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Found in translation

Without the key of translation — either to Bengali or to English — the Russian masters would have been as out of my radar as the Malayali masters are to me today, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2008 23:07 IST

There’s a Bengali phrase that when (clumsily) translated into English goes something like this: Better an empty cowshed than a naughty cow. There’s another Bengali phrase that when (clumsily) translated into English goes something like this: Better a blind uncle than no uncle at all. Apart from the fact that these two phrases push two exactly opposite opinions, they nicely sum up the eternal debate about translation and its place under the sun.

I meet people quite often who reel off Urdu shayris to me. I hear the words trip along their tongues, smile patiently, understand only ‘kabutar’ and ‘ishq’ and wait for a translation. Instead of explaining what Faiz said, my shayr usually smiles back and tells me that the immortal words can’t be translated as “the essence will be lost”. I’m left holding the language can. So do realise why my understanding of the need for translations overwhelmingly veers to the one captured by the phrase, “Nei mama-r chey kana mama bhalo.” (That, in English, its Bengali essence lost in translation, is the second phrase I quoted in the first paragraph.)

I’m no Save the Whale kind of guy. But even I’m rattled with the thought that while literary types in this country know their Gabriel Garcia Marquez (thanks to translator Gregory Rabassa), very few have even heard of one of my favourite all-time writers, Rajshekhar Bose (who was finally translated into English by Sukanta Chaudhuri and Palash Baran Pal as late as 2006). The flip side of the shame machine, of course, is that I know my Italo Calvino but I don’t have a bloody clue about Phanishwar Nath Renu. My skills in Russian are nil (apart from ‘Dasvidanya’, that is). But I distinctly remember reading and enjoying Tolstoy’s totally believable and flawed characters in Resurrection which I had read many moons ago in Bengali. Without the key of translation — either to Bengali or to English — the Russian masters would have been as out of my radar as the Malayali masters are to me today.

Historian Ramachandra Guha pointed out to me once that there used to be many more inter-Indian language translations before Independence. That I don’t even know the names of the Biggies in Marathi — contemporary or otherwise — I should be namedropping right now makes Salman Rushdie’s line about the best contemporary Indian writing being written in English seem less stupid. After all, you can only ‘Wah! Wah!’ authors and their works you can read.

But if translating works from a language to your language is the only key to ‘opening’ books, do we make a big toodle-loo about the quality of translations and the fear of the original being destroyed in the process? I certainly think so, considering that the Raduga Press editions of Dostoyevsky in English during the early 1980s served me very well (as well as my pocket, Crime and Punishment and Notes From The Underground coming at Rs 10 a pop), thank you very much. But at the same time, horrid translations can turn you off forever from even approaching a deserving-to-be-admired writer. Case in point: Rabindranath Tagore’s translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. It may have got the old boy the Nobel in 1913, but once you read his own English translation, you stop feeling that bad about his Nobel medal being stolen some four years ago. The dreadful ‘O!’s and ‘Thou’s can turn off the most ardent bluestocking. Something that Tagore himself, poor thing, realised when he wrote in a letter 22 years after he won the Nobel for the ‘English’ Gitanjali: “I was recently going through my translations. I wonder if they are my own writings. Why did I present myself in this fashion? This is self-mockery.”

The only way to get more translations out — from Hindi to Kannada, from English to Gujarati, from Marathi to Malayalam, from French to Bengali — is to treat these books as books, not as ‘translated works’, which sounds rather ominous and grave to most of us. As I wait for a car to take me to Jaipur in a few hours where I’ll be attending a two-day pow-wow of translators, writers and publishers, I remember Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines: “Har ek jism ghayaal, har ek rooh pyaasi/ Nigaahon men ulfat, dilon men udaasi/ Ye duniya hai ya alaam-e-bad hawaasi/Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai?” Now to recall Nasreen Munni Kabir’s English translation of those lines.