Essay Books

Say it out loud: Translating sounds and signs

More than a century ago, writing about literary works from other languages being translated into German, Goethe said, “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English…” He went on to say that the translator, “should expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.” This was about translators working to shift foreign literary furniture into their native households. The Indian translator works in the reverse direction. She retrieves literary products from her own language, and retains their authenticity for households elsewhere. Perfectly aware of the walls she has to drill through to relocate, she conjures up word worlds in a language highly resistant to her own.

While this poses some special problems, it offers even more special possibilities.

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Joyous state

Two years ago, in his note to a collection of S.K. Pottekkat’s stories, Venugopal Menon remarked that translation is therapeutic. He added, “It puts the mind at rest while stimulating the creative side of the brain.” If the translator is bilingually competent without being creative, he might end up taking a mechanical approach to his project. The solution lies in slow, quiet analysis, which is a powerful source of creativity and awareness.“Here, in this circle of white light that isolates me, we are truly alone, the sentences and I,” said Susanna Basso. Many translators have described this joyous state. Some translators even experience a certain degree of depression once a script is handed in and the creative highs cease.

Widely understood as the transpositioning of meaning and sense (which, of course, at the core it is) translation also poses a different kind of insurmountability: gestures, symbolic acts and coded phrases which form the tapestry of a cultural tradition. For instance, looking someone in the eye while being spoken to is a mark of openness and integrity in some cultures; in other societies, similar eye-contact while facing a superior could be misunderstood as being offensive. What is instantly comprehended by native readership appears like a riddle or seems unnecessarily mysterious to a non-native readership; sounds that are a part of the shorthand of any culture are utterly opaque to someone who stands outside it.

Sound of words

Signposts become crucial here. Prabha Sridevan translating Chudamani Raghavan came to grips with the phrase “madiley poone”, which is literally “the cat in your lap” but unfurls subtly to mean the trouble someone close to you can cause… someone so close that you wouldn’t dream of suspecting her. Translating from one’s native language to a learnt language is difficult enough. But the reverse process, when a native speaker of English translates from a learnt language into her own, presents another kind of nerve-shredding exercise. Daisy Rockwell, ferrying Krishna Sobti over the sea of Hindi, says, “I had to turn every word inside out and shake it upside down.”

Therefore, the constant concern about the sound of words from the source language as they arrive in the target language. “Does it sound right?” is a question translators ask their authors and themselves all the time. Listen to Vasantha Surya throwing her voice so that the true notes of Ki Rajanarayanan’s text are ‘heard’ in English. “Taking out the betel leaves one by one as if he were taking things out of a pooja box, he would lay them out with the devotion due to objects of worship… Next he would sniff the broken areca nut. Then he would blow on it. This sniffing and blowing procedure was repeated several times, his hand transporting the areca nut from nose to mouth, nose to mouth, more and more rapidly until ooommoosh, ooomm-oosh, ooomm-oosh, dabak! Into his mouth the areca nut would go, having been noisily purified.”

Rhythm and tone

No reader in the world would need help with this bit of non-text because sounds combine with words to carry the day. However, there are situations when it isn’t always clear to one who is not a native speaker or reader of the language. Translators should be encouraged to read their translations out loud to check whether the rhythm and tone sound right. Or at least seem to sound right. Very often the translator will say, “This is not how people talk.” A remark like this shows that the struggle is going in the right direction because voices have to come off the page.

Let’s look at two other examples: “She took care not to touch the puja items because she was in her period.” The words in italics are what a writer in English would be obliged to add. In a regional language text, the second half of the sentence would not be required at all because not a single Indian, no matter what his or her religion, would need the explanation. In another instance, a character enters the puja room in a hurry without removing his shirt. The priest is so shocked he puts out his hand as if to shield himself from the offending sight. This might well be completely opaque to someone who does not know the rules of Hindu behaviour.

Creative convictions

A memorable translatorial and editorial failure I recall with regret happened in 1996 when Bikram Das and I were working on Gopinath Mohanty’s Danapani (1956). The story builds to a climax when the acquiescent wife of an ambitious clerk heads the reception party to welcome the company’s chairman. Sarojini garlands the new corporate king in full view of all the employees and a number of townspeople. Garlanding being an important symbolic part of wedding rituals, this moral downfall was clear to Mohanty’s Oriya readers as he intended it to be, but in the translation, this public garlanding, this shocker, hit the floor with a thud. So what if a woman garlands a man, wondered many readers unfamiliar with Indian/ Hindu customs. We should have fortified this sequence with explanations but we did not.

Vanamala Viswanatha said that our translators are like Hanuman who, in order to deliver the right life-giving herb to Rama, flew back, carrying the whole sanjivani mountain of medicinal plants. The success (even at its best, only partial) depends on how the voice of the writer and the voice of the translator mix to become a powerful hybrid language: neither the Indian language nor English but charged with the double force of both. Eight years ago, Priya Adarkar was translating a 19th century Marathi classic — the first Indian eye-witness account of the 1857 Uprising, Maza Pravas, by Vishnubhat Godse. Published in 1907, it offered the word sojir. “I puzzled over the word then said it out aloud more than once, and it became ‘soldier’!”

The last decade or so has seen Indian translators confidently melding two lexicons to carry the original texts through, based both on aseries of increasingly successful challenges to first-world control of ‘universal’ or linguistic pathways, and their own creative convictions. No wonder a thousand years ago the caliphs of Baghdad paid top translators the weight of their manuscripts in gold!

The writer is Coordinating Editor, Translations, Tamil Nadu Textbook & Educational Services Corporation.


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