This year marks the centenary story of two remarkable translators – Ahobala Shankara and H.V. Savitramma. Without their love of Kannada, which pushed them to bring the best of literature into Kannada, our literary experience would have remained incomplete. Interestingly, both of them translated Tagore too

This is the centenary year of Ahobala Shankara and H.V. Savitramma (1913-1995) — two of the most eminent translators of Kannada. They have made significant contributions by widening the literary and intellectual horizons of Kannada reading community and influenced generations of discerning readers. The fact that this occasion is hardly getting any attention does that not augur well for the health of Kannada culture which has started eulogising the ephemeral, over the enduring aspects of culture.

Even though both these writers started writing in similar temporal and spatial contexts, they hailed from different backgrounds and traversed different routes. But they were bound by a common interest in Bengali literature, and a major part of their translations originate from the source which mirrored the salient features of the cultural renaissance that was emergent in modern India. Both these writers stayed away from poetry and translated novels, plays and short stories. However, they initiated a radical departure from the earlier translators such as B. Venkatachar and Galaganatha by steering clear of Hindu Nationalism and fostering modern values in the writings of doyens such as Tagore, Sharathchandra Chatterji, Manik Bannerji, Bimal Mitra et al. This was not really in tune with the preoccupations of the mainstream Kannada literature during those days. For some of us who thrived on novels and stories, it was an autonomous world inhabited by strange, but captivating human beings. Novels such as ‘Gora’, ‘Naukaghata’, ‘Sheshaprashne’ and ‘Padma Nadiya Naavika’ left un indelible mark on our psyche.

Ahobala Shankara was a self-made scholar, staying away from the portals of universities. He learnt languages such as Bengali and Malayalam on his own. He was an avid reader and a serious student of Western literature. That he never chose to translate from English, in spite of his command over the language, augmented by decades of professional journalistic work, speaks volumes for his nationalistic fervour and a firm conviction about the necessity of translation among the Indian languages. He was deeply influenced by the Marxist ideology and his translation of E.M.S. Namboodripad’s autobiography is a standing example. His choice of writers such as Manik Bannerji and Satinath Bhaduri provide ample proof for this inclination. However, he was not constrained by this and his translations from Tagore and Bibhuthibhushan constitute his major oeuvre. ‘Ravindra Katahmanjari’ containing the short stories of Tagore in three volumes is a monumental work. ‘Pather Panchaali’ and ‘Aparajitio’ by Bibhutibhushana Bandyopadhaya were familiar to Kannada readers, even before the film trilogy by Satyajit Ray made inroads into their hearts. ‘Saheb, bibi aur Gulaam’ is yet another endearing novel. He has translated a couple of plays by Tagore (‘Balidan’, ‘Raja-Rani’). A mere enumeration of his works fail to convey the radiant energy contained in them. Any translator who introduces elements that are not present in his own language deserves all accolades. Ahobala Shankara who lived a nomadic life, plagued by myriad problems, was nevertheless a contented man. He never went in search of the limelight and was hardly recognised by the literary institutions of Karnataka. However, his name brings a fond and grateful memory in the fortunate few who have read his works. ‘Nanna Baalya’, a translation of Tagore’s childhood memories, initiated me to serious literature at the tender age ten and the journey is still on.

H.V. Savitramma is truly one of the pioneers of women’s literature in Kannada along with Kodagina Gowramma and a few more kindered souls. She secured a B.A. degree garnering three gold medals as early as 1931. She was more catholic in her tastes and opted to translate from Bengali and English. She did not confine herself to fiction either. ‘Life of Mahatma Gandhi’ by Louis Fischer is an illustrious example. However, she is better known for her translations of ‘Gora’, (3 volumes) ‘Naukaghaata’ (The Shipwreck) and ‘Mane-Jagattu’ (The Home and the World) all by Tagore. She has also translated a number of short stories by Anton Chekhov the Russian master (‘Maduvanagitti’).

Savitramma was a creative writer of enduring merit. She has written on diverse themes. Her evolution as a writer is concomitant with the emergence of feminist writing in Kannada. ‘Seethe, Rama, Ravana’ is a very significant novel, probing into the psyche of mythological characters. It is not possible to delineate the merits of her works in this brief foray.

Both Ahobala Shankara and Savitramma have contributed handsomely to the making of the modern Kannada prose, particularly in the context of translation. Both of them were neither familiar with the regional dialects of Kannada nor did they deem it appropriate to use them for the purposes of translation. Consequently, they carved out a prose that could communicate itself to Kannada readers of all hues. In addition to this, they succeeded in creating a style that could cater to the emotional, intellectual and narrative necessities of the creative writer. They created a Bengali ambience just through proper vocabulary and syntax. As a matter of fact, the translators of the next generations who ventured to import the European classics grappled with problems of communication, of course with a few exceptions.

It is a fond hope that this occasion spurs the powers that be to make the works of these masters available to the generations of young readers.