Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Found in translation

[From my Forbes Life column - about some notable translations of books from regional Indian languages into English]

In Anita Desai’s short story “Translator Translated”, a lecturer named Prema is eager to translate an unassuming Oriya writer’s works into English so that they may reach a larger readership. But our view of Prema’s motives is altered when we learn she is a failed writer herself and that this could be a way of realising her suppressed ambitions. At one key point she exceeds her brief by taking liberties with the original text, and Desai underlines this transgression by changing the form of her own story; the narrative shifts from the third person to Prema’s voice.

The proprietorial translator exists in the real world too, of course. Recently I heard the veteran Tamil writer C S Lakshmi speak of her experience with translators who fancied themselves as critics, providing suggestions for changes to the original text, rather than focusing on their own work. But even when a translator has no hidden agenda, the process is a tricky one. A question that often arises is, what does being “faithful” to a text mean? Does it mean a literal, sentence-by-sentence rendition – which can result in stilted prose, given the inherent differences between languages – or should one set out to capture the "spirit" of the original? There are no easy answers – it usually depends on the nature of the writing, the envisioned readership, and the cultural assumptions involved. (As Lakshmi pointed out, the line “Someone touched me with cool hands” implies a pleasant experience when the reader is in Tamil Nadu, but when translated into an Eastern European language it may be changed to “someone touched me with warm hands” to achieve the same effect within a single sentence. However, making such a change can cause other problems within the narrative.)

During a panel discussion about translation in Delhi, the publisher Ritu Menon noted, half-jokingly, that the panel had only women on it “because translation has a long and difficult gestation period, with huge investment and slow returns”. In a country as culturally varied as India, the obstacles can be particularly daunting: as Geeta Dharmarajan pointed out during the same talk, we can’t give, say, an MT Vasudevan Nair to all our literate children in the way that the US can give Nathaniel Hawthorne to its students – “Bihari and Rajasthani children will have different behaviour types, different cultural reference points. And as a nation that is still going from the oral to the written traditions, how do we get illiterate people into the joy of the written world?” How to convey the subtle shifts in dialects within a particular language such as Bengali, wondered Anjum Katyal shortly afterward - "do we use a Cockney-fied English to indicate the differences?"

Despite these difficulties, there has lately been a surfeit of fine translations from the various Indian languages into English. Until a few years ago there was a dedicated but small band of translators, such as Arunava Sinha, who continues to bring a wide range of Bengali writings – from classics like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini to contemporary avant-garde works like Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart – to new readers. But the net is spreading wider now, and encompassing literature from across the country.

Given that the very act of translation from a regional language into English can be seen as a comment on the clout of Indian Anglophone writing, it is poignant that many of these books and stories are tales of marginalisation to begin with. A strong expression of the sense of neglect felt by non-English writers occurs in the story “Mangosil”, by the celebrated Hindi writer Uday Prakash. “When I tried explaining my troubles to Delhi’s influential writers and thinkers,” says the narrator here, “I felt as if I were a snail that had surfaced to the world above, telling the divine bipeds patting their fat bellies about his wild, weird, othercaste experiences.” The mollusc’s voice is being heard now: “Mangosil” appears with two other Prakash stories – about other forms of inequalities – in The Walls of Delhi, translated by Jason Grunebaum. The translation does contain the odd jarring note – phrases like “Isn’t this peachy?” feel out of place – but Grunebaum has clarified that he wanted to make these stories accessible to a non-Indian readership.

A cheekier take on hegemony occurs in the Tamil Dalit writer Bama’s Harum-Scarum Saar (translated by N Ravi Shanker), about lower-caste Dalits' refusal to kowtow to their landlord “masters”. The rebellions here are not violent or dramatic (the circumstances of these people’s lives would permit no such thing), but the societal order is overturned in subtle ways, through rude speech and small acts of defiance: in one story, “Pongal”, the son of a labourer refuses to accompany the rest of the family on an obligatory gift-bearing visit to the landlord. The writing is conversational and salty (something the translation captures nicely), full of rhetorical questions (I knew people were there in the well, otherwise would I have jumped?) and phraseology that isn’t grammatical in the strictest sense but conveys the flavour of the setting.

Discussions about contemporary Indian fiction in English often touch on the lack of truly startling work that aligns stylistic experimentation with political engagement. One of the most formally provocative books I have read is P Sachidanandan’s The Book of Destruction (original Malayalam title Samharathinthe Pusthakam), about a man trapped in a series of surreal situations involving the bombing of a discotheque, a mysterious stranger whom he regularly meets during train journeys, and a tailor cannibalised by the people whose personalities have been shaped by the clothes he stitched; the human race is bound by the destructive impulse, says this hard-hitting critique of social conformity. But there are more linear, narrative-driven works available in translation too, many of them by Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint. These include fine translations of important Indian writers such as Yashpal (This is not that Dawn), Sundara
Ramaswamy (Tamarind History) and Fakir Mohan Senapati (Six Acres and a Third). One of the imprint's lower-profile gems is the Telegu writer Chaso's Dolls’ Wedding, a collection of  deceptively unfussy stories that have spare “plots” but provide tangential entry points into people’s inner lives through an accumulation of detail: as an ancient great-grandmother tells tales of her childhood, the reader is made aware of the significance of what is not explicitly said; how the old woman appears dimly aware of, and resigned to, the injustices of her life.

Elsewhere, genre and popular writing are also reaching new readers. The Urdu scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi recently expanded his own novel Kai Chaand thay Sar-e Aasmaan into a multigenerational 19th century epic titled The Mirror of Beauty – a respectable “literary” venture, if there ever was one. But a few years ago Faruqi had indulged himself with a more light-weight project: translations of four “Jasoosi Duniya” thrillers written by the legendary pulp writer Ibn-e Safi in the 1950s. These adventures – with such titles as Laughing Corpse and Poisoned Arrow – “star” the imperturbable super-sleuth Colonel Faridi, his assistant Captain Hameed and a pet goat named Bhagra Khan, and are set in an improbably Westernised city with posh nightclubs, harbours and skating rinks. It is easy to dismiss such books as trivial, but their storytelling energies and plotting skills have influenced writers and artists for decades, and seeped into our popular culture, and in his translations Faruqi has combined his writerly strengths with the childlike enthusiasm of a fan who was mesmerised by Safi as a boy. That combination lies at the heart of so much good translation.

[Some earlier posts about fine books in English translation: Lal Singh Dil’s memoirs, Revathi’s A Hijra Life Story, Nirmal Verma’s Ve Din, Geetanjali Shree's Khaali Jagah, Blaft's Tamil folk tales and pulp fiction, Syed Muhammad Ashraf's The Beast, MT Vasudevan Nair's Randaamoozham]


  1. As a translator (I translate form Japanese to English), I was nodding throughout this post. A translator never has the right to suggest changes to the original text. But I do feel that sometimes a little wordplay is required to convey the exact intent or emotion the author is trying to portray. Transliteration will never work for literary pieces !
    I think Gopa Manjumdar does a marvelous of of translating Satyajit Ray’s works !

  2. Ruch: good point, though unfortunately a lot of word-by-word translating does seem to happen still while translating Indian literature to English. I remember noting how stilted the translation of Pratibha Ray's Yagnaseni was.
    Agree about Gopa Majumdar too.

  3. Very relevant post given that we have novels in so many languages. I read English translation of a Punjabi novel. It is supposed to be a very good novel. But the English translation was so flat. I have always enjoyed Kundera's books and they are all translated. As a reader, I never felt I was reading translated prose not that I know Czech or French

  4. coming to your blog and seeing foxie's face still makes me cry. i hope you're in a better place now. i have lost dogs and the only thing i can take comfort is in the fact that i gave them to best possible life i could but i still fucking miss the ones l lost. thanks for making me laugh over the years and also, for caring so damn much and so openly about your kid.

  5. A few months back I read and reviewed ( for a paper) two of Sundara Ramaswamy's books brought out by Penguin. I loved both. If interested, follow this link: