is considered the father of Malayalam, and the same can be said of many other translators/composers of the epics like Madhav Kandali of Assomiya, Krittibas of Bangla, Tulsidas of Hindi, Pampa of Kannada, Sarala Dasa of Oriya, Kampan of Tamil or Molla of Telugu. They were never considered translators, but were regarded as the most imaginative poets of their time. Nor did they translate literally, but almost created new texts by rewriting them in their own regional contexts bringing in their provincial landscapes, foregrounding or backgrounding the characters as it suited their fancy, adding or removing episodes and giving the epics the flavour of their mother tongues and their people’s lives.
The story of Indian literatures until the 19th century is the story of creative translations, adaptations, retellings and interpretations of classical texts wholly or in part. Translations from and into Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and modern Indian languages knit together religions, communities, cultures and languages. The translations during the colonial days, despite their selective appropriation and canonisation, also kept the process alive.
In our post-colonial days, translation is a way of retrieving our people’s histories and recording their past and present. It is a positive celebration of creative difference and a reinventing of cultural identities that is a crucial cultural mission in these days of globalisation and the consequent standardisation of cultures.
One of the anxieties that surrounds the act of translation is that of the possible losses the text suffers in the process of transmission. It is believed that poetry suffers most in translation: “Poetry is what is lost in translation” is an extreme statement of the concern. And the other negative injunctions follow: “Translators are traitors” (an Italian saying); “Translation is the wandering existence in a perpetual exile” (Hillis Miller); and the like.
Yes, poetry often loses its original verbal music in translation, its specific tone and at times even its original syntax and structure. Prose, too, suffers losses, especially fictional prose that has a dialectal bias. The tonalities of dialects in one language are difficult to carry into another language. The degree of faithfulness in translation often depends on the degree of the kinship between the original and the target languages. I have seen how Tamil translates well into Malayalam and vice-versa. This may be true also of Punjabi and Dogri, Hindi and Rajasthani or Assomiya and Bangla. But what is gained is certainly more than what is lost. If the original tone and music are lost, they are also replaced by those of the target language and the transmission loss is mostly compensated by the gains: a new syntax and structure, new associations, the text’s rebirth in another culture.
I would prefer to go with Walter Benjamin: all translations are attempts to arrive at some primal language that the whole mankind once shared and seems to have lost — maybe after Babel — and each translation is a call into the ‘forest of language’ so that we get an echo. The echo may not be the same as the original sound, just as our image in the mirror or in water is not us; yet it reassures us of our own existence.
It is not true that everything is lost. The ideas are reborn, the images retain their power, the tale is retold, and the universal element that is the stamp of all great literary works inevitably get transferred. I will not go to the extent of saying that it is the accidental that is lost and the essential that is kept in translation. But we who have grown up on translations and whose taste has been mostly shaped by translations of classics, old and new — from Vyasa, Kalidasa, Sophocles, Dante, Rumi and Hafiz to Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Kafka,Proust, Neruda and Marquez can hardly deny the cultural and aesthetic value of good translations, not to speak of their possibility.
There was a time in India, not so long ago, when the translated works seldom carried the translator’s name and translation was looked upon as a lot inferior to creative writing. The prejudice still persists in certain circles. But translators are slowly gaining visibility and translations are beginning to find a committed readership. There is also a new academic interest in the theory and practice of translation as testified to by the newly set up departments of translation studies in our universities, new research in the area and the spurt in the number of books related to translation. Publishers have also begun to show a new interest in bringing out translations, even if mostly of fiction. The Frankfurt Book Fair and the Paris Book Fair with India as the ‘guest country’ and the Festival of Foreign Literature in France have also helped to bring the West’s attention to the great literature in our languages despite the domination of Indian writing in english for various reasons, the chief of them being the availability of translators from English to the European languages.
The Sahitya Akademi and the National Book Trust have played their role in translating contemporary classics. In the private sector, Katha, has been one publisher devoted to quality English translations from Indian languages. Macmillan brought out some important works of fiction in English translation, a work that now the Oxford University Press seems to be carrying on in earnest. Penguin, Orient Longman, Affiliated East-West, New Horizons, Zuban, Women Unlimited, The Book Review Literary Trust, Rupa, HarperCollins and other established and emerging publishers are also making their contribution.
We also need to strengthen mutual translations in our languages so that we come to know ourselves better. Kerala seems to be the most receptive to translations in India; other regions will hopefully follow. What we gain from translation is not only what the text gains, but what the whole culture gains in terms of fresh perspectives of life and literature.
Translations often set the norms for good taste and enrich our knowledge and experience of worlds other than our own. And the politics of translation — who translates what and for whom — is crucial to our understanding of the micro-structures of power in their relationship with the discourses of knowledge and beauty.
K. Satchidanandan is a Malyalam poet and bilingual critic. He was Secretary, Sahitya Akademi
Barkha Dutt’s column, Third Eye, will return next week.