The Indian ease with translation and multilingualism

It cannot be understood by an ideology that thinks of every “other” as an enemy within.

Published : Feb 09, 2023 10:25 IST

The title page of “Gitanjali” in English translation, which won its author Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. 

The title page of “Gitanjali” in English translation, which won its author Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.  | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I grew up in a small town named Bhor in Pune district. Bhor was a one-time “Princely State”, but the prince was really a minor prince. Among the architecturally interesting “monuments” he created out of his negligible revenue were a small palace, a temple, a high school, and a library. As a middle-school student, I used to go to the library. It had a few thousand books, mostly in Marathi. Among them, many were translations of English, European, and Bangla books.

Among the translations were a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a prose rendering of one of Alfred Tennyson’s poems, and the Tarzan stories. I was not aware that they were translations. It did not strike me at that age, but to bring a book from the US or France or Africa to monolingual readers in a small town inhabited by people who had rarely ever crossed the borders of their State was quite a miracle.

A few years later, when I started reading newspapers, I wondered how the Marathi reporters could get the details of things happening all over the world so fast. I was not aware that the editorial desks had to depend on translation of news in other languages, mainly English. I had not realised how important a role the invisible translators play in the spread of information and culture. And it was not just the spread of information but also the spread of empires where they played a key role.

The dubhashis

I do not know if enough documentary evidence exists to support the story I have heard about the first encounter between officers of the East India Company and the people in Surat where the EIC wanted to begin its trading operations. It seems the Englishmen, who obviously did not know either Gujarati or Persian, had to employ Armenian translators. The Englishmen knew some Portuguese; the Armenians also understood Portuguese.

Thus an English sentence was translated first into Portuguese, then the Portuguese was translated into Armenian, followed by its Persian translation from Armenian, and finally the Persian was translated into Gujarati. In reply to the communication, the whole chain of translations was played back. Yet, despite this long linguistic journey along the path of translation, the communication did take place.

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I often wonder if the European powers could have built their colonial empires if that anonymous translator had not come to their rescue. Later, the Company created an official position of dubhashis or multilingual functionaries. Two centuries later, the EIC officials were first trained in a few Indian languages before being posted to India. By the end of the 18th century, many of them translated texts from Persian and Sanskrit into English. Some, like Sir William Jones (1746-1794) and Charles Wilkins (1749-1836), became world famous.

Over the last five decades, I have come across innumerable scholars and enthusiasts who have translated from or into their own languages. In comparison, the numbers of those interested in translation in England or in other English-speaking countries is much smaller. I often think of poets like A.K. Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, and Arun Kolatkar, whose ease with several languages was remarkable, as being characteristic of the Indian attitude to language and literature. Ramanujan translated from Tamil and Kannada into English. He wrote his poems in English as well as in Kannada. Chitre had an ease with translation and writing both in English and Marathi. When I was in Gujarat, I translated a few complex texts from Gujarati to English. I have also translated from Marathi to English and from English to Marathi without becoming too self-conscious. Besides, when it came to writing in Gujarati, Marathi, and English, I did not experience any great unease.

This is not to say that one has complete mastery over all these languages. The few examples I have given are brought in to point to the sense of ease that Indians have in dealing with several languages. Millions of workers and traders in India who work in States other than their own engage with several languages as easily as fish swim in water. We can perhaps say that the Indian Consciousness is a Translating Consciousness.

“What myths describe as “Parakaya-prvesh” (getting under another’s skin), is a way of life for us.”

Metamorphosis, or what myths describe as Parakaya-prvesh (getting under another’s skin), is seen as no great deal by Indians who are used to being multilingual. It is a way of life for us. It is an important soft power India has inherited, the importance of which we have not fully assessed.

Fortunately, we have a long tradition of considering translations as equally sacred as the original texts. We also have an amazing diversity of languages which makes multilingualism a natural cultural practice. The convention of bestowing a sacred status on translations emerges in the circumstances under which many of our modern languages were born.

Most of them have translations of Sanskrit texts such as the Mahabharata or the Ramayana as the first or early texts in the initial phase of their emergence. The Jnaneshwari for Marathi, the Gita Govinda for Oriya, the Charyas in Assamiya, the Mahabharata translations in Telugu and Kannada and the Ramcharitamanas for Hindi exemplify this peculiar phenomenon. These texts are as sacred for the speakers of those languages as the King James version of the Bible is for Englishmen.

Language diversity

As far as language diversity is concerned, data on “Mother Tongues” in successive Census reports may suffice. The 1961 Census had listed 1,652 mother tongues as reported by Indian citizens. In 2011, 1,369 mother tongues were reported. The high density of languages in India provides a favourable social context for anyone to accept bilingualism or even multilingualism as a natural way of life. In turn, multilingualism supports translation as a mental habit in day-to-day life. The enormous advantage that such a society has over a purely monolingual society should not be underestimated.

When I grew up reading Marathi translations of books from many countries, Hindi was not an easily understood language in Maharashtra. Later, the popularity of Hindi films and Hindi songs brought Hindi closer to the Marathi-speaking people. During the same period, the Marathi language kept distancing itself from numerous tribal languages in Maharashtra and either marginalised them or plain finished them off. I have noticed a similar process in Gujarati during the last six decades.

At this juncture in our national history, Hindi is being presented as the linguistic “Big Brother”. An insistence on displaying Hindi signboards in southern States is the beginning of an intended diminishing of Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam. The Language Committee’s recommendation that Hindi be made the language of inter-State official communication in the name of national unity is an ill-advised step towards linguistic social engineering. It may look like a desirable move for a myopic nationalism, but it will spell the beginning of the decline of India’s multilingualism and inherent translation ability. It will, in simple words, erode the soft power that our ancestors have handed down to us.

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Recently, I was in Chennai for the International Book Fair organised by the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation. The fair attracted participation from a large number of publishers from various continents. I learnt that plans are afoot to have a number of Tamil works translated into several Indian languages, English, and other global languages. I find this an extremely imaginative cultural move. It is bound to increase the prestige of Tamil the world over. Besides, it will strengthen the age-old institution of translators.

To my mind, the BJP’s ham-handed imposition of Hindi and the DMK’s imaginative strategy to increase its soft power stand in sharp contrast. One betrays impatience and inadequate understanding of India’s cultural past, the other shows statesmanship and a good grasp of the cultural make-up of India. After all, the only Nobel Prize for Literature given to any Indian was for a translation, Rabindranath Tagore’s Bangla Gitanjali in its English version.

The ability to translate, transform, and transmigrate and the ability to get under another’s skin with complete empathy, which are at the heart of India’s culture and past, cannot be easily understood by an ideology that thinks of every “other” as an enemy within. The working of the invisible hand cannot be grasped by those who believe that hands are made only for wielding lathis.

Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.

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