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The truth about literary translations

By May 28, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu – Mini Krishnan

Translations carry none of the blitz and drama of the edit sessions that went behind it

After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when the king of Persia sent his interpreter with a message to the Greeks asking for earth and water as a sign of their submission, Themistocles had the visitor put to death for presuming to announce the barbarian message in Greek. A thousand years later in 1536, William Tyndale was strangled and burned because his English translation of The Bible displeased Henry VIII. Ten years later, Étienne Dolet, an advocate of the Bible-for-all, was burned at the stake because his French translations carried a few words that were not in the Church-endorsed Latin version.


Compared to these terminal terrors, literary translation today is not difficult at all. Because, really, you can do what you like and more often than not get away with it. It isn’t, for instance, like scientific or technical or medical translations where a mistake might cause serious damage to an experiment or a building or a life.

Linguistic choices

While there is little or no money in literary translation, there could be some glory if you listen to your publisher. The more people there are in the chain of desks leading to the printer, the safer you are because every cliché-slayer will work on your writing before passing you on to the next and the next.

Or, you could say that literary translation is still a dangerous profession because literally anyone can challenge you and pound you with serious objections, and they will do it in public. To all of which you have only one defence. You made linguistic decisions to chime with your temperament, cultural background, and understanding.

You made a subjective choice.

For the time it takes to read this column, I want to call the translator what I’ve long believed her to be: an onion. Partly because she can make her author and/ or editor cry and also because she is to be understood layer by layer. But the translator also has to understand herself. We each have layers that influence the words we choose and the ones we shun; these are linked with emotional, perhaps even historical, patterns of how we view things and express ourselves; what we think is cultured and what we have been trained to think is not. The pen (or increasingly the fingers over a keyboard), hovers over this word or that and either fixes it on the page or lets it whoosh into oblivion.

And while there is much talk of experts in every field, the truth about translation is that there is no such thing as an expert translator. Only experienced ones, ethical ones, respectful of both past and present, carefully manipulating the invisible veins of language. The pity of course is that this process is very difficult to explain. When they hand in a script, translators usually sign off with a note about how the work was accomplished, but what we read is invariably disappointing because none of the blitz and drama of discussions and edit sessions ever really comes through. Retrospection rarely captures what happened while assembling a deep structure of words because unvarnished, unfiltered recall is probably not possible.

An understanding of these factors might give us lighthouse flashes into a translator’s reasons for her choice of particular words and phrases over others. Consider the work of one of India’s most translated poets — Tagore. We know how the ageing glamour of early Tagore translations fare against later versions.

Close reading

Another face of translation is what a complete misunderstanding of context can do to a reputation, a famous example being Machiavelli’s chillingly pragmatic description of his prince, Cesare Borgia. What is rarely understood is that Machiavelli’s advice on the use of power did not consider moral criteria because neither darkness nor light had any place his universe. Our readings put them there.

Speaking of writings and re-readings, there is a ghost writer behind translations who is even deeper underground than translators — the editor. I shall close with a selection of the kind of translated sentences that Indian editors receive for repair and restoration and leave you, dear reader, to polish them :

1. On the other hand Ramesh gained health

2. He nodded his head while she stretched her hand and shed copious tears.

3. I am always mystified by one thing.

4. Is it the carcass of a cast-off cow?

5. It’s enough if I can wet my mouth

If editors of translated works look morose, you know why. On the other hand there is a growing lobby for anti-English translations in English.

Tennis anyone?

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

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