Words across borders
Photo: R. Shivaji Rao
When words are rooted in their cultural and political contexts, translation can often be a liberating experience for poets.
‘Translation is worth the risk’: Vasantha Surya.
“Translations, being poems too, are never finished, only abandoned”, wrote A.K. Ramanujan, extending Valery’s observation on poems. Does the similarity stop there, or, is the process of translation as intense as that of writing poetry?
A translator is torn between the deep-seated desire to express herself and the faithful duty to represent another. Perhaps, the translator’s despair in balancing double allegiances ensures that she becomes a poet herself. So, translation remains an act of creativity that cannot be pigeon-holed as a mechanical activity.
But, how evocative are translations of poetry? In poetry, verbal equations are constructive principles of the text, and therefore words confront one another across linguistic boundaries. No one but a translator has access to the layers and intricacies of a text.
Translations of poetry cannot always preserve metrical rhythms or nuances, but are they successful in carrying across the message? Have interpretation and translation begun to take on shades of possessive love, or have they been exercises of betrayal?
Translator as traitor?
Finding equivalent words and juxtaposing them in another language structure is often a perplexing task that sometimes earns the translator the label of a traitor. In such a contested terrain, how do regional language poets react to English translations of their work? Kannada poet and columnist Prathibha Nandakumar is candid in her condemnation of translators. “Some of the translations of my poems by others sound horrible. Translators simply fuss too much and their tendency to use the exact English equivalent can sometimes destroy the subtlety of a poem.” This made her foray into translating her own poetry. “I wouldn’t call it a translation per se. I actually recreate the original poem in English, borrowing only the main idea,” she says.
Vasantha Surya, who has translated many Tamil novels into English and is currently translating German poetry, says, “Translation is risky, but it is a risk worth taking.” She adds, “unless a translator has genuine involvement and true perception of the consciousness of the original poem, it will never work. That is why a majority of translators are literally hacks.”
Double the effort
A translator is always burdened with the poetic conscience that she has to be simultaneously true to the original while respecting the limits to which English (or any other target language) can be moulded. Kuttirevathi, a Tamil feminist poet who has published four poetry collections, agrees with this dual responsibility and points out that the translator has to take double the effort of the poet. “There is a borderline between languages and the nuances of a language vary. This is one of the reasons why translators have to travel that extra mile,” she says.
But do translations necessarily have the same impact as the original? Kuttirevathi’s book Mulaigal (Breasts) sparked a hue-and-cry from the conservative Tamil literary establishment. But the English translation, by N. Kalyan Raman, hasn’t incited the wrath of the moral police. “Taboos are language-specific, therefore, a translation might not have the shock-value of the original. Every word is rooted in its own culture and political system, so it might not carry the same connotations across the language boundary,” she explains.
Poets concur on the benefits of translation, a phenomenon as old as language itself. Kuttirevathi insists that one should adopt a panoramic view of translation. She points out that we can read Japanese or Spanish poetry only through their English translations, and in that manner, translations are not only helpful, but even healthy. What personal change have translations of her own work effected in her life? “Obviously there is no material change because I am getting translated into English. But I have gained moral support. Because of translations I have come to know that I am not alone,” she says.
“Translation enables me to stay updated. It actually opens a new world,” says Prathibha. Her poetry, which appeared on Poetry International Web, has been translated into various languages like Spanish, Chinese and German. This has enabled her to reach new audiences.
The necessity of translation
The English translations of Dalit poetry put the caste struggle on the map of international literature. Viewed in this perspective, translation is also an emancipatory device in the quest for identity. The need for Dalit and feminist literature to be translated into English gains greater ground when viewed in the post-colonial context. “English, in India, is in the hands of the “upper’ castes who had greater access to education in the British times. Likewise, criticism is also in their hands and they decide what literary works are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Often, they have used the English language for abusive criticism of feminist and Dalit writers,” Kuttirevathi says in justifiable anger. She underlines the necessity of a medium to convey these ideas. “We have to reach that space which is a preserve of the few and make our work accessible in other languages.”
The choice of translations
Because English in ensnared and held captive by those who are already powerful, if not oppressive, one has to address these questions: What kinds of texts get translated into English? What is their liberatory potential? Why are sordid autobiographies that package poverty as exotica preferred as more ‘translation-worthy’ compared to provocative poetry that challenges social injustice? A glaring absence of English translations of Tamil Dalit poetry provoked me to translate around a hundred poems. My apprehension is shared by many feminists and Dalit scholars who feel that the selectivity exercised by the mainstream publishing industry in undertaking translations ensures that social hierarchies like caste are replicated in the literary hierarchy.
Dalits and women, who have been “inferiorised” through language, relentlessly struggle to subvert the system by uniquely using the medium of poetry. And they are reaching wider audiences through translation, a powerful weapon in the hands of those who strive to create a just society. During the Renaissance, the translator was considered a revolutionary activist. Have we now come full circle because translations focus on the voices of the marginalised?
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