Gains in translation

The vernacular publishing space presents a goldmine of opportunities for students who are competent in English and Tamil.

Published - October 06, 2013 02:19 pm IST - chennai

With popular books from across the world being translated into vernacular languages, the demand for translators is on the rise. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

With popular books from across the world being translated into vernacular languages, the demand for translators is on the rise. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

Walk in to the ongoing Puducherry book fair and it’s not uncommon to see an English book sitting cheek by jowl with its Tamil translation. Be it contemporary Indian writers, literary giants from across the world or self-help books, Ramachandra Guha, Gabriel Marcia Marquez and Norman Vincent Peale are lined up in book fairs today in their Tamil avatars. Going by what booksellers say, the Tamil publishing industry is gung-ho about translating any bestseller into the vernacular.

“Every year, a good number of titles translated from English and other languages like Russian or Spanish are published,” says a representative from Kalachuvadu Publications.

But does the upsurge in preference for translated works create a lucrative career opportunity? For students who can claim competence in English and Tamil, a whole new world of prospects may open up if the trend continues.

Beyond theory

Postgraduate centres like the Kanchi Mamunivar Centre for Postgraduate Studies encourage students of English literature and language to look beyond the theory of translation. Familiarising oneself with translating short stories and essays from English to Tamil or vice-versa is a good start, believe lecturers.

“Besides a paper on translation theory and practice, students are exposed to literature translated from Tamil and other Indian languages,” says P. Raja, associate professor, Department of English, who has translated books for various publications apart from publishing a collection of folktales exclusive to Puducherry, in English. “Understanding the theory of translation gives an insight into the nuances and fundamental rules essential for transferring meaning from one language to another,” he adds.

Universities and colleges can motivate students of literature in taking up translation right from their college days, believes D. Gnanasekaran, associate professor, KMCPGS.

Though publishers prefer established or experienced translators, an early beginning stands a translator in good stead. Students are given practical assignments to translate any piece of literature that catches their fancy. M.Phil scholars are also encouraged to take up translation for research.

Students and research scholars are also encouraged to contribute to Transfire, a journal of translation from Indian languages into English, and participate in translation contests. Practice in this domain is emphasised, though no one is perfect in translation.

“The challenge lies in conveying the cultural connotations (a mere mention of shock at seeing a woman in a white saree in Tamil conveys much but does not make sense in English unless the implication that the woman is a widow is expressed), colloquial expressions and nuances in language,” says professor Gnanasekaran. While it is important to be faithful to the original, it should not be at the cost of putting off the reader. “This is why translation also requires a creative mind as more often than not a good amount of transcreation (recreating text) is demanded.”

While Tamil publishers jump at an offer to translate an English or an internationally acclaimed book into Tamil, there is not much enthusiasm to publish an English translation of a Tamil work, as publishers are sceptical about the reader base, says Mr. Raja, currently working on a compendium of short stories, novels and literature of Puducherry, translated from Tamil, for Oxford University Press.

Full-time career?

One hitch is that translation as a full-time career is not highly lucrative. While translators with knowledge of a foreign language are being sought after, translators in vernacular language are yet to be paid handsomely.

Currently, apart from in-house translators, experienced writers, academicians and retired professionals are involved in translation. “Translation at present is ideal as a supplementary source of income, not the main,” feels P. Raja.

With time and experience, a freelance or part-time career in translating English into vernacular and vice-versa may turn into something more productive, if spurred by recent trends.

But as Mr. Gnanasekaran says, “Nothing can substitute a firm grounding in the fundamentals of both English and Tamil grammar and vocabulary.” Those who get that right might reap the rewards of translation in the long run.

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