Bridging worlds

Language dynamics
Last Updated : 15 May 2010, 11:21 IST
Last Updated : 15 May 2010, 11:21 IST

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‘The first instrument of a people’s genius is their language.’ —Stendhal

Just lately, that dry voice which for at least a thousand years has been saying that translation need only play the role of a departmental secretary, has faded away. There are new sounds from the library, from study centres, from bookshops, from travelers, scientists, peace-makers and anthropologists.

Why? Because for as long as we have been recording, communicating, reading and writing,the Tower of Babel has loomed over us and incomprehension has been the norm. Literacy, learning, social integration — everything transits through language and everybody is gradually recognising the vital need for experts who can interpret thought systems that lie locked in languages unknown.

And who might these experts be? They are the people John Dryden called “the metaphrasers,” those who have the power to transfuse, to go beyond words to hidden and complex layers of meaning. In short, they are translators, the people who deal with the dynamics of language and the facilitate the crossovers of culture.


Indeed one of the notable adventures of our times has been the contact of not just regional but of world cultures and their emerging perceptions of each other and shaping of mutual images, made possible by the mobility of knowledge from one language to another.

Surely one of the great ironies of History is that while English is politically the power- language of the world in which science and technological advance is most widely expressed, the Sun is setting heavily on notions of Western superiority in the use of that language.

In case readers are expecting to read yet another article on the unstoppability of English I’d like to deflect their expectations and hopes and say up-front that this piece is about the importance of translation and the status we should give our bridge-builders — those driven individuals who negotiate not merely the lexicons of different cultures but veritable encyclopedias of different races and time-scales; because that is what translation is: carrying the fragile but killing weight of encyclopediac information without once putting it down. Not just the sounds (language) of a different and unknown culture but the scents (geography) and colours (sociology) too which are much harder to mimic.

A true story about the incongruity of wrong translation is how European dubbing of an American film worked on puzzled audiences.

“Pull over !” says the policeman to the driver of a fast car.(American original)
“Hand over your sweater to me!” says the policeman to the driver in the Italian version.
“May I bring my date with me?” asks the same young man into the phone,later.
“Would it be all right if I brought some fruit with me?” was the dubbed query.

Umberto Eco accessed Babelfish,  provided by Altavista, experimented with automatic machine translation and came up with equally ludicrous results.

“And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” says the Holy Bible in English,as we all know. The machine was asked to translate this famous line into Spanish. Continuing his experiment Eco asked Altavista to retranslate the line back into English. “And the alcohol of the God moved on the face of the waters,” said the machine.

Evidently, not only is human intervention vital in transfers, it also needs to be discerning, observant and familiar with the second language in order to fashion a third language which is neither the source nor the target language.

Why is language so important? 

Language is an integral part of ourselves, vital to a sense of identity and therefore to our national health. There is a natural connection between the language spoken by a social group and that group’s self- image. The closer you move to your mother-tongue, the deeper you move into the safety zone of a sense of self. With its five language families and more than 400 recognised languages, India is a living museum of civilisation and a complete mystery to anyone born outside the land.

All the greater that we recognise the emotional and integrating power of translation in our land. Entrenched in multiple realities and forms of violence, the first barrier to understanding the essential oneness of our human condition lies in the loneliness of isolation we feel when we cannot communicate or understand the Other’s words and thoughts.

How can translation not matter? Any talk of multiculturalism leads naturally to language empowerments, identities and the importance of translation which is fundamental to a multilingual society like ours. There are purist notions about translation being a feeble copy or a fracturing of the original but translation between Indian languages and the translation of Indian writers into English — primarily for Indians who have lost their mother tongues and are in every sense, language –orphans, and next, for non-Indians — is a moral and historical duty of biliterate and bicultural Indians. 

Living as we do in the tenth year of the new millennium, by now, we know that technology is not going to save the world and that our solutions have to come from the human spirit.

Could it be that some of those solutions  originate in the intercultural synergy that lies in the black-box of the translator’s mind? There would have been no Renaissance, Asia would never have emerged from her middle ages nor would the Bible have been available as we know it today, if it hadn’t been for translators, the creators of ‘contact literature’. They are the inventors of alphabets and the middlemen of history and are rebuilding the Tower of Babel—- not arrogantly but out of a need to counter the condition of human loneliness.

Published 15 May 2010, 11:21 IST

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