There was a time, not very long, ago when all we had by way of translations in India were the Jataka-katha, Panchtantra, Gita or Mahabharata in English. The launch of Penguin India in the mid-1980s and the publication of Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas, the seminal Partition novel translated from the Hindi original, opened the floodgates. Suddenly we had translations coming out of our ears, from the various bhashas into English as well as into/between the vernaculars! This was a largely unexpected and entirely fortuitous turn of events in a country that has turned Indian Writing in English (IWE) into a national obsession. While writers of IWE are inevitably feted and lionised at lit-fests, translators too are gradually creeping out from the shadows. Translations now command equal space in the pages of literary magazines just as translators too can demand equal rights: 10% royalty and a book launch with canapés and cocktails to boot!
Over the past twenty years, translations have, stealthily but surely, made a space for themselves not only in the trade but in the public consciousness as is evident from the numbers of translated books displayed in bookstores, popular awards for translators as well as the relatively painless hunt for publishers. I would venture so far as to say that translations have become a cottage industry of sorts, especially the business of compiling short stories from and into the various languages. Anthologies offer a smorgasbord, or a tasting menu of sorts into the great storehouse of Indian literature, and enterprising translators/editors peg their collections in many innovative ways: women’s writing, South Asian writing, Dalit writing, coming-of-age writing, regional writing, partition writing, call-it-what-you-will writing! As is often the case with problems of plenty, we occasionally have random, indiscriminate, patchy, a mélange of the good, bad, indifferent translations being cobbled together with one eye on political correctness and the other on cost-effective publishing. The idea seems to be to translate freely, prolifically and indiscriminately for there is a place for everything in a market that is showing no signs of saturation. This, I think, is a disservice to translations generally and to the task of introducing regional literatures to younger fresher audiences in particular.
Having said that, only a handful of the burgeoning collections of short stories, especially from the bhasha literatures, ever fail my personal litmus test. Having read and reviewed scores of such translations -- and God help me, edited a couple of ‘samplers’ myself – as long as I chance upon something that opens a window into a world that is new and familiar, that has the power to delight and amaze, I feel the business of anthologizing and translating might be done to death but cannot be done away with. For students of literature in South Asia, as well as people from the South Asian diaspora who look upon the bhasha literatures from their part of the world as being a vital link with their cultural heritage but use English as an effective first language, translations offer the only glimpse into an otherwise closed world. So while many of us veterans in the business of translating, editing or reviewing rue the presence of certain authors or certain stories popping up like tired ghosts in most anthologies of ‘modern Indian fiction’ or certain authors and stories being mistaken for being ‘most representative’ simply because they are ‘most anthologised’, there is no denying that as long as a work of translation meets the needs of a wide variety of readers the purpose behind the endeavor is met.
Speaking for myself, having burnt my fingers with technical translations long years ago, I have since stuck to literary translations. Moreover, since I steadfastly refuse to indulge in farmaishi (command) programmes, I enjoy the luxury of translating precisely what I want or whatever – a story, an essay, a poem, a stray fragment – catches my fancy. The pleasure of sharing the tremulous sense of wonder that a piece of literature evokes with a wider audience that is sadly mehroom (bereft) due to the constraints of language and script is its own reward.
A perfect example is my introduction to the world of Phanishwarnath Renu, a Hindi writer from Bihar. The thrill of discovering something that was at once so inexplicably real and hence so immediate, despite being grounded in a milieu that was completely alien to me, was indescribable. That thrill stayed with me as I chanced upon story after story that had, on the one hand, characters and locations steeped in Bihar (a state which, incidentally, I have never visited and am therefore not familiar with at first hand), yet beckoned me – first as a reader and later, as a translator – to look for the known and the familiar. The more I read, the more this duality grew till in a strange way it resolved itself with the slowly-dawning realization that for a good writer character, plot and narration are mere props; the real thing is the story and, in the telling of it, if the writer can, perchance touch the reader at some level – be it emotional or intellectual – then the remoteness of its setting or the strangeness of its characters is of little consequence. This sense of wonder has to be shared for it to be truly pleasure-giving.
At the same time, as a translator, it is best not to suffer from delusions of grandeur. A translation has been likened to looking at the wrong side of a carpet. The colour, sheen, intricacy of the ‘right’ side is missing. The patterns, outlines, motifs and designs are all there, but they are muted and no match for the original. The translator can, at best, convey a ‘sense’ of the sights and sounds of the original, transfer the meaning from one vocabulary bank to another but must, inevitably, lose some of it in the process. He/she can mimic the rhythms and patterns of the source language, never match it cadence for cadence in the target language. Those who claim otherwise are simply deluding themselves. For, I believe translation is a skill acquired from long hours of constancy and industry. It rests on the cornerstone of fidelity and humility.
Rakhshanda Jalil has published translations of Premchand, Manto, Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui, Shahryar, Intezar Husain, Renu among several others. A modified version of this article was first published in The Herald, Pakistan, July 2011.