This Word For That: Rebuilding Babel

September 24, 2016 04:10 pm | Updated November 01, 2016 08:29 pm IST

The canvas of Indian translations is full of disruptions and surprises. Will the next generation of translators change the rules?

With World Translation Day (September 30, the Feast of St. Jerome) hardly a week away, it is worth recalling a few efforts at rebuilding Babel. Long after the passing of the patron saint of translators and during the rough passage of ‘The Book’ into English, there were so many kinds of Latin (Italo-Franco-Hispano-Anglo-) and so many misunderstandings at scholarly discussions, that a standard pronunciation was developed by Erasmus of Rotterdam and introduced in universities. Cambridge University resisted it fiercely, and even issued an edict against it (1542). The campus churned: students were caned and teachers expelled. The conflicts continued, and spread beyond the university with people taking sides. “ English is ,” wrote a schoolmaster named Richard Mulcaster in 1582, “... of small reatch, it stretcheth no further than this iland of ours, naie not there over all .” Today it is the language on which the sun doesn’t set and whose users never sleep. But, with billions of speakers, what about a standard version? Is it possible? Is it healthy?

This is of particular concern in India which has, over the last five years, seen a sharp increase in the number of translations into English with the emergence of both new lists from old imprints and entirely new imprints. Through it all, what is infrequently discussed is bi- or multi-linguality and how to carry that across. After all, while esema and ejaman might be the same person in Tamil, gum is not the same as glue in American. Here is the Scots tongue in a translation directly from the Greek published in 1985, “ Sae they want towre the Loch tae the kntra of the Gerasenes. As Shune as he came aff the boat, a man win an unclean spirit cam out frae the graffs tae meet him .” Look at the same lines from Mark’s Gospel published jointly by Oxford and Cambridge in 1989. “ So they came to the country of the Gerasenes on the other side of the lake. As he stepped ashore, a man possessed of an unclean spirit came up to him… ” The same script binds and severs two peoples.

What about the reverse when a whole civilization is mulched into an imagined ‘standard’ target language? The publishing history of any Indian language in English translation shows the same language spoken differently, written differently, and understood differently translated into a single smoothie for a reader waiting to enter those experiences. The staggering variety folded and layered in the Hindi language (for instance) vaporises in English. The same language irrigates the landscapes of Krishna Sobti, K.B. Vaid, Mridula Garg, Upendranath Ashk and Nirmal Verma in Indo-English. The originals are all highly individualistic. Try reading aloud from their English translations? It would be difficult to identify whose writing you were double-experiencing. This is an accusation that English-language translators have to address. Or think how Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai would have blanched at “Big Momma Fisherwoman” and “Bossman” in the most recent translation of Chemmeen .

Can it be helped? The canvas of Indian translations is full of disruptions and surprises. Will the next generation of translators change the rules? What we must hope for is that the multilingualism of India will make the study of translation a separate genre, because so far, not even the concept of world literature as a discipline has improved the academic standing of translation.

Perhaps, like the Department of English in the University of Manchester reinvented itself as the Department of Language Engineering to appear useful to Britain, our languages could survive as Heritage Studies because “heritage” has concerned citizens racing to protect buildings, marshes and mangroves. Without a doubt they are all important and much is heard about the centrality of dance, music, and crafts to life, and so they are.

If language and literature could be viewed as heritage, there would be training grounds to preserve and develop them. Though it is true that a techno-business class less and less interested in the prestige of books now controls the world, there are some pockets of hope: the Anusrijana (translation bureau) of the Dravidian University established in 1997 at Kuppam, a trilingual junction four km away from Karnataka, eight km from Tamil Nadu and four hours from Kerala; the Kannada University (Hampi) which has a Centre for translation of classical Kannada works and the Thunchath Ezuthachan Malayalam University in Tirur, Kerala, which works with multiple publishers to promote English translations of both old and new works from Malayalam.

Are these, to quote the Bible, only a multitude of dreams or will they endure?

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

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