Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Gol Park will organize a two-day folk festival on 1-2 March.
Away from seminars and conferences can we remember when was the last time we participated in an informal discussion about the role of a translator? We often exchange thoughts and ideas with friends, colleagues and acquaintances after coming in close proximity with some of the best literature of the world. We say that we’ve read “Crime and Punishment” instead of saying “Prestupléniye i nakazániye” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude” instead of saying “Cien años de soledad”.
While uttering these translated titles of the books we forget we’ve actually read them as translations and this unconscious indifference towards the role of a translator causes many problems. We never pay attention to acknowledge the hardship of the translator and we restrict ourselves from learning new languages because our unconscious notion allows us to believe we have savored the books in their original languages.
Perhaps because of this negligence we’ve failed to give the space and comfort which our Indian translators deserve. Translation has always been an important literary tool. Translators from different time periods have pulled out a literary piece from the cluster of a particular vernacular and delivered it to another language and culture. In a sense, translation makes a book international.
The interesting fact is that we are used to reading literature in translation from our early childhood but we fail to distinguish the difference between the original and the translation. During childhood we come in contact with books such as “Aesop’s fables”, “Jataka tales”, “Panchatantra”, “The Arabian Nights” and we literally devoured these books without knowing that we were actually reading world literature through translation. Personally I’ve read the “Jataka tales” which was translated by Sunil Gangopadhyay and I had no idea that I would fall in love with Sunil Gangpadhyay’s poetry in my late teens. In West Bengal, many eminent writers have written detective-fiction. So in our teens while gobbling up the pages of “Feluda” and “Byomkesh” we would wonder where writers like Satyajit Ray or Saradindu Bandopadhyay got inspiration.
The answer was blowing in the wind. Our elders advised us to read “Sherlock Holmes” because it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was the chief architect of the detective-fiction genre. As usual, to know who Sherlock Holmes was, we had to rely on translation. Prithwiraj Sen was one of those translators who brought Holmes into Bengali. In our childhood we were taught by our elders and teachers that to understand our nation and its core one must read the “Mahakavyas”. So when we were keen to know the legends of “Rama” and “Arjuna” it was again translations which quenched our thirst. I vividly remember I used to read an abridged version of “Ramayana” — especially prepared for children by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury — in my leisure time. Later when we had read the Mahakavyas again for academic purposes we read the translation of Rajshekhar Basu – which is purely academic stuff, filled with innumerable footnotes and an insightful introduction.
As with the “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” we need to depend on translations if we want to read the ancient Indian texts such as “The Vedas”, “Upanishads” etc. How can we understand the rich philosophy of our country without relying on the translator’s interpretations and commentaries? And it is almost impossible to understand the literature of a diverse country like India without the help of translations. To understand Indian literature one cannot elude a single literary vernacular. And how many languages can one learn? How many dialects can one master?
While tracing the root of the problem I have noticed that some common books we see in every household exclude the translator’s name. “The Gita” – a book widely read by the Hindu community and treated as a sacred text — does not mention the name of the translator and it is a fact that almost all of us read “The Gita” in translation. Almost none of the religious texts — which we use regularly — contain a translator’s note or even the name of the translator. Similar is the case with the Communists who keep a different belief system. In most of “The Communist Manifesto” versions — the handbook of the communists — there is no mention of the translator’s name.
The manifesto was originally written in German and it is originally entitled as “Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei” but the English or regional translations neither incorporate a translator’s note nor mention the translator’s name. It is evident that we are encircled with translated works rather than originals but we fail to distinguish between the two and the reason for the failure lies in our reading habits. Our approach towards reading apparently has no space for the translator.
Lakshmi Holmstrom – an eminent Indian translator – has described how Indian translators suffer due to the lack of recognition and remuneration in her essay named “Translation: Roles, Responsibilities and Boundaries”. To understand the current scenario of Indian translators in contrast to the European translators, one must go through the essay. We realize that we cannot read literature without translation and literature is associated with our social, religious and political practices; so by omitting the existence of the translator we are actually floating far away from the original texts.
Without a translator we would have missed the opportunity to read the poetic genius of Kalidasa. Camus and Kafka could have been two alien names. Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have been a name we had never heard of. We must acknowledge our debt to the translator.
(The writer is a Masters student of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University.)