Asia Uncensored–The Myopic Translator: Why Translation isn’t Just About Discovery but the Potential to Expand the English Language

By Arunava Sinha

 Editor’s Note: There is a gap in English fiction today. This crevice is filled with thousands of stories, cultural microcosms, inventive structures, and “taboo” subjects. They are the stories told in other tongues that haven’t been translated. Even if they were, what would be the literary merit of translating stories into a language as limited as English? Is it time to expand our vocabulary, borrow from the ingenuous emotions and poetic skills that other languages possess? (Rhea Mukherjee)

Arunava Sinha
Arunava Sinha

The greatest value that translations of Indian literature into English can bring to the English-speaking world is not in the form of brilliant fiction yet to be discovered by the West. There’s no denying that aspect, but that’s not where the real enrichment comes from.

Instead, what those accustomed to reading English fiction will gain is the awareness of a whole new range of human experiences and emotions, which are not captured by literatures elsewhere in the world because they do not exist in those places. From socioeconomic realities to internal states of existence, every aspect of life will yield new richness through reading translated Indian fiction.

Take the word “mon” in Bangla, which appears in Hindi as “man”. In the ontology that English-reading people have acquired through their books, the heart and the mind are binary—neither word can be used to refer to the other. In Indian languages, however, this word represents neither the heart nor the mind exclusively. It takes a position, contextually to the rest of the text, on a continuum between the heart and the mind, between emotion and reason, between feeling and knowing. 

Thus, “mon kharap” in Bangla signals a state of melancholy that is more heart than mind, though both play a role. And “mone nei” refers to having forgotten something, which, obviously, has much more to do with the mind than with the heart. Clearly, then, the word “mon” brings to life a set of human responses that cannot be described elegantly using the existing English lexicon. Imagine writing, “She felt a pang in her 72%-heart-28%-mind.”

The question, of course, is how to preserve this richness in translation. After all, if the translator uses either of the two familiar words, “heart” or “mind”, for “mon”, will that not reduce the delicious ambiguity to a binary choice?

Of course it will. Which is why I think the time has come to enrich the fundamental vocabulary of the English language with words such as “mon”, with translation being the vehicle. It is all the rage in social media nowadays to introduce words from non-English languages to capture sensations and emotions for which there are no shorthands in English. “Mon” would be a suitable trendsetter here.

Of course, it isn’t about the language alone. Life on the political battlefield of India yields extraordinary experiences that English literature cannot even think of exploring.

In the late 1960s, for instance, a violent uprising in north Bengal saw masses of plantation workers—among them large numbers of tribal people—kill landowners and take control of swathes of land, setting off an ultimately doomed peasants’ revolution. This, and subsequent incidents, have been burnt into the literary DNA of Bengal ever since, leading to a marvelous body of novels and short stories exploring a smorgasbord of deprivation, the economics of land, exploitation, class wars, romance and personal journeys, written over 35 years and counting.

Translations of the best of this body of work would bring into English not just extraordinary literature, but also stories of forms of existence that the privileged classes—even if some of them consider themselves less than well-off by the standards of the countries they live in—cannot even begin to imagine, and, therefore, do not have a language for. The English language and its idioms and expressions have seldom had the need to reflect the anguish of the landless that leaves them with no emotional mooring, or the dehumanization of the downtrodden that makes its members commit acts overlapping with the bestial.

With the translators breaking and bending the rigidity of the English language to accommodate and express these unfamiliarities, readers of translations will confront, struggle with, and ultimately absorb ideas that their own language had not allowed them to experience all this while.

These are just two examples, from two ends of the scale. The best of Indian literature in the Indian languages will continuously throw up multiple experiences and sensations of mind, heart, body and spirit that existing English literatures do not cover. And ultimately, the real triumph of translated literature from India might not be the success of specific works, but of the passing of an entire way of storytelling into the fabric of English literature. That will be the true counter to the colonisation of the Indian imagination.

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern, and contemporary fiction, non-fiction and poetry from Bangla to English. Thirty-two of his translations have been published so far. He lives and writes in Delhi.