Finding the words that fit

Translators World


W

hen I first watched the film Star Wars I wondered what it could be a metaphor for, in publishing. The sighting of a new world, locating the landing bases, the precision needed to enter without spacewrecks, the sudden shifts and jolts as the spaceship adjusts itself to a new planet where things look and behave differently in an alien atmosphere which calls for special qualifications and permissions; the misgivings, the anxieties... and ... the dangers. What better equivalent than translation ?

Translation goes beyond boastful import-export news, beyond literature as competitive sport. It belongs to a profession of individuals who are the bearers of a certain inward culture. To translate respectfully and painstakingly is a mark of the translator's character itself. And having worked with many translators and viewing them not just as projects to be managed, I feel that translation is as much a vehicle of values like integrity, responsibility and and humility as anything else. In my experience, a good translator cannot be an unimaginative or malicious person because translation is not merely about hunting for the best equivalences and solutions but about being dedicated and honest in one’s choices. Maybe there is a case for translation education here!

 A seemingly simple example from Othappu (The Scent of the Other Side), a novel about Malayali Christian society set in Trichur goes, “Yentha vandi ninnhe?” (yentha= why; vandi= cart; ninnhe= stopped). How to achieve that exact tone of indulgence and care as the young girl pauses to look at the river below the bridge she is crossing with her father?

Why has the cart stopped ?
or
Why has the little cart stopped ?
or
Why has my little cart stopped ?
or
Why has our little cart stopped?

The internal debate goes... If I say ‘cart’, will the reader think father and daughter are actually in a cart ?

That won’t do, so shall I use the word vandi ?

No, that would look lazy. There isn’t actually a cart, so what shall I do?

An enormous process of internalisation and cultural extrusion takes place before buyers of a translation are allowed to eavesdrop on an occult world. Amazing though it seems, a powerful novel in an Indian language exists utterly unseen and ‘unheard’ by readers in English till it is available in English translation. As far as readership outside its linguistic borders in India is concerned, its characters are in storage till they are given life by the source — language-to-English-text translator.

I suspect that translators get to know their texts even better than the original writers. They have to consider every word, look at its shape from different angles, all the history and associations that trail that word in the target language, listen over and over again to the sounds the original gives off and choose from different options. For the writer of the original, the words form a part of the terrific sweep of creative energy which they can take for granted that their reading-public will understand. The translator has no such guarantees. She picks up and keeps or discards words that might form the parallel world in English, inching forward, line by line.

Local politics, social rivalries, family hierarchies, quarrels, sarcasm have all to be managed in a language that originated in another culture and which may not even have a ready vocabulary for them. The translator gets to know every character intimately in order to select the tone and depth of the words they would use in different circumstances. “Would the character I know use coarse words? Slang? How to differentiate between the way the head of the household calls a child and the way the cook would?” The traveller between two worlds argues with himself about what bits of the unseen and inner landscape he thinks he can translocate.

The sound of sentences as they bear the weight of two worlds have to be oiled into silence. Here is another example from the same novel by Sara Joseph:

“Da, aren’t you the son of that Theredya?”

 The request that he too be allowed to receive the communion died on his quivering lips.
 Daniel Achen’s question and tone both hurt Manikyan.

“My mother’s name is Thresia.”

“Pha! You upstart! Thresia? Since when has a convert started calling herself Thresia?”

The Vicar believed it was not for converts to use the names of upper-caste Christians.

Not Thresia, but Theredya. Not Ousep, but Athuppu. Not Devassi, but Dehathi.

As Manikyan was about to climb the flight of steps with the other children for their first communion, the Vicar stopped him.

“You just wait there. Don’t come up and pollute the place.”

 Manikyan, son of Thredya decided that one day he would dash up those very steps, join the seminary, study theology and become a priest. (tr Valson Thampu)

To evaluate and push the total meaning of a word or phrase in order to find its nearest match, the translator often compromises, sacrificing a part of the meaning in order to leap to the other side carrying this killing weight on his back. While editing/ shaping this work and some others in the recent past, I often thought of what the patron saint of translators, St Jerome, the first translator of the Bible into Latin said : “The truth is that I have partly discharged the office of a translator and partly that of a writer.” (395 AD)
Speaking in 1919 at the bicentenary publication of Robinson Crusoe, Virginia Woolf said it was “a product of the race itself rather than the effect of a single mind.” So too are our best Indian translations, loaded with ethnic detail, subtexted by echoes and direct references to the issues of the day and interpreting the socio-religious and caste problems of a complex, and ancient society. The use of a comparatively young language to give new life to a text from an older one is to participate in an archaeology of emotion and experience.

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