Prabha Sridevan is one of the numerous literary translators in India who translate from Indian languages ─ in her case Tamil ─ into English, such is the enduring nationwide readership for English in her country. She already contributed a guest post to this blog in 2017 which has had many readers; you can retrieve it by entering prabha in the Search box on the right. The following one reached us on this year’s World Translation Day.
Greetings on World Translation day. My first editor Mini Krishnan sent her band of translators her best wishes on this day. And one of them quoted from David Mitchell, and as is my wont, I went to the Google to read from where. And I found this. “David Mitchell, said of his experience co-translating The Reason I Jump from Japanese: “As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock. ” Are we all that? Wow! And yes can we be right all the way? A moot thought.
Very happy to write here again. When the State locked us down, in March, I naively thought that the end of the tunnel was not far away. Slowly realisation dawned that what I saw was not real light but some flickering fireflies. One had to get used to the locked-down state of affairs while battling with the guilty discomfort that I was luckier than millions of my country people. Everything familiar has changed, the year 2020 devoured it all.
Translation helped me. Now I (retired ten years ago) could also say I am “working from home”! My family has got used to this bug that bit me. My son sent me a book on translation, my daughter-in-law sent me an interview with a translator. I realised that each translator has her own technique, especially if you have ‘walked’ into translation like I have. I translate from Tamil to English. If I am doubtful about some word or the construction of a sentence, I read it aloud. I choose the one that “sounds” like how the Tamil original sounded. If I had captured the tone more closely, though another word may be closer to the meaning, the tone wins. A short story that I have recently translated is about a man and his obsession with pigeons. The title in Tamil is literally Pigeon madness. Neither the author nor I the translator liked it. I suggested “The pigeons flew into his soul.” He said yes!
I am now translating four writers, and I rejoice at the diversity. In my pen dwell a variety of people. From just the perspective of dates, the writings span from very early 20th century to the year of the pandemic. Yes, it is not my pen but my laptop if you nit-pick for accuracy. But pen has a certain delicious flavour that the laptop does not. Just listen to this, “In my laptop dwell a variety of people”…no certainly no.
Translators transform a creation from one language to another, but not just that, it is also from one culture to another, from one way of life to another. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem “Let my country awake” which contains these lines, “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” (Translated from Bengali) Translators chip away at these walls bit by bit, sometimes even within a country. While technology has broken down geographical bounds, human beings are stacking silos round themselves. So the translator is more important today. She gives you an insight into worlds you cannot see in one lifetime or even two. She creates empathy and understanding.
I strongly feel that writers must bring the feel and fragrance of their country, community or culture. When they are translated into a language I can read, I understand that there are differences between the writer’s people and me, but we are the same. A novel I read some time ago was translated from an Indian language to English. I could read only the translation. I felt it was written even in the original with an eye on the world market. The names were Indian, the food was Indian, but if I changed the woman’s name to Juanita and made her cook tortillas, it will be in Mexico and you will not hear a wrong note. It did not have the “Indian core”, and I think that is essential. It is a certain ‘dishonesty’ is what I think. An arguable point. I am open to be countered.
Should we only translate recent writers? In some languages, translations were not done with that enthusiasm as they are now. I know for sure that it is so in India. So do those long-ago writers get confined to their language readers only? Wouldn’t that be a great loss? Recently a speaker said at a lecture, “Libraries are ….repositories of views of every kind. Every republic needs a space for dissent, disagreement and discussion, a place for a fair and unbiased study of the past, a place where anyone may read and access anything by anyone else…what every such republic needs is libraries.” …and translations. And also translations of great writers not new, if they have not been translated. Let noble thoughts come from everywhere (This too is a translation- a line from the Rg Veda)
 Bansari Seth Memorial Lecture by Justice Gautam Patel "One Nation under the Constitution" on 18th August, 2020 organized by The Asiatic Society of Mumbai