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Fastened with bonds of silk

By October 15, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu-Literary Review  –  Mini Krishnan

Are you an originalist or an activist reader?

Literary works, even in their natural habitats, have always needed missionaries and mediators. How then can one describe — a fortnight after World Translation Day — the way a literary translation is perceived? At one level personal, at another, embracing a whole language community, a translation contributes to the literary life of the language into which it is reborn, its dual authorship placing a special burden on its progress. While in theory its power is limitless, in practical terms it is entirely possible that it will fail commercially even if it is a creative success.

Over the centuries there have been many descriptions about what a translation is in relation to its original. A retelling; a copy; a reflection; a rebirth; a recreation; a photograph of one side of the statue; a metaphrase, and, as a character in an Iris Murdoch novel put it, like hearing someone else’s voice in your mouth.

Fork in the road

Every reader has a mental graph on which he plots which usages are acceptable or appropriate as paper language. One: do people really speak the way their exchanges unfold on the pages of a book? Probably not. Two: would an 18th century work sound right in 20th century language? Can one say “Art thou not gay?” (referring to merriment in the 17th century) today? Three: what if a century-old Indian language original is in the ornate style of, for instance, a royal court of the 18th century?

Which fork in the road should its translator take?

Literary translators split into two camps: originalists and activists. The former honour every wrinkle and rise in the original text and struggle to reproduce it in the translated language. Aesthetics trails accuracy and all the windows are sealed off: no loss, and no need for any gain either is the operating philosophy of the originalist. The activists don’t let the burden of literal accuracy get in the way too much, preferring instead to focus on putting together a creation guaranteed to fall gently around the target language reader, drawing her deep into the fantasy that the work was written in her language. Windows and doors stand wide open, musical appeal is the primary goal, and anything that enhances the aesthetic quality of the proxy text will be accommodated.

On whose side are you? Are you an originalist or an activist reader?

Take your pick:

From my very youth I was wedded to poverty. Our backyard was the playground of penury (originalist) OR Since early youth, poverty had hung a wedding garland around my neck. Destitution danced in our backyard (activist).

There is yet another kind of translator who finds a phrase or two a little tiring to tackle. So what does he do? Without the slightest regard for either the source text or the readership he drops all references to weddings and backyards. Ever since I grew up, I had been hedged in by dire poverty on all sides. A translator such as this damages his author and lowers the literary sensibility of the industry. Authors beware! This tribe of translators is on the rise.

What appeals?

What might the reasons be for the immovability of Indian language artefacts in a house filled with English furniture? Of course, this is a rhetorical question and of course some of the reasons (the persistence of a certain medieval quality in our contemporary lives contributing to it) are plain for anyone to see.

However, an interview with Sudhir Kakar suddenly made something very clear. Prof. Kakar was asked whether psychoanalysis could be done in English when the mother tongue of the patient was some other language. “It is not the ideal thing to do. A language other than your mother tongue lacks some basic emotions, no matter how rich your vocabulary and how perfect your grammar may be… childhood feelings that are associated with the mother tongue are absent in the foreign language which is usually learnt much later in life.” The problem is that today we have at least one educated generation if not two who grew up understanding India in English.

Where do they belong? What would appeal to them?

A fantastic dimension that translation opens up is the way it fastens readers from diverse worlds with bonds of silk. Twenty years ago, a student in the University of Leeds mailed her appreciation of Matampu Kunhukuttan’s ethos-ridden novel Brushte (the fictionalising of an actual event) saying, “I found it strange and gripping from the first page and read every footnote. Was it really like this?”

Despite its many stops and starts, the proxy English voice of the translator behind the virtually untranslatable Indian voice worked brilliantly with this undergraduate who had never set foot in India.

We need patient, serious, open-minded readers.

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

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