This Word for That Books

Are the awards for translation helping it gain ground at all?

Even with translations winning awards, are prospects really improving?

If you are reading, teaching or preparing a translation of an Indian work into English, this article is for you and calls for your support. Two weeks ago, Shahnaz Habib’s translation of Jasmine Days won ₹25 lakh for its author, Benyamin. The JCB Prize for Literature for the first time saw a translation overtaking original writing in English, but it fetched Habib only ₹5 lakh. How about a more equitable breakup of this golden purse? Can’t the keepers of the coffers spare a coin for Habib’s publisher as well who stopped the juggernauts of publishing?

Let me share two stories.

Second-class status

Last month, when a distinguished Tamil writer visited a college to watch a play translated from Bengali, he was recognised only by the three people who had invited him. Nor, when it was whispered across the hall, did his name evoke any response.

 

For the English reading population, a genius like our visitor exists in an occult literary ecosystem. It isn’t that they are insensitive to this writer’s work but that they have very little access to it. We know why. Every year millions of Indians clear their final school exams equipped to function only in English. Educated about many things, they are nevertheless mother-tongue illiterates.

Why is second-class status for the mother tongue encouraged? That bi- or multi-linguality actually empowers the brain is not even considered, even though neurolinguists proved it long ago. And thus, in robbing the tongue of native breath, destruction masquerades as progress.

The Indian languages vs English is a 200-year-old debate. The ‘Orientalists’ objected to the Anglicists, fearing that it would lead to the extinction of native classical literatures and the preservation of a ‘national imagery’ of a people, which was vital to their development. Arguments between Englishmen about how to modernise India were fierce.

Not a blank sheet

Countering Macaulay’s plans for Englishing India (“we have to educate a people who cannot be educated by means of their mother tongue”) Ramsay Macdonald said, “Lord Macaulay’s confused thinking… displays no appreciation of the fact that the Indian mind is a product of history and not a blank sheet upon which anything could be written.”

 

Ever since Macaulay had his way, a modern education given over entirely to English — in the most impressionable phase of an Indian child’s life — has led to a situation where our writers have to be brokered into English visibility by translators and their promoters.

Good prospects for both tribes?

Let’s see.

My second story, from Kerala: A bride from Thrissur went thirsty for a while in Thiruvananthapuram because when she was offered baonjivellam (lime juice) she hesitated, unable to identify baonji with narangya (lime in the rest of Kerala). A decade later when her children were asked to fetch a ladle they didn’t know whether to respond to a kayilu or a tavi, both words for ladle. And we print ‘translated from Malayalam’ on book covers. Whose Malayalam would that be?

In Return to Earth (2002), Padma Ramachandran’s translation of Shivarama Karanth’s Marali Mannige (1941), she says that in the original publication, the author himself had provided a glossary of more than 300 words from the coastal Kannada dialect for his readers elsewhere in the State.

Kannada for Kannada readers!

Missing name

To return to the Bengali play I started with:

The cast was performing Arun Mukherjee’s Mareech: The Legend, a fast-moving play with three sets of narratives set in different time-zones, all underlining the vicious users of power and the struggles of their victims. There was Ravana and Mareechan (who does not want to collaborate with the rakshasa king’s demonic plan); a 20th century landlord (who has already destroyed his peasant worker’s body and integrity and is now corrupting the next generation); and an FBI agent (threatening the daughter of a dissenting scholar).

The play was about the rehearsal of the play, the sootradhar being both the director and Ravana. When the FBI agent in the U.S. accidentally broke into Ravana’s lines “I who rule the three worlds…” everybody appreciated the ironic message: the language might alter, but power in any era is the same.

Through it all I noted gloomily that the name of the translator who had made the enjoyable evening possible was missing in the brochure. When people who speak the same language cannot understand each other, consider what Arun Mukherjee’s translator contributed to an audience made up of diverse language communities. Not even when the cast took a bow at the end of the performance was Utkal Mohanty’s name announced.

From prizes to plays — why are translators still not given their due?

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 2:15:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/robbed-of-native-breath/article25451893.ece

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