Presentation at the University of Hyderabad on 28 January 2009, for the Ninth Biennial International Conference of the Comparative Literature Association of India


Translation: the magical bridge between cultures

Ketaki Kushari Dyson

(This is essentially the text of my talk, with a few fine tweakings here and there.)


My sincere thanks to Professor Tutun Mukherjee for inviting me to this conference. It’s an honour to be asked to come and speak to a gathering of so many distinguished academics; it’s also a great experience for me in another way, because this is my first visit to this part of the subcontinent. I have thought a great deal about translation issues, and written about them in both Bengali and English. Today I intend to address just a few of them, as best I can within my allotted time of half an hour, mainly as a doer or practitioner, as a bilingual writer who sometimes practises the art of translation. Any ideas I have on the subject have taken shape from an amalgam of experiences, which will no doubt emerge as I proceed.


First let me say to you that I really believe that literary translation is eminently worthy of celebration. Without it we would be imprisoned in a monocultural world, knowing neither our own ancient heritage, nor the heritage, ancient or modern, of other cultures, near or far. Without translation we cannot understand the cultures of either our nearby neighbours or of our far-flung neighbours thousands of miles away. This concept of ‘far-flung neighbours’ is very important to me, as I think of the world as a community of neighbours continuous in space and time. The rich diversity of this human community cannot be appreciated or even understood without the essential tool of translation. In its multilingual, multicultural nature the Indian subcontinent is a microcosm of the whole world, and translation should play an important role in the literary life of this country, as it should in the wider global arena.


From time immemorial people have retold stories, shifted them from the context of one language and culture to that of another. Thus did the stories of the Panchatantra travel westward and reappear in Aesop’s fables. As children, we all hear or read stories which are adapted and abridged from other languages. On my fifth birthday an aunt of mine gave me an abridged Bengali version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; even at that age I realized that this was a story which had migrated from another place, because the environment described in it did not match my immediate environment, which was that of rural Bengal in undivided India.


At the age of seven I began to read the Ramayan as told by Krittibas and the Mahabharat as told by Kashidas. I read them as Bengali narrative poems in their own right. Some details seemed fantastic and fairy-tale-like. Fairy tales were already a part of my reading diet, so whatever seemed strange and unreal in these texts were understood in that light. Later, at about the age of twelve, I read Rajshekhar Basu’s abridged prose versions of these epics, and only then did I begin to appreciate the fact that these narratives were related to an ancient corpus. By that time I was also doing Sanskrit at school, so a different order of recognition took place. All such texts, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Bengali or the stories of Hans Christian Andersen in Bengali to the Bengali versions of the great Indian epics, were different manifestations of what we loosely call translation, a process which plays a big role in our education.


In the course of our lives we have to read many important texts in translation: ancient religious texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita or the Bible or the Koran, or classic literary texts from all over the world which would remain closed rooms to us if we could not access them through translation. Most of us would not be able to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Chekhov or Ibsen, unless we read such texts in translation. In India people tend to read such texts in English translation, but in other parts of the world people may read them in French or German, Chinese or Japanese, or whatever. Some of these translations will be rough-and-ready, others more sophisticated, but they will give us at least some idea about other literatures. Where would we be without such knowledge? We would be so much poorer! Reading translated literature expands our mental horizons. It is absolutely vital for education in the arts and the humanities, and also for our general knowledge. Throughout history, translated literature has been a spur to fresh intellectual and creative activity. The re-discovery of Greek texts spurred the European Renaissance. The discovery of ancient Indian texts by European scholar-translators in the closing years of the eighteenth century initiated yet another intellectual re-awakening, which sharpened and modernized European thinking, and deserves to be called another Renaissance: the translations done by those scholars expanded the European notion of the Orient, which until then had been restricted to the Semitic Orient. Towards the end of the twentieth century, an inappropriate academic partisanship gave the word ‘Orientalism’ a negative semantic twist, which has led to a regrettable slowing down of the study of Oriental languages and literatures at Western universities. Why would young men and women in the West spend the best years of their youth mastering the languages and scripts of distant cultures if it earned them labels like ‘imperialist’ and ‘colonialist’? As a result we have lost some potential translators who could have translated from our literatures for the international market – an unfortunate consequence of the Saidian cult in academia.  


To become literary translators, we need to learn languages, and translation becomes important in this very process of language-learning and language-teaching. When we learn a new language in a school or college setting, we may have to translate long passages to satisfy our teachers and examiners that we have indeed understood all the details, including the nuances of certain words, and the special meanings of idiomatic phrases, and that we have followed the twists and turns of syntax in the set passages. I remember doing this when learning English, when learning Sanskrit, and later on when studying Anglo-Saxon and Middle English at university. Translation is thus a necessary process in the very training of literary translators, a routine learning-route for students of both classical and modern languages.


While I received a pretty rigorous training in this aspect of translation, I was also lucky to have a father who had taught himself French and German, and who tried to teach me these languages at home in a much more informal setting, initially with the help of a few grammar-books, but then plunging me directly into poetry and prose, and letting me wade through such sea-waters with his help. I went with him to a few language classes run by Jesuit fathers where the procedure was the same, just reading and comprehending texts, and I also listened to songs in these languages. I found that following the simple lyrics of songs was a great aid to language-learning. My father hit upon the creative idea of making me read the Iliad and the Odyssey in French prose translations, thus teaching me to read French and introducing me to Homer at the same time, killing two birds with one stone as it were. All this was a labour of love after compulsory school work, but I am glad I went through that formative experience because it left me with a genuine respect for the languages of other people. The childhood French and the technique of learning a language through following song-lyrics enabled me to teach myself Spanish at a later age, from which I have translated a few fragments, including songs from Ladino, the Spanish dialect of Sephardic Jews. The childhood German helped me enormously to sail through Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, from which also I have translated.


Within the academic set-up is lodged the seed of a recurring and recalcitrant problem. People who go through such a training process are potential recruits for what may be called the fundamentalism of literary translation. They persuade themselves that for every word or phrase in the source language there will be an exact equivalent in the target language, that the source text can be given a totally faithful reproduction in the new language. This is an illusion, because every language is a world-view, a perspective, a way of looking at, classifying, and analyzing the world. Each language is a window on the world, and no two windows give an identical view. For some reason, perhaps because of the nature of Indian pedagogy and the importance of rote-learning in it, the troublesome illusion that one can achieve total correspondence in translation can be persistent in India. At the other end of the spectrum, people may, in a mood of exaggerated loyalty to their mother tongue, persuade themselves that the beauties of their native tongue or their favourite author in it can never be transferred to another language. They may rule out the possibility of any good translation even at the outset. Some Bengalis are guilty of nurturing such an attitude when they approach the subject of Rabindranath Tagore. Perhaps there is a hidden connection between the two points of view. If an exact correspondence is the goal, and a real-life process does not deliver it, as it never can, then there may be a temptation to damn the process itself, declare it invalid, and flush out the baby with the bath-water.


I have been aware of these problems for a long time. The training in accurate translation which I received at school and college helped me enormously in my first serious assignment in literary translation: the translation of some of Sudhindranath Datta’s essays into English. His vocabulary is very Sanskritic and his syntax complex. I had to proceed carefully, unravelling the syntax and consulting dictionaries frequently. Many Bengalis have told me that consulting my translations has helped them to understand Sudhindranath’s original essays. 


But I was also influenced by the way my father approached foreign languages and literatures – with love and curiosity, in a relaxed, unhurried manner, in the spirit of enjoyment. He knew many of our contemporary Bengali writers, and I was shaped by the poet-translators of the fifties and sixties, such as Buddhadeva Bose, Sudhindranath Datta, Bishnu Dey, and Loknath Bhattacharya. I realized early on that translating in the academic mode to satisfy our examiners and translating in order to bring over the aesthetic pleasure of reading literature from another language and win new readers for the original author were not the same thing. As my personal focus was on poetry translation, I realized this even more quickly. I grasped that poetry translation was not just an item on a pedagogical agenda; it could also be an intensely pleasurable creative, re-creative activity. Some people nurture the illusion that poetic form is something that can be easily transplanted from one linguistic soil to another. In reality different languages vary a great deal in the syntactic and sonic patternings which they favour, and the best one can hope for is to reach an equivalent form which works in the context of the target language. If we want translated poetry to affect the reader as poetry, then the academic model with its dominant orientation towards the transfer of meanings is inadequate, and creating a sonic pattern through which meanings and suggestions can be danced is of paramount importance. Sometimes a sliver of meaning may have to be sacrificed or modified to accommodate the necessary sonic patterning, whereas a greater degree of semantic fidelity is possible in the case of prose.


The impact of creative translation can indeed be powerful, enriching and expanding the resources of the target language. Let me, in this context, invoke the memory of Buddhadeva Bose, the eminent 20th century writer whose birth centenary fell last year. He brought the academic discipline of Comparative Literature to India and was himself a most inspiring translator. He translated into Bengali Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and the poetry of Baudelaire, Hölderlin, and Rilke among others in this creative way. Through his efforts these poets became poets we could relate to. They began to speak to us directly. Others translated Eliot, Mallarmé, Valéry, Rimbaud. These translations in turn influenced the styles of mid-twentieth-century Bengali poetry. It was under this kind of influence that I translated, for my own creative pleasure, Anglo-Saxon poetry into alliterative Bengali half-lines.


Here let me touch another important point. All linguistic communication, whether oral or written, has an essential instability. It is not something set in stone; it shifts. We use language, hoping to express our thoughts and feelings, to clarify this or that issue; but we also use language to mask our real thoughts. Our use of language is riddled with ambiguities, with gaps, lapses, slides, conscious and unconscious omissions, sudden changes in accent and emphasis, and so on. Literary language thrives by exploiting all these gaps and ambiguities, by combining more or less attested facts with images and metaphors and rhetorical flourishes, by twisting syntax, and especially in poetry, by dancing meanings through the hoops of patterns of sounds. This process itself is complex enough, and when a text has to be transferred from one language to another, the complexity increases. Even ordinary communication is not easy, because we speak from different positions, in which we tend to become entrenched. We speak, sitting in different chairs as it were, chairs in which our bottoms fit, in which we may twist and turn a little bit, without achieving a proper exchange of ideas. Translation is a form of verbal communication and as such shares this inherent instability. It is fuzzy and full of hums which cannot be eliminated. And so is all discussion about translation.


Literary translation is thus a task that is both technical and creative. Of course, we must strive to be as accurate as we can, but only when we are creative can we reincarnate a text in such a way that it affects us as literature in its own right. Creativity includes solutions in the nature of practical engineering. For instance, the same word or phrase may need to be translated differently in different contexts, because meaning is at once context-dependent and linked to the sonic pattern.


Translated literature has a great potential to bridge cultures and bring different segments of humanity closer to each other. To touch us now, to germinate and sprout within us, the source text, no matter from which period, needs to be translated into a contemporary idiom of the target language. A translator cannot be truly creative in a borrowed, archaic idiom: one’s effort will sound like a parody or a caricature. I had read Greek tragedies in the older English translations from the earlier part of the twentieth century, and they had never done anything for me. They had seemed remote. But one day I watched, on television, a production of the Oresteia in Tony Harrison’s modern English version. It was just a small black and white set, which could not convey the visual grandeur of the open-air show; but the sheer strength of the language made me sit up, turn the volume up, and listen. It was a discovery. I realized why Greek tragedy was great – because of the strength of its poetic language.


While a ‘fundamentalist’ zeal for accuracy may become a ‘fatal flaw’ in poetry translation, an excessive zeal in the reverse direction, in favour of fluency, can be counter-productive in translating for the stage. Of course, in drama the dialogue must flow, or else the actors won’t be able to speak their lines. Nevertheless, a flavour of ‘alterity’ or ‘otherness’ is equally desirable in a cross-cultural exercise. If Chekhov or Ibsen is totally ‘domesticated’ for the English or for any other stage, we do not catch a glimpse of either the dramatist’s original creative self or his culture. If such ambitions – of capturing the flavour of the original play and the culture in which it is embedded – are altogether discarded and a play is totally ‘adapted’, that’s fine as long as we are told what the goal is, but if we are talking about a process of linguistic transfer, then in every genre including poetry, fiction, and drama, we need a balance of fluency and ‘alterity’. A translated text should have the charm and enigma of a hybrid child. Three years ago I watched the performance of a play entitled Samudrer Mauna (The Silence of the Sea) by the group Swapnasandhani, directed by Kaushik Sen. The script was based on a French story, in poet Bishnu Dey’s translation, and it achieved a fine balance in this respect. It was beautifully, poetically Bengali, and at the same time sufficiently, credibly European. In the European context, the sensitive, emotional German soldier was adequately differentiated from the reserved, silent French family, in whose home the soldier had been billeted.


If literary translation is to flourish as a creative process, it is of course best if a translator with a good knowledge of both the source language and the target language crosses the sea, as it were, with one creative leap, like Hanuman leaping from India’s coast to Lanka. This is particularly true of poetry translation. But when there aren’t enough translators with the necessary bilingual expertise, we may need to rely on an intermediate process, some kind of bridging by means of a link language. Let’s face it: if a link language was not used, texts from many languages would never get translated at all. Sometimes two poets can collaborate within this model and work together happily enough. Though this model may not be able to encourage or sustain the daring leaps of creativity which can come from a fully bilingual individual, yet when in 2007 I was lucky enough to participate in a week-long poetry translation workshop in Slovenia, I saw for myself that this kind of collaboration could indeed yield some very satisfactory results.


There is a translator in Finland who is an admirer of both Tagore and Bose, a woman whom I have never met but with whom I correspond by e-mail. Bose’s poetry in my translation clearly affects her as poetry, so much so that she has re-translated some of my English versions successfully into her native Finnish. She has also re-translated into Finnish many of Tagore’s poems from their early-twentieth-century English versions, those shortened, paraphrastic versions which some of us consider to be the poet’s crimes against himself. Hannele Pohjanmies has explained to me why those much-maligned short versions work very well in Finnish. Spring is short in Finland, and the resurgence of nature is a sudden and brief affair after the rigours of a northern winter. The shortened English versions of his poems prepared by Tagore fit this modality of the Finnish climate. There is a match between the two. Hence translations of the shortened poems succeed very well in the Finnish context. This is indeed an absolutely fascinating explanation, connecting the reception of a particular literary style with the natural environment of the place where it is received. This connecting is a process of translation in itself, an implicit process.


In this connection let me voice a caveat. If you are translating someone else’s scholarly book, do not try to shorten or edit the original text as you are translating it, but follow it as faithfully as you can. You did not do the research or build up the structure of the book brick by brick. You do not know the links in the arguments. If you tamper with the text, you may introduce errors. All such editorial work should be done by the original author, or failing that, by another competent editor who is familiar with the area of research. I once had to review a book where the translator’s attempts to shorten the text had led to some bad errors. One can learn so much from doing book reviews!


Learning each other’s language is one of the most precious tasks in the world, and in our age one of the most pressing tasks in this diverse, multilingual subcontinent. There should be a great expansion in language-learning facilities in schools and universities, so that there can be more and more direct translation between the languages without relying on a link language. Sadly, the educational system favoured by the Indian middle classes, with its overwhelming emphasis on the acquisition of English, does not favour this process. I must admit that I am uneasy about the dominance of English as the recipient language in the Indian translation scene. The overall trend seems to be to translate from the ‘native’ Indian languages into English, a process which does not allow the different Indian literatures to influence each other directly. While translation spreads information about the source language, letting others know what riches it possesses, it enriches the recipient language. If Telugu literature is translated into English, it makes that literature accessible to the elite readers who can read English, and disseminates information about the Telugu literary heritage, which is better than not doing anything at all, but if we wish to develop and invigorate Telugu itself, we have to translate from other literatures into Telugu. In India English is becoming a grand reservoir of translated texts, thus receiving constant nourishment and enrichment, while the different Indian literatures are not speaking to each other in a direct face-to-face manner. There is a genuine danger that our diversities may be engulfed in the tidal wave of a powerful link language.


Again, because everybody who passes through higher education acquires some English, it does not mean that everybody can translate literature into English. The translator needs to have a living relationship, a direct engagement, with that particular style of writing. If someone is used to writing only academic or journalistic prose in English, it does not mean that he or she will excel in translating poetry, fiction, or drama into English. The translator must understand literary craftsmanship in that particular genre of writing. If you wish to translate poetry from Telugu into English, you must understand poetic craftsmanship in English; if you wish to translate poetry from English into Telugu, you must understand poetic craftsmanship in Telugu.


While English currently occupies a hegemonic position within India as the favoured reservoir of translated texts, in the global arena English is the most translated-from and the least translated-into language. English-language publishers are more eager to sell translation rights than to pay fees to translators and authors’ estates and to publicize authors whose names are not known to their own reading public. It is still a struggle to find a Western publisher for literature translated from an Indian language.


In this complicated situation, our aim, I feel, should be to avoid sterile dogmas and to optimize our strategies. We must learn to maximize whatever opportunities come our way or can be generated. Do you wish to translate Indian literature exclusively for the Indian market, or to distribute such books internationally too, if at all possible? Then please don’t discard the necessary critical apparatus that places the author in the right context and explains the local details. Why, even the different regions of India need some annotation to understand each other’s details. Nothing is more irritating to overseas readers than the pretence that all Indian terms can be instantly understood without the aid of a glossary or notes. Better more information than less: that’s the way we acquire knowledge about phenomena that are distant from us. Keep the names of the flora and fauna which have no sensible equivalents in the West, and the Indian names of the months if the author has used them, but do give a glossary or a few notes at the end of the book, so that the reader takes away some information and thus gets educated. Ditto for some of the kinship terms, which are far fewer in a language like English, which simply can’t distinguish between the different types of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and in-laws as our languages can, but on the other hand every language has terms for the basic family relationships, for ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, so don’t hit us with a brick if we write ‘Dad’ or ‘Mum’, which are perfectly valid terms for us and may hit just the right note for readers abroad.


In recent years I have noticed a growing bias in India, born of cultural nationalism, against those translators who, like myself, write in a slightly different dialect of English. When I received my education in India we were taught to model our English on the way it was spoken and written by those for whom it was a natural mother tongue – the language of the educated classes of course. I left India before the conscious project to Indianize English began, and my ears have become tuned to the British English which I have now heard for the best part of my life. That is the only variety of English in which I can write. I would request you not to discount individuals like us as potential translators of Indian-language texts. We are naturally inter-cultural people who are ourselves living bridges between continents, and translation is at the heart of our very existence, survival, and self-expression. To function as a diasporic writer in Bengali, which I have now done for half a century, I have to translate constantly from my immediate environment into my native language. I believe Indians in the diaspora have a role to play in the international dissemination of the Indian literatures; so please don’t marginalize us!


© Ketaki Kushari Dyson

Published August 17, 2009

Ketaki Kushari Dyson was born in Calcutta in 1940 and educated at Calcutta and Oxford. She has been based in England since ... (more)

Illustration by Amitabha Sen. Amitabha Sen, based in Chicago, has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas.

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