The bridge between

The bridge between

Translating Literature

The bridge between

Skillful The delicate art of translation.

Last year, for the first time, I translated. I did it against my better judgement. The editor was a friend, responsible for my first published book. “Take it as a challenge,” she said. “You’ve engaged with language for so many years as teacher and writer. After poems, novels, short stories, children’s books, plays and newspaper columns, now here’s another frontier!” She was willing to accept all my lapses. An editorial panel would vet my work. Put like that, it was an offer I couldn’t resist.

It was a challenge all right. Malayalam is my mother tongue, but I didn’t study it formally. I picked it up from books, newspapers and films. The plus side was that I spoke Malayalam at home, and was sensitive to the culture and core of my birthplace, Kerala.
The book in question was an anthology of dalit writing. I was to translate a handful of poems and an extract of a novel.

Creative writers are wary of doing “peripheral” jobs. To them, a critic is a failed writer who will then judge successful writers. The translator is a second-hand vendor, unable to be original. I’ve been a writer, critic and a translator, and discovered that creativity and original thinking play a more or less equal part in all three. A critic must possess a whole aura of background knowledge, and then understand the work at hand. He must sensitise himself to the writer’s world and needs.

The translator must do pretty much the same thing. In addition, he has to carry aloft one culture to another like an athlete carrying an Olympic torch.

What is the method and scope of translation? Do you go at it word for word? Or would it be (to misquote Gandhi) a case of a word for a word making the whole work go bland? Will you be a dictionary translator, or focus on sensibility and spirit? Will you be servant or master— bow to the original, or be creative in your own right? These are serious, responsible questions because, like Atlas, you’re carrying a world on your shoulders.

Valmiki, Vyasa, Tolstoy, Homer and Marquez have all come to us in translation. The texts we got depended solely on the translators’ enterprise, scholarship and sensitivity. (This alone should, of course, demonstrate the value and validity of translators.)

Translators have been confined to an apologetic line (sometimes even relegated away from the book’s cover) below the original author’s bold byline. The latter had ownership. If you confessed to being a translator, you were looked upon as someone who’d simply passed on the bricks to create a beautiful structure. But things have begun to change. Translators are coming into their own. There are prizes for translation. Seminars are arranged to discuss its methodology. Publishers are looking around for regional literature that could be handed over to other languages.

The translator is a creative artist with a serious responsibility. He has to use his talent to convey the core and sensibility of one world to another. He must be not just familiar with, but ardently interested in, both these worlds. His job is to bring two sets of people closer with one text. He crosses a bridge with his text, or becomes a bridge. In fact, more than a bridge, he becomes a conveyor belt conveying the culture and ways of one person to another, root, shoot and all.

This phenomenon also lights a spark in the domain of Indian writing in English. Serious works (those that are true to man, milieu and mores) might, for instance, appropriate a local world that’s unrecognisable to the larger English-speaking world. In my novel, Lament of Mohini, I spoke of the insulated world of the Kerala namboodiri brahmin and a unique set of traditional registers inaccessible to strangers. In such a case, the writer is the original creator as well as translator. Many writers in English struggle to express the unique knowledge they have of their own cultural territory. Learning and imbibing the translator’s art will definitely help them.

In translating dalit writing into English, I not only had to enter a new language but also a new world. Before helping my reader see, I myself had to see. Words took on different shades, simplicity became denser, and a whole vocabulary of colloquialisms not usually found in Malayalam speech made me sit up and think. The freedoms we take for granted, and the constricted world of the dalit. When I finished my work, I realised the great responsibility as well as creative freedom of the translator. It almost made even an original writer’s work seem easier!

Because, in these days of chauvinism and cultural ownership and violent one-upmanship, there lives in a little cottage on the border of two cultures, a man or a woman who will convey the one to the other, who will bring people closer — the translator.

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