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Modernity’s medieval engagement

The Life of Harishchandra, Vanamala Viswanatha’s acclaimed English translation of Raghavanka’s Harishchandra Kavyam, brought out in the prestigious Murty Classical Library of India Series, by Harvard University Press, is an important landmark in Kannada cultural history. This is the first major Kannada classic to be translated in its entirety into English. Just last year, the British translator Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey was celebrated as the work of a first woman translator of the Greek classic into English, coming after some sixty other translations by men, over the last 400 years. In comparison, it is remarkable that Vanamala’s is the very first translation of this medieval work, by anyone – man or woman.

Excerpts from an interview with her:

What is it like to be a first woman translator of a major Kannada kavya text?

Even though Kannada has a literary history of 1500 years with the maximum number of written texts among Indian languages, next only to Sanskrit, very few texts have been translated into English. During the colonial period, several missionaries had attempted translating a few Kannada classics into German and English. To name a few such attempts, Moegling’s translation of select verses from Kumaravyasa and Purandara Dasa into German; Sanderson’s incomplete translation of Jaimini Bharata and Kittel’s translation of Chchandombudi and Shabdamanidarpana. In the modern era, one has to acknowledge a handful of translations -- an abridged version of Janna’s Yashodhara Charite by T.R.S. Sharma, representative excerpts from Ancient Kannada poetry by C.N. Ramachandran, and Kanakdasa’s Ramadhanya Carite by D.A. Shankar, and the translation of vachana poetry by A.K. Ramanujan, Ramachandra Sharma, H.S. Shivaprakash, O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy, Lakshmi Chandrasekhar, and Vijaya Guttal, among others. I am happy to join this list of illustrious translators.

Who is your favorite translator? Was your translation practice influenced by any of them?

Undoubtedly, AKR was a translator who inspired not just me, but a whole generation of translators. His lucid, well-crafted, modernist translation of vachana poetry was remarkable. His style of writing suited the short, intensely lyrical vachanas rooted in orality. But this would not work for Raghavanka’s hyperbolic, epic narrative written in the tradition of court poetry choosing the intricate artistry of the vardhaka shatpadi. So I had to find a style that held a lamp to the highly dramatic and intricately-structured story which combined rigorous erudition with intense experience. In order to match the gravitas of this masterly work, I had to evolve a formal, high style that seamlessly integrated the poetic, the dramatic, and the narrative.

Do you think gender matters in translation? How has the fact of your being a woman impacted your translation?

First, your choice of text is often a result of what kind of person you are. When I started translating in the 90s, I largely translated the works of women writers such as Vaidehi and Sara Aboobacker. And I chose Harishchandra Kavyam because karuna rasa/compassion is the dominant mood of the text, when most other classical texts were war narratives valorizing male prowess with veera rasa as the dominant effect. Compassion seems to me like a more needed value in these times of daily wars.

A gendered perspective will also surely influence how you read and interpret a text. If the text speaks to us even today with a certain urgency, that is because it foregrounds the issue of caste and gender within the narrative. Using my legitimate right as a translator, I have tried to suggest in the Critical Introduction to the text an ideological frame in which to locate and read the text. Exercising my right as a reader to interpret the work, I have offered my understanding of the poem within the text. For instance, when I found that the querulous questioning of the holati (‘untouchable’) women got subdued in my enthusiasm to make the text more concise, I abandoned the principle of compression for the greater principle of rhetoricity and revised the translation of a verse (CH 7: V 8) to more forcefully articulate their questions when they speak to power. Thus the subjective position of the translator influences the act of translation in potent, if at times invisible, ways.

Classics are said to be often the works of dead, male, white/upper caste writers. How did you negotiate your way through this kind of misogynistic space? Or, was Raghavanka an exception?

Not really. Raghavanka can also be quite misogynistic. While it is remarkably radical of the poet to create the characters of the two holati women who could decenter Harishchandra with their questioning, he allows his hero to beat them up brutally when they ask the king to marry them. The women continue to be puppets in Vishvamitra’s hands.

One is entering the field knowing full well that classical literature is largely a male tradition governed by patriarchal values. Running away from it is no answer. You have to engage with it with critical distance. That said, gender is not the only consideration that the translator has to work with. It was equally important that the rich classical tradition of Kannada received its due through an English translation in the context of a global readership. Addressing this woeful invisibility of Kannada in the global scenario is as important a cultural imperative before me as a translator. Therefore, as translators we have to evolve a translation practice which at once answers several demands, often balancing several contradictory pulls.

Whose requirements does the Murty Classical Library of India cater to - the western reader or the Indian reader? Is it possible for an Indian translator to escape from the orientalism implicit in such a translation project?

The critical frame that pitted the West vs Orient is rendered obsolete in the context of a changed, globalizing economy. A significant statistic about our global village today is that the number of speakers who speak English as a second language have outnumbered those who speak it as their first language. As a fall out of this demographic fact, going forward, a greater number of writers and readers of literatures in English are likely to emerge from non-native speaking contexts. This is certainly true for India.

Apart from a global readership spread across continents, MCLI probably has its strongest reader base within India; and a text such as Harishchandra has its maximum readers within Karnataka itself.

Further, MCLI gave me a completely free hand both in the choice of the text and the mode of translation. Every strategy and move was openly discussed with the team of editors. Situated in a post-colonial relationship with English, it was important to resist the predatory moves of that hegemonic language. So my attempt has been to bend English to make it a fit vehicle for the expressive intent of each of the 728 shatpadis in the Kannada text.

More visibly, I have adopted a foreignising strategy for various purposes: to celebrate local colour, to translate puns, to quicken emotive response, to avoid the risk of naming in English what does not have adequate equivalents for various cultural nuances such as holati, holeya, chandala, or anamika, and to point to the various aspects of word play in the text. Also the structure and style, the sound and sense of each of the stanzas, has been determined by my sense (gleaned through the five senses) of the Kannada original.

How helpful was translation theory for your practice?

Extremely helpful, not so much in providing readymade answers to the issues confronted in translating this classic, but in raising important and relevant questions about the various decisions I needed to make about the choice of text and the mode of translation. These questions helped in establishing a clear and comprehensive frame for the translation. For instance, the value of the outwork which includes the introduction, notes, and glossary; awareness about the rights and responsibilities of a translator working with English in a postcolonial context; or the need to establish what should be a unit of translation for a long-format poetry such as this.


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