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Translation & Identity~II

Despite the problematics that are embedded within translation practices, it is translation as cultural transfer that sensitizes the world about cultural diversity.

Sanjukta Dasgupta | New Delhi |

Tagore’s caveat has not lost its relevance even in 21st century, more than 114 years after the essay was first published. Tagore had remarked, “Do not expect me to be your guide in the domain of world literature. We have to pave our own path according to our individual abilities. My only purpose for saying this is that world is not about your, mine and their separate farmlands, to know the world in this way suggests a region-centric myopia, similarly literature is not about your, mine or theirs.

Ordinarily we however regard literature through this region-centric (Garmyo) myopic lens. We need to liberate ourselves from this regional conservatism in order to discover the world citizen in world literature, we should endeavour to discover in every writer a sense of wholeness, and within that inclusive wholeness we must discover collective human expression, the time has come for us to take such a pledge.”

Since the advent of cultural studies and world literature studies awareness about intersectionality, standpoint parameters and the importance of translation studies have deconstructed definitions of the canon and grand narratives. Moreover, the emergence of translated literature from all over the world competing for international translation prizes, such as the Booker Prize, has turned the focus not only on the translated text, but the identity of the translator.

One reason for this perhaps is economic. Translation has often been construed as labour of love, implying, unpaid labour. Translators therefore often belong to a class of privilege, as maintaining one’s livelihood, may become a challenge if translating from one language to another, is the only skill one has acquired and translation is a fulltime profession. This is an undeniable fact despite the emergence of what is now being described as the translation industry.

This is why perhaps literary translation is often defined as a passion or mission rather than a high-skilled profession. We may well state that translation is the most democratic and dynamic mode of transcreation,it permits infinite combinations and play with words in a dance of approximation, and the translator can be a creator, an experimenter, the translator may have a fidelity fixation, or a fixation of prioritising the needs of the target readership, so that the source text can be modified and sometimes transformed to accommodate it with the target culture.

The translator solves the problems of translation by dissolving it in another linguistic medium, according to a practising translator.  It is this dis-ease of the translator, that underscores the fact that there will perennially be a gap between the source and target translation, that is at the heart of the many re-translations of the same original text. Can there be a definitive translation? Many will say, definitely not. Despite the problematics that are embedded within translation practices, it is translation as cultural transfer that sensitizes the world about cultural diversity.

The awareness about the specificities of location, race, religion, cultural practices, gender, sexuality and ethnicity can be built through the medium of translated texts. The babel of unfamiliar tongues generating incomprehensible cacophony can be decoded, deconstructed and re-created in the translated target language that will lead to cultural understanding and a sense of universal humanism. Translation of literary texts can be regarded as a cultural activist’s committed crusade to promote cultural understanding that can engender world peace and harmony defeating the destructive agenda of foreign policies that are about power, profit and politics.

The writer and translator Ketaki Kushari Dyson had unequivocally stated that translation is at best a fine art of approximation. It is often a crosscultural bridge spanning time and space, that enhances cultural understanding and enables cultural negotiations. However, it is apparent that there cannot be a definitive translation of a particular text and so for every translator, any original text, though previously translated, remains a challenge, thereby discouraging closure.

A single text can be read and interpreted quite distinctly by different translators, and as a result translation of texts is variable, dependent on the culture, ideology and location of the translator. Translator response is no less crucial than reader response, for fidelity or cannibalism in translation results from the transmission of a particular translator’s response that can be guided by ideology or idiosyncrasy. As a result, in the process of translation, selection and rejection however intelligent and judicious may often become subjective if not biased.

In his much-acclaimed book The Translator’s Invisibility Lawrence Venuti outlined certain parameters that define the objectives of literary translation. Referring to two widely followed translation practices, one being the domestication of the text being translated and the other being the foreignization of the text being translated, Venutti stated, “Translation can be considered the communication of a foreign text, but it is always a communication limited by its address to a specific reading audience. The violent effects of translation are felt at home as well as abroad.

On the one hand, translation wields enormous power in the construction of national identities for foreign cultures, and hence it potentially figures in ethnic discrimination, geopolitical confrontations, colonialism, terrorism, war. On the other hand, translation enlists the foreign text in the maintenance or revision of literary canons in the target-language culture, inscribing poetry and fiction, for example, with the various poetic and narrative discourses that compete for cultural dominance in the target language…”

Translated literature facilitates making familiar the diverse world of races, religion and cultures, the Other no longer remains alien, literary translations construct bridges of cultural understanding, the unknown shrouded in mystery and the mists of ignorance becomes familiar, comprehensible and brings the people of the world closer, emphatically reiterating that universal humanism lies at the core of a literary text, irrespective of its medium of expression. Some incorrigible experts may sometimes rue the losses incurred in literary translation, due to the inadequacies of corresponding words in the source language.

But literary translation is not about semantic jugglery, literary translation is not just about translating words, it is about translating the unknown in definable terms, it is about creating an intimacy between the home and the world. Literary translation is an enabling familiarizing process that deconstructs the traditional pride and prejudices about the unknown, unfamiliar Other. It liberates one from the myopia of national boundaries and creates international cultural understanding through literary texts though the context may be rooted in Bengal, Boston or Brazil.

I conclude with my poem on translation, that I humbly feel addresses the issues discussed so long in a poetic format ~

Lost in translation? When we met Our mutual words transcended Transformed in translation We strung words like pearls Mother tongue and Other tongue A new poem born out of the womb Of a well-known old poem The original home-grown poem Became a global sapling Rooted,uprooted,re-rooted Unique avatar Linguistic transfer Cultural code switching Those are puzzles for sages And heat oppressed brains Ethnic poems in global syntax Global poems in ethnic inscription Smiled in the new dawn Reaching hearts and minds

Liberated from the intense entrapment In either/or- singular tongues Our willing translations Our mutual spinning of words In an Other tongue,in our mother tongue To fill the gaps others hadn’t bridged Insularity and isolation were erased A rainbow of words Not a chaotic Babel Brought us together Isolated islands of words Converged into continents of communion

We never regretted any loss in translation We were incorrigible dreamers,for us Territories and borders were life-threatening We dreamt about bringing together A fractured world with our healing wordsVasudhaivaKutumbakum Our world as a single family In translation We gained an inclusive world We mingled diversity and difference In our several tongues and daring dreams

We translated uninhibited For us,to be transfixed and immobile Was surrender and suicide We translated and translated and translated And our mutual words Became universal symbols, signs and signposts Our adhesive translations made the Other our own Fused into a holistic dream come true Translated,we became indivisible Not you and me,but us.


(The writer is former Professor Dept. of English, Calcutta University)