Translations are a bridge between different worlds but how will the ripple become a flood unless mindsets change?

There are two currents to the historical legacy of Commonwealth literature. One that flowed out of Britain from Shakespeare to P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, which everyone knows about. The other flowed back from the continents of Asia, Africa and Australia to Britain and sometimes coursed between them.

The island nation was fortunate to have access to the experienced and fantasised reality, turbulent history and vibrant geographic variety of three vast continents, but barely because of the paucity of translations from the rich, diverse language literatures, into English. For most part we had to make do with what was written in English, which barely skimmed the surface. Let's say, a ripple rather than a flow.

True, in due course, the ripple managed to transform and enrich English, with the varied, vivid, metaphors of numinous languages and cultures. But taking India with its numinous languages as an example, the sad fact is that apart from Rabindranath Tagore, who became known, thanks to the Nobel Prize for Geetanjali and Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhyopadhyay known via Satyajit Ray for Pather Paanchali, other non-English works, which rejected the colonial mindset and engendered commonality, the principle underlying the Commonwealth, never became part of the common legacy.

Rebutting the colonial mindset

A few writers like R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao wrote in English and demonstrated that one could appropriate the coloniser's language and use it to rebut the colonised mindset. By satirising the ruler and the ruled equally, R.K. Narayan bridged the gap between the two. The pomposity of the former and the comic servility of the latter were both subjected to non-malicious ridicule as he showed them equally immersed in trivialities. It prepared the climate for the rejection of the coloniser's value system by the common man as he realised it was no better than his own. There is no better prescription for subversion than ridicule untouched by malice. Both the coloniser and the colonised have to be free of the colonial mindset to forge a common legacy.

But there were other works in many languages, which offered more effective antitheses to the colonial mind set by recording our cultural ethos, giving a realistic picture of the social fabric and psyche with no hedging or subterfuge, without glossing over its deficiencies or weaknesses. That is crucial. Only a free society can dare to have weaknesses and condemn them impartially. Premchand, Nirala, Mahadevi Verma and Fanishwar Nath Renu in Hindi; Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhyopadhyay, in Bengali; Subramaniya Bharati and Puthumai Piththan in Tamil; Faqir Mohan in Oriya, Kuvempu (KV Puttappa), K Shivarama Karanth and D.R Bendre in Kannada; M.T Vasudevan Nair and M.M Basheer in Malayalam; V S Khandekar, Vibhavari Shirurkar and Anandibai Shirke in Marathi and many more did this.

In Hindi, the process started soon after the 1857 uprising, when Bhartendu Harishchandra wrote Bharat Durdasha and Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja (1878-1880). They gave an allegorical account of a region under a corrupt and uncaring ruler. Chaupat Raja has become a part of the idiom of not only Hindi but most Indian languages. It defines all suspect regimes, foreign or indigenous, even today. This is the historical legacy against which we have to place contemporary writing and see to what extent the Commonwealth aware is of it.

Regional language writers write such powerful stories in their languages that they make original writing in English with Indian locales seem quite lukewarm. When the story is located in foreign lands the English language writer often has a better grip. I can say about my language, Hindi, that if you have not read Jagdamba Prasad Dixit's Murdaghar or Itivrat or Manohar Shyam Joshi's Kapishji or Kuru kuru Swaha, you can not even begin to understand the goings-on in this country. Fortunately two of Joshi's novellas, Ta-ta Professor and The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules are available in English translation now. The intricate and ribald rendering of a profound philosophical concept, ‘I am the other' in The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules makes it tower above any novel written in English in the last 50 years. Though it was translated a decade ago, ironically, it found a publisher only last year, after the demise of the author.

Good efforts

Many Hindi writers like Krishna Baldev Vaid, Rahi Masoom Raza, Krishna Sobti, and younger writers like Geetanjali Shree are now available in good translations. Writers from other languages like Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali such as N.S Madhvan, Sara Joseph, U.R Ananthamurthy, Sunil Gangopadhyaya and others can boast of even better translations, thanks to editors like Mini Krishnan of OUP.

It is through translations that we can hope for a world where the unknown streets of Indian cities like Bhopal, Meerut, Bangalore, Nagpur and Kochi are as familiar to the English-speaking West, as the streets of Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan became through English translations of Haruki Murakami's novels. But how can I even dream of that world, when our own market-oriented magazines refuse to give space to reviews of translations, irrespective of the quality of the fiction. They would much rather publish rehashed reviews of English translations of European books.

The Commonwealth Writer's Prize rules that “the entry must be originally written in English. We regret that, for logistical reasons, works translated from other languages are not currently eligible”. We are forced to conclude that for logistical reasons the common legacy is in waiting. And has been in waiting ever since we ceased to be a colony and chose to become part of the Commonwealth.

(A presentation made at the Commonwealth Writers Meet in Delhi in October 2010 on the subject; Historical Legacy and Contemporary writing in the Common Wealth at the Sahitya Akademi.)

More In: Books