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International Translation Day: A writer’s dual passport

    What does going global mean for the goldsmiths of the word market? This is a pertinent question because the free market — once the exception, now the rule — implies the survival of the fittest. Would the Darwinian theory for life forms also hold good for translation, under which category we must include scientific works as well as poetry, biography and fiction? Wasn’t there, in evolution, a great deal of hitch-hiking and piggybacking?

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The most prolific 12th century translator, Gerard of Cremona, went to Toledo to learn Arabic in order to translate Ptolemy’s  Almagest into Latin. Why? Because at that time only an Arabic translation was available to him. In the 17th century, Jagannatha Panditaraja, a poet and literary critic, translated an Arabic version of the same work into Sanskrit and titled it  Samrat Siddhanta. This is a sort of ‘relay’ translation with the original Greek, radiating outwards through link languages.

Moving out into the world, leaving one’s home in search of new abodes, which may or may not hold all of one’s belongings, is a risk worth taking. This is especially so because both writers and translators are subverting the dominant language from within. Today we enjoy Assomiya, Odia, Marathi or Kannada embodied in the products that emerge at the other end of language mutations.

Looking deeper

The growth of a hybrid culture calls for much borrowing and adaptation and it is here that translation plays an important role. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin advocated the notion of a primordial language. He was of the opinion that the rigours of translation, by challenging the original language in every line, could make it revert to its primordial form. In our context, Indian translators will agree that transferring works in our mother tongues into English made them delve deeper into the original language. G. Geetha in translating Vanna Nilavan recalls that it felt like dancing on a slippery floor with two left feet. But she also said, echoing Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, that she preferred the absurdity of translating to the absurdity of not translating.

In  Translating Myself and Others, Jhumpa Lahiri says the word in Italian for ‘translation’,  traduzione, has a second meaning other than the well-known ‘ traduttore, traditore’ (Italian for translator, traitor). It is a bureaucratic term that refers to the transportation of persons who are under suspicion or detained. She chanced upon this while reading Italian Marxist philosopher and linguist Antonio  Gramsci’s letters about his jail sentence and transportation: being handcuffed, trundled off in third-class cabins, made to go up and down ladders unaided till he reaches his final destination, his cell. He describes these movements in a constrained way, and adds, ‘We cannot go past certain limits’. Would this be, coincidentally, a description of a translator’s difficulties and frequent sense of isolation?

Language of power

While the challenge of moving literature across a language divide may galvanise translators into a deeper exploration of their own vocabulary resources, a dominant language might well smother a less well-known, but older and more developed one, in the process. So, readers and writers in regional languages may feel a resentment when a translation suddenly lights up a particular work in its target language. The poet and scholar K.V. Tirumalesh even wondered whether bilingualism might be the first step towards hara-kiri. “When the native speakers of a small language come into contact with a dominant language, especially the language of the colonizers, the speakers learn the new language of power, become bilingual, develop an inferiority complex about their own language, use it less and less, force their children to learn the language of the masters and let their native language die. Not only the languages of the masters but also their religion, food, dress and such other practices become the model to follow.”

Yet it is a risk that has to be taken. Reading a translated work is a simultaneous entry through two doors into two rooms. You cannot be in one without being in the other as well.

Nobody speaks a ‘universal language’, just as nobody writes or reads world literature. We write and read regional literatures that are shared in translation with readers in a translated language, whether it is Chinese, Arabic or English. What then is the link between the universal and the local? Can we agree that every writer has a dual passport? A passport of location (easy enough) and one of artistic conscience?

The writer is coordinating editor, Tamil Nadu Textbook & Educational Services Corporation.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2022 3:37:08 pm |