Speaking in tongues

The bumpy map of English translations is expanding.

Published : Aug 14, 2022 06:00 IST

The demand for good English translators has led to an increase in the power of the translator.

The demand for good English translators has led to an increase in the power of the translator. | Photo Credit: K. Ramesh Babu

At writer Imayam’s book launch recently, two women approached translator Prabha Sridevan and asked, “We too want to translate, how do we go about it?” For over a 100 years, since the challenge against empire and the hunger to retrieve India metaphorically began, this has been the Indian question. “How might we move India into English?”

The anti-English camp has a counter: “Why should we? And if we do, why the hysteria about footnotes and glossaries?” But their voices are growing fainter. Most writers want to appear in English. Let us remember that translation before colonialism meant variations of the same poem, performance or epic moving into different regions with local motifs and characteristics grafted on, while the rigours imposed on modern translation are the direct result of a print-based culture introduced by the mono-lingual British who viewed translation with suspicion.

The sudden spurt of interest in translated India, fired by the publicity that attended the recent International Booker win, failed to mention the stupendous range of fine English translations of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry over the last four to five decades. The terms of the International Booker, which excludes books published outside the U.K., ensure that the axis in publishing translations remains sharply tilted.

Though this article is primarily about literary India in English, it must flash the torch in another direction because allied to this context but distanced from it is the incontrovertible fact that only a small section of the subcontinent’s population was directly influenced by British occupation. Till very recently when technology demolished time and space, extensive portions of the country were entirely untouched by both the benefits and shocks of colonialism while continuing in their medieval mode of life. This brings up another question: where is untranslated India located? Is it just a myth? In our race to keep up with the rest of the world are we bypassing a reality of ourselves from which we might draw strength and a sense of identity? Are the writers who cannot read any language other than their mother tongues the true custodians of India? Are they, like U.R. Ananthamurthy said 30 years ago, less contaminated but also perhaps less enriched?

Hybrid India

What about bilingual writers who read European writers translated into their languages as well as English—are they the hybrid India that will endure? Indian literary superstars who cannot read anything but English and write in it—whose children are they? Whatever the answer, if at all there is a right one, like Salman Rushdie—who stated he was a translated man—said, all the above categories drink from the same well.

Also read: A violent birth

If we want to understand this immense and astounding country, we should taste the water from this well and pay some sympathetic attention to the water carriers at work: Indian translators and their publishers. To quote writer-translator Sujit Mukherjee, while the rest of the world understands the word ‘translate’ to mean translating into their mother tongues, Indians have repeatedly reversed the universal norm by translating into a visitor language, domiciled in India.

“India’s culture of translation goes a long way back, before the country was colonised by Europeans, and it came on the heels of trade, religious conversions, scholarly travel and journeys.”

From contact to conquest to cultural confrontation and crossovers, the bumpy map of English translations is expanding. Indubitably, a reverse conquest, because when the teaching of English was institutionalised on the subcontinent, it unintentionally created a new India. In a short essay called “The Caste of English” Raja Rao says that if ever a monument to British rule in India is selected it should not be to the railways, modern industry, medicine, or even the administrative system but to the teachers of English language and literature.

India’s culture of translation goes way back, long before we were colonised by Europeans, and it came on the heels of trade, religious conversions, scholarly travel, and journeys undertaken for pleasure or pilgrimage. The mediators of science, philosophy, religion and literature included priests, scholars, travellers, students, and dwibhashis. Today we tend to think of translators as people with a profound understanding of this or that language but the early translations were done through intermediaries on both sides. After the 18th century ended in the physical conquest of India, translation became the mediator between the colonised and the colonisers.

The British yoked together teams of scholars and dwibashis to write translations of the shastras and other philosophies into a crude mix of Persian and English in order to understand and control their subjects. About a century later, the Nobel for an imperfect self-translation from the Bengali would establish the notion that renditions of Indian literature had to appeal to Anglophonia. By that time, the norms of a scholarly and reading culture utterly alien to ours had begun to dominate and influence media, publishing, editorial, and translatorial policies.

Shifting kaleidoscope

It’s another century later, and some ironies might be noted. While the demand for English as mediator has increased, the overall competence in English has decreased. Simultaneously, we see a disastrous decline in the respect for Indian languages leading to what linguists warn is an erosion of scholarship in our own languages. Hard upon the heels of this will follow a translation loss we might not even notice. Most publishers have feeble competence and connections with bhasha languages and writers. Finally, also ironically, the demand for good English translators has suddenly increased.

Publishers of English translations of Indian writers have to make sense of this shifting kaleidoscope of histories and sounds and reconcile disparate worlds in what might be called transformations—readjusting and realigning original texts to dismantle and reassemble the Indian Babel. Connecting dissimilar worlds is far more difficult than inhabiting one world. “My palm is a voice box” said Devipriya, or should it be, “My palm is a voice box” said her translators, Alladi Uma and M Sridhar, as they rewrote, recast and manipulated the original Telugu in the service of the reader in English.

National project

Translation was institutionalised in independent India because a liberal central government was convinced that the country’s integration on an emotional level was not only required but also possible through the arts. Literature took the lead. When Sahitya Akademi was launched in 1954, its aim was “to foster and coordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages and to promote through them the cultural unity of India.” The boundaries of the States were being re-drawn in 1956 according to languages, so linguistic diversity with cultural unity was very much part of the stated national project.

The first president of the Sahitya Akademi was Jawaharlal Nehru, who had already shared his discovery of India in words. In 1957, the National Book Trust was established, and in 1969 the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysuru. Sahitya Akademi commissioned great scholars like Sisir Kumar Das to undertake multi-volume publications like A History of Indian Literature. Currently edited by Antara Dev Sen, it also runs the only journal in English that publishes from all the official languages of India. In those years, many government-sponsored programmes were launched, whose works were not always of the first quality but which became valuable repositories of works from various languages that might otherwise have been lost forever. Today, the Tamil Nadu Textbook And Educational Services Corporation, which works on translations with 13 publishers, is doing something similar.

Private publishers

The first major private publisher to start a translations list (limited though it was to Malayalam and Marathi) was the Madras branch of Orient Longman under V. Abdulla. The earliest editors were Usha Aroor and Priya Adarkar, who was also the translator of the first book of Dalit writing in 1972.

Over the last three decades, private publishers have gradually assembled a shapeless caravan that has been moving with all the energy and drawbacks of such a phenomenon. When the history of translations is written, a page will surely be reserved for the MR.AR Educational Trust, which funded the publication of 37 volumes through Macmillan India in 1992-2000 and helped Oxford University Press (OUP) with 40 translations in 2001-12. Later, OUP published another 40 translations on its own. Katha Books was also predicated on outside support, which Geeta Dharmarajan sourced successfully for nearly 30 years. Small indie and niche publishers set up vigorous lists but with a history of poor marketing, small print-runs, and very often no re-prints.

A collection of Bama’s short stories was demanded repeatedly by a starved market before it was revised and reprinted by another publisher. Khadeeja Mumtaz’s Barsa translated by K.M. Sherriff (2016) was a book for which neither the author nor the translator was paid despite a bulk purchase by Malayalam University from which the only beneficiary was the small independent publisher. Meanwhile, “trade” publishers like Aleph Book Company and the India branches of Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and Hachette naturally attract author-translator duos when they are ready to pay advances up to Rs.1,00,000. If a book sells upward of 20,000 copies Hachette even gives the writers a bonus.

In a perfect world, there would be publishers such as the late Dhanesh Jain of Ratna Sagar, who set aside surplus funds from the sale of textbooks for a list of translations. Launched in 2015, the list, edited by Dinesh Sinha, is approaching 25 titles. A similar operation was K.S. Padmanabhan’s East West Books that published a few early translations from south India.

Also read: Scripting a cultural continuum

Since translations became trendy about five years ago there has been something of a rush to promote only contemporary writers at the cost of the older writers who drew the map of our social and ethnic histories. This might well intensify the general amnesia about important writers or literary movements among the next generation of readers. This neglect is further complicated by caste and gender perspectives. And, of course, by the neglect of the translator herself. Rupalee Burke, who translates from Gujarati, was not only not paid for a work she translated (Ekadashi Vrat) but was not even invited to the stage at the launch of the book.

A month ago I was astounded when a small independent publisher sent me a cover design for a proposed work with the translator’s name missing. Upon inquiry I received a breezy reply, “This is the universal practice and ours as well.” I successfully pushed for the translator’s name to be included but was saddened to learn that the translator had actually agreed to be sent to the back of the book, bowing to the perceived inevitable. Invisibility and poor pay which in turn engender indifferent quality continue to plague what should be one of the most important arms of India’s literary endeavour. It should not need a Booker award to set this record straight.

Mini Krishnan is Coordinating Editor, Translations, Tamil Nadu Textbook & Educational Services Corporation.

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