Lost in translation

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

Geeta Dharmarajan, the executive director of Katha, which promotes translation of literary works from Indian languages into English. - ANU PUSHKARNA

Geeta Dharmarajan, the executive director of Katha, which promotes translation of literary works from Indian languages into English. - ANU PUSHKARNA

To understand and look closely at ourselves, we need more translations from one Indian language into another.

Geeta Dharmarajan, the

AN abiding problem, and a matter of not just embarrassment but even of shame, is the fact that even today, in the 21st century, there are hardly any translations of literary works from one Indian language into another. There are some, it is true, like the valiant work being done by groups such as Katha to make the literature of the different languages of India available in English. But that really is not the issue being raised here.

The real problem is that there are few directly translated works from, say, Tamil into Gujarati or from Oriya into Marathi. And the tragedy is that most of the languages in India have a rich tradition of literary work, be it poetry, novels or plays.

There are translations from most languages into English, certainly, and, in some cases, from English into another language. This cannot but take away from the essential ambience and context social, literary, human and every other kind of the original.

One cannot but envy the English literary world. Within weeks of a work from a major writer in, say, Spanish or Polish or Turkish, there is a translation. And in most cases, the translations are so skilfully done that the ambience and context of the original does come across.

Most of us have read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy and have been able to gather something of the Russian context from English translations. Similarly, we have been able to savour the gentle melancholy that informs the plays of Tchekov.

Russian writers apart, we have had the most sensitive translations from Turkish of Orhan Pamuks novels, and from the Spanish of Marquez, and in all these, the distinctive social and cultural setting in which the original works have been written comes across, even if it is not complete.

In contrast, how many translations have been made of the works of Marathi novelists into Malayalam the sort of translations that do not pass through the decontextualising that working from an English translation entails? As it is, to translate from Bengali into English is bad enough; there is much that is lost, much that the English language simply cannot convey.

Perhaps, there has been a fair amount of translation from Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and similar languages directly into Hindi, as there are translators who are not just familiar with two languages but who know them well enough to convey the actual ethos of the original in the translation. But, from what little one has seen of such work, it is pitifully small compared with the body of literary work that exists in these languages.

It is, perhaps, easy to translate novels directly from one Indian language into another without going through English though some would disagree. But few would quarrel with the assertion that poetry becomes very difficult to translate without losing, sometimes wholly, the specific ethos in which the original was written.

It is a matter of concern that this should be such a problem in a country where so many languages are spoken. Clearly, little thought has been given to the issue by anyone, simply because it is not economically viable. And the problem would seem to start with the work done in the original language itself.

A novel written in Bengali may sell very well among those who speak the language, but what it would fetch the writer would be less than modest. Small wonder then, that translations are not made of most of the literary works in regional languages. An additional problem is that there are simply not enough people who can write in, say, Marathi and Punjabi or Tamil and Gujarati with equal skill. Such translations as are made are from the regional language into English. And this raises a point related to the ability to translate from a regional language into English.

One has come across a number of translations that are written in a stilted, artificial language, a sort of English that wavers between the comic and the irritating in its limitations.

Translation is, at the best of times, a very difficult task and requires immense skill and sensitivity. It also needs a mastery of the language into which the translation is being made even if the translators knowledge of the language from which he or she is translating is not quite as good.

Here, is an example of one such translation, from Bengali into English, of Rabindranath Tagores novel Chokher Bali, by the late Krishna Kripalani: A lightning flashed out of Binodinis eyes. It seemed the god of love fiddling with his arrow was burnt to cinders once again.

And this is a translation of a piece from Orhan Pamuks Snow by Maureen Freely: As the wheels of the horse-drawn carriage rolled over the snow, rocking Ka like a baby, the first lines of a new poem came to him; but when the carriage mounted a pavement he was jolted back to the present. The language into which the two pieces have been translated speak for themselves. Krishna Kripalanis English is awkward, even ungrammatical, where the translation by Freely is fluent and has that primary requirement of a good translation, that is, not drawing attention to her own writing but to the novelists. One has deliberately taken a translation from the Turkish because it is almost as removed from English as Bengali is, but how much easier it should be to translate from one regional language into another because so much of the contexts are shared or understood.

Consider the brilliant translation of Rainier Maria Rilkes poems by Stephen Mitchell, which comes under this category as English and German have a great deal in common. Mitchell gave up the rhymed form used by Rilke in order to capture the essential texture and quality of the poems. A few lines from Mitchells translation of Rilkes Requiem For A Friend will suffice:

I have my dead, and I have let them go,And was amazed to see them so contented,So soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,

So unlike their reputation. Only you Return...

Translating poems Mitchell has written modestly, is to some extent a matter of luck or grace, but it is primarily a complete familiarity with the language into which one is translating that matters.

Our tragedy is the manifest lack of curiosity that we have about other languages. Hardly anyone thinks it rewarding to steep oneself in the literature of another regional language to the extent of being confident of rendering works in that language into ones own.

To that extent, we still have to achieve complete integration; ours is, sadly, more superficial than we care to admit. We have to look at our regions, our neighbours and their ways as closely as we look at English.

True integration can only be through the understanding of the literary work in our regional languages, and we need access to it, which is as easy as to our own.

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