With an inherited legacy of access to multiple languages, our writers and translators are enriching the English language with a typically Indian tenor and landscapes…

All progress depends on translation.

H.E. Bates

Luc Sante, educated in the US, said how he was almost delanguaged when he began going to school. “I spoke English all day and when I returned home was forbidden to speak anything other than French.” He was literally speechless for about half an hour while his brain returned to his mother tongue. Korean writer Ha-yun Yung shares how difficult her language sociology was, since Koreans would never say, “I would like to have an apple.” But rather, “It would be nice to have an apple.” “I” in Korean hardly exists, or is carefully controlled. It is “our family” “our village” not mine-my-I. Small wonder then, that Kashugo Ishiguro said about translations, “What the Chinese get is a mediated version of me; what Im reading is a mediated Dostoevsky”

In his landmark volume, After Babel, George Steiner said that a light of clear understanding streamed through the fabulously perfect glass tongue of the Garden of Eden. But that was when we were in Paradise. Since then, for as long as humankind has been reading and recording, mutual incomprehension has been the norm. “Oh is that what you meant? I thought you meant something else...” is heard every hour and everywhere even among people who speak the same language. What can one say about people who use different languages? Shall we make a list at the Tower of Babel? Even with a language dying every fortnight, the world is still speaking some 6,000 languages, give or take.

From strange shores

Languages ride on the shoulders of invading armies with the possible and famous exceptions of Sanskrit, Tamil and Pali, which spread through South and South East Asia non-violently carrying Indian culture and traditions. The Venerable Bede, writing in the eighth century about the multilingualism in his context, refers to English, Welsh, Irish, Latin, and the language of the Picts. In the following century when the Vikings plundered England, they not only broke down the door of the monastery where Bede had written his Ecclesiastical History, but also brought a linguistic blast from Scandinavia. Think of how all those nautical terms in English like “plain sailing”, “clearing the decks”, “stemming the tide” would have seemed to a landlocked people — [such as Nagpur?]. Well, it was the murmur of these many mixed oceans that washed our shores some 300 years ago and was gradually assimilated by the Indian language-python.

Not only is India's linguistic situation one of the richest in the world but most Indians are polyglots and speak languages they cannot read. Many illiterates who live in border areas between different states are bilingual and perhaps one of the reasons nothing much changed for a majority of the population in India despite 200 years of British rule was because they were untouched by the influence of English. They had no way of learning it and therefore no use for it. For different sorts of reasons, a good number of Indians cannot read even their mother tongues, either because their parents couldn't afford to send them to school at all, or because they were sent to schools that had no place for our languages. On the one hand is illiteracy, on the other a national aspiration for education in English-medium schools. Three years ago Sheldon Pollock wrote that scholarship in ancient Indian language texts was dying out as there were no successors to the living authorities who are all in their 80s. He said that it was symptomatic of a huge cultural ecocide and added that what was disappearing was not just language-knowledge but the capacity to read pre-modern scripts.

Since the capacity to read and retain, to talk and write is one of the distinguishing marks of our species, the first thing a conqueror does to a vanquished region after raping the women in both a terror statement and an attempt to ensure children of mixed blood, is to demolish the religion and the language of the peoples he enslaves. Their gods are broken in public and their language/s banned.

Language and identity

The more thorough the last of these acts, the deeper the self-forgetfulness of the defeated because language is like life, like faith, in it is encoded the identity of a people. But unlike the Portuguese who tortured the local people in and around Goa, pushed Latin into churches at the point of a sword and banned Marathi and Konkani, the British did not force their language on us ... they simply made it socially expedient and professionally profitable to learn English even as they withdrew funding for scholars of Arabic and Sanskrit. After English was institutionalised in India and after a few decades of self-denigration and excessive awe of Western textbook-English, not only did Indians start to experiment with English, and reverse creative norms by beginning to translate into this visitor language, which they picked up rapidly, but they also coined usages with which no one can argue: popular ones, not literary... “retired aayichu” “bahut tension me hai” “set dahi” “dil mange more”. Not to mention, “I am thinking it is going to rain....” which overtook “I think it's going to rain...” and which, according to David Crystal will one day be accepted as Standard English.

Reverse flow

Somewhere amid this churning is a marvellous subterranean movement from the opposite direction — a growing list of translated texts (serious literary works that record the growth of regional genius) from Indian languages into English, enriching the latter and promoting the former in a space where it was previously invisible and therefore unrecognised and unacknowledged. These texts are influencing a new kind of printed language and powering an illusion that we are walking through an Indian landscape and listening to Indians. As a translation is developed from an Indian language text, what we usually see are valiant experiments to fuse two language cultures in a non-Atlantic country to move towards a language which itself was built from confluences of different word-stocks: Latin, French, German and Anglo-Saxon. English has both luck and fortune, (not quite the same); English has paternal and fatherly, (is it the same?); English has hearty and cordial, (often interused but not quite the same). If you are an into-English translator you have to decide whether you are going to mak your avatar climb down or descend into the world. In a single sentence you can harmonise words from French, Latin, Anglo-Saxon,Arabic, Sanskrit/ Bengali/ Tamil/ Marathi…

In a workshop conducted in Thiruvananthapuram in July 2006, participants were asked to bring regional-language translations of the Sermon on the Mount. Versions of Christ's words entered the class dressed in Oriya, Hindi, Malayalam, and two translations from Tamil. Of the many Hindi versions available, what was read out carried a charming Indian inculturation in its rendering of the famous line “Blessed are the merciful for they shall see God.” The Hindi- English translation said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive a shower of petals from Heaven.” In short, our translators are carriers of a large part of the civilisational code of humankind: the ability to absorb and analyse and then to creatively express to one possibly hostile group, the world-in-the-book of another.

Mini Krishnan edits literary translations for OUP-India.

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