I was recently at the launch of Krishna Sobti’s two books in English, Mitro Marjani and Daar se Bicchudi. Standing near the table with the books, I heard a woman ask: “How can anyone translate Krishna Sobti?” I wanted to protest, but decided against it. However, it did start me thinking: Can some authors and stories not be translated, and therefore should we not even try? Should we translate only those books that are easily translatable? Or should we translate books that are outstanding works of art?
Translations work on multiple levels. It begins when the author senses a situation, the situation is translated into an inspiration, the inspiration is translated into the idea of a story, and the non-verbal idea of the story is translated into words. When a story is translated from one language to another, it is just another step in the process: words are translated into other words, and often there is a simultaneous translation of culture. Is the product at each step of this process a replica of that original sensation, and does it need to be in order to arrive at something that is true to the emotions of the first sensation?
Many of us have read Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Dialogues, Volta-ire’s Candide, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore in English. Were these translated because they were easy to do or because they were inspiring? “But wait,” says our lady, “Krishna Sobti does not write in Hindi. She writes in a dialect. She uses Hindi, with a scattering of Punjabi and Rajasthani. That is not translatable”.
When we translate, we don’t try to create an exact copy of the original. We realise that’s not possible but we also realise that it’s important to try so that more people can read a wonderful work of literature. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer has been translated into Russian. And Shakespeare has been translated into Japanese and inspired people of that country to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Can we translate thoughts into words? Can we translate words into words? Can we translate cultural nuances and accents? We can only try, and for most who do, it’s a labour of love. Sometimes the translation process works exactly as we wish. Other times, it yields unexpected results. As someone much wiser than me said, “In translation, something is lost but something is gained... and that’s the challenge and the charm of it.”