Found in translation

By Swaroop Mami

Last evening, Padma Narayanan, speaking at The Madras Mag’s Conversation at Luz House as part of the Madras Week celebrations, started by acknowledging that it is not often that translators are called upon to speak. Kalyan Raman, another translator, in conversation with her yesterday, nodded vigorously. Two-tongued, scholarly, yet possessing literary flair, translators are inconspicuous toilers who perform what must probably be the most underrated job in the literary world. Most people in the English reading world know Marquez and Murakami, but only a few can name the people who brought their works to them. A lot of us heard of Perumal Murugan and the controversial Mathorubagan — not all of us know that the man who translated it into One-part Woman is Aniruddha Vasudevan.

Kalyan Raman, in conversation with Narayanan, brought the translator’s tussle to the forefront, when he said that no translation can retain more than fifty to sixty per cent of the original work. A translator not only translates the text, she creates a work that can stand on its own feet aesthetically — it is an art object of its own, and must be viewed on its own merit. Narayanan emphasised this when she spoke of the three stages of translation: the first, to stay true to the original author’s text, the second, to add layers and lyricality to the text, and the third, to make it readable for the reader. In going through these steps, she said, the translated work becomes a complete text of its own.

Translation wouldn’t exist if there was only one language, and a universe of languages wouldn’t exist if there was only one culture. So, translators, in a sense, are bridges between cultures. Translators do not just straddle languages, they straddle cultures. Narayanan gave us the example of how we need not translate ‘idli’ and ‘sambar’, but we still need to translate ‘ottha kaalula ninna’. The challenge of translating lies, she said, in transporting these phrases and idioms, representing different dialects and representing aspects of culture that are embedded in language. People who read translations don’t often understand this, Raman rued; they think translations are just about finding equivalents of words from one language to another.

A translator, thus, is more than an interpreter, but less than an adapter — that’s the balance that the best translators find.

The idea of translation, Raman emphasised, was to ensure that every nuance of the original text is transported to the new language while still retaining the contemporary aesthetics of the new language. The word ‘contemporary’ is crucial, he said; the style of writing cannot be archaic even while translating a text that might be old. In other words, Raman suggested that the style of translation must be (and probably will always be) that of the translator, and not of the author. AK Ramanujan’s famous translations of Sangam poetry were, after all, in the contemporary American poetry style of the 50s and 60s when Ramanujan did the translation, he pointed out. In fact, much of Ramanujan’s own poetry is in the same style. Was that possibly because, as Ramanujan himself pointed out once, he translated out of jealousy, out of a need to somehow feel a part of the work he was translating? Both translators agreed that Ramanujan and his translations had been deified, which prevented them from being subjected to any serious, literary engagement.

What does translation do for the writer in the translator, moderator, (and editor of The Madras Mag), Krupa Ge, asked. Narayanan was a writer, she said, and she even won a couple of prizes for her own short stories when she was younger. But translation ended that side of her writing. Raman’s case was a bit stranger — when he was young, he found that he could write about nothing but himself and gave up fiction altogether until rediscovering it through translations.

A translator has to be a good writer, a translator should have read as much (or even more) than writers in each language, a translator must not only understand language, but also the people and culture being translated. A translator, the audience understood yesterday, is as crucial a piece in the literary jigsaw as anyone else. The authors also acknowledged that translations are unique in the sense that, they are provisional.