Translating India

Published : Nov 13, 2013 12:30 IST

Translation helped the formation of movements cutting across languages. Qurratulain Hyder.

Translation helped the formation of movements cutting across languages. Qurratulain Hyder.

IT is well known that India has a translating consciousness and we keep translating every moment of our active lives. It is difficult to come across monolinguals in our country: at least it was, until English medium education began to weaken gradually and destroy our command over our mother tongues. We also mix languages, almost unconsciously, in our everyday speech. Indian literature is founded on direct or free translations since the various Ramayana s, Mahabharata s and Bhagavata s in different languages, including tribal and folk versions and performative improvisations, have been the very foundations of our rich literatures. Even the distinction between an original work and its translation was rather blurred and uncertain in India’s pre-colonial literary discourse. The Ramayana s of Pampa, Kamban, Ezhuthachan, Molla, Premananda, Eknath, Balarama Das, Kritibas, Tulsidas or Madhava Kandali, for example, were taken to be neither translations nor even adaptations but considered original works as they were the most brilliant manifestations of the genius of their respective languages.

The story of Indian literatures until, say, the 19th century, was mostly a story of creative translations, adaptations, retellings, interpretations, epitomes and elaborations of classical texts. Translations from Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and modern Indian languages knit together communities, languages, regions and cultures. Along with the Ramayana , the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata , collections of folktales, fables and legends, like the Panchatantra , the Vikramaditya tales, the Kathasaritsagara , the Brihatkatha and the Jataka tales travelled from language to language, instilling in their readers a sense of a common narrative heritage.

Magical realism Later, when the modern novel and the short story came to India, these epics, magical fables and folktales often served as indigenous models for storytelling. I recall Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, the great Malayalam realist fiction writer, claiming that his epic novel Kayar was modelled on the Mahabharata . Magical realism, fantasy and allegory have been natural to the Indian narrative imagination, and we were practising them much before we began to hear of the Latin American “magic realists” like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, the fantasies of the Italian writer Italo Calvino or the allegories of Franz Kafka. The translations of Arabian Nights into Indian languages reinforced this oriental tradition of fantasy and magic. It was realism that was more Western than these tendencies. The works of Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bhavabhuti, Visakhadatta, Banabhatta, Sudraka, Jayadeva and others not only got translated into most Indian languages but gave a norm to the critical evaluation of poetry in the beginning. This was also true of the translations and adaptations of Shakespeare’s works in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our sense of modern drama can be traced to these translations, along with those of playwrights like Ibsen, Strindberg, Bernard Shaw, Chekhov and others.

The Indian novel as we know it today—despite our own grand narrative tradition from the folktales and epics to Banabhatta’s Kadambari —has also been deeply impacted by translations. Some of our early novels actually began as translations. O. Chandumenon, who wrote Indulekha in Malayalam in 1889, has confessed that he had begun it as a translation of Disraeli’s English novel Henrietta Temple . Later, he decided to rewrite the novel though it finally turned out to be an independent work of fiction. He has delineated the motifs behind his work in a dedicatory letter to his translator, W. Dumergue: “First my wife’s oft-expressed desire to read in her own language a novel written after the English fashion, and secondly a desire on my part to try whether I should be able to create a taste amongst my Malayalee readers not conversant with English, for that class of literature represented in the English language by novels, of which at present they… have no idea, and… to illustrate to my Malayalee brethren the position, power and influence that our Nair women who are noted for their natural intelligence and beauty, would attain in society, if they were given a good English education and finally to contribute my mite towards the improvement of Malayalam literature, which I regret to observe, is fast dying out by disuse as well as by abuse.”

Nandshankar Mehta also has similar things to say about his Gujarati novel Karan Ghelo (1866): “The former education inspector of our state Mr Russell has expressed to me his desire to see Gujarati books written along the lines of English novels and romances. I have written this novel according to that plan.” Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai says about his Tamil novel Prathapa Mudhaliar Charithram that his object was “to supply the want of prose books in Tamil” and that he has “represented the principal personages as perfectly virtuous, in accordance with the opinion of the great English moralist, Dr Johnson”. Later, the translations of foreign novels by Charles Dickens, R.L. Stevenson, Oliver Goldsmith, George Meredith, George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Sholokhov, Thomas Mann and others and Indian novels by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Tarasankar Banerjee, Manik Banerjee, Bimal Mitra, Ashapoorna Devi, Shankar, Mahasweta Devi, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Amrita Pritam, Premchand, K.A. Abbas, Jainendra Kumar and others provided firm models for realist fiction in India. We also got many new forms and models of writing through translations from English or Persian like the modern lyric, sonnet, ghazal, barahmasa, elegy, satire, haiku, sequence poem, surrealist poetry, symbolic poetry, allegory, epistolary fiction, absurd play, etc.

The translation of the Holy Bible was another important landmark in the development of prose in the Indian languages. In most languages, the Bible got translated in the 19th century by missionaries—who also gave many of our languages their first dictionaries and systematic books of grammar—and the prose of these translations served as a model for native writers. The first printing presses also came to be established mostly by the missionaries for printing missionary literature, but we know how the printing press contributed to the creation of a public sphere in India and how mechanical reproduction helped popularise literature and art.

Formation of movements Translation has also helped the formation of movements cutting across languages. First, it was the translation of works from abroad. We are aware how Tolstoy’s translations were a major influence on Mahatma Gandhi’s ethical thinking. Translations of the works of the early leaders of the freedom struggle and of Independent India such as Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar were also impacted by egalitarian Western thoughts and ideas received through original works as well as translations. Later, translations of the works of these and other leaders played a major role in bringing the Indian people together on the common platform of the Indian freedom struggle. This was also a period of translations of literature. The works of Tagore, Tarasankar, Sarat Chandra, Subramanya Bharati, Sumitranandan Pant, Vallathol, Keshavsut, Ghulam Mahjoor, Abdul Rehman Rahi, Premchand, Basheer and a host of other patriotic writers got translated into many Indian languages and helped consolidate the patriotic and anti-colonial feelings among our people and garner support for social reform.

Similarly, the translations of Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and anti-fascist writers inspired the formation of the progressive movement in Indian literature. Later, Indian progressive literature began to be mutually translated among our languages and thus to influence one another. Premchand got translated into almost all major Indian languages; this was also the case with writers like Thakazhi, Basheer, Jayakanthan, Akhilan, Savitri Roy, K.A. Abbas, Mulk Raj Anand, Gurdial Singh and other such realist writers who empathised with the subaltern classes. Their translations from the original into other Indian languages and into English helped reinforce the idea of a pan-Indian progressive literature.

Modernist trends Later, when modernist trends began to appear in Indian languages, they were also spurred on first by translations from abroad like the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Octavio Paz , and so on and fiction writers and playwrights like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Kafka, Italo Calvino, Louis Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Wole Soyinka and others. In the 1960s and 1970s, Indian modernists began to get translated from their languages into other Indian languages and at times into English. Most of these writers were bilingual or multilingual, so many translations were done by themselves; even if not, they were capable of judging the translations, at least in English. Thus, the translations of Ajneya, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, Jibanananda Das, Bishnu Dey, B.S. Mardhekar, Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Suresh Joshi, Ayyappa Paniker, Ka. Naa. Subramaniam, Sri Sri, Gopala Krishna Adiga, U.R. Ananthamurthy, O.V. Vijayan, M. Mukundan, Setu, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder and such other pioneers began to get translated into English and other Indian languages, creating the sense of an Indian community of modern writers.

In the 1970s, Latin American and African writers like Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Nicanor Parra, Nicolas Guillen, Leopold Senghor, David Diop, Dennis Brutus, Margaret Walker, LeRoi Jones, Langston Hughes and others along with the European and Asian socialist writers like Yannis Ritsos, Bertolt Brecht, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Gunter Grass, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, W.S. Rendra, Lu Hsun, Kwo-Mojo, Ai Ching and others began to be translated widely in some of the Indian languages, with a decisive impact on poetry, creating a radical modern poetry that stood up against the vagaries of capitalist and casteist exploitation. The poetry of Dalit Panthers and Maoists was particularly influenced by these writers. Gradually, the Indian radicals also began translating one another’s poetry so that the works of poets like Dhoomil, Pash, Amarjit Chandan, Samar Sen, Saroj Dutta, Varavara Rao, Cherabanda Raju and several others began to appear in languages like Malayalam, where there was a strong people’s cultural movement allied to Maoist revolutionaries.

This is equally true of later movements in Indian literature like Dalit and feminist literatures. Translations, especially in English and Hindi , of the works of Namdeo Dhasal, Laxman Mane, Laxman Gaikwad, Joseph Macwan, Sharankumar Limbale, Om Praksh Valmiki, Balraj Madhopuri and others and the various anthologies of Dalit poetry, autobiography and fiction like Poisoned Bread , No Alphabet in Sight and The Oxford Anthology of Dalit Writing have in fact created a special niche for Dalit writing in India and turned it into a national movement.

This is also happening in women’s writing. Several anthologies of women’s writing like Women’s Writing In India: From 6th Century B.C. to the Present , Inner Courtyards, Inner Spaces and In Their Own Voice , carrying translations of women’s writing and specific works by Rashsundari Debi, Binodini Dasi, Laxmibai Tilak, Ashapurna Debi, Swarnakumari Devi, Sara Joseph, Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Ajeet Cour, Mridula Garg, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Kamala Das, Amrita Pritam, Alka Saraogi, Gitanjalisri, K.R. Meera, C.K. Janu, Nalini Jameela, Sister Jesme—many of them autobiographies—translated into English and some other Indian languages have not only enriched the corpus of women’s writing in India but created a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic understanding of women’s issues and helped reinforce the sisterhood of women writers across the country. Even native-looking movements like Deseevad (Nativism) cannot deny the oblique impact of African or Irish literatures that had a strong regional and cultural bias.

Literary criticism Translation has also played a major role in promoting common trends and the employment of common norms and methods in Indian literary criticism. Translations of fundamental texts of Indian poetics by Bharata, Anandavardhana, Kuntaka, Bhamaha, Mahimabhatta and others from Sanskrit formed the earliest guidelines for the evaluation of poetry in most Indian languages. Later, some Western critical texts right from Aristotle and Longinus to Sir Philip Sidney, Matthew Arnold, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot came to be translated, giving rise to treatises of comparative poetics as well as applications of Western theories of mimesis, catharsis, semantics and semiotics to Indian texts of poetry and drama. At least some languages also have translations of structuralist and post-structuralist texts or adaptations and interpretations of these texts (Paul de Man, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and so on). Dalit poetics has been impacted greatly by Black aesthetics and Indian feminist criticism too is most often derived from Western, especially French, models. Even where full texts have not been translated, we find partial translations and quotations that illuminate contexts.

The new eagerness among writers and readers in India to know what is happening in languages other than their own can chiefly be attributed to the recent spurt in translations. Translations have begun to appear recently even from tribal languages that had so far been completely neglected, thanks to the initiative taken by Sahitya Akademi and the interest of scholars like Ganesh Devy. We certainly need more translations of folk and tribal lore, wherein lie the solid foundations of our literatures. Translations have begun to bind our writers together and helped form an Indian community of readers as well as writers that includes even Indians living outside India eager to know the literature of their motherland. Translations have also helped the sharing of concerns among Indian writers across languages, like those for human rights, ecological balance, gender equality, the impact of globalisation, religious and racial violence, the terrorism of the militants as well as the state, and so on. One cannot forget here that modern technologies of communication, which have no doubt done a lot of harm, have also helped meaningful social networking among readers and writers through virtual communities, blogs and social networks. Perhaps, mutual translations among Indian languages are on the wane today chiefly because of a lack of competent bilingual scholars with the necessary skills and sensibility, except between some language pairs. But this has been compensated to some extent by the increase in the translations into English, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Sahitya Akademi and the National Book Trust, along with the new interest shown by private publishers like Oxford University Press, Penguin, Katha, Orient Longman, Macmillan, East West, HarperCollins, Rupa, and many committed little publishing houses like Navayana.

The strength of multilingualism The West has a tendency to look at multilingualism as a problem to be tackled, while for India it has been a vital source of creative abundance. The West often looks at translation as exile, as reflected in Hillis Miller’s statement that translation is “the wandering existence in a perpetual exile”. The myth of the Tower of Babel further underlines the idea of multilingualism as a curse. But India has lived with her plurilingual heritage for centuries, and we have seldom been haunted by the fear of being unparadised; translation is a daily act with us, essential and intimate. We have also learnt to admire deviations in translations as we have a long tradition of adaptations, especially of the epics, where the events and characters are localised, episodes omitted, transformed or newly added, metaphors and similes refreshed, and even the whole text reconceived.

Authenticity to the Western scholars often meant literality, a concept close to Platonic mimesis, an attempt to resituate the original through close imitation. India has no martyrs to the cause of translation like Etienne Dolet, the 16th century French translator of Plato, sentenced to death for the freedoms he took with the original text. If we had followed this example, we would have ended up executing most of our epic and bhakti poets, who took every kind of freedom with their original/texts in Sanskrit. Perhaps the idea of the “original” text is not so strong with us because of our strong oral tradition that had only changing texts, where accretions, substitutions and attritions were a common rule.

While colonial Europe found in the translation of exotic “Oriental” texts a way to contain and dominate their creators, India sought through translation a living dialogue between its own cultural past and present as also between its cultures and the cultures of other lands. Translation was looked upon as a revitalisation of the original through the imagination of a writer of another space and time. The original was not specially privileged as the self was in a flux as proposed by the Buddha in his Vajrakhedika (Diamond Sutra). Perhaps, we need to restore the pre-colonial openness to texts today so that we overcome the asymmetrical relations of power that operated in the colonial era, turning translation into a strategy of containment and reinforcement of the hegemonic versions of the colonised as objects without history. Translation to us today is a way of retrieving our people’s histories and recording their past and present.


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