The Difficult Task Of Translating Aspects Of The Indian Ethos

The Difficult Task Of Translating Aspects Of The Indian Ethos

Mini Krishnan

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It’s almost impossible to translate many Indian experiences and similes
In the opening paragraph of his booklet, India Writes, Udaya Narayana Singh describes an email he received from Germany. The sender declared that he knew friends who had studied Korean and Chinese, but that he himself would like to study Indian. Could Udaya please help him?
We might as well accept that the ignorance outside the country about our alphabetrium is profound. While Indian films have made it to theatre screens all over the world, our writers are still sharpening both sides of their pencils. From time to time, enquiries reach us, wanting to know which of our contemporary works could or should be translated into European languages. This obliges us to assess our translations from a viewpoint which is hostile to native genius, as we go through a selection process, slotting our writers and their books into categories: “moveable”and “immoveable” in the literary world mart.

Help at hand?
Like a camp follows an army on the march, an entourage trails the Indian writing that’s being Englished. Handcuffed to the ‘otherness’ of the English syntax and idiom, some of our best works in regional languages unfold in a laboured way on the translated page. How would one translate dialectal variations of (for instance) Kannada? We have Mysore Kannada, Dharwad Kannada, and Mangalore Kannada. The Kannada of ‘coconut country’, of the old Mysore region, of the unlettered, is quite different from that of Bangaloreans — though they are from the same linguistic region.
Unless she writes in order to be translated (and that phenomenon is on the rise) a regional Indian writer might never reach a mass readership outside her home country because it is impossible to translate the significance of many aspects of the Indian ethos. To mirror, in English, the context from which a work gains its layered strengths, translators sometimes work a whole day on a single paragraph. In this crossover ,“a stone in the rice” might be more easily understood than “ghee in a frog’s belly”.
Nuanced phrases like “yesterday’s blade of grass” or “the cat in your lap” are either obscure or so non-functional as to be ludicrous. Allusions to some experiences and similes would be unintelligible if translated literally. What’s ghee, someone who has never tasted it might ask, and why is it so precious? Like siblings we grow up with, words have to make do with available companions.

Is there any help at hand?
In the earliest page designs known to us — illuminated religious texts copied by hand — explanations for the running text were placed decoratively on the same page as the writing they supported. These support mechanisms gradually slipped to the bottom of the page till they were banished to the back of the book itself in the form of a mini-dictionary called a glossary. So while we understand the problems, there appear to be no solutions except our make-up kit, the glossary.
But even this kit runs dry when it comes to Dalit expression by Indians who were once way back in the queue of writers being considered for translation into English. Today, 60 years after the first conference of Dalit writers, no literary gathering in India is complete without sessions on Dalit writing to discuss the history, controversies and considerations connected with caste, the fiercest expression of intolerance in Indian society and the most powerful assault on democracy.

Fatiguing exercises
The literature of its victims, therefore, carries a significance hard to miss: it is neither a trend nor an experiment with styles but a social movement, a political statement. The biggest literary shock caste-bound India ever received was via English translations of Dalit writings because they challenged sensitive readers who, till their first encounter with this genre, had read only writings that carried the values and experiences of the urban middle class. Literary and cultural representations of marginalised and dispossessed people had thus far been based on the writings of upper-caste writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and U.R. Ananthamurthy.
Publishing Dalit writing is one of the hardest and slowest processes in any publisher’s programme; and one of the most fatiguing exercises translators undertake is to find English equivalents for expressions by writers whose work is, as yet, largely unaffected by English. It is still in many cases, the language of first-generation writers in their mother tongues and therein lies its special Indianness. Though the circle of influence — experience, consciousness, creativity — knows no caste or class it would be worthwhile for a linguist or anyone who is interested in patterns of language development and history to study the art and vocabulary of two kinds of Indian writers in regional languages: those who do not read English at all and those who do, and therefore cannot but be influenced by it.

Mini Krishnan edits translations for Oxford University Press (India).

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