Ajmal Kasab’s counsel is punching holes in the watertight case against him because our intelligence agencies do not have a translator who can render two words from Arabic. The agencies took the phrase ‘Ammar Askari’ as firm proof of the Lashkar hand, but it turns out to be the name of some unknown, irrelevant guy.
Ironically, I received this news in the midst of 20 translators from a dozen Indian languages, while conducting a workshop on literary translation organised by the British Council and Sahitya Akademi. The latter has been promoting the Indian literatures for more than half a century and now that Britain has gone multicultural and its natives are having a hard time winning the Booker, the Council is also interested in other literatures.
The world at large seems to be ready to go beyond Indian writing in English and discover India’s many literatures. This is ironic too, since it spent the better part of the last two millennia doing just that — before Macaulay rejected Indian letters in 1835 in his infamously illiterate Minute on Indian Education. The world’s oldest printed book, a copy of the Diamond Sutra dated 868 CE, found on the Silk Route, is a 5th century Chinese translation of the Mahayana text. Devilishly useful scientific ideas, like treating zero as a number, travelled overseas through translation into Arabic and Persian, as did clever devices like the frame-tale of the Kathasaritsagara, which infected the One Thousand and One Nights and, further west, the works of Boccaccio and Chaucer. And the fable, innovated in the Panchatantra, probably inspired Aesop and Apuleius in Europe and now lives on in the sagas of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.
But contemporary Anglo-American publishing has undervalued translation out of India while celebrating Indian writing in English. Partly, it’s our fault — the quality of work has been patchy. Equally, it owes to a Western veneration for verbatim accuracy, believed to be guaranteed by direct translation between languages. However, exact correspondence is an impossibility and goes against the post-modern belief that texts differ according to your reading, and that there is no single authentic original or translation.
How does this issue affect Indian translation? If you were a publisher wanting to represent all of French literature to an English readership, you could start work with just one translator. To represent mainstream South American literature, you would need two, one each in Spanish and Portuguese. To represent Indian literature, you would need 24 for the literary languages alone, excluding lesser tongues and the oral tradition. So to directly translate mainstream Indian literature into 15 major European languages, you would need 360 translators, more than any Indian publisher can hope to engage.
International publishers and agents are eternally waiting for this improbable exercise in authenticity to take off. Meanwhile, South American literature in just two languages has grown a bigger footprint than South Asian literature in about 30 languages. One way out of this impasse is to set aside received wisdom and translate through bridge languages like English or Hindi. Taking our literatures out to a world readership has become a priority for Indian publishing, and it can be achieved by shifting our attention from what is lost in translation to what can be gained from it.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal