Inventive and polyphonic

The recent release of the English translation of the first ‘independent’ Kannada social-realist novel Indira Bai, fills a much-felt lacuna in Indian literature as well as in Kannada literature. This much-awaited and admirable English translation (Oxford University Press 2019) of Indira Bai by Prof. Vanamala Viswanatha and Prof. Shivarama Padikkal brings to life in English the culture, traditions, and dilemmas of a community in coastal Karnataka, as it hurtles towards a kind of modernity fuelled and accelerated by colonialism.

Indira Bai, when it came out in 1899, was a novel unlike anything Kannada literature had seen before. In Indira Bai, Gulvadi Venkata Rao fictionalises the life and challenges faced by his Chitrapur Saraswat community in South Canara, at the turn of the 19th century and the clamour for reforms from the educated progressive members of the community.

Most of the early social-realist novels in Indian languages dealt with issues of social change and Indira Bai too, deals with many of the ‘social change issues’, like women’s education, child marriage, widow re-marriage, foreign travel, and tonsuring of widows, among other issues. It was never going to be an easy task, but Gulvadi, as a critical insider, was able to strike a balance between the inflexible and the unstoppable.

For a first novel, Indira Bai is remarkable for its inventiveness and imaginative narrative. Gulvadi has crafted the novel in such a way that it is in every sense a representation of a town, its people, their lives, and their culture in South Canara, at the turn of the 19th century.

South Canara is a naturally trilingual region with Tulu, Konkani, and Kannada being the three main spoken languages. Gulvadi uses Konkani, Tulu, the English- mixed Kannada of the English-educated youth, the dialects of Brahmins, lower-caste workers and servants, and the register of law courts to make this novel, to invoke Mikhail Bakhtin, dialogic and heteroglossic. Gulvadi also weaves in the gradual spread of the elements of colonial modernity like law courts (and the inevitable corruption), English education, printing technology, western science, modern medicine, social reform, among others, into the narrative, making Indira Bai a novel that is comprehensive as well as thought provoking.

The extensive use of Yakshagana Talamaddale, of which Indira Bai’s father, Bhima Raya, was a keen enthusiast, organizer and performer, the use of sobhane wedding songs, and discourses in Sanskrit from the Bhagavad Gita, enrich the cultural landscape of the novel. The novel is studded with a number of proverbs, which most of the times also provide an ironic twist to the situation. Gulvadi also uses satire as a potent tool to ridicule both the orthodox and the modern.

The translators would have faced a formidable challenge translating this culturally rich, polyphonic, and linguistically demanding novel. Needless to say they have faced this challenge and come out with a translation that does justice to the original. The narrative flows smoothly in English without losing the cultural nuances. What could have been otherwise lost in translation is retained through some ingenious methods. For instance, in a conversation where traditional and western medicine/medical practice is discussed, Amba Bai, Indira Bai’s mother dismisses western medicine by indulging in comic wordplay and contorts English words to sound like Kannada words – ‘homeopathy’ as umapathy, ‘alarm’ clock as elerama, ‘electric’ as ilikatri, etc. In this conversation as well as other similar conversations, the translators have retained the Kannada words and have not tampered with the wordplay, but have given explanatory footnotes to explain the context. It is through such inadvertent devices that modernity enters into a culture and the translators were wise to preserve this small, but crucial element in the narrative.

Gulvadi has used a lot of English words in the novel, and this is another slippery slope for translators. These English words do not require translation, but since they are used as a device to denote irony, sarcasm, or pomposity at various points in the original, the translators have shown such words in small caps indicating that they are in English in the original, thus preserving the tone.

The conversations in Tulu and Konkani, which were ‘internally’ translated into Kannada in the original, have been tackled creatively in the English translation. Tulu is spoken in the novel by workers and servants and Konkani is spoken by Christian police constables. Tulu and Konkani are used by Gulvadi as class markers in the original and just translating these conversations into English would have erased a significant sociological and cultural context that Gulvadi had created in the novel.

The translators have retained the internal translation method that Gulvadi had used, but Tulu and Konkani are now in the Roman script having separate indicators and the English translation is given under each dialogue and runs like a natural conversation. By doing this, the translators have retained the cultural and sociological context of the original.

The translation, thus, is as rich as the original, and preserves its multilingual and polyphonic nature in English too. Prof. Vanamala Viswanatha and Prof. Shivarama Padikkal, through their subtle, but effective methods have shown that a whole lot can be gained in translation. In my opinion, this English translation of Indira Bai provides an ideal template for translators who would wish to translate early novels and stories for a post-colonial readership.

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 3:06:03 AM |

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