Translation creates empathy and understanding between cultures, but only when we are ready to acknowledge and value the differences.

We are a polyglot nation, and we have knowledge of at least two languages: we have a mother tongue and a language in which we have been educated at school and college, which is often different from the mother tongue. Often this second is English. Every language you learn has its own sensibilities and its own idiom. It has its own registers, value systems, class distinctions and levels of the acceptable and the unacceptable. Each language that we know sensitises us differently to different things, and develops in us different personalities with different sensibilities.

Each time we switch to another language, we subtly shift to being another person. Our gestures and facial expressions also alter accordingly. A language is not simply about words and sentences, it is also about pauses, emphasis, intonation, cadence, pitch, silences; the appropriate use of these in sentences and words is what creates the meaning of what we say, and conveys nuances.

In translation of texts, the non-verbal aspects of language are hidden until the text reaches the reader. But to get the text to reach the reader in a way that the reader interprets the semantic signals to create the same meaning is the job of the translator. A translator of literary texts especially has to be acutely conscious of the different personalities he/she has developed in different languages. The moment of translation is the moment when the translator’s two personalities in two different languages are in dialogue with each other. It is the moment of interlocution between the two personalities of the same person. Only then can the eternal argument of ‘faithful’ and ‘beautiful’ be resolved in translation, because it is then transcended, and we reach another level of understanding about translations. Faithful and beautiful are no longer opposed to each other and are no longer even players.

In the knowing of another tongue, which maybe indigenous or foreign, in therefore developing of an alternate personality, we create space for the understanding of Another. Translation, comparative literature and writing in a second language all constantly pose the question of rapports with Another.

If we take as a preliminary truth that all societies are based on some Universal Human Values, it becomes extremely limiting. We then narrow ourselves down and choose texts and subjects that we feel represent those universal values which we understand also as our own. In such a case we close doors to understanding the Other. The Other cannot be Another unless he/she has Otherness. If we do not acknowledge the otherness of the other, if we think we know their truths already, then we close our minds and do not go out in search of their otherness. In such a case in translation we are actually just searching for mirror images of our own selves and we are not transcending ourselves or the texts. What would be the value of translation when we do not want to know why someone/something represents or IS another?

In the theory of translation earlier , there was a search for syntactic (logic and grammar in a sentence) and semantic equivalents (conveying the same meaning) .Today, especially in poetry and literary texts, acknowledging the translator as a sort of transcreator of the text, the previously mentioned rhythms, pauses, cadences are also considered of value. Transposition of idiom in its original form also enriches the text.

Some readers remark that the very act of reading in a second language, let alone writing in it or translating, is an act of translation. Translation and interpretation become synonymous. The interesting and very exciting aspect of this work between languages is the possibility of shifting between personalities, which may be a theatrical and dramatic exercise that helps understand many similar but different worlds. (Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak at the Jaipur Literary Festival this year said, at one point, that one must learn many languages, but since the skimming and somewhat surface discussions of literary festivals rarely are able to involve the public to an extent of answering their queries in depth, her remark was left in the air and dissipated without hitting a mark.)

Translation and work between languages also fulfils the ambassadorial function of creating empathy and understanding between cultures, but only when we are ready to acknowledge and value the differences, (Otherness) to accept them for what they are, to see how these very differences enrich and strengthen societies.

More In: Authors | Books