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Lost in translation

Devika, with 'Hangwoman' (2016), was shortlisted for the DSC Award.  

After struggling for 16 years to keep the Sangam series alive in Orient Longman, when V. Abdulla won the first Yatra Award for translators in 1996, he was all smiles. “Time was when even typists made more money from a book than its translator! This is a nice change.” Four years later came the coveted Crossword Award for translators, which, of course, had to be shared with the author and rightly so. But to the joy of all those who toiled to make the translator visible, it was known as an award for translation. Thus, jurist Harish Trivedi’s unforgettable remark when On the Banks of the Mayyazhi (Malayalam, M. Mukundan/Gita Krishnankutty) toppled The Servant’s Shirt (Hindi, Vinod Kumar Shukla/Satti Khanna): “The better book lost to the better translation.”

Dawn broke very slowly for Indian language translations in English, speeded up partly by the onset of the Ambedkar centenary and partly the Women’s Movement, both of which called for massive representation from those who had been invisible for a long time. Kali for Women changed the world with its flood of fire; Penguin India gave us translators like S. Krishnan, Ranga Rao, Gillian Wright and Aruna Chakravarthy; Katha poured 15 outstanding stories into their annual December offerings; The Little Magazine (neither little nor a magazine) published memorable translations from all genres in their quarterlies; the M.R.A.R. Education Society made available Rs. 50 lakh to Macmillan to publish 38 literary translations from 11 languages in six years;Sahitya Akademi’s journal Indian Literature came out of its colourless past and gave us carefully compiled and researched issues on Dalit and Adivasi writing; Samya experimented successfully with Dalit writing; India’s only university press which barely issued a single translation a year opened new portals. The field widened. Centres in the U.K. collaborated with British Council and set up the Charles Wallace Award for translators (which, to everyone’s relief, did not announce an age limit) across the Atlantic, and awarded once in two years was the A.K. Ramanujan prize for translations from South Asian languages.

And then Academe came. Translators and even their publishers began to be invited to speak at this or that conference where whole sessions were devoted to translatorial experience, theory and struggles. In 2001, Gandhigram Rural University hosted the first ever three-day refresher course on translation. Anthologies, designed as textbooks, jumped over Eng-Lit patterns of teaching, and blew regional breezes into classrooms. By 2005, a publisher without a footprint in translation was the exception rather than the rule.

Despite all this, a disturbing development seen is an Indian language translation, published in India, not carrying the name of the translator on its cover. Why? Does masking the true origins of a work make for better sales? Is a work less worthy because it is a translation? Is there no originality in a translated product?

Today, when translations are shortlisted along with original writings in English for the biggest prize in the literary world — the DSC Award which aims “to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world” — why are some publishers refusing to grant translators equal status with the authors, making it difficult for them to be remembered or even noticed? We see translators competing with blurbs and endorsements on the back cover, leading readers to say, “Ah! A great book! Translated by whatshisface… don’t remember the name.”

Can anyone deny the historic power of translators? Their work has forced massive shifts in the literary canon, cross-fertilised writing and propelled communities emerging from invisibility, besides influencing the vision that language groups have of societies other than their own.

Indeed, since we are close to both Shakespeare’s birth and death anniversaries, it might interest readers who don’t already know, that in 1889, A. Anandarao’s concluding scene of his Kannada translation of Romeo and Juliet had a surprise ending: Lord Vishnu brought Ramavarma (Romeo) and Lilavati (Juliet) back to life.

In a tradition of attribution that can be traced back to Bait al-Hikmah, the House of Wisdom in 10th century Baghdad,both author and translator should be equally honoured. Translators are real people who need to be recognised so that they might relate to the societies of the future. Point 4 of the Quebec Declaration of Translation and Translators’ Rights says: “The rights of translators must be protected. Governments, publishers, the media, employers — all must respect the status and needs of translators, give prominence to their names, and ensure equitable remuneration and respectful working conditions — in all forms of print and digital media.”

Into that dawn, when will our country awake?

Mini Krishnan is Consultant, Publishing, Oxford University Press. India.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 4:48:56 AM |

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