Of context and meaning

Of context and meaning

Translation in publishing

Indian literati took great offence in early January when Chinese writer Feng Tang’s translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s lyrical poems Stray Birds came across as “vulgar”, with critics claiming “it strayed too far from the original text”. The translation misfired so badly that its Chinese publisher had to recall all copies, and they even decided to review the book. However, supporting Tang’s controversial interpretation, Arunava Sinha, a translator of contemporary and classical Bengali fiction into English, says “it was quite an exciting way of translating Tagore’s poems”.

“How long can one translate the same text, without adding a different context to it? I lack the ability to do such a thing because I am not a writer. But it is a good idea to infuse some newness into an old text,” Sinha tells Metrolife.

This idea of adding a new meaning or context to original texts has been a recent addition to the vocabulary of translators, who, otherwise, have always been faithful to the seminal works. This shift reflects how the engagement between translator and text is entering an exciting phase.

This, Sinha feels is becoming possible because translators don’t want to suffer from the “strange rigidity” of following the text. “Translation is a loose term. In the broader context you can say that it is the retelling a story where the translator has the liberty to remain faithful or stray away from the original,” says Sinha who has translated books like The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told (Aleph), The Magic Moonlight Flower and Other Enchanting Stories - Satyajit Ray (Red Turtle), Abandon (Ruho) - Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (Harper Collins), among others.

Translating, like reading  is a subjective experience, and hence the text’s interpretation becomes dependent on translator’s understanding of the political, social, economical and cultural milieu of the place in which the book is set.

“Translation is like acting. Two people can read the same text and interpret it differently. What remains constant and of utmost value to a translator is to maintain the integrity of the text,” says Sinha who has translated over 30 books ever since he became a full-time translator in 2006.

A classic example of how interpretations can vary, and how subtle nuances come into picture can be understood by Daisy Rockwell’s introduction in the English translation of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (Penguin Classics)—one of the most iconic works when it comes to writing and narrating harrowing experiences in the time of Partition.

Tamas is one of those rare Hindi novels which has been translated twice— first by Jai Ratan in 1981 and second by Sahni himself in 2011, after he realised there were serious problems with the former’s translation. But these two versions confused Rockwell on a few occasions when she realised that the two translators had deviated from original text by omitting a few words or replacing some things with new objects.

For instance, she writes, “In a passage describing the dining room of the British administrator, Richard, Sahni writes that here was a tashtari in the middle of the table, arranged with roses. This confused me because how roses could be arranged in a saucer? A glance at Sahni’s translation revealed that the saucer had been turned into a vase in his version.”

“In fact, not only had he turned the saucer into a vase, but he had made a number of other changes: In the Hindi version, the table was of black oak, not mahogany; the saucer was made of brass, not copper. I felt suddenly plunged into confusion. Had I misread all these words? I picked up the Ratan’s translation to see how he had interpreted it, only to find that he hadn’t,” she adds.

These conflicting and confusing instances will always pose challenges, says Poonam Saxena, who translated Dharamvir Bharati’s timeless love story Gunaho ka Devta as “Chander and Sudha”, adding there is no rule book to translate perfectly.

“One doesn’t have to translate each and every word. All one has to do is to be true to the spirit of characters and emotions, and to try not to falsify anything,” she says.

While ambiguities around translations will continue, their characteristic is best described in Gulzar’s words, “Translation is like a mistress. If she’s faithful then she’s not beautiful. If she’s beautiful then she’s not faithful”.

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