When literary translators pole-vault walls of geography and culture

Not just do they retell stories, they sometimes have to recreate them to cater to audiences better

Updated - June 19, 2024 03:43 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2024 09:45 am IST

A scene from the play ‘Humare Ram’ (by Gaurav Bhardwaj), based on the ‘Ramayana’.

A scene from the play ‘Humare Ram’ (by Gaurav Bhardwaj), based on the ‘Ramayana’. | Photo Credit: PTI

Having watched translators at work for many years, I think it would be fair to say that translation lies in the broad zone of evangelism; it is a deep reading of a text to interpret it in a completely different language from the original, for a completely new readership. The re-tellings that translators undertake are in the service of a certain power. Why do they choose a certain text? Often it is a difficult-to-explain drive, “a calling”. They are convinced they have to make available in another language, something that deserves to be more widely known. What drives them is not fame or money though these things might have occurred to them.

Most successful translators have the capacity to forget themselves and become obsessed with writer A or text B. (“I’m suffering along with my characters.”) At the most inconvenient of times I receive calls where I’m expected to drop everything and respond to: “Ei — you know what? I think I’ve got it!”. It is a joy to listen to their enthusiasm in the world of publishing which has (had to) become uncomfortably calculating.

Translation involves re-telling as seen, for instance, in the circulation of folklore about the origin of rice, the origin of human races, or about why crocodiles are sinister and not to be trusted. A literary extension of this is ‘re-creating’, sometimes close to the shore, sometimes risky breakaways, and translations mirror these ‘creativity graphs’.

Our Puranic stories appear with different characters and regional features in different re-tellings, all rich with re-creations both emotional and satirical. The basic framework of the story is familiar but it carries brilliant twists and swings. For instance, the Mappila Ramakatha has Shoorpanaka preparing to approach Rama:

Her age since birth came to fifty-six

But with effort she could seem less than forty

…And for her disorderly teeth she hammered her gums…

(M.N. Karassery, 1987/ John Richardson Freeman, 2008)

‘Mappila Ramayanavum Nadan Pattukalum’ by T.H. Kunhiraman Nambiar.

‘Mappila Ramayanavum Nadan Pattukalum’ by T.H. Kunhiraman Nambiar.

The queen’s mandate

From the 16th century comes a Telugu work by poet Timmana, titled Theft of a Tree, in which relationships between the divine and the human are reimagined. The poem is based on an incident in the Srimad Bhagavatam where Krishna presents a parijatha flower from Indra’s garden to Rukmini, his wife on earth. But the mischief-maker Narada, who gives Krishna the bloom in the first place, carries this information to Krishna’s favourite wife Satyabhama.

The latter throws a tantrum and demands that Krishna fetch the whole tree from Indra’s celestial garden. Well — that is done after epic battles and the humbling of Indra’s forces. But in this Telugu retelling, there is a nice little literary jolt. When Krishna begs Sathyabhama to be patient and asks for both forgiveness and a chance to make it up to her, he kneels before her. As she receives his bended-knee apology, the agitated Sathyabhama rises and moves indecisively. In doing so, her foot accidentally touches her husband’s forehead. No other version of this story carries this shocker.

So what about this retelling? Well, the background concerns the genius of the poet Timmana who was part of Queen Tirumaladevi’s dowry when she arrived in Krishnadevaraya’s kingdom as his bride. Legend has it that one night, when she crept into bed, she accidentally placed her feet in the king’s face. Outraged, Krishnadevaraya banishes her from his presence. Timmana’s poem attempts to reinstate his queen, as if to say — look, even Krishna took a kick to the head, so your highness might overlook your queen’s mistake. The story of this theft has threaded its way through Indian retellings for more than a thousand years (5th, 13th, 15th 16th and 17th centuries), the earliest reference appearing in the Sanskrit Harivamsa. It is also in many Puranic texts, including the Vishnupurana.

Divine blooms

Recreating, to suit the civilisational code of different peoples, brings me to another example. In a workshop conducted in Thiruvananthapuram, participants were asked to bring regional language translations of the Sermon on the Mount. Versions of Christ’s words entered the classroom dressed in Oriya, Hindi, Malayalam, and two translations from Tamil. Of the many Hindi versions available, what was read out carried a charming Indian inculturation in its rendering of the famous line: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall see God”. Translated into English, the Hindi read: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive a shower of petals from Heaven”... Now the New Testament doesn’t mention flowers but to a population used to descriptions of divine approval arriving in the form of blooms and blossoms, this would have appealed greatly.

Likewise when Romeo and Juliet was staged in Kannada in 1910, the audience couldn’t bear its tragic ending and the next performance of the same play closed with the lovers brought back to life by Vishnu.

Thus do translators pole-vault walls of geography and culture to locate their texts in unfamiliar terrain.

[An earlier version of this article mentioned that an angry Sathyabhama kicked Krishna in the head. The error is regretted.]

The writer coordinates a translation project for the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation.

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