Speaking in tongues: Literary translation as a work of art

Speaking in tongues: Literary translation as a work of art

By NIRMALA GOVINDARAJAN | | 4 February, 2017
Can a translated work be included in the canons of great literature? Nirmala Govindarajan attempts to arrive at an answer, while speaking to some expert translators working in India.

Divided by language, united by translations, literature from various Indian states, as well as from regions across the world, is now within easy reach of the Indian reader. As former editorial head of Pan Macmillan, translator and founder of Ponytale Books, Pranav Kumar Singh observes: “A country’s literature is part of its soft power. Today, most Indian languages have become just a medium of communication in urban Indian households, and English has become the language of reading. Therefore, it is important to translate the best of Indian literature not only for the benefit of native non-readers, but also for the growing readership in English, both in India and abroad. With the increasing prominence of India globally, a time will come when translations will play an important role in creating an understanding of the Indian experience. On the other hand, despite everything, there will be a resurgence of Indian languages, and a consequent need for both academic and general interest reading material. Therefore, there is need to look at translations both ways.”  

“One bit that needs more exploring,” adds writer, columnist, translator and head of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel, “is the publishing of Indian languages in the Roman script. Turkey made the transition easily. What is the benefit of this? In the modern world, though mobile phones and tablets can use most scripts, it is still simpler to use the Roman. Advertising in India uses Roman-Hindi. The turn of literature will come soon.’’ Patel, like Pranav Kumar Singh, is among the few editors in the country who have the ability to straddle more than two languages with equal ease. “I am a Gujarati,” says Patel. “My favourite poet is Narsinh Mehta, and though I can recite ‘Ozymandias’ or some of Eliot’s stuff, I am moved most by [Narsinh] Mehta’s Nag Daman on the boy Krishna. I began learning Arabic many years ago and did not get far, but because the script became familiar, I began to read Urdu. There is essentially no difference between Urdu and Hindi because the grammar is the same and north Indians who familiarise themselves with the Perso-Arabic script will be surprised to know that there is hardly any difference between Urdu and Hindi.”

With her bi-lingual proficiency in Hindi and English, thanks to the steady supply of English and Hindi literature during her formative years, Vaishali Mathur, Executive Editor and Head Language Publishing Rights, Penguin Random House, began her journey as a translator with two stories from the Chronicles of Narnia — The Silver Chair and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In later years, she translated Jarnail Singh’s I Accuse from Hindi to English. “In the case of Chronicles, which has very detailed imagery, the language needed to be contemporary and at the same time, as true to the text as possible because I had to recreate a world of fantasy for the Hindi reader,” explains Mathur. Her most recent work for Penguin is Devlok Devdutt Pattanaik Ke Sang, a transliteration. “The idea was to make mythology more accessible to the general Hindi reader, and it was important to ensure that academic phraseology was not used,” says Mathur. For Aakar Patel, translating Manto’s non-fiction was easy. As a translator, Patel’s style is to read a paragraph, absorb its meaning, and then reproduce its intent. “It is important,” he says, “when dealing with languages like Gujarati and Urdu, to retain that flavour of Indian-ness when translating material into English. Manto writes simply and directly. His tone is often conversational and so reading out a line of his and then replacing its words and its content with English did not require much time or thinking. Khushwant Singh once said that the translator needed to be very good at the language being translated into and reasonably good at the language being translated out of. This is true for me.”

“Translation is an intensive effort, more challenging than writing original pieces because you are already bound into a canvas with the painting done. You can take little liberties, but then your work will be compared with the original.”

When one lives with diverse languages and grows into their syntax — as Pranav Kumar Singh did while assisting his mother to translate texts into and from Maithili, Bangla and Hindi over 30 years ago — falling in love with the intricacies of translation is inevitable. Singh says: “So, when I started publishing children and young adult writing under Ponytale Books, the Ghost of Gosain Bagan, a translation from Bengali to English, was very well received. This further inspired me to look at translating the best of Indian children’s literature into English for the urban Indian child. I found that the newer generation was lesser aware of Premchand’s opus, and I approached many renowned translators, but for some reason it did not materialise. So, I translated my favourite Premchand stories. The response to the selection buoyed me to further involve myself in translations, and I have recently translated some of Tolstoy’s stories into Hindi.”

Committed to bringing diverse literatures to young readers, Singh points out that translation is never an easy process. “One has to be truthful to both the source text as well as the language it is being translated into. An understating of the socio-cultural context of the work being translated, passion for that work, love for the source and target languages, its grammar, usage and expressions are the key elements. Translation is an intensive effort, more challenging than writing original pieces because you are already bound into a canvas with the painting done. You can take little liberties, but then your work will be compared with the original. Then again, while it is relatively easier to translate from one Indian language with a Sanskrit origin into another, it is difficult to translate from an Indian language into English or vice versa, given the diverse grammatical structures and culture-specific expressions.”

Grappling with these challenges, Singh says he would love to translate more from the world of Hindi greats, like Premchand and Chitra Mudgal, but also work with other Indian languages. “Professionally, I would like to add more languages to my list of Bengali, Hindi and Konkani, and publish the best of children’s and young adult literature from as many Indian languages as possible,” he says.

Aakar Patel, too, says he would now like to learn a new language — Kannada, perhaps — and have a go at writing a children’s book. In general, he is inspired by the translations of Plato’s works by John M. Cooper, Robert Fagles’ Iliad and the Penguin Black Classics of that period. He also remembers V.S. Naipaul’s comment in the Wounded Civilisation on encountering U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara and glimpsing the brilliance of the original in a translation. So it is indeed possible to get a taste of a great work of literature through a translation.

It is a good sign that the translation catalogues of major publishers, both in India and the West, are expanding. The list now includes contemporary greats as well as the classics.

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