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January 03, 2018

On The Art Of Translation

Text by Shanta Gokhale

When a work is published in a tongue other than its original, the writer and its readers vastly benefit. Drawing from her personal experiences, Shanta Gokhale explains how not just culture but also languages are enhanced by the creative process

Inevitably, when we are talking about translation, an old chestnut comes bouncing along to divert all discussion into a well-worn rut. Lost in translation. The phrase implies that we, as translators, have missed the bus, caught the wrong train, backed a hobbled horse. Fine, you say. If you want me to join you in that rut; here I come.

You’re right. There is no equivalent in any language for the German word waldeinsamkeit, or the Portuguese word saudade, or the Danish word hyggelig or the French word flâneur. And yes, you’re right again. I do throw up my hands helplessly over proverbs and dialect; over culture-specific kitchen utensils, endearments and cuss words. Do you want me to go on? Or may I tell you instead why we return to this work again and again, despite one-word, one-phrase losses which incidentally, add up to no more than tiny gaps in the volumes of feelings and ideas that we transport with loving care and great success from one language to another? We don’t do it for fame, for there is none. Or for money, of which there is even less. We do it because we think translation is one of the worthiest forms of literature that human beings have engaged in since the birth of language.

Think of how much laughter Asterix has provided the English-reading world because Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge have alchemised French humour into English. It doesn’t matter that they have altered references that were too steeped in French culture to make it across the Channel. Their only idea has been to catch the irony and wit of the original, abandoning literal faithfulness when it has stopped serving that purpose. A translator, who thinks her only job is to reproduce an author’s work word for word, is likely to turn out a translation that is odourless, colourless and bland. We will leave such a translator out of our discussion. She brings a bad name to the noble art of translation. Vladimir Nabokov recommends that the worst offenders of her tribe be punished ‘by the stocks, as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days’. The creative translator on the other hand doesn’t allow single words or phrases to trap her, although they matter and must be translated. Instead, she opens herself to what the author is doing with them. Words after all are only tools that authors use to achieve the artistic and emotional effects they desire; and the purpose of translation is to reproduce those effects.

Fortunately, the world’s most important novels have found translators of equal merit. As a woman concerned with women’s lives, my education began as much with classic Marathi novels like Dr S. V. Ketkar’s Brahmankanya and Hari Narayan Apte’s Pan Lakshat Kon Gheto (But who cares), as with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Although modern translators have trashed Constance Garnett’s 1901 version of Anna Karenina (there have been three others since), that’s the one I read at age 14. It worked for me then and it works for me now. The point is, it reached me across thousands of miles. That is what makes translation a vital literary act. It cross-pollinates languages and cultures. In Susan Sontag’s telling metaphor, ‘Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literatures’. Like blood circulation in the body, translation keeps cultures healthy and growing. Generalising, I would say that those who read only what their own cultures produce play a regressive role in their societies. I doubt if the official from Rajasthan’s education department who recommended sweeping floors, using hand-grinding mills and filling water pitchers as the perfect keep-fit regimen for women could have read anything beyond Manusmriti. If that.

Actually, it is not just culture but language itself that grows through translation. German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin argues that translation allows ‘a foreign tongue to influence and modify the language into which a work is being translated’. I know this from personal experience. Translating from English into Marathi, I have occasionally been compelled to dig deep into my language. Failing to find what I am looking for, I have happily gone ahead and coined a word to fit the context. I have dared to do this because I know the underlying structures of my language and am therefore certain that the word I have created is linguistically valid.

Lastly, writers too benefit by translation, not only in terms of the worldwide fame and money it brings them, but in helping them hone their craft. Gabriel García Márquez has gone on record saying, ‘I already had read, in translation…all the books I would have needed to learn the novelist’s craft. But William Faulkner was the most faithful of my tutelary demons.’

So what should we say then is lost in translation?

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