This word for that: Literary Review

Refractions of the original

The mood of an age gleams through a work of translation exactly as it does in history-writing and literary criticism. No mystery. It comes from the blood in the re-teller’s veins and all the daydreams she ever invented. We also know that a degree of benign manipulation is a given in the translation of any text. But what about the instinct behind a translation that sidesteps the original?

One such example of the author as translator is in our own backyard: Tagore’s Gitanjali (1910). Any Bengali will tell you that the English version moved quite far from the original. The mystic quality of the East comes nicely wrapped in Tagore’s own English (1912) which W.B. Yeats touched up to stay in step with Edwardian poetics in style, imagery and tone. He succeeded. For a very long time, this English Tagore represented the alluring ‘opposite’ or ‘other’ in the West and charmed Indians who could not read the original. A million students were taught to admire a manipulated translation, and after it attracted the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913), this imperfect translation was perfectly translated into many languages.

How much should this trouble us? Look around…

We have 300 Ramayana retellings, in one of which, Sita firmly closes the banishment-to-forest argument between her and Rama by saying, “In all the other Ramayanas, Sita accompanies Rama and so shall I in this one…” (Kannada). Sujeet Mukherji, raised on the Bengali Mahabharata, hadn’t heard of the incident in the Oriya version that has Duryodhana fleeing from battle and stepping, all unawares, on his own son’s corpse as it floats face down in the water. But those were re-tellings. No one ever called them translations. If this is the case in adjacent regions and between neighbouring languages and cultures, what about across-the-sea works? What happens when a theme from one country is lifted to fashion a drama, then translated and played back to the country of its origin?

In 1800, Friedrich Schiller wrote a German play about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, for a predominantly Catholic audience who sympathised with the Catholic Mary, while villainising Elizabeth Tudor. Imagine the sound of these bagpipes in Britain where Elizabeth Rex is idolised as the defeater of the Armada and the patron of Shakespeare and Bacon, Drake and Raleigh. Both the translator (Stephen Spender) and the director (Peter Wood) of the English-language play decided that the “real” Elizabeth Tudor had to be released from the “unreal” character Schiller had created. So they used an editorial rapier and the title page boldly says: “freely translated and adapted by Stephen Spender.”

Now for a work that passed from popular poem to cult poem to cultural classic: Edward Fitzgerald’s rendering of Rubaiyyat-e-Omar. Famously known as a translation, a translation it is not. We could call it a wonderful invention but that would depend on what one sets out to invent. Fitzgerald takes your breath away with his beautiful poetry. Equally stunning is his arrogance as he revised, rewrote and published the same poem for 20 years. Here’s the first quatrain:

Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight;

And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light. (1859)

Four editions later, in 1879, what do we have?

Wake! For the sun who scatter’d into flight

The Stars before him from the Field of Night

Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes

The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

Only the sultan’s turret survived Fitzgerald’s meddling. He was so sure that Victorian aesthetics were superior to the text, he wrote, “It is an amusement for me to take what liberties I take with these Persians who are not poets… and who really do want a little art to shape them.” And so, in setting out to improve the original, he wrote his own poem. Easy, because Omar Khayyam of Persia had been dead 800 years. When he lost favour with his superiors, Khayyam turned to poetry, wine and boys, not the willowy maidens we’ve all seen in the memorable “singing in the wilderness” paintings that supported Fitzgerald’s translation. Young men and women wandering off together would have been unthinkable in the ethos of Khayyam’s times but the cultural anxiety that usually haunts a translator did not in the least bother Fitzgerald, whose influence, both immediate and subsequent, were prodigious.

Original works becoming yet more original works but known as translations occupy a genre by themselves.

Mini Krishnan is Consultant, Publishing, Oxford University Press, India.


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