In the first of a two-part article, the writer surveys the culture of translation in India.

India’s culture of translation dates back to pre-colonial times that had witnessed several kinds of literary translation, though our ancients may not claim to be doing so. This is perhaps natural to multilingual culture where poets (Kabir, Mira, Nanak, Vidyapati) easily moved from one language to another without even being aware of it and translators did not fear being executed for deviations as in the West. (Remember the fate of Etienne Dolet, the 16th century French translator of Plato). We do not even have a proper word for translation in the Indian languages, so we have, at different times, borrowed anuvad (‘speaking after’) from Sanskrit and tarjuma (explication or paraphrase) from Arabic, or created words like rupantar (Bengali), bhashantar (Hindi), mozhi paharppu (Tamil), or paribhasha (interpretation), vivartanam (one specific appearance of a phenomenon) and mozhimattam (changing the tongue) (all Malayalam).

Our predecessors used texts as take-off points and freely retold and resituated them, as was done in the case of the many Ramayanas, Mahabharatas and Bhagavatas in different languages. A reassuring example from early pre-colonial days, probably sixth or fifth century BCE, pointed out by Sujit Mukherjee, (Translation as Recovery) is the Jataka stories, first collected in Pali, forming the 10th book of Khuddaka Nikaya and later developed in Sanskrit, mixing prose and verse, as full-fledged narratives. A later example is that of Gunadhya’s Brihatkatha (fourth to fifth centuries CE), a voluminous cycle of stories originally composed in a Prakrit speech, almost dismissively named Paishachi. Even when the original text was lost, the stories were preserved in three Sanskrit texts, two Prakrit abridgements and one Tamil fragment. Both the examples do not satisfy the modern criteria of translation, but embody the choice as well as the compulsion behind the rebirth of texts in another language, which apply to translation in general.

These were all, in a sense, acts of appropriation, which were academic — as they required competence in the other language — and also free enterprise — as the translator left the mark of his/her imagination and creativity on the product. This tendency to transform texts from older languages like Prakrit, Pali, Sanskrit, Tamil or Persian continued almost to the end of pre-colonial period. (I will not deny here the chances of many of these stories themselves originating in smaller tribal languages and dialects, a possibility that demands clearer proof). Texts from more recent — ‘modern’ — Indian languages were an exception during the period, the well-known examples being Padmabati, a 17th century Bangla work adapted from Padumavat — a 16th century Hindi work by Malik Muhammad Jayasi — by the poet-soldier Alaol. Another example is a minor work narrating the tragic tale of Madhavanala, a musician, and Kamakandala, a dancer, which has several versions in Sanskrit and Hindi besides in Marathi and Gujarati. Alam, a court-poet of Aurangzeb, based his Hindi version on a Sanskrit version by Jodh, a poet in Akbar’s court. Alam admitted how he composed parts and also borrowed from Hindi as well as Sanskrit versions. “Kachhu apni, kachhu prakrit choro/Yathashakti kari akshar jodo” (Some mine, some stolen from Prakrit, putting letters together as well as I can), he has said, laughing at four strong Western individualist ideas: absolute originality, faithful translation and the author’s moral right and the publisher’s copyright.

Most pre-colonial translations, however, were what Gianfranco Folena would call ‘vertical translations’, where ‘the source language has prestige and value which transcends that of the target language’. The translator here often feels humbled by the superior power of the original forcing, for example, Jnaneswar — who translated the Bhagavad Gita into Marathi — to compare himself to a tiny titibha bird trying to sound the ocean’s depth. ‘Horizontal translation’, on the other hand, is what happens ‘between languages of a similar structure and strong cultural affinity’ (Meenakshi Mukherjee, ‘Power and the Case of Horizontal Translation’, Translating Power). Apparently, there is no hierarchy here; the languages are considered equal. This is what happens between modern Indian languages, though even here translation into a less known or recognised language, like Bhili or Santhali, Garo or Gammit, may involve a power-relationship. Sisirkumar Das (History of Indian Literature: Western Impact, Indian Response) observes that there have been only a handful of translations from one Indian language into another at the beginning of the 19th century, produced mainly to meet the demands of pedagogy. There were plenty of translations from Bengali into many other Indian languages. Tulasi Das’s Ramcharitmanas was translated into Urdu and the first Marathi novel, Yamunaparyatan, got translated into Kannada. Das also notes that geographically contiguous literatures were translated into each other more often — like Kannada into Marathi or Marathi into Gujarati. He also says South Indian languages got translated more into each other than into the languages of the North. But this is not always true, as for example, Malayalam has more works translated from Bengali and Hindi than from Kannada, Tamil and Telugu.

The translation scene in India underwent a major transformation with English joining India’s linguistic landscape. Three areas of translation prospered during the colonial times: translation of Indian literary texts into English; translation of English language texts, as also the European language texts available in English versions, into Indian languages; and translation from one Indian language into another. Tejaswini Niranjana, in Siting Translation, has studied the working of the colonial ideology in the translations done during the period. Translations of texts like Bhagavad Gita, Manusmriti and Arthashastra were mainly meant to help the rulers understand the Hindu ethos and practices, while old literary texts like Abhijnana Shakuntalam, besides being excellent literature, also satisfied their Orientalist mindset with its concept of the wild, exotic East and its coy, vulnerable and beautiful women. In Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories, Romila Thapar contrasts Kalidasa’s frail heroine with the brave and independent Sakuntala of Mahabharata. If first the translations were made by Western scholars like William Jones, by late 19th century, Indian scholars like Romesh Chandra Dutt (Lays of Ancient India, 1894; Mahabharata, 1899; Ramayana, 1902) also joined the effort, sometimes with the noble intention of correcting Western perceptions of Indian texts.

This is a living tradition as we realise from the practices of P. Lal, A.K. Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, Velcheru Narayana Rao, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Arshia Sattar, H.S. Shivaprakash, Ranjit Hoskote, Vijay Nambisan, Bibek Debroy, and several other poets and scholars. The translation between Indian languages during the period of the freedom struggle was no more just a literary exercise; it helped the building of a nation. These translations during the late colonial period and the early years of independence were not profit-oriented; dedicated translators came up in many languages making a Tagore, a Sarat Chandra Chatterjee or a Premchand household names across the country.

K. Satchidanandan is an award-winning poet and author.


An attempt to retrieve history April 5, 2014