Friday, June 08, 2007
Spread the Word
Lost and Found in Translation
I am envious of my Spanish friend Ana, for the simple reason that she can read Spanish and I can’t. The case is hopeless since the writer I most admire writes in Spanish… ¿Qué hacer ahora?
German philosopher Hegel believed that any poem can be translated without loss because the true medium of poetry is not the words but poetic ideas. Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi, on the other hand, firmly points out that it’s impossible to do so, for ”poetry is a dainty porcelain vase, translation is sledge-hammer, poetry is a crystal, translation is stone, poetry is a bubble, translation, the fierce gale.” Then, there’s Robert Frost’s famous remark: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
If we change the word poetry in the above quotations to literature, what do we get? Contradictory views about the whole concept of translation itself. Indeed. As I was thinking how to proceed further, I remembered what our university teacher once told us. “Translation,” he said, “without understanding the nuances of it can be a dangerous thing.” He offered us an example. “You translate the Hindi word ullu as owl. But can you translate the Hindi sentence, woh ullu ke tarah baithe hai to, say, he is perched there like an owl. Yes, sir, the translation is correct. But the meaning the sentence conveys is totally wrong. For, in English, an owl is a symbol of wisdom, unlike Hindi, where it is taken for an idiot. What do you do than? Simple, change the bird with some other bird, say, he is sitting like a dodo. Done.
Really? What happens to the cultural context? What happens to the original author’s choice of image? Is meaning is the sole end of translation? What really happens when try to universalise the local?
First thing first. What is translation? The dictionary meaning of it is an act or process of translating from one language to another. It also means the state of being translated and also a translated version of a text. Accordingly, we discover two texts, one the original and the other is the translated. They are not one thing in different disguises, but two separate and complete entities.
Translation is not Tobey Maguire speaking in Ravi Kishen’s voice: Hamara naam Peter Parker hai in Spider-Man 3. Rather, it is like a roadside Chinese dish with lots of spice.
Yeah, we all know that the Chinese we eat is not the authentic cuisine imported from Beijing. It’s an entirely different thing. And we savour it nonetheless and call it Chinese. The way we read Paulo Coelho or Milan Kundera. And for all its practical purposes, translation is Pu La Deshpande’s Manju, the protagonist of Tee Phulraani.
A tale twice-told
Translation is a tale twice-told. The process involves several pairs, all in their twos. Let’s count. There’s two texts, the source and the target, two authors, the original author and the translator, two language, and two cultures. Let’s understand the process: An author decides to write a book. He chooses the language he knows best, it can be anything, from Swahili to English to Tibetan. The book turns to be a bestseller and someone, somewhere wants to translate it, so that those who does not know the language (in which the book is written) can also enjoy it. Now, our translator must be a smart guy. He knows the language (in which the book is written) but it is not his first language. His first language is the one to which he wants to translate the book. Yes, sir, he’s smarter than the revered author himself. But linguistic smartness wouldn’t help our translator much if he fails to understand the cultural reference of the source text. If the text is horrendously non-vegetarian and our translator is strictly veg (and very biased about it), then the translation would never be successful. No. The translator’s ideas as such does not exist. He is just a mediator, nothing more.
Yet the sad truth is that while translating a text from another language, the most important issue at hand is the translator, the person who will have to understand the text before converting it to the target language. And we seem to forget him completely. When we read Leo Tolstoy, we read how Tolstoy wrote several drafts of his tome War and Peace, but we never give a thought to the man who translated the text to English or Marathi and how much toil he went through.
The translator and his text
Omid Varzandeh is an Iranian student working on his Ph D at the Department of English, University of Pune. He is a poet and journalist and has written extensively in Persian and his mother tongue Kurdish. After coming to India he has been translating works of Indian literature into his language. For him, it’s a two jobs combined in one: Understanding the language and understanding the culture. And he has found a way out for himself. “I am a literary translator,” he says. “Literary translation by definition is transforming the meaning, the tone, the style and the spirit of a work of literature from the source language into the target language. And the problem of cultural differences between languages has always been there. I personally try to find cultural equivalences in my translations. Another way is to use footnotes to explain the cultural elements which are not available in the target language.”
Talking about the personality of the translator, Randhir Khare, poet, write and a translator himself lists out four types of translator personalities: “The first is the ‘purest’ who faithfully reproduces the outward manifestation of the poem. By doing this the essential spirit of the poem is nudged aside by literal representation. The second is the ‘picky’ variety — a translator who picks out only that which he believes reflects what the original poem means. By doing this, he restricts the meaning of the poem within the boundaries of his own perception, eliminating the spirit of ‘otherness’ which is so essential to a poem. The third uses the original poem as a springboard to write his own poem. The fourth absorbs the entire outer and inner experience of the original poem and transfers it into the expressive experience of the new language.”
This almost proves that the translator’s relation to the text can be anything. That is why we see several English versions of Greek playwright Sophocles’ plays, for, he wrote in a language that no one speaks any more, and any translator can interpret it any way desirable.
More than culture, it’s the language that is paramount to a translator in relation to the text. The original author does not know the target language. The target readers do not know the original language, but the translator must know both. So which is most important for a translation, knowledge of the source language or the knowledge of target language? Dr R Raj Rao, writer and teacher at the University of Pune believes that both are equally important. “That said, however, I believe the translator’s relationship to the source language is passive, while his relationship to the target language is active. What the reading public sees and judges him by is the latter.”
Dr Rao has translated Dalit Marathi writer P I Sonkambale’s works for the anthology Poisoned Bread. “Though the credit line in Poisoned Bread carries only my name, mine
was actually a joint translation with P I Sonkambale, the Dalit Marathi writer whose work I translated,” informs Dr Rao. “So I felt very secure. I think collaborative translations, with one of the translators being adept in the source language and the other in the target language are likely to produce better results by minimising the chances of errors and inaccuracies.”
A practicing historian and a former teacher of history at the Delhi University, Saleem Kidwai has translated extensively from Urdu to English which range from historical writing to creative works. Kidwai believes that it is easy to translate historical prose texts, since here “one has to concentration rigorously on accuracy. Readability isn’t a predominant concern. Translation for academic work has very special demands and one often uses footnotes just to explain the choice of one word. This does not make the task easier.”
History apart he has also edited and translated modern Urdu creative writing into English, including a memoir of Malka Pukhraj entitled Song Sung True. For him translating creative writing is a different ballgame all together, especially when he is not a creative writer himself. Hence, “I have hade to make my own rules. I dare not think of improving the text. I have to be very careful on what words might not mean as opposed to what they appear to mean in the way that I might never do if I was writing on my own. You have to do a study the time and context when it was written but also read the text very carefully to get familiar with the voice. I can’t just read and translate. Song Sung True would have been very different if I hadn’t spent six weeks with MP and hearing here speak and read parts of the text. Of course, that was the only experience when I have interacted with the author of the texts I have translated.”
The mirror, the copy and the other selves
This is a futile question. Which is a better play, Shaw’s Pygmalion or Deshpande’s Tee Phulraani? Or who’s far more convincing, Shakespeare’s Iago or Langra Tyagi of Vishal Varadwag’s ??? Omkara?
But translations are always considered as copies, mirror images with nothing much to offer, yet without the dazzling beauty of the original. But what is actually lost in translation?
Nothing, counters Dr Rao. “I disagree that a translation is the poor copy of the original. We need to distinguish between the spirit of a work and the letter. As for the latter, some of it is bound to be lost because no two languages, after all, are the same. But if the spirit is
retained, to me that’s a good (or good enough) translation. And whether the spirit is retained or no entirely depends on the genius of the translator. The spirit of it can also enhance the original and the classic example here, as everyone knows, is F Scott Fitzgerad’s translation of Omar Khayyam.”
“It is said that translating poetry is like kissing your beloved from behind a glass,” says Omid. “Of course, there are certain things which get lost in translating poetry, but we know Federico Garcia Lorca and Rumie’s poetry only and only through translation. Is there any other way? So kissing the beloved even from behind a glass is better than not kissing at all.”
Kissing is fine, but Khare feels that you can actually internalise the entire process and be the part of the original. “If a translator has internalised the original, can get absorbed enough in the life experience of the original poet and has the aesthetic sense and poetic skill to recreate the poem, then no — the translation will not be a poor copy of the original. It will in fact help in carrying the spirit of the original to a wider audience.”
Found in translation
In one sense, translation is humanity’s attempt to go back to the days before the Tower of Babel, when the world had only one language. English has filled this one-language gap to the certain extent, but for most parts, it is the translation on which on which depend upon for our knowledge of world.
Imagine a world without translation. First, The Bible would have never achieved the envious position of being the No 1 bestseller in history, for, the text as we know today was translated from Greek. Second, there would have been no Renaissance in Europe. We would have been deprived of Chekhov, Ibsen, Goethe, Rilke, you name them. And we would have been deprived of Paulo Coelho and his Alchemist.
Yet, I still envy my Spanish friend, especially when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in English. If he could write such brilliant sentences in translation, what the original would be like, the same, or much more brilliant. I would never know…
Omid Varzandeh on clash of cultures
We have to keep this in mind that knowing the source and the target language is not the only necessity of translation. Translator, besides knowing the two languages and the two cultures should know about the theories of translation and even more important than this, he/she should know and love and have lived with what he/she translates. And about translating poetry, I would like to say that poetry must be translated only and only by a poet who is also a translator. Literary translation for me is a creative work.
Randhir Khare on Bhil songs
I call my translations ‘song-poems’ — songs which have been transformed into poems. I collected these songs over a period of twenty years from various Bhil regions from the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. I heard them sung live. I clarified words I could not understand (or words and terms that had many layered meanings), then rendered them into rough English texts. Whenever I heard the same song again, I'd find that the singer had added another dimension. This initially posed a problem because it tied me up in knots. Which ‘version’ would I finally fix on? Gradually I came to understand the magic of the folkloric song tradition… if I was building a poetic bridge between a traditional people and a modern people I had to use an idiom that was accessible. I did this with a passion that was forged by my love and respect for the Bhil spirit. I felt that the world ought to see the Bhil for what they really are...a people with a zest for life and a robust lyrical spirit…
Dr R Raj Rao on matter over style
I’m a disciple of the late poet A K. Ramanujan here, who always laid greater emphasis on how the translation read in the target language, rather than on the literalness of the translation. In the case of my Sonkambale translation, we changed an entire idiomatic phrase at the end of the autobiographical piece to the Biblical ‘this too shall pass’ while
the original in Marathi was jaatil he bhi diwas.
Saleem Kidwai on readability
In modern creative texts, one has to be extra conscious of readability, otherwise it can be a serious disrespect for the text and the author. Sometimes, one has to assume the discrete role of editor and that adds to the difficulties. In short, translation is far more difficult than writing oneself for one has to bear an extra responsibility towards the author.