Another voice in another language

Translation as a TouchstoneRaji Narasimhan; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 595.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chen _R.Gopalaratinam

In our times translation has become an absolute necessity — in many places the translated version comes to supplement the original and the text gets replaced. Whether recognised as classical or not each language has enough to claim its own heritage and thus seeks to revel in being translated into another. Raji Narasimhan’s Translation as a Touchstone moves between translated versions in Hindi, Tamil, English and Malayalam. She is a translator herself and thus reveals traces of expertise to theorise from her own experience. Her gut feeling as she states at the beginning is that a translation ought not to read like its original. It is an enterprise in itself and should make itself transparent and explicit as a translated text.

Translation is both an art and a craft. On the one hand, it is a wonderful tool to give the reader a glimpse into another culture and perhaps another way of life. The space of translation is always flexible: it brings the farthest nearer and holds forth the too close in suitable distance to be appreciated and enjoyed.

Raji Narasimhan — journalist and translator — pleads for a place for translation as a creative act, and at the same time bemoans the difference between the translated work and the original. She draws from a large number of examples to prove her point — Chemmeen, Samskara, Maya Darpan, Rudali, Silence! the Court is in Session, and the God of Small Things. And sometimes it happens that on account of the vastness of the cultural contexts all her examples do not quite reach out.


The enterprise of a translator as she recognises it is like riding two horses at the same time. This book explores various textures and singular instances. And when all is said, this book is ultimately a manifesto of an active practitioner to theorise on the art of translation. She argues that translation is more of a transcreation (now almost synonymous with the efforts of P Lal and his disciples) more of a creative adaptation of language be it Hindi or English. Her own belief is that a translated work should never read like the original — it should have a bilingual note and feel.

The book comprises six chapters. In each of these essays different texts and contexts are marked out for interpretative reading. What is significant is that with the commitment of a formalist the author seeps into the texts — be it fictional, poetic, symbolic, or theatrical narrative — and explores its various possibilities in translated versions. What is to be noted is that Raji Narasimhan’s reading is a thorough one like a microscope moving systematically over semantic and stylistic details. However, very often the reader’s eye gets trapped in the thematic overtones of the narratives as well. But, the vigour with which the critical eye moves is rarely impaired. Translation, we must remember at all points, is not merely an act on the surface of a text but an act that profoundly affects it to the core.

The first chapter takes as its context Thakazhi Siva Sankara Pillai’s Chemmeen and its variant passage through three languages — the Tamil rendering by Sundara Ramaswamy, Hindi by Bharati Vidyarthi and English by Narayana Menon. In her reading of the novel in three languages, Narasimhan points out that the entire story evolves through the female psyche and the translator needs to rock with the inwardness of these self-seeings.

The second chapter reads Usha Ganguli’s Hindi stage adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s story Rudali. The text here is seen as a performative narrative or that which could reach through the stage — Anjum Katyal in the introduction argues that the ideological temper of the play in the rendered version has also been reinterpreted for the consumption of a non-Marxist audience.

The third chapter takes up Nirmal Verma’s Maya Darpan translated by Geeta Kapur. According to Narasimhan the translation provides but an incomplete vision of the story.

In the fourth Vijay Tendulkar’s Shantata! Court Chaaloo Aahey (Silence! the Court is in Session) in its Hindi and English rendering is close-examined. The pure possibilities of the voice and tenor as it seeps on to the stage catches the eye of Narasimhan and she states: But a translation is meant to be read too…. It is a literary exercise as much as theatre craft.

Cultural difference

U.R. Anantha Murthy’s celebrated novel in Kannada Samskara and P.S. Sadasivan’s Tamil version of the novel constitutes the take off point for the next chapter. In terms of the language there is virtuosity and the poignancy of the cultural situation has been closely followed in the rendered version. Chandrakant Kusnoor’s Hindi version has adopted a formal Hindi with Sanskritic interludes and he does not colloquialise the language and make the story immediate and palpable. The English translation keeps the central dramatic problem alive thereby keeping the whole story in motion. The language is racy. The throw and play of tone is maintained despite the cultural difference of the two languages. In the Hindi version the words are too literary.

Chapter six invokes Roy’s The God of Small Things — Narasimhan observes that Neelabh’s Hindi translation does respond and react more to the verbal magnetism of Arundhati Roy’s text. Nevertheless, with its Malayalam tonality and inflexion the work of rendering the text into Hindi makes the task quite daunting and almost impossible — the translation in Hindi falls flat and the inherent vibrancy and subtle humour are generally misplaced.

Throughout the book Narasimhan negotiates the language divide mostly from a subjective perspective — her responses and reactions are for the most determined by her own preconceptions. She claims even at the outset that her approach to the issues at hand is neither academic nor borrowed. In effect the text as we have it now takes as its points of departure acclaimed narratives and traverses their various avatars in different guises and the author concocts a theory to suit the occasion — mostly impressionistic. Close-examining word by word and line by line, she stitches together her observations to aid the interested reader. Each translation according to her is a second voice, a complementing voice. After all, translation is a creative act in itself.

( Usha V. T. headsthe Centre for Women’s Studies, Pondicherry University)

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 10:40:12 AM |

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