Skip to main content

Lord, give me a new language

By December 10, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu-Literary Review   –   Mini Krishnan

We need to read translated literature to become true citizens of the world

Long after 1947, Indian schoolgoers continued to get a strong dose of classics of English literature in abridged, simplified versions. The morbid aspects of 19th century classics like Wuthering Heights,Jane Eyre and Lorna Doone were carefully expunged and children of 12-14 put these books down with a sense of having experienced the firesides of English homes and the moors and meadows of its countryside.

Though somewhat distanced through retellings, English literature constituted such a huge cultural force that even people who had never visited Britain felt that they knew something about the country and its people. From chrysanthemums to cucumber sandwiches, a deep familiarity was built through books and writers located 10,000 km away.

This Indo-Anglian loam was further mulched by several hundreds of departments of English Literature, which watched literature courses in Britain keenly. In this bookish hierarchy, right up till the 1990s (with Indian scholars of Donne or Eliot being more than a match for anyone anywhere), home-grown writers, except for Tagore, were shown their place: outside Indian classrooms.

From the West

Precisely during these same decades, which were something of a golden age for Indian bilinguality, another altogether different and robust wave was surging in the opposite direction, enriching India’s reading pool: translations of world literature were streaming in through regional language publishing houses. European works both new and old, both literary and non-literary, began exerting a great influence on Indian readers in different languages. Who were the translators? No one knows.

Quite unexpectedly, many Indians who did all their reading in their mother tongues drew smartly abreast with world literature. In Translating Bharat, Manisha Chaudhry recalls her meeting with her 75-year-old South Indian in-law. For two days they conversed in a short-hand composed of the names of writers they had both read — he in Malayalam, she in English. “Shakespeare?” Nod. “Dickens?” Nod. “When he asked me ‘Marquez?’ I nearly fainted. He had read all of them in Malayalam.” Those early translators were responsible for creating deeper, richer patterns in the weave of history than the narrow and selective versions that are usually on offer.

The India-West encounter set off an implosion of reactions in social attitudes. One way in which popular culture managed the mix of admiration and hostility Indians felt for their rulers was through the use of humour and ridicule, particularly because these works rarely went beyond ‘home’ readership and because derision and laughter are a form of resistance.

For instance, 90 years ago, ‘Parasuram’ (Rajshekhar Basu) published a hilarious satire called Ulot Puran (the universe upside down). In its futuristic time-zone, India has conquered the West and Europeans are busy trying to mimic their colonisers: Bengalis. Englishwomen are learning to chew paan; Englishmen are struggling to stay warm in fine dhotis and kurtas; in a class called Bango-English, students are speaking pidgin Bengali; and a newspaper advertisement promises: The woes of white women will soon end. Once you use this miracle powder, your pale colour will disappear and you’ll acquire the exact hue of a Bengali woman. In ancient days Lord Ramchandra used it…” (trs Sumanta Banerjee)

English dosai

Several scholars have tried to identify the factors that led to the growth of translation in the subcontinent. The translation of Buddhist texts (into Chinese, Sinhalese, Thai and other languages) and the travels of Buddhist scholars overseas; the coming of Islam to India and the tremendous energy that the encounter of two world views unleashed; colonialism: the arrival of English/ European influence; the sudden rise in translation activity which government patronage made possible after Independence; and the globalisation of the book industry, as it is loosely termed, though we do not yet know where the globalisation of literature is leading.

Should we as readers be fenced in by our lived experiences alone? As the British proved, Indian children can ‘taste’ muffins and scones through reading about them. Is it possible that only a native of India can resonate to “The smell of cooking when a properly soured batter is just spreading on a dosai griddle. The smell of sesame in the chilli powder… the tenderness of Bhimsen Joshi’s Lalit raagam… the poet Ghalib pleading ‘Lord, give them different hearts or at least give me a new language.’” (Ambai/ Lakshmi Holmström).

With xenophobia sweeping the world we are in danger of turning our backs on alternative cultures. Ironically, this trend has started just when accessing another culture was never easier. We need more of the invisible bridges that translators laboriously build to introduce the world via world literatures to the reading public. Then we might even see the emergence of true citizens of the world.

So, unless you read a few translations how will you know what you are missing?

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.