When literature travels from one language to another


Left to right: Rakhshanda Jalil (writer – Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India), Urmila Pawar (Marathi writer), Radha Chakravarty (writer & translator), Nirupama Dutt (Journalist, writer & translator), Rashmi Menon (commissioning editor at Amaryllis Books)

By Aminah Sheikh

Translated literature is like perfume in a bottle. One often expects the perfume to retain its fragrance when poured into another bottle, but that isn’t possible given the nuances of the source literature – culture, period, emotions. Some essence is lost, while a new aroma is added.

“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained,” renowned writer Salman Rushdie describes in his work ‘Imaginary homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991’.

This emotion echoed during a panel discussion ‘The Glory of Translation’ at the Kumaon Literary Festival. The session was moderated by Rashmi Menon, commissioning editor at Amaryllis Books.

The genre of translated books has been under experiments in the last two decades. “However, it is only in recent times that translators have new found confidence as publishers and source (literature) authors are growing to accept translated work that isn’t literal,” said literary historian & writer Rakhshanda Jalil, of Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India fame.

Increasingly, writers are Indianising their translations which helps retain a certain flavor from the original literature. Radha Chakravarty, writer & translator (of Tagore’s prominent work) is of the view that, translations are where cultures meet, people from different orientations and backgrounds come to understand each other in harmony.

For instance, translators of Dalit literature, which is now coming to the forefront, often face the challenge of finding the right vocabulary for the language of translation. “Certain words/expressions are engrained to the Dalit literature given its history and culture. There aren’t words in the English language to describe those words,” shared Marathi writer Urmila Pawar.

Consequently, there are instances of disagreement between the literary source and the translator over unfamiliar elements. “The translator then plays a critical role in finding a common ground. It is essential that stakeholders understand that ‘these words/expressions’ (retained from the original language) enrich the lexicon of the translation language,” Radha added.

While most translators stick to being faithful to the text in their translations, these translators who also hold the chair of the writer believe, the untranslatable words should have their own idiom.

“It is a happy thing when literature travels from one language to another,” said renowned journalist, poet & writer Nirupama Dutt, who has quite a few translations to her credit including ‘Stories From the Soil’ and ‘Poet of the Revolution’, adding that however, the growing concern is of translators not being taken seriously by publishers while promoting the translated book, implying that translators often fight over their names not being mentioned prominently on the book’s cover page.

Meanwhile, publishers are pushing for translated books to own a separate shelf space at bookstores. An area that writers-translators believe need to be worked on is of having more book titles translated within Indian regional languages. It is time that Indian literature speaks to each other.

Aminah Sheikh is the online editor of Kitaab.

One comment

  • Translating works from one language to another is a huge minefield. The translator needs to be fully fluent in both languages, but, most importantly, needs a thorough understanding of the idioms and nuances of both. The finished work could be compared to a candle flame that has been lit from another candle flame – the new flame is both the old flame, but also a completely new one.

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