Thursday, February 19, 2009


My Limited Experience as a Translator

(An article by LATHA RAMAKRISHNAN appeared in MUSE INDIA e-magazine)

Translators are of two kinds - those who read, pick and choose the texts or materials to be translated and so proceed, and those who translate the texts or materials chosen by others. While writers (who are only a handful) like poet Brammarajan, belong to the first category I mostly belong to the second one.

This does not mean that I would translate anything and everything that is offered to me. I can always exercise the choice of saying ‘no’ if I feel that the text in question doesn’t deserve my time and energy. If I believe in the integrity of the little magazine in question and its purpose in translating the text I don’t usually refuse. Of course there is the element of time-constraint and also one’s mood.

Though I can to some extent translate mechanically, nevertheless, I can’t afford to be a little less awake for, even a damn simple word like ‘our’ could and would topple us and make a laughing stock in the eyes of others. So, one has to be always on the vigil while translating.

What is the difference between translating a literary text and a non-literary text? While translating a text if we come across a stumbling block, how are we to cross it? Are we to seek the assistance of others? If so, who should be those others? Or, without making the essence of the text suffer, can we bypass the particular word or expression and move on? Is it essential on the part of the translator to be well acquainted with the text / author of the text which / whom he is translating? Is it possible at all for a translation to be 100% sincere to the source text? How can the translator be at once attached to and detached from the text which he / she is to translate? What are the liberties a translator can take with the source–text or that a translator should not? What do we call ‘the politics of translation’? What are the explicit objectives as well as the hidden agendas of translation? These and more queries and doubts keep afflicting the translator, but what makes him pursue the course notwithstanding all these queries and doubts is the fact that by translating a text he shares the aesthetic feelings reflected or contemplated in the text with his fellow-beings who would have otherwise been denied access to it.

Also, he passes on vital and enriching information. The very act of translation has the undercurrent of the zeal of a reformist, so to say. A person can write a poem, a short-story or a novel for his own satisfaction, that is, for the reader in him and there is nothing wrong in it. But, a translator primarily works for the readers in others. Hence, the very act of translation is a social activity. The intent can be destructive; subversive as much as it can be positive and constructive. For some, translation is also a tool to wield power over poor readers and gullible persons. As suits their whims and fancies some alter and modify the source text, leave out several passages or expressions, add something unwarranted and so on. But, at times such alterations and modifications, omissions and additions are also done with the best of intentions, with the purpose of making the source text, rather its salient features, crystal-clear to the readers.

The term ‘target-readers’ is a very important component of any analysis on Translation. For whom do we translate? We can create a poem for our own pleasure but when we do translate we invariably have ‘target readers or at least a notion of it in our mind. And, for what purpose we undertake a translation-assignment is another important question, for, accordingly the style of our translation does change; so also, the alterations and modifications, leaving out, summing up, search for apt substitutes etc. Then, there is the time factor.

In Tamil, translators can be broadly classified into two main divisions - those who are professional translators and those who are voluntary translators. Voluntary translators can have an attachment towards the text they undertake to translate but the same cannot be said of the professional translator, though he may be more skilled than the former. And, it is the voluntary translators who have brought many fictional and non-fictional works from other languages, mostly via English, to Tamil. This lot, more often than not, spends money from their own pockets to publish a work of Translation which they consider a worthwhile initiative. These days the demand is more and ever growing for translated works in Tamil but even now a translator is not properly paid and not paid in time by many publishing houses. As for the professional translators there are two sub-sects, those who translate for a fee and given the credit of the translator of the given text and those who get the fee and sort of ghost-translate, not being given the credit of the translator of the text. The credit goes to someone else or remains anonymous. As regards the fee or remuneration, there is no standard or unanimity in this. It is more a case of demand and supply. If the translator is a budding one or not so well-known the fee is then reduced to the maximum possible extent. If the translator is self-assured and reputed, having sufficient financial resources to bargain, then he determines his fee. For an A4 page text having single-spaced lines there are those who coolly offer a meagre sum of 30 to 50 rupees. For translating a book comprising some 160 pages even reputed and established publishing houses pay not more than 3000 to 5000 rupees and no remuneration is paid to the translator for subsequent editions by most of the publishers. Copyright for individual poems is held by the poets. Copyright of the English and Tamil Translation is often in the hands of the publishing house, thereby leaving the translator in the lurch. In some cases this is done with the consent of the translator and in many cases this is done as a matter of fact, without the knowledge of the translator.

There are those who believe that Translation is a collective effort and those who believe it is not so. There are those who believe that there should be effective screening as regards what should be translated and there are others who counter it by arguing that such screening would only prove a veritable block, leaving the selection in the hands of a few.

I want to concentrate more on translating good works from Tamil to English as I strongly feel that many poignant Tamil writers are not known beyond the boundaries of Tamil Nadu because they are not translated into English. There are many poets whom I would want to translate though in translating a poem we may fail to bring forth the several layers of meaning and have to be satisfied with just one level of interpretation.

Though so far four collections of my poems have been published and the fifth is in the offing, I don’t like to translate my own poems into English for the pain and strain of recreating the ‘lost-forever’ moment is not that rewarding! I have come to realize that creative writing and translation are complementary to each other.

Just because translations are on the increase in Tamil it is not correct to say that there are no original works of merit in Tamil. Both are flourishing side by side, we can say. And, both should flourish side by side for any language, literature or society to grow and develop.

I sincerely feel that it is incorrect to build hatred in the minds of readers, writers and other citizens against English, making them or forcing them to shun its learning. True, one should love and respect one’s own language but that does not mean that one should hate other languages or restrain themselves from getting familiar with their healthy aspects. For, today, in the ‘global village’ scenario English does have a constructive role to play in bringing people together. Also, hating a language may soon develop into hating those who speak that language, which again could divide people.

In the case of Tamil, it is absolutely correct to say that Tamil should not be treated as a secondary language in educational institutions and other public spaces. At the same time the way some vested interests insist that the cadres shun English but educate their children in English Schools, within India and abroad, and thus give a wide space for their children to function, interact and perform while limiting the space and scope of their cadres is not at all fair, I feel.

Especially, the translators should learn to love and respect the languages they deal with and try to make themselves well-acquainted with the shades and nuances, linguistic, cultural and political aspects and under-currents of the languages concerned to produce fruitful translations.

Translating a poem can at best be by giving a reader-friendly text of the translator. *(And, when translating from English we invariably transfer the short-comings or misinterpretations of the English translation also into our translation). Even in the case of the two quality translations of Akhmatova’s poems there were subtle differences in the perceptions and interpretations of the two translators. The same poem under the title ‘Now, Nobody will want to listen to songs” Stanley Kunitz has translated as ‘Now you must wander as a hungry beggar/ desperately knocking at the doors of strangers’ whereas D.M. Thomas has translated as ‘Now that you’re a hungry beggar woman, don’t go knocking at the stranger’s gate”. And, I feel that it is these subtle differences in interpretation without the central theme getting distorted that establish a translator’s sensitivity and creativity.

When I attempt to translate the same poem twice, each time the translation is structured differently and I sincerely feel that a poem can be translated in different ways.

Some are of the opinions that while translating a text via English, the losses may be more and that translating straight from the source language to the target language does more justice to the source text. This may be true, but it is impossible for us to learn all the languages in our lifetime and so we have to rely on an intermediary via-language. Also, just because one is proficient in a language we cannot take it for granted that he could be an effective translator. In the same way, we can learn other languages but that doesn’t mean that we can be proficient enough to translate from it or into it. Instead, we can rely on quality translations in the ‘via’ language to translate effectively and comprehensively.

People say that if we undertake translation work, that would improve our creative-writing. But, in my case, it doesn’t hold good, for when I write a short-story or poem, those I have translated never come to my memory to influence me. Also, translating has dried up my creativity, I feel. Nevertheless, in translating such esteemed writers like Primo Levi, Pablo Neruda, James Joyce, and several others, I could perceive certain common traits in them. They never blow their own trumpets or write to show-off; they never preach from a pedestal; they underplay their pains and emotions; and they contemplate on life in all seriousness; they never resort to melodrama. And, observing these traits can have a positive influence on me as a writer, I am sure.

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