Mini Krishnan writes about something rarely discussed — the radiance of translation.

“Easy to shoot an arrow through a screen; difficult to send a second arrow through the same passage”


“Occasionally a translator is invited as the guest of the great man whose career he has furthered; made even. He is Mr. Eco in NY; Mr. Rushdie in Germany. He is not recognised for the millions of decisions he made.”

(Tim Parks)

T he energy of India's multilinguality is its greatest intangible wealth: unrealised and untested. We know it takes many subtle shapes in terms of services, products and concepts but its most powerful form is knowledge transmitted through translation. The biggest intervention in the social energy of our languages was the visitor language English, and the pressure this single language applies today upon our language empire is enormous. At some cost to our languages, while simultaneously enriching us with outside influences, it has nudged us into a sense of needing to keep up with world literature — a trend which has led to a near gold-rush for translations of Indian literary works.

The cultural encoding this brings naturally calls for great skill when a decoding for another language readership is undertaken and therefore the translator's workshop, created in a phantom space between two languages is, in some sense, a linguistic outerspace where there do not appear to be any recognisable norms. Monolingual peoples have tried hard to arrive at many rules all of which break down when the translators function in a multilingual context. Worldwide, the practice is to translate into one's mother-tongue. Indians are unique in that they have reversed the norm and are, when they translate into English, jumping a wall facing away from it. Indeed the strategies and skills deployed by Indian translators as they move regional-language texts into a language whose DNA they lack, is a tremendous demonstration of their power to read, intuite and express.

There are many ways of re-writing, and representing the original, many ways of dealing with the unsaid, and naturally not all of them are successful. In quite a few cases, English breaks down altogether but just sometimes we come face to face with an aspect of translation that is seldom talked about: the case of a rendering which makes the writer appear more significant in a foreign language. Why does — sometimes — the translated text take on a radiance which pushes the original work to another level altogether? Is it the phantom power of language or the creativity of the translator which is something to be watched and perhaps even feared! Just as three different actors might interpret the same lines of a great playwright, we have translators acting out their versions in print of the same text. For instance here are three different translations of the same lines from Premchand's famous story in Urdu (“Shatranj ke Khiladi”) which he shortened and rewrote in Hindi as well.

Silence reigned supreme all round. The crumbling walls of these ruins, their broken arches and minarets lying in the dust seemed to keep watch over these dead bodies and grieve over them! (P.C. Gupta)

Silence reigned over the place. The broken arches of the ruined mosque, its crumbling walls and dust-stained minarets seemed to brood over the corpses lying before them. (Jai Ratan)

Silence reigned everywhere. The broken arches, the dilapidated walls and the dust-soiled minarets of the mosque looked at the corpses and nodded. (Gurdial Malik)

The Siva Purana carries a line describing Lord Murugan, saying (roughly) that the light he emanated was so intense that he brightened his very surroundings; a famous scholar translated the word “mahaadhikrthe” as “a boy of great deeds”. One feels he could have tried harder. On the other hand we sympathise with the virtual impossibility of describing the kind of doors in Dhaathu, a novel by Bhyrappa set in the 18th century. And what can one say about the scriptless, almost extinct Araya language of Kocharethi from the slopes of the Western Ghats transliterated into Malayalam and then translated into English as seen in the first tribal novel out of South India?

It is easy to believe that the twilight zone between the original text and the translated text is a space filled with the bumps and hollows of a silent performance. Translators should therefore be given the status of performing musicians: they are composers, performers and improvisers all in the service of not themselves but a reality to which they are striving to give body and form. They delve deep into the text they have selected and seek its truth led by the rhythm of the original something only they can interpret and reinterpret. In a successful translation the translator establishes an intense relationship with the text.

In discussion with a German novelist a few weeks ago (Sasa Stanisic) I asked about the many languages into which he had been translated and chiefly English. Sasa said, “I'm almost afraid of my translators because they read me so carefully that they end up knowing the text better than I do. My English translator Anthea Bell sits across the table and comes at me with ‘Sasa, don't you think this should be a Friday here on this page and not a Saturday, you're not yet into the next day in this part of the novel'.” Recently Susheela Punitha asked U.R. Ananthamurthy whether he had used the neuter gender deliberately in his application of a particular pronoun (in his protagonist's thoughts) about the untouchables, holeyaru, in his 1973 classic, Bharathipura. The distinguished writer was shaken as he couldn't link the expression with the creative state of mind he had been in when he had written the words. “Is it possible that he didn't notice?” we wondered.

Turning to another writer, Sarah Joseph at her best poses a mountainous challenge for her translators. J. Devika's English chases Sarah's “Paapathara” — a myth-laden story of female infanticide, the translator only a breath behind the writer. Sarah swings Kamsan from the Bhagavatha in and out of her story of Letchmipenne writhing in child-birth — not in a royal prison but in a dingy cellar — and terrified that she, the ‘girl-bearing bitch' will lose her baby again. The sound of Letchmipenne's husband's footsteps brings the thunder of myth into the story. In a difficult and extended passage we are asked to juxtapose two images: Lord Krishna's Uncle-King, intent upon smashing the skull of his newborn niece/nephew and the casual, practical evil of the killers in “Paapathara” waiting with a poisoned paste of oleander seeds to despatch the little girl and her femaleness. Gradually, the English draws level and suddenly Devika pulls away, running mightily around and ahead of the original to encircle and absorb the totality of the Malayalam.

Lakshmikkutty's screams rose, higher and higher.

“Don't scream, Lachmippenne – ah, there! It will be over now …”

I feel no birth-pangs, will you hide my daughter, get her out alive and secretly? Before Kamsan's thundering footsteps reach the doors of the cellar, before the yellow oleanders break out in their frenzied dance at the next blast of smouldering winds, before Kochunarayanan's mother flies in with hands roughened by sorcery, will you put her in a basket, cover her with cloth, get her past the yellow oleander, swim through the river between Chaavuthara and Paapathara that will not part for you, cross the Narimaan hill and the Pulimada … on the far, far side …will you get her to the land where women bloom?

Here…I will tear them from my neck…this chain and this marriage locket.”

Just as the grammar and vocabulary of English look like they might come to a complete halt, the text takes on a glow. The advantage the translator has is that she is both insider and outsider; insider as reader and outsider as writer. One part of her is thinking how she's going to write it when she's reading, and remembering while writing, how she felt while reading so that she can transfer what she experienced. It is a transference of the Indian soul of the text into English. As in all creative bonding the connection established approaches the mystic which only those who have been there will recognise. The boundaries of the self dissolve, without any sense of threat one cannot but be altered by the experience.

Mini Krishnan edits literary translations for Oxford University Press.

It is easy to believe that the twilight zone between the original text and the translated text is a space filled with the bumps and hollows of a silent performance.