Translation as a Touchstone


Raji Narasimhan

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    To all those interested in the creative aspects of translation


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    Introduction: Some Possible Approaches to Translation

    Let me begin by setting down a gut feeling I have had—and still have—about the nature of translations. This gut feeling is that a translation ought not to read like original writing. At the risk of immodesty, let me quote from my preface to my English translation of Rajee Seth's Hindi novella, Nishkavach1, ‘… translations should never read like original writings. A translation should sound and read like a translation, that is, like a rendering in another language. It should have a bi-cultural and consequently, a bi-lingual note and feel.’2 And here, the corroboration, heart-warming, straight from the formidable portals of academia:

    The translated text exists through its difference from the original, and the original makes known and legitimizes its own existence only in and through the translation. Each refers irremediably to the other. Neither exists completely separately: the existence of each is interwoven—metissage—with that of the other.3

    My own belief, which has a somewhat defiant, back-to-the-wall stance in those lines written more than a decade ago, has by now matured into a sturdier rationale, reasonably confident of clearing a viva.

    —‘Do you mean to say a translator should ride two horses at the same time?’

    I hear the indignant voice of the examiner at this viva.

    ‘Yes’. I hear myself saying in even, unflappable, regulated tones. ‘For, a translation is a sustained exercise in transiting from one language to another, and back, and back again ad infinitum. This unceasing motion to and fro, fro and to, is the essence of translation.’

    My examiner is only partly convinced. But he is not dismissive. And I dig in my heels, sensing my chance, and say the D-word with emphasis. ‘A translation is a product of Difference,’ I state, slowing down now, wanting to highlight the D of Difference. ‘The Difference of two cultures, the Difference of two traditions of thinking and thought: the pre-existence of Difference is what gives character, meaning and validity to the genre of translation.’

    Character. Meaning. Validity. Words that are a little too general, everyday. I feel the need for a more technical sounding, clinching word. My examiner would be happy too, if I supplied it. He is encouraging of look, expectant.

    ‘It is dvaitic (dualist) in spirit. It is not advaitic (non-dualist). It must reflect its dvaitic svabhaav.’ I stop short. The Sanskritic terms take me by surprise. My voice sounds strange to myself. Why didn't I say ‘dualist nature’ for dvaitic svabhaav? I know the answer, even if I stand amazed at myself. It is a reflex at acculturizing English: creating a morph of Indian face and features in an English physique. ‘Anglo-Indianize it’—I can hear the snorts and sniggers from those with sour memories of contacts with the Anglo-Indians of British days.

    But that was the colonial era. In our post-colonial, post-modern days with their upsurge of translation activities, a healthier, more creative convergence of English and the particular Indian language(s)—or source languages—is necessary. It is a literary-aesthetic need now, an imperative, I would even say, requiring craft and sensibility, in contrast to the exigencies of circumstance from which the amalgams of the colonial age came about.

    Several implications of practical and professional relevance for the translator arise from this need for a more electric contact with English, which I have adopted as the criterion for my analyses of the translations considered in the pages that follow. One of these is to keep transliteration as not only a viable but often preferable approach in translating into English. The viability aspect has been largely accepted by now in the guidelines of translation. Glossaries are put in only in exceptional case, as Rimli Bhattacharya says in her Introduction to Katha Prize Stories, ‘when they bring alive the context of the story.’4 Translating terms like ‘kundelu’, ‘udumu’ into their English equivalents of ‘hare’ and ‘monitor lizard’, would, Bhattacharya says further, ‘draw undue attention and even defamiliarize the reader from the situation.’5 They are glossed for this reason, and not translated. In a similar attitude, disfavouring italicizing Indian words, she says that many Indian words ‘belong and should belong to the English language as spoken and used in different parts of India.’ The incorporation of Hindi words into the English prose evolving from operations of the English media (‘aam aadmee’, ‘baithak’, ‘dharma’, and so on) is another now accepted practice that stamps the language with our élan.

    However, stronger reasons than those of viability exist for transliteration. These are reasons of bare aesthetics thrown up by the resurging of dramatic weight that occurs in the course of a story, novel or play. These reasons need not arise in all writings. But when and as they do, as they do in the musical interludes of Vijay Tendulkar's play, discussed in the essay concerned, transliteration may well be the best means of reflecting the original. The translator has to be aware of this option and an established recognition of this method might help raise the translator's level of awareness.


    Transliteration, in other words, is a means, one among others, of highlighting the factor of Difference, of Otherness, that is the hallmark of a translation. It is one means of effecting the creative juxtaposition and interaction of two languages and their two traditions that a translation has to deal with. The stress is on the creative aspect. And even in Silence! The Court is in Session,6 it should be pointed out that transliteration does not seem to be the perfect answer to the other musical or lilt-laden interludes and their unfinished-seeming translations.

    One interlude, for instance, runs as follows in Hindi: bulbul sey sugnaa kahey/kyon geeley terey nain/kahaan rahoon sugnaa daadaa/kahaan bitaaoon rayn/kahaan gayaa mera rayn baseraa/chiv chiv chiv/chiv chiv chiv rey/chiv chiv chiv.7 The English translation is: The parrot to the sparrow said/why, oh why, are your eyes so red?/'Oh, My dear friend, what shall I say/some one has stolen my nest away'/Sparrow, sparrow, poor little sparrow.8 A straight comparison with the Hindi turns out highly damaging to the English. For instance, instead of ‘Eyes so red?’ for ‘geeley terey nain’, would not a straight ‘eyes so wet?’ have sufficed? And then the repetition of ‘kahaan’ in three successive lines of the total eight; and of the eight, the last three are only articulations of the calls of a sparrow: ‘chiv chiv chiv/chiv chiv chiv re/chiv chiv chiv.’ This charges the poem with the pathos that is its strength and central feature. Should the English translation not have made special note of this tonal register in the verse, studied its make up and strived to capture it the translation? Should not the strength of alliteration supplied by the word ‘kyon’ to ‘kahaan’—kyon geeley terey nain?/kahaan rahoon sugnaa daadaa/kahaan bitaoon rayn?'—and some tactic mirroring the complimentarity be adopted?

    Is it because of these initial omissions that the concluding onomatopoeic lines—chiv chiv chiv …—which fill the verse with a compelling resonance have also been omitted in the translation? And, no sparrow figures in the Hindi version. The parrot's confidante is the ‘bulbul’, that is, nightingale. ‘Bulbul se sugnaa kahey …’ Could this be because the word ‘nightingale’ is too long and out of proportion to the word ‘parrot’ that it is meant to counter-tone, as ‘bulbul’ counter-tones ‘sugnaa’? Even so, other means could have been found for conveying proportion The last line, ‘Sparrow, sparrow, poor little sparrow’ is practically a mockery of the plaintive tone of the Hindi: ‘chiv chiv chiv …’ The onomatopoeia subsumes and personifies the factor of birdcall: parrot or bulbul. The English is the intrusive, lament-expressing voice of the narrator.

    However, when you shut your ears to the Hindi, and read the English, a certain lilt does become apparent. For instance, there is the rhyming of ‘said’ and ‘red’. And then there is the beat: ‘The pa-rrot to the spa-rrow/said/Why-oh-why are your-eyes-so red?/Oh-my-dear-friend, what shall I say?/Some one hassto-len my nest-a-way/Spaa-row, spaa-row, poor-little-spaa-row….’ It's like a nursery rhyme in English, yes, with its clap clap clap staccato beat. But the point to note here, despite—or because of—the rudimentary attempt at poetic diction, is that a poetic parallel in the English to the Hindi is the only solution possible for working in the former language into the latter. Transliteration is ruled out because unlike the example discussed in the chapter on the play, an appropriate mood for a lingual leap or transfer does not arise in the present case. There, the dominant mood is that of inconsolable grief exploding from Benare at the verdict of the court. ‘Benare bilakhtee huee abhiyukt kay vakeel kay stool kay paas jaatee hai. Bayjaan see uspar baiththtee hai. Dukh kay aaveg sey baithaa nahee jaataa hai. Maiz par sir rakhkhar rotee rahtee hai.9 (Sobbing inconsolably, Benare goes to the defending lawyer's stool. Drained, grief-stricken, she sits on it. Waves of grief rock her, and she is unable to sit. Placing her head on the table she cries away) [Author's translation].

    This state of breakdown demands articulation in a language that is one's own, for it demands intimacy of expression and a certain privacy. English, for Benare at this point, cannot sustain her emotional load and give it the anguished, lyrical expression that the Hindi does. This kind of emotional overload is not the setting in the verse under discussion. Here are the lines denoting her overall state of mind at this point: ‘napkin sey moonh ponchchtey hue kuchch gungunaatee huee Benare aatee hai. Ek-dum fresh hai … dahinee taraf manch par rakhkhee apnee dolchee main saabun, napkin aadee rakhtee hai aur gungunaatee hai.10 (Wiping her face with a napkin, humming a song, Benare enters, washed and fresh looking. Puts back soap, napkin etc. into the bag left of stage and hums …) [Author's translation]. It is a light-hearted Benare we see here, a Benare who can break into humming in English, in the teasing, burlesque she's been shown in earlier sections in the play. And precisely because English is a natural choice here, ruling out transliteration, it was incumbent on the translator to have moulded it, chiselled it, to refract the immediate context.

    It is, to cut a long story short (also, to repeat what can still stand repetition!), a creative adaptation of language—English or Hindi—that is called for in a work of translation. The word ‘transcreation’, that flashes into our mind here, is hardly unknown to us, thanks to the pioneering works of P. Lal and the Writers' Workshop, with whom the term has come to be more or less being synonymous. We could well afford to apprehend that word with the still greater fullness it demands in these late post-modern, post-colonial times of ours.

    Refurbishing Links with English

    The target or translating language that has come in for a considerably more detailed examination in this collection is English. Two of the books considered—Chemmeen and Samskara—have been translated into Hindi and Tamil, and possibly in other languages as well in addition to English. In both cases, I have rated the Tamil translations as more evocative and reflective of the milieus portrayed in the parent texts. This, I imply, is due to the nearness of the language to the milieu concerned: Malayalam in Chemmeen and Kannada in Samskara. This might seem to contradict the definition of translation I have adopted that it is a genre of writing thrown up by the factor of Difference, and that, it has to highlight this factor in as creative a way as possible.

    Here, further explication of this view is called for. Both the English and Hindi translations of Chemmeen are found wanting in so many respects that the Tamil, admitting its quality and worth, shines in splendid isolation. Very unlike Samskara where the English rendering of A. K. Ramanujan not only excites compare-and-contrast studies with the Tamil, but also awakens the reader to the greater ingenuity and inventiveness called for by the English. The significance and implication of Difference awake anew in the reader, and thence, to the weight that accrues to a translation from its efforts of bridging the Difference inhering in it.

    A point of objection can be brought up here, voiced among others, by writer–translator Prasenjit Gupta.11 He questions whether it would not further privilege the already privileged position that English holds in India, no matter all the drives to unprivilege it. Certainly, when Ramanujan writes: ‘In full view of the frightened Brahmins I'll stand exposed like the naked quick of life: and I, elder in their midst, will turn into a new man at midnight,’12 we see a certain spin-off from the Tamil. It is possible that no spin-off is felt in English when set against Kannada, Ramanujan's own language. But what the language translated from is, does not matter in the reasoning behind the fears being examined here; the reasoning that recommending the method of poetic paraphrase for the English translation of any Indian language text is to further enhance the already enhanced standing of English among us. The Tamil of those lines has a certain explorative feel to it. Praneshacharya is shown crystal-gazing, in a mix of reading and envisaging, the process of becoming that lies immediately ahead of him. There is a conscious, careful selection of words which slows to a heavy ponderous gait of zero speed as it reaches the corresponding climactic lines for ‘will turn into a new man at midnight.’ This halting, uncertain deciphering by Praneshacharya of what should and has to transpire in the coming hours fades in the English rendering. The poetic sweep gives the lines the distinctive, sovereign quality of poetry. Also, the image of Jesus risen from the dead, which is distantly discernible in the Tamil of those lines, becomes pronounced in English. Undertones become overtones, overtones of the Bible. This, along with the assured poetry of the lines in English, can well direct the critical attention towards the appropriative nature and history of English, and our resistance to this psychic invasion. The indisputable cultural insider-ness of Ramanujan, plus his personal standing as an Indian poet in English, of course rules out any exclusive, adulatory considerations of the language. But a better argument in defence of the poetic-paraphrase approach to translating into English is that we have to stop seeing the language exclusively as the ‘other’, stop having chips on our shoulders about it. Our sense of otherness is also accompanied by a sense of closeness: a closeness that at its best manifests itself in poetry, and in the by now well-established, fully conceded practice of writing in English. Attitudes of otherness and closeness, of distance and proximity, have kept pace with each other, grown side by side, each in its own space. Otherness thus need not gainsay closeness. It is an acculturization of the language that has taken place among us, impelling us to shape the language our own way, say, as the African writers do.

    Any language finding favour with individuals or with groups as their medium of expression—written or spoken—has to be boldly claimed as one's own. Inhibitions bred by whatever factors—colonial, anti-colonial—have to be overcome. The spirit of takeover has to come into play at some stage. Let us then, claim English. And here, how much more telling the single Hindi word ‘apnaanaa’ is, for ‘claiming as one's own’! Let us make English ‘apnaa’. If English is a world language—global language in the current terminology—it is everyone's, every country's. A global presence implies the freedom of every member of the globe to claim the language: not just the freedom of the global language, to claim the members of the globe. We could learn this precept anew. We could, deep-reading Raja Rao's remark about English in his Preface to Kanthapura,13 emotionally claim it, not just concede it the position of the intellectual pace setter. Further, this healthier, self-assured accommodation of English into our semantics does not rule out noting its inadequacies. The erasures occurring in Prasenjit Gupta's English translation of Nirmal Verma's ‘London Kee Ek Raat’ are examples of these inadequacies. A generic trait of the original has got wiped out in the translation. This trait has to do with bilingualism. In the first place, the English speech lines in the original Hindi text stand out understandably enough. But more pertinent than this expression of a natural apartness of languages, is that the English interjections are signifiers of the intense sense of alienation that afflicts the narrator/protagonist. The alienation is a result of tensions bred by conditions in his society, compounded by first hand experiences of the ugly realities of race and colour prejudices bred in western societies. It is this bitter knowledge which echoes in the English interjections of the Hindi text. The bilingual quality of the story, thus, is not just an attention-seeking writing ploy, but an outcome of its narrative push, of its narrative steam. The problem for a translator translating ‘London Kee Ek Raat’ is, thus, that of conveying the symbolic quality of the English interjections through his medium. He lacks the advantage of having two languages at his command—of having more than one arrow in his quiver—at these points of the story.

    Take this paragraph, for instance. The Hindi is:

    ‘damn him if he doesn't’ Willi ney ajeeb kheejey svar mey kahaa. ‘mai to kal kisee haalat mey naheen aaoongaa … please come tomorrow’ manager kee nakal uttaratey huey usney muh sikod liya. ‘Tomorrow be damned. Tum kal aaogey?’ Usney pahlee baar meyree taraf unmukh hokar poochchaa.14

    The swing of language from Hindi to English and back is of course the obvious, immediately noticeable factor. But more than the narrative's bilingualism is the narrator's bilingualism. Each switch that he makes from his mother tongue to English defines the nature of his ties to the two languages: the psychic waves they cause within him determine his mode of being. From the mooring that his mother tongue gives despite his conflicts with his motherland, to the borderline state he is relegated to in using the language of the land, which marginalizes him; this is the trajectory of the alternating languages in the abovementioned paragraph. This back and forth motion is what gets lost in a monolingual rendering. And thereby a key nuance of the Hindi's discourse is lost. The text is flattened. Here is the English:

    ‘Damn him, if he doesn't!’ Willie said in a strange, irritated voice. ‘I'm not going to come back…. Please come tomorrow!’ He imitated the manager's tones, twisting his mouth. ‘Tomorrow be damned! Are you coming back?’ He asked, lifting his gaze towards me for the first time.15

    The absence of bilingual play is particularly damaging in the line ‘please come tomorrow,’ spoken by Willie. He is caricaturing the manager who has told them to come the next day for possible vacancies. The Hindi-speaking narrator's usage of English here is thus not just a direct transcription of the speech of a person speaking on the spot, but of a person not on the spot, invoked by the person on the spot. This double distancing on which hinges the comedy of the caricature gets ironed out in the English rendering. ‘“Please come tomorrow,” he imitated the manager's tones, twisting his mouth,’ is how the English renders the Hindi,' “Please come tomorrow,” manager kee nakal utaartey huey usney moonh sikod liya.'

    Both versions resort to a narratorial statement of the fact that the speaker is caricaturing the manager. But in the Hindi there is an ‘othering’ of the manager, a third-personing of him which makes the racial tangle more complex. This complexity is lost to the English, bereft as it is of the sound play of varying phonologies. To some extent, the flat effect of the English can be traced to the choice of words. ‘He imitated the manager's tones, twisting his mouth’ does not have the barbed, pictorial quality of ‘usney manager kee nakal utaarte huey moonh sikod liya.’ We see the ‘moonh sikodna’—facial distortion—in the words. But the Hindi is only putting its natural advantage to the best use. And the English goes under by not being fully heeding of its natural disadvantage.

    A Third Approach

    In addition to transliteration and transcreation, there is one more approach possible to the task of highlighting Difference that is incumbent on the translator. This approach, which I think, can be called the creative juxtaposition or the creative aligning, of the two languages comprising a translation, does not operate in any of the works discussed in the essays. However, in view of the thoughtful—I cannot really think of any other word—translation of Sunil Gangopadhyaya's stories by Nilanjan Bhattacharya,16 where this method seems to have been the guiding principle, it can be included in this consideration of methods of translation. No word flourishes mark this method. The tone and pace are unhurried. A patient, unflagging effort to comprehend and grasp the essence of each story, each incident, and make the words of the translating language move in pace with the eddies of the text being translated, mark the translation. Here is a sample from the title story of the collection, ‘A Bowl of Steaming Rice or a Mere Ghost Story’: ‘Nibaran, Pawan's youngest son, came out with a small jug of water. Nitai held the jug above his mouth and swallowed nearly half its contents in one gulp.’17 The reading attention focuses on the second of the two sentences there. It portrays a form of cultural behaviour alien to the culture of the translating language. But the alien-ness has been worked into the muscles of the language, giving the reader a sense of the familiar. Difference stays live and valid amidst harmony. How has this equidistance, or proportion, been achieved, you wonder. Not knowing Bengali, the language of origination, you do not have a firm basis for comparison. But the unbroken and unhurried flow of the English translation seems too deliberate a writing mode to seem the translator's own choice of style. Would, wouldn't, the Bengali be having this feature, you wonder. You cannot decide. Your monolingualism does not let you. Nor does asking a Bengali or Bengali-knowing friend seem a satisfactory alternative: personal corroboration is what you feel in need of.

    However, on some reflection, the issue of the real style of the Bengali original seems dispensable. The issue, over and above that of the style of the original, is the factor and feel of Difference conveyed by the translation. And these, so pronounced in the translation, are rooted in the events present in the story, in the irony ascribable to the narrating voice present in the events, and carrying the seeds of Difference. Expressed in another language, the Difference shows up more through the veils of irony, and becomes a feature of the prose of the translation. Winning this much bona fide, the translation gains a presence of its own, separable from the issue of the style of the original. The translator's skill is felt in his tireless-seeming transcribing—his reportage—of the details of every event in a voice held neutral despite its obvious inclinations.

    This stolid-ness unfolding into a vista of Difference is seen at its best, perhaps, in its grappling with the mythological references made in the original. Consider, for example, these few lines:

    On the night of ashtami, Surendra danced like a madman in front of the altar. It was easy that he was quite drunk. With his dark skin, stocky build and thick curly hair, he resembled one of Nandi-Bhringi, Lord Shiva's mythic pair of sidekicks. Holding an earthen censer in each hand spewing clouds of incense smoke, he was dancing wildly and yelling, ‘Mother, Mother!’ at the top of his lungs.18

    On first reading, the choice of words could seem uneven, jarring at some places, pleasantly apt and fitting at others. Take the word ‘altar’, for instance. The word comes with strong Indian connotations, rousing anew the reading attention here. So, why not ‘Surendra had danced like a madman in front of the “vedi”’? But the steady, hasteless rhythm and fall of the sentence—its taal—comes as an emollient, a peacemaker, and fixes the attention on the setting and import of the line: the religious ecstasy of Surendra in a formal, sacral setting.

    This mediation of the basic rhythm of the prose style does not take place in the case of the word, ‘sidekicks’: ‘… Lord Shiva's mythic pair of sidekicks,’ occurring farther down the passage. It is just smart, trendy—qualities neither present in, nor associated with the translator' prose style. The word stays stuck in the throat. Funnily enough, the mediation happens with the term Nandi Bhringi in the same sentence, just some half a dozen words before ‘sidekicks’. The solid, physical description of Surendra that precedes Nandi Bhringi bears down on the word, thinning its exoticness, its oriental-ism. Likewise, the word ‘censer’—‘Holding an earthen censer in each hand’—sheds its anglicized avatara for dhoopdan and merges with the picture of a devotee's possessed dancing that the writing creates. Similarly, the cry—‘Mother! Mother!’—in the last sentence could well have been ‘Maa, Maa!’ with suave naturalism. But again, the Anglicism falls off in the overall, powerful image of religious indigenousness that is created.

    This grassroots quality of the scene owes a lot to the even, good humoured and closely observant tone of the narrating voice. It is a tone that, in its turn, is a construct of (a) the narrator/translator's position as a neutral insider to the scene, and (b) his gentle, minimal-seeming adjustment of the language, to which he is an outsider, to the pressures of the scene. The whole segment, thus, becomes an exposition cum composition of Difference.

    The same blend of minimal manipulation of language and close observation of the given scene is seen even more vividly in this one line—the scene is of Surendra rescuing a woman being tortured by exorcists—‘… like Lord Shiva at the court of King Daksha, he lifted Shanti off the ground with his strong arm and slung her across his shoulder.’19 The action of manly arms flinging a woman's inert body across his shoulder breaks into the reader's awareness on the wings of the slow, rhythmic gait of the language, with all the mystique of mythology. The story of Shiva circling the universe with the dead body of Sati (Parvati) flung over his shoulder flashes into the mind, and lingers as a pictogram over and above the explicit reference to it in the line. The reference fades, and the mythic elation stays amidst the phonology of English buzzing in the ears. The sway and spell of Difference is total.

    The pivotal role of Difference is felt even more tellingly when the language of the original is totally unfamiliar to the reader. Take, for instance, Edith Grosman's English translation of Spanish texts:

    After lunch Rome would succumb to its August stupor. The afternoon sun remained immobile in the middle of the sky, and in the two o'clock silence, one heard nothing but water, which is the natural voice of Rome. But at about seven, the windows were thrown open to summon the cool air that began to circulate, and a jubilant crowd took to the streets with no other purpose than to live, in the midst of backfiring motorcycles, the shouts of lemon vendors, and love songs among the flowers on the terraces.20

    The non-English character of the locale comes across in this paragraph even without the specific mention of Rome. The languor of afternoon hours, the suggestion of siestas, the persistent, lazy play of isolated sounds amidst the arrest of all motion which mark the first two lines of that passage, are giveaways of the non-Englishness. And the Dionysian, un-English stratum of the setting shows up vividly and unmistakably when the standstill breaks and windows are opened to let in the cool air, crowds laying siege to the streets, swept by nothing more and nothing less than the fever of living: backfiring motorcycles, vendors' cries and love songs being sung on the terraces. A Roman might call it exotic. But forgetting subtleties of definition connected with authenticity and so on, the points to note here are: (a) the otherness of the narrated material, (b) the otherness that comes to the translating language a result of the otherness it is dealing with, and (c) the blending of the two other-nesses into a mode of writing that is distinct even if not definable in exact terms.

    Roadblocks to Difference

    The operation of Difference can get blocked in translation due to factors present in the original, as in the case of Neelabh's Hindi translation of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.21 The underlying reason for this blockade, it seems to me, lies in the genre of the original—the genre known as Indian Writing in English. It is a genre constituted by inputs that are already translated. The Indian English writer, no matter how un-self-conscious in his usage of English, has to make a conscious effort to voice in English, realities that make no echoes in that language. The bare saying of the term ‘shishu hatya’—child killing—for instance, invokes a vignette of culture that defines, describes and decodes its essence. The English term, ‘infanticide’, is neutral and unresonant, in comparison. If the Indian English writer is writing about an incident of infanticide somewhere in his country, he has to bring into it the saga of ‘shishu hatya’ and its sanctioned cruelty that immunizes and empowers the ‘hatyara’ or killer. He has to translate the phlegmatic term ‘infanticide’ into the charged word ‘shishu hatya’. The factor of Difference, thus, gets inscribed into the writing.

    How is the translator to communicate the factor of Difference already present in the original text, through his language, say, Hindi, which is not at odds with the theme and runs with its grain? He has to capture the particular overtone of shock and outrage present in the English. The danger is that he may identify with the tone so strongly that he can end up writing a novel of protest, his own novel, in effect. He can get carried away, forgetting his real task, his vaajib task, as translator: that of evoking the standing Difference between the spirit of the two languages he is dealing with; of imparting tether, coherence and individuality to the translated text by subtextually making it a discourse on Difference.

    The danger of over-identifying with the original can arise when the translating language is nearer to the translated language than Hindi is to English. This, as has been discussed in the essay concerned, has happened with Sundara Ramaswamy's Tamil translation of Takazhi Siva Sankara Pillai's Malayalam novel Chemmeen. This derangement of the wavelength between theme and narrator, as established and made operative in The God of Small Things is what has taken place to a conspicuous degree in Maamoolee Cheezon Ka Devta.22 Take, for example, the following—the context is of the chance meeting of eyes that takes place between Velutha, the untouchable, and Ammu, the touchable—‘Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking backwards days all fell away.’23 The language derives its articulating spur and energy from borrowed memory, dressed and presented as its own. And perhaps, because of this wrought, fabricated quality, there runs, side by side with it, a strong sense of transience, of momentary-ness, a seldom-to-be-repeated feel to the event described. The word ‘evanescent’ in the opening sentence of the passage contains and conveys the full, massed weight of the entrenched power of history, and the doom writ for the event. ‘Wrong-footed’, ‘caught off guard’, ‘sloughed off like an old snakeskin,’ ‘.fell away’, are all phrases denoting both a lapse of history, and a retribution waiting in the wings, biding its time. All these features which highlight the factor of Difference between the language and the usage of the language, thereby heightening the pathos in the situation, have got erased in the Hindi. Here are the equivalent lines:

    Ek kshanbhangur pal mey sadiyaan simat aayeen. Itihaas auchak mey nishkavach pakdaa gayaa. Saamp kee puraanee kaynchul kee tarhaan utaar pheynkaa gayaa. Uskey chinh, uskee choton kay nishaan, puraanee ladayyon aur peechchey ko chalney valley dinn kay zakhm—sab jhjhad gaye.24

    Its careful, crafted quality and the translator's painstaking, dedicated reading of the English text are not to be denied. Nor do we want to make more than necessary reference to the feel of excess and overstatement made by the word ‘nishkavach’ for ‘caught off guard’. The English phrase comes after the term ‘wrong-footed’, a very mimetic term. It has been substituted by the term ‘auchak meyn’, meaning at the wrong moment. It is not without its own lilt and evocative power, though one does miss the etched, precise feel of ‘wrong-footed’. Could, couldn't, the vocabulary of music have come in handy? ‘Itihaas beytaal pakdaa gayaa’ or ‘betaal huaa’, say? But it could seem hairsplitting or pedantic, and you settle happily enough with ‘auchak mein’. Where Hindi seems helpless, seems caught in its own tradition and history of relating to that scene of caste infringement, is in its incapacity to creatively distance itself from the scene—sway with its rapture, and at the same time, read the dangerous rootlessness of the raptures. Look at these concluding lines of that passage in the English, after ‘.all fell away’—‘In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering that was as plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the sky. As plain to feel as the heat on a hot day, or the tug of a fish on a taut line. So obvious that no one noticed.’25 The rumble of retribution is felt in the last phrase, ‘that no one noticed’, where a hush enters the narrative tone, the voice seems coming from behind a veil, as it speaks the four innocuous words. They seem code words, which are saying that no human eyes noticed, but the eyes of history did, that history would right its footwork gone faulty, the ‘sloughed off snakeskin’ would grow again, that the ‘aura’ and ‘palpable shimmer’ history left in its split-second absence is indeed split-second, ‘evanescent’.

    This sibylline undertone or aside is what is lacking in the Hindi rendering of those lines. It is a judgmental role that comes a little more naturally to English, in its relating to our realities. To echo it, Hindi or any other bhasha tradition has to somehow augment its own voice of dissent, make its own heightened contact with the theme concerned, and reflect Difference. Neelabh, whose sense of sound—dhvani bodh—is so often seen to advantage in his rendering, as the essay on his translation makes clear, shows himself passive and uncreatively reproductive in his rendering of the lines concerned. The first line of the rendering hits the right note in its end phrase ‘sab jhad gayey’—‘all fell off’. But the word for word reproduction of the preceding portion—'uskey chinh, uskee choton kay nishaan, puranee ladaiyon aur peechchey ko chalney vaaley dinon kay zakhm …'—does not rise above tautology. ‘peechchey ko chalney valley dinon key zakhm’, especially, does not make the sharp, electric connection with the custom of the untouchable having to walk back and clear the road if he happened to be closer to a touchable on the road than the prescribed distance, that the English equivalent ‘walking backward days’ does. There is a caustic note, a tone of mockery in that sharp compression of customary behaviour, a cocking-a-snook attitude at tradition, an instinct for irreverence, that the Hindi has not mustered, cannot muster, one could say. Yet, all these shortfalls lose edge, and the allusions to history lying buried in the words and phrases—‘choton kay nishaan’, ‘peechchey ko chalney vaaley dinon ke zakhm’—reveal their fangs from the sharp, severing act evoked by the words ‘sab jhad gaye’. Such redemptive features are not present in the succeeding lines for the English lines quoted above:

    apnee khaaalee kee huyee jagah mein voh ek kaifiat chchod gayaa, ek chchoo jaa sakney vaalee jhilmilaahat, jo itnee saaf nazar aatee ththee jaisey nadee mey paanee yaa aakaash mey sooraj. Itnee saaf mahsoos hotee ththee jaisey kisee garm din kaa taap yaa tanee huyee doree par machchlee kaa jhatkaa. Itnee spasht ki uspar kisee kaa dhyaan naheen gayaa.26

    The words are replicate words, seeking their authentication from no source beyond or higher than the words of the parent language. Surely, a translation needs more than verbal authentication for status, for individuality? Especially when the purpose of a translation is taken to be that of highlighting lingua-cultural differences? And even more so, when the translation is an Indian English writing original, which itself is a product of Difference? What makes the reader particularly unhappy about this and other such instances of literalization in the translation is that transliteration, a close cousin of literal-ness, has been used to advantage, used with a keen ear for the phonology of languages, by the very same translator. Here are the English and the Hindi of some such lines. The context is of the little girl Rahel and the indulgent adult Velutha sporting with each other. ‘Rahel lunged at his armpits and tickled him mercilessly. Ickilee ickilee ickilee …Aiyo kashtam,” Velutha said.’27 The Hindi retains the Malayalam word, creating a music of contrapuntal notes. The translator hears the sounds of the Malayalam words and deliberately leaves them in the body of the Hindi, trusting to the high-breathed feel made by the tug and pull of the action-filled scene, to suck in the southern vocables into its northern body, as ‘Rahel uskee bagalon kee taraf jhaptee aur berahmee sey usey gudgudaaney lagee … “Ayyo kashtam,” veluthaa ney kahaa.’ How did the need for a similar, thoughtfully experimental approach to the lines quoted earlier, escape the translator? Especially when they are lines that speak from a complementary, simultaneous vision, of the golden, visible passing moment, and the steely, invisible reality of History and the Past, in an idiom born of an attitude of a brash-seeming, calculated irreverence, not really native to Hindi, and for that very reason requiring special translational skill?

    The answer, it seems to me, cannot be really put down to any lack of awareness by Neelabh. He follows Roy's text word for word, single mindedly like a stalker stalking his quarry, presenting (one is tempted to say ‘cloning’) Hindi duplicates for every trope and turn of the English: ‘That man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body’28 is rendered as ‘Us aadmee ney, jo rabarke vrikshon kee chchaayaa meh khadaa ththaa aur jiskey badan par dhoop kee asharfiyaan naach raheen ththee …,’29 and ‘She hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against’30 is translated as ‘unhoney ummeed kee ki usney khushmizagee ke apney saavdhaan labadey kai neechey us santusht, vyavasththith duniya ke khilaaf ek zinda, dhdhadakta ghussaa sanjo rakha hoga, jiskey khilaaf khud unkey andar itnaa adamya rosh ththaa.31

    ‘Dhoop kee asharfiyaan’ one admits, is a happy variation of ‘coins of sunshine’. ‘Asharfiyaan’ supplies the effulgence of sunshine that ‘dhoop’ does not, and the full English phrase does. ‘Dhoop kay sikkay’, a possible rendering of the English, one in keeping with the word for word style of rendering adopted, does not have the liquid sound that ‘asharfiyaan’ has, and as does the English phrase ‘coins of sunshine’. Neelabh's sense of sound has instinctively come into play here. But alongside, we also see a shortcoming in the Hindi that says more, something different from the happy outcome noted above. I am referring here to the third person pronoun of respect, ‘unhoney’, for the simple, easygoing ‘she’ in the English. The reason for the usage in English is not just the absence in the language, of equivalent terms of respect, but an inoffensive informality of manner that English induces, and that Hindi and most other Indian languages do not. Neelabh, for all his meticulous duplication of the English has not been able to say ‘usney’ for ‘she’, and has not been able to forget the mother image of Ammu, the woman through whose eye the narrator is seeing his/her narrative.

    That apart, the laborious, long-winded seeming, yet devoted Hindi-ization of terms like ‘housed’, ‘smug, ordered world’—‘sanjo rakhnaa’, ‘santusht, vyavasththith duniya’—does compel attention. Each painstaking construction sets the English original ringing in the ear, the Hindi going up again with the ebb of the English, till the ears buzz in a bilingual hubbub. It is a reading experience all of its own.

    But is such acrobatic reading any stamp of abiding worth upon a translation? The stamp that comes to it when it is done with full understanding of the role of translation as a means of bridging cultures through a dialogic highlighting of the differences between them? This kind of an amiable playing up of Difference is difficult, if not impossible, with a genre of writing—Indian English Writing—that, as pointed out earlier, is itself a product of Difference, a difference between language and story not operative in any Indian language. And added to this is Roy's irrepressible play with her medium impossible to duplicate in another medium. Given Neelabh's own gifts with his medium, it is possible that he saw this basic difficulty and decided to go in for literal translation. Whatever the reason, the lesson of Maamoolee Cheezon Ka Devta is that the choice of the material to be translated is important, that what is to be translated is no less important than how it is to be translated. The essay on Neelabh's translation elaborates this need for the right choice of text, and the bearing this has on highlighting Difference, the main purpose of a translation.


    1. Seth, Rajee. 1995. Nishkavach. New Delhi: Bhartiya Jnanpeeth.

    2. Narasimhan, Raji. 1998. ‘Translator's Note’, in Unarmed. Chennai: Macmillan India Limited, p. vii. Trans. of Seth, op cit.

    3. Nouss, Alexis. 2005. ‘Translation and Metissage’, in In Translation: Reflections, Refractions, Transformations. Delhi: Pencraft Internatonal, pp. 226–27.

    4. Bhattacharya, Rimli. 1991. Introduction, Katha Prize Stories. New Delhi: Katha, p. 2.

    5. Ibid., p. 2.

    6. Adarkar, Priya. 1979. Silence! The Court is in Session. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Trans. of Vijay Tendulkar. 1968. Shantata! Court Chaloo Ahe. Mumbai: Mauj Prakashan.

    7. Verma, Sarojini. 1994. Khaamosh! Adalat Jaari Hai. New Delhi: Vidya Prakashan Mandir, p. 39. Trans. of. Tendulkar, op cit.

    8. Adarkar, p. 23.

    9. Verma, Sarojini, p. 103.

    10. Ibid. p. 39.

    11. Gupta, Prasenjit. 2002. Introduction, Indian Errant: Stories by Nirmal Verma. Indialog Publications.

    12. Ramanujan, A. K. 1978. Samskara. Three Crown Series. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 135. Trans. of. U. R. Anantha Murthy. 1965. Samskara.

    13. Rao, Raja. 1938. Foreword, Kanthapura.

    14. Verma, Nirmal. 2006. ‘London ki ek raat’, Jalti Jhaadi. New Delhi: Bhartiya Jnanpeeth.

    15. Gupta, Prasenjit. 2002. Indian Errant: Stories by Nirmal Verma. New Delhi: Indialog Publications, p. 22. Trans. of. Nirmal Verma, op cit.

    16. Bhattacharya, Nilanjan. 2006. A Bowl of Steaming Rice or A Mere Ghost Story. Stories by Sunil Gangopadhyaya. Kolkata: Yapanchitra Books.

    17. Ibid., pp. 140–41.

    18. Ibid., p. 151.

    19. Ibid., p. 171.

    20. Grossman, Edith.1994. ‘The Saint’, from Strange Pilgrims: Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. London: Penguin Books.

    21. Roy, Arundhati. 1997. The God of Small Things. New Delhi: IndiaInk.

    22. Neelabh. 2004. Maamoolee Cheezon Ka Devta. New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan. Trans. of. Roy, op cit.

    23. Roy, p. 176.

    24. Neelabh, p. 194.

    25. Roy, p. 176.

    26. Neelabh, p. 195.

    27. Roy, p. 177.

    28. Ibid., p. 176.

    29. Neelabh, p. 194.

    30. Roy, p. 176.

    31. Neelabh, p. 194.

  • About the Author

    Raji Narasimhan, born in 1930, took to full-time writing in the late 1960s, after quitting journalism (The Indian Express, New Delhi). She writes fiction, literary criticism and translates from Hindi and Tamil into English. Her book Sensibility under Stress: Aspects of Indo-English Writing (1976) was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Award. The second of her five novels, Forever Free (1979), was also shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Award, and was on the English Literature syllabus of IIT, Delhi, all through the 1980s and part of the 1990s. She has two collections of short stories: The Marriage of Bela and Other Stories (1978) and The Illusion of Home (2007).

    Her translations include Unarmed (1998) of Rajee Seth's Hindi novella Nishkavach, Alma Kabutari (2006) of Maitreyi Pushpa's Hindi novel of the same title (shortlisted for the Crossword Translation Award in 2007) and Not Without Reason and Other Stories (2012) of Rajee Seth's Hindi stories Akaran to Naheen.

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