This Word For That Books

Sometimes the stories we want to hear the least are the ones we need to hear the most

Who but a Hindu will understand a line like: ‘He is a Kumbhakarna’?   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Knocked sideways at every exploratory step into the dizzying field of Indian languages, publishers repeatedly come face-to-face with an inconvenient question, given the politics of translated literature: are we merely reinforcing the hegemony of an elite society by transmitting their stories from class to clan to generation, so that it might continue its existence unopposed?

Last week, a collection of stories from the early 20th century reached me. The sentiments and predicaments of that time seemed so remote from today’s concerns that it was difficult to see how any of them might find an audience, except among students of sociology or culture studies.

Yet, if they were not published we would be depriving ourselves of a slice of our own history. Likewise, when a publisher receives an 80,000 word script which describes five centuries of the social history of a particular region, he knows it deserves to be published, but he also knows it will take a year to sell 300 copies.

Knock, knock?

The not-so-hidden problem is the shift in preferences. The alienation the new-gen reader experiences when presented with matters that were important just 30 years ago, never mind 100, has made a chunk of writers appear outdated and uninteresting, their writing overblown.

Should our works of fiction show and tell how to be different in an indifferent world, or should they hold a mirror to societies transitioning from democracies to authoritarianism? Isn’t terrorism more trendy than the lives of nomads, joint families and fishing communities?

Sometimes the stories we want to hear the least are the ones we need to hear the most.

You have reached a teakwood door. Enter without knocking…

To be a publisher of translations is to immediately place oneself in the line of friendly fire while pursuing the mythical golden deer of our profession — the promise of at least one significant book a year. Everyone brings their baggage to the editorial round-table to fight for what they believe in. The sales force — a good hundred metres behind the editorial and slow to cheer any proposals except ‘safe’ works — usually kills ‘risky’ projects because they in turn have to ‘sell’ to an even more daunting group — retailers. Their concerns are valid: can the reality of trying to survive in a dwindling forest, or as forced labour on a rich person’s land find wider resonance?

Next comes befriending the text in translation, which involves more than one scuffle. How far, and to whom, cultural knowledge can be transmitted becomes a deciding touchstone. (“Look this is how we live, this is how we feast and these are the things that we believe in.”).

Who but a Hindu will understand a line like: ‘He is a Kumbhakarna’? While debating standard English, what about standard Indian? We try to manage regional vs. national vs. international expectations. To compound our difficulties, most editors — myself included — might stumble on a neck but miss the body.

Dolefully noting the way our English translations have failed to attract the attention they might have or should have, I’m plagued by a great doubt: are we merely reproducing our writers in translation, when we should, in fact, be serving them better and producing them afresh in English? Perhaps our publishing strategies are inadequate to translocate the complexities of a society so vulnerable to external challenges and shocks.

Sweating blood

Certainly, each of us differs in how we visualise what we read. And, while our readers live in a particular linguistic culture, most of them cannot read the language itself: the result of a three-generation obsession with English. So, this group of people with a hybrid linguistic heritage adapts to the new situation.

Their bridge-builder translator stands witness, sweating blood, with exactitude and creativity ricocheting as she decides which ethos to favour and how to interpret her writer.

As writer-publisher Ritu Menon has written, “In her presentation of Mahasweta Devi’s ‘The Breast Giver’, Gayatri Spivak offered no less than eight possible interpretations of the original: as a historian and teacher of literature; from the author’s subject position; the teacher and reader’s position; a Marxist feminist reading; a liberal feminist reading; and a gendered subaltern reading.”

Language formation is one of the mysteries of human evolution. It has taken us half a million years to reach the present levels of sophistication, and what do we have in English publishing in India? Tyrannical or indifferent editors, translators working for miserly returns, helicopter authors (who can blame them?), and an impatient readership quick to lose interest and move on to the next sensation.

Do we sleep or wake?

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 2:55:53 AM |

Next Story