Talking about text, translation and authors who refuse to die.

Translation is not an act of rendering a text from one language to another. Translation is a way of seeing and relating, which one is doing all the time. One has to expand the meaning of translation to include ways in which texts are seen, contextualised, categorised, reduced and expanded, and presented.

Coming from a middle-class Tamil family, I was exposed to music and dance when I was young. Once, while teaching me a complicated chitta swaram, my music teacher told me to look at the notes as a flowing river, so that I could sing the chitta swaram in one breath. Similarly, just the line “Theruvil varano…” from a padam and the intricacy of abhinayam opened up an entire way of life for me. I understood that “to see” something or someone, one did not just need sight but vision and perspective as well. To that extent, a hundred per cent translation from one language to another is impossible. Some Tamil words would fall flat in English, their depth of meaning lost when taken out of the cultural context from which they spring. Indeed, very often, words have apparent meanings and inner meanings based on personal experience, language modes and allusions. There is that poem of Thirumoolar where he talks of the raging elephant that hides the wood it is made from. I am not talking of a gestalt shift in language, which is a two-image concept: an apparent and a hidden one. Rather, I am talking of layers that open up with a word, an image, a sound.

Tamil words have different sounds and rhythm. Gidugidu, kudukudu, salasala, palapala, minuminu, sadasada and gadagada are not words that can be translated. Understanding a language and translation are acts that have always been difficult. There is a constant tussle between the text and the act of translation. One often feels like Ghalib, who exclaimed:

Ya rab, woh na samjhe hain

Na samjhenge meri baat

Ya de dil unko aur

Ya de mujhe zubaan aur

Since people have not and would never understand him, he requests God to either give people a different heart or him a different language. I often recall a comment of Kausalya in Tulsi Ramayan, which my poet-friend Shefalika Verma alluded to in a conversation, to explain this point. Kausalya says, at one point, that a lotus blooms when the sun rises only so long as it remains in a pond full of water. If the pond goes dry, the same sun can scorch the lotus. I always apply this beautiful imagery to translation. It is only so long as words remain in their contextual water with their elements that the sun of translation can keep it alive; otherwise it can become a dead text. When a translation of my work reaches me, my first reaction is one of non-recognition, for the images and sounds are different and it takes me time to accept it as my work. My own experiences of being translated have been extremely interesting, but also at times puzzling and annoying. I have come to realise that there is a politics to translation, with a constant undercurrent of a notion of power in the act of translation into English. It involves the choice of text, translation and rendering, and the presentation of the author.

Extended dialogues and negotiations with the translator are involved in turning the text, the author, and the culture into an easily acceptable, marketable format. When it comes to translation from an Indian language to English, it certainly bestows power on the translator, and hierarchies are created between the writer and English readers.

English readers, I realised, can never be troubled to understand the translation. They are privileged readers and so everything, including food, clothing and relationships, must be explained to them with footnotes, end-notes and glossaries. Never mind if you once struggled to understand what champagne or other exotic Western foods and elements meant when you read those works of fiction as a young girl.

The current way of translation is to open up the layers of the text and lay it bare, like opening its underbelly, making it totally transparent. I believe that stories are not about revealing; they are about hiding.

Stories hide elements and emotions in such a way that they reveal themselves differently to each reader. A story or a text should never be denuded to reveal all; some mysteries must remain. For that to happen, a translator must approach a text with humility. And authors must refuse to die.

(The New Delhi-based LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives organised the PRISM Lecture Series 2013 on ‘Development and Contemporary India’ over the last few months in which 15 seminal thinkers participated. This is the second of a cross-selection of talks we will feature here. For more information, please visit