Translation offers a multiplicity of complex worlds, all waiting to be interpreted, understood and absorbed.
Nearly 10 years ago, when the faculty and students of a university in Chicago attended an exhibition of Indian art expecting to see paintings of gods and goddesses, they were stunned to see the colour, variety, power and style of some of our famous l iving artists. To be sure, there were some gods and goddesses, but there was also a great deal else. Techniques learnt from the West in the late 19th century combined with native genius, local rhythms, and a deep absorption of traditions hitherto only dimly understood outside the country, to convey an explosion of Indian experience on canvas.“I feel I’m looking at a new world,” read a line in the visitors’ book.
There is a similar and even more complex world on offer; writings ranging from the Northeastern region of India all the way to Kerala at the other end of the subcontinent, all waiting to be interpreted, understood and absorbed, both by Indians who do not know the languages of the Northeast and Kerala, and by lovers of literature outside the country. While the language of art is different from the art of language, the growth of both is shaped by foreign influences. The large-scale introduction of the teaching of English in India was promoted by the British rulers who had an imperial and cultural plan, and by influential Indians who saw it not only as a social and professional opportunity but who welcomed it as part of the larger move to modernise India. Today, there are more people reading and writing English in India than there are in the U.K. Quite recently, David Crystal, the author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, remarked that future users of Global Standard English might well say, “I am thinking its going to rain,” rather than “I think its going to rain,” because GSE will have pronounced Indian characteristics.
What does this mean? Does it mean anything to anyone?
A new assertion It might, to translators and publishers of Indian literature in English translation; it probably will, to a market which is no longer shadowy and is gradually asserting itself. With English being the world’s most studied second-language, as it fiercely beats off its rivals and reigns unchallenged as the main international academic language, it seems entirely appropriate to launch writers from our national languages into this parallel language world which demands no visas and recognises no borders. Indeed, there is hardly an Indian publisher with a footprint in the English language space who has not committed at least some of his/ her resources to translating Indian literature. Some publishers are publishing bilingually, and others have set up exclusively — and heroically — to publish English translations of Indian writers. Every one of them probably feels that our stupendous multilingualism should not be frittered away.
Since glimpses are better than descriptions, and I’m always hoping to win new readers to the translations camp, I give below a few samples.
Published in translation 12 years ago, here is an excerpt from Abdul Bismillah’s Hindi novel, Jhini, Jhini, Bini Chadariya (the title itself, a line from Sant Kabir’s verse which images the soul as a length of cloth woven between Heaven and Earth, was rendered as The Song of The Loom). The narrative deals with the impoverished weavers of Benaras who make the beautiful brocades for all of India. When Iqbaal was ready to leave, Aleemun beckoned to him. He sat gazing at her wasted face. Still using gestures Aleemun asked him to open the packet. As Aleemun’s shriveled fingers stroked the sari there was a strange glow in her sightless eyes. This time Iqbaal had woven flowers with threads of gold against a red background. It seemed as if golden buds had bloomed in a valley of rubies. Aleemun wanted to transplant those buds into her eyes. It was as if she wanted to absorb into her very self, this fruit of her husband’s labour. “This year, for Eid, we’ll get you a sari exactly like this!” Aleemun turned to Iqbaal. A fleeting smile touched her ashen lips.
(translated by Rashmi Govind)
Or, published 10 years ago, here are a few lines from The Eye of God (N.P. Muhammad). Against the backdrop of Malayali Muslim village culture with its curious mix of Hindu rituals and beliefs, it tells the poignant story of a young boy sliding slowly into insanity. There is a court which forgives every kind of crime: the heart of a mother. I’ll not allow them to touch my Umma. Amazingly, I remembered what Kunhali Musaliyar had taught me to recite at night school.
“Do you know where Heaven is?” “It is somewhere in the sky,” I said and pointed upwards. “No you fool. Heaven is under Umma’s feet.”(translated by Gita Krishnankutty)
In the new millennium, the kind of English that our translators are experimenting with is vigorously making more elbow room for itself, as seen, for example, in Velcheru Narayana Rao’s translation of Satish Chander’s Telugu poem, “A Child is Born”:
Four sides to the village
Four legs to an animal
Four rows for crossing
Caste walks on four feet
Look at the risks Malini Seshadri takes with her forthcoming translation of Bama’s Tamil novel, Vanmam (Vendetta):
“You know, if I pick up the thing that sits on top of the phone and put it to my ear, I can hear my son’s voice…so clear it is. You think my son stops with that? No, he wants me also to talk. Whatever I talk into that thing, he can listen to over there! He replies immediately… tuk, tuk…just like that! And he asks me questions. I’m just feeling so strange even talking about it. How on earth did anyone invent such a magic thing like that phone!”
Is this Global Standard English or a sort of third language which is neither the Indian language from which it is being conveyed nor “ICS English”? The complexity of texts mirroring experiences uniquely Indian and filtering through classes and communities, can and must be translocated. This calls for great ingenuity. When, for instance, we read Bankim’s Anandamath in English, we know we are reading a 19th century novel. Should the translation match 19th century Bengali or sound like a year 2004 narrative?
Collaborative effort Every editor knows that translation is not the transfer of a detachable meaning from one language to another. S/he looks and listens expectantly for that distinct sound of something that leaps right off the page and rings gloriously, and gloomily recognises the thud of an unsuccessful passage falling to the floor. Manoeuvring it back into the bell-tower is a collaborative effort that takes time and dedication on the part of the parties involved. Because translation is a dialogue between two languages and takes place in the space between them, and because it is literally a new birth, it would be most unwise to rush it. We watch as our translators respectfully tug their texts out of the times in which they are set, and relocate them without disturbing their linguistic ethos and in a language both recognisable and aesthetically satisfying to us.
How many more days were there to amaavaasai? How many more days for the stars to blossom in the ink-black night? In the western heavens, the moon hung like a sliver of pumpkin. How long would it be until amaavaasai? The breeze fell upon me, laden with neem.(Na Muthuswamy, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
I am thinking that India, once captured by the British, captured English, and opened up a parallel universe for its writers and translators to travel in.