In the second and final part of his article, the writer analyses the challenges faced by inter-language translation in India.
Translation came to be institutionalised in independent India as a consequence of the State’s perception that emotional integration of India is possible only through the arts. Literature had a major role to play here. The idea of translation thus got linked to the idea of the nation. If nation, as Benedict Anderson says, is an ‘imagined community’, literature plays a role in creating and sustaining that community. India’s linguistic economy underwent a change after 1947 and mother tongues were perceived to be the chief markers of identity and carriers of tradition. Inter-language translation continues to be one of the chief activities of the Sahitya Akademi and National Book Trust, two public institutions created in the times of Jawaharlal Nehru’s liberal and forward-looking regime. Now we also have other national projects like the National Translation Mission, meant to translate knowledge-texts from English into Indian languages (and hopefully vice-versa), and Indian Literature Abroad meant to make significant Indian literary texts available in foreign languages.
Inter-language translations have played a major role in creating movements across linguistic territories. Horizontal translations of patriotic works as well as social-reformist works during the Independence movement played a role in shaping our national consciousness. The same is also true of progressive literature where the translations of the likes of Premchand, Manto, Krishan Chander, Amrita Pritam, Jayakantan and Thakazhi encouraged an egalitarian ethos. This happened again during the Modernist movement. I remember how the works of Mardhekar, Muktibodh, Gopalakrishna Adiga, Nakulan, Dilip Chitre, Ananthamurthy, Nirmal Verma and others got translated into Malayalam during the 1960s. And it is happening again now, contributing to Dalit and feminist literary movements in many languages. The translations of Marathi Dalit writing have been crucial in creating a similar body of literature in languages like Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati, though later many of these languages discovered the existence of earlier works. Translations have also helped create genres in languages where they had not originally existed.
However inter-language translation in India faces certain challenges. Globalisation and the cultural amnesia it imposes on countries like ours are trying to marginalise this important activity. We are becoming more and more monolingual, at least in terms of linguistic competence. However inter-language translation requires competence in at least two Indian languages including some knowledge of the regional cultures and literary traditions that inform the texts. Despite the level playing field supposed to be available for inter-language translators, the field in reality is not always that level. For example, Meenakshi Mukherjee — speaking of her experience of translating Alka Saraogi’s Hindi novels into Bangla — points out how Bangla resists translations from other Indian languages including Hindi even while translations from Bangla are available in Hindi and other Indian languages.
Literary translation is mostly confined to certain genres like the novel. This choice is dictated more by commercial interest than social or aesthetic concerns as, in some languages, poetry, drama, discursive prose or the short story may be doing better than the novel as a genre. This creates gaps and unevenness in our understanding of other literatures.
Truly contemporary works rarely get translated as it takes time for a new work written in an Indian language, unlike one written in English, to gain national notice. Only works produced by certain movements sometimes get translated as they often appear in academic curricula or are politically relevant.
There is a dearth of competent translators in each language from many other languages. To take the case of Malayalam, direct translations into Malayalam happen only from Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada. Even here —excepting Hindi — it is often one or two translators who do the job and they are often without followers. Our universities are doing next to nothing to create or upgrade skills in languages other than the mother tongues. This means we keep falling back on mediated indirect translations, mostly using English versions (at times Hindi versions), which may be far removed from the original and may well erase cultural markers.
There are very few journals in languages that promote inter-language translations and publishers in many languages too are indifferent to them, not to speak of the lack of quality editing.
Whatever little translation happens here is also accidental, hardly schematic. The result again is unevenness of impressions. There are few impact/reception studies on the original works to ensure their reception in another language.
We need to understand translation as an attempt to retrieve our people’s histories often lost or distorted because of colonial interventions, to resituate their past and reassess their present and to grasp their modes of imagination and creativity. And this, no doubt, is best done in people’s own languages.