New Year 2019 Issue

I’m Not a Traitor

Prema Jayakumar is an author and translator based in Kochi
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A lot can be gained in translation

LIARS, CHEATS, TRAITORS–THE EPITHETS USE TO DESCRIBE the tribe of translators have remained more or less the same through the years. They remain second-class citizens who don’t really belong in the republic of proper writers.

It is taken for granted that the translator is a sort of parasite, fattening on the imagination and creativity of others, and whose work is, ipso facto, inferior to the original. There is Umberto Eco (who admits that he has more readers in translations than in the original Italian of his writing) speaking of the process of translation as being similar to the bargaining that goes on in the market over the sale of a carpet. The seller gives a price, the buyer says something way below it, they bargain for a while, and a price that is more or less satisfactory to both is settled on. The implication is that the seller did not get the price he wanted and the buyer perhaps paid more than he wanted to. Whatever that is, it is a compromise and as in every compromise, there is a loss. It was Goethe who said that translation was impossible and yet essential and important. Robert Frost too was sure that what is lost in translation is poetry.

What does a translator do to earn all this opprobrium? Well, at the most basic level, I suppose she—I’ll go with Spock’s later editions and stick with the female gender, and there are a lot of women translators out there—makes available a literary work in a language other than the one it was written in. The reasons for doing that may be many. The work may be so good that she feels that it deserves to be read by people who don’t know its language well enough to read and appreciate it in the original. There is the outside world, and in this period of globalisation, perhaps there are speakers of the original language who need the help of a mediator. This is a quite a large number, growing apace, at least in my own language, Malayalam. People who can speak, read a little and perhaps even write a letter are unable to read anything with the least depth or difference and appreciate it. The wide world outside too, especially for works translated into English, might learn to appreciate the flavour of a new voice. It may be that it appeals to something in you and you want to have a closer relationship with the text. You would think this is a blameless idea, to share something you like with others who might like it too. However, you are told that when you do this, you can’t convey the original in all its purity and hence you cheat the reader. Yet, without the mediation of the translator, readers would never know the wealth of other languages and other literatures.

A translator is said to be the best reader of an original work. To reproduce it in another language, the translator has to understand the text fully, divest it of ambiguities at least in her own mind (she may reintroduce the ambiguities in her translation), and rewrite it. Obviously it goes through a mind other than that of the author, with its own baggage of experiences, prejudices, different use of words and idioms, not just the difference compelled by the difference in languages, but by the person using them too.

What is a good translation? There are plenty of opinions, probably as many as there are practitioners and readers. A few months back, editor and translator Katy Derbyshire asked a number of translators who translated from various languages, what they thought about it. Those questioned were David Colmer (translates from Dutch to English), Alex Zucker (translates from Czech to English), Ros Schwartz( translates from French to English), Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translates from Polish to English), Sandra Hetzl (translates from Arabic to English), Saskia Vogel (translates from Swedish to English), Julia Sherwood (translates from Slovak to English), Sam Bett (translates from Japanese to English), Sophie Lewis (translates from French and Portuguese to English), David Boyd (translates from Japanese to English). The results came out on The consensus seemed to be that it must read like the original wherever possible, not correcting it too much even when it seemed ragged and rough. It must leave the flavour of the original intact. The work of an author translated by a translator should not read just like the work of another author translated by the same translator. That is, the translator should not be obviously present in the translation. All agreed that while fluidity is a good quality, it was desirable only when the author’s language itself was fluid. The work should read as the author would have written it if she had written in the language of the translation. The voice and music of the writing should reach the ears of the reader in the new language. Of course, this is not always possible. But they did talk of a near-magical balance being struck between channelling the translator’s perceived idea of the text’s original sound and intention and the way it arrives through the translator’s own voice. Finally, all of them agreed a good translation should be a good piece of writing. Chad Post calls it ‘a profession for optimists’, perhaps a new breed of ever-hopeful alchemists in search of the nostrum that transmutes everything into gold.

The translator needs the same ‘boldness in the face of the blank sheet’ (or screen, as the case may be) that the original writer did. Perhaps even more boldness since she has to speak not for herself, but for someone else

The translator needs the same ‘boldness in the face of the blank sheet’ (or screen, as the case may be) that the original writer did. Perhaps even more boldness since she has to speak not for herself, but for someone else, speak in someone else’s voice, not her own.

So far we’ve been talking of translations being, or trying to be, as good as the original. And yet, there are times when the translation reads better than the original. Times when, in the words of Borges, ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.’ We have Alberto Manguel speaking of reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s German translation of the poetry of Louise Labe and finding that the words used by Rilke have more resonance than the original, and added more depth to the idea. Labe uses the word ‘heureuse’ (given as ‘happier’ in English) in the French original, while Rilke uses ‘seliglicher’ (‘blissful’ and perhaps ‘blessed’ in English).

I have heard poet Balachandran Chullikad state firmly that the Malayalam translation by the poet Changampuzha of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda is much more beautiful than the original Sanskrit because, according to Chullikad, Changampuzha was a better poet. I myself would rate some of the names given by translator Anthea Bell to the characters in the English version of Asterix much better than the French original. Surely Cacofonix is better than Assurancetourix for the bard who ends up being stifled and tied at every feast and Getafix better than Panoramix for the druid who makes the Gauls stronger with a fix of magic potion. But, by being better, the translators again lay themselves open to the accusation of cheating.

It’s yet another dispute whether the translation has any business being better than the original. It has existed as long as translations have and like all literary disputes, not settled ever. Of course, while there is still criticism of a translated text not being absolutely true to the original, it rarely now takes the extreme form that it did in earlier times when Etienne Dolet was executed, tortured and actually burnt at the stake for adding a few words that couldn’t be found in the original and William Tyndale was executed for bringing out a fresh translation of the Bible when only one—the existing version—was supposed to be correct.

There is this notion that the translator is some sort of betrayer, a traitor to the text translated. What about the other, not often spoken criticism, that the translator is at best a second class citizen of the writing world?

SO MUCH FOR THE NOTION THAT THE translator is some sort of betrayer, a traitor to the text translated. What about the other, not often spoken criticism, that the translator is at best a second-class citizen of the writing world? You know, a sort of new twist to the old saw, ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ Here it could be, ‘Those who can, write; those who can’t, translate’. And yet, to express the ideas that have occurred to someone else is more difficult than to express one’s own ideas. One needs a much larger vocabulary, an awareness of the nuances of at least two languages, a working knowledge of the references in the original. An original work can be written with a limited vocabulary, because you need to express only what you have thought. But to express someone else’s thoughts in a different language, you need at least as much of a vocabulary in the language you use as the original author had in his or her language. And you don’t have the same freedom in coining new words or new idioms.

One often feels that the publisher (most of them) would like to keep one’s existence a secret from the reader. Jennie Erdal, author of Ghosting: A Double Life, speaks in an article I read some time back about being the judge in a literary competition held for translated works. She had to read ninety novels in translation as part of her duties. I quote her: ‘Even today, the name of the translator can often be hidden among the preliminary pages, a tiny intimation tucked away alongside the printer and binder. … While every translator is accredited somewhere, names can still be hard to find.’ She goes on to say that she found the names of only two translators out of the ninety mentioned on the cover.

Her explanation: ‘Perhaps publishers want to maintain the illusion that the book comes to us fresh and first hand—the word unmediated, as it were. Or maybe they know that the readers are seldom interested in translators. Readers prefer authors, and may not want to be reminded that anyone else is involved. On the whole, people don’t know how to think about translation or to talk about it. It is slightly mystical and those who practise it are a little bit suspect.’

Indian writing in English suffered for a long time under this sort of sidelining, but came into its own in the second half of the 1990s. So much so that Salman Rushdie even claimed that great writing from India would come in English rather than one of the other Indian languages. Of course, things have improved in the case of translation too. Translation is now treated as a legitimate literary activity. There are even courses that deal with it, a lot of theories on it that are discussed in all seriousness, seminars and workshops held on it. Still, while the academe has accepted this literary genre, the publishers (with honourable exceptions) remain hesitant, the name of the translator is often invisible and has to be searched for.

And yet, think about all the books in the world that you would not know about, but for the efforts of the translators and one would think that there would be a positive rush of gratitude and praise. Everything you have read, coming from outside the couple of languages that you know, have come through the efforts of these ignored, much maligned group of writers. As far as I am concerned, they have given me the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Bible, the French, the Russians, the Latin Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese and all the other languages that I don’t speak or read, but enjoy the authors. Each of us will have a list of books from unknown languages that one would not, for the world, do without. And I am certainly grateful to these self-effacing practitioners of the gentle art of translation.

I rest my case with Salman Rushdie’s words: ‘It is normally supposed that something gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.’ I would put it even more strongly and say: a lot can be gained in translation.